Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Conversation with Richard Benefield with the Walt Disney Family Museum

Walt Disney and many MickeysWhen it comes to Walt Disney, Richard Benefield could really do without the urban legends. "We don't really talk about the fact that some people think he's frozen," he says. "We just state the fact that he's buried in Forest Lawn Cemetary in Glendale."

Not frozen after death, check. But, what about Walt's alleged anti-Semitism?

"It's an absolutely preposterous notion. That one still baffles all of us."

When you're the founding executive director of the Walt Disney Family Museum, there's more to your job than just preserving and showcasing the artifacts of one man's lifetime in entertainment. You're also tasked with protecting and defending his legacy.

Richard Benefield"There are a few, weird, isolated rumors that no one seems to know exactly how they got started," says Benefield. "I met (Disney composer) Richard Sherman last December. I had lunch with him and with (retired Imagineer) Marty Sklar together in Los Angeles. Richard just looked at me from across the table and he said, 'Look, I just want to tell you something. This thing about Walt being an anti-Semite, look at us'--talking about him and Marty--'We're two of the biggest Jews in Hollywood! We loved him and we knew him, and he loved us and knew us, and we loved working with the man. So I don't know where that came from.'"

As the Walt Disney Family Museum begins its third month of operation in San Francisco's Presidio, it continues fulfilling its mission of revealing the man behind the myth. To some, it even proves that--SURPRISE!--Walt Disney was an actual person. Benefield says, "(The Disney family) learned through some market research and surveys that there was a whole generation of people who thought 'Walt Disney' was a made up name and it was just part of the brand name of the company. I think that this museum makes it really clear that there was a person behind it through every step of it, and that he really was the mastermind behind all that he oversaw."

Diane Disney Miller and Bruce GordonWith ten galleries chock full of Disney history and family memorabilia, the museum leaves no doubt that Walt was a real live boy, a creative, ambitious and complex person of many accomplishments. Benefield gives much of the credit for the look and overall flow of the galleries to the late Disney Imagineer Bruce Gordon, who was a consultant with the museum in its early development stages. "The ramp that takes you from the second floor down to the first floor through Gallery 9 was originally his idea," says Benefield. "Many, many of his ideas have just lived on through the project. It's a great testament to his imagination and his own storytelling ability, and Diane (Disney Miller, Walt's daughter) is always very careful to give him credit for that."

As the former deputy director of Harvard University Art Museums, Benefield came to the Walt Disney Family Museum more as an art historian and curator than a Disney historian. Like most of us, though, he still grew up exposed to Disney films and entertainment. The first movie he remembers seeing as a child is "Old Yeller," and "Pinocchio" remains one of his all-time favorites. "I'm just astounded every time I watch it at how incredibly beautiful it is just to look at," he says.

His artistic eye gives him a special appreciation of the museum's collection. "I came into this job from an art museum background in terms of how you care for original works of art and artifacts of all kinds, really, and how you manage the public aspect of the museum. But, I find some of the original animation art--things like the scene paintings, the concept drawings--are the things that I find absolutely the most fascinating."

Mary Blair concept art for Peter PanBenefield is reluctant to name an item in the collection that is his favorite--it's an unfair question, really--but press him on the matter and he'll concede to having a preference for the work of Mary Blair. "I tend to gravitate a little bit more towards the original works of art that are in the collection," he says. The artwork that stands out most for him is a concept piece Blair did for "Peter Pan" showing the children flying over moonlit London. "I just think that it's a glorious work of art."

To mark the holidays, the museum will present in its theater "Christmas with Walt Disney," a film showing Walt at home and at work, celebrating the festive season. Narrated by Diane Disney Miller, it includes clips from Christmas-themed animated shorts and television programs. "The really great thing about the film," says Benefield, "is we have Walt's home movies from Christmas with his family. All of that has been artfully put together and culminates with an amazing reworking of 'The Nutcracker Suite' from 'Fantasia.'" "Christmas with Walt Disney" premieres at the museum on November 27th and will be shown six times daily most days through January 4th.

"Christmas with Walt Disney" is the latest in a series of monthly film presentations at the museum. In January, the museum will screen "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" followed by February showings of "Lady and the Tramp." Apropos for St. Patrick's Day, "Darby O'Gill and the Little People" will be featured in March. Says Benefield, "We've got some really great public programming going on along with this great museum."

Visit www.waltdisney.org for more information about the Walt Disney Family Museum and its many public events.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Scrooge of Christmas Carol Past: BFI's 1901 Gem

I've yet to see Disney's latest take on "A Christmas Carol" with all of Robert Zemeckis' performance-capture 3D gewgaws. Part of it is because it's just not close enough to Christmas for me to catch the spirit--I'm definitely a post-Thanksgiving Yuletide reveler. The other part is I'm leery of any new film version of Dickens' tale that dares to tread where Alastair Sim (Best. Scrooge. Ever.) and Albert Finney (Most. Underrated. Scrooge. Ever.) have already gone. I've also got a soft spot for the animated Mr. Magoo version (the first great Christmas special on TV--it predated "A Charlie Brown Christmas" by three years) and, yes, 1983's "Mickey's Christmas Carol." There's another "Christmas Carol" out there, however, that's suddenly being discovered by a whole new audience and is definitely worth a look.

To coincide with the London premiere of "Disney's A Christmas Carol" this month, the British Film Institute posted on its YouTube channel the silent 1901 film "Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost." Just under 3 1/2 minutes of the original 5-minute movies survives, but what remains is in remarkable shape and features some pretty snazzy special effects for its time.

I'm thinking I have another favorite Scrooge to add to my holiday list. Looks like Jim Carrey will have to wait a little longer.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Meet the New Mouse, Same as the Old Mouse . . . Really

Epic Mickey Box Art
I'm horrible when it comes to video games. Over the years, I've lost track of how many adventure games I've never finished because I got bored, distracted by life, or just reached a roadblock in a game that I quickly gave up on. Killing bosses has always been more trouble to me than it's worth. Such are the joys of having an ADD personality.

A slightly twisted version of the Disney universe may change all that.

Disney Interactive Studios and game developer Warren Spector will challenge the perceptions many fans have of Mickey Mouse when they release "Epic Mickey" for the Wii in fall 2010. As concept art from the game has been leaking out over the last few months, gaming fans have been speculating wildly on what the desolate look of a Magic Kindom gone horribly wrong is all about.

Epic Mickey Concept Art
Epic Mickey Concept Art
In an official announcement last week, Disney Interactive revealed the storyline of the game: Yen Sid, the powerful sorcerer from the "Sorcerer's Apprentice," has created this wonderful, mythical Cartoon Wasteland, where retired Disney characters live out an idyllic existence. Chief among them is none other than Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Walt's first animated star. Over time, however, he's become bitter that his successor, Mickey Mouse, has gone on to a stellar career in the "real" animated world (Personally, I think Oswald's just ticked that NBC Universal traded him back to Disney for Al Michaels, but I digress.), so when Mickey inadvertently stumbles into and wreaks havoc on Cartoon Wasteland, complications ensue. Armed with a brush, some paint and thinner, Mickey must then make things right and help restore Cartoon Wasteland to it's original glory . . . or not. That's the fun concept of "Epic Mickey." Mickey Mouse doesn't have to be the benign, easy-going everymouse most fans have come to know. In fact, the game may become a whole lot more interesting if he's not.

Scrapper MickeyIn today's New York Times, Brooks Barnes called this new video game persona for Mickey "risky" and "radical." I disagree. If anything, it sounds like Disney is taking Mickey back to his roots: that of a mischievous, even naughty, little rodent with plenty of spunk and heart. Watch "Steamboat Willie," "Plane Crazy" and numerous other animated shorts from Mickey's black and white days and you'll see an industrious scamp, full of tricks, who wasn't above making the occasional untoward advance on Minnie. This side of Mickey is not lost on Spector. "Mickey is an adventurous and rambunctious mouse," he says. "I want to bring his personality to the forefront, place him in a daunting world and connect his spirited character with video game players worldwide. Ultimately, each player decides for him - or herself what makes Mickey cool."

That Mickey can be cool again is a promising notion. His coolness factor dropped steadily in the decades since his meteoric rise to fame in the 1930s, even as his popularity remained intact. In order to continue being well received by a growing mass audience, Mickey's edgier personality quirks were gradually whittled away until this pleasant, mostly harmless character was left behind. Cute and charming, to be sure, but not much else--certainly not as entertaining as the clumsy, slap-happy Goofy or, especially, the irascible Donald. As animator Ward Kimball noted, "As we got more personality and character into the other cartoons, it became more and more difficult to cope with Mickey . . . Mickey was really an abstraction. He wasn't based on anything that was remotely real."

Mickey Mouse in action in Epic Mickey for the Nintendo WiiMickey eventually became more corporate symbol than character, his feistier origins largely forgotten or unnoticed with the passing years. He's still beloved by millions, but it's getting harder to explain why these days other than "he's Mickey Mouse."

It's about time Mickey got to stir up a little mischief again, and there's nothing radical about it whatsoever. After all, he'll be taking on Cartoon Wasteland with a paintbrush, not a chainsaw. What's intriguing, though, is this gaming star-turn will likely portend bigger and better future projects for him. That can't be bad.

Walt Disney himself said it best. "Mickey is forever. He'll have his moments in the shade, but he'll always come out in the bright lights again."

I'm looking forward to getting Mickey back in the spotlight. Let's see what he does with it. Maybe this time I'll even finish the game.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

'A Christmas Carol' Debuts in London

Accompanied by carolers, bell ringers and town criers in period costumes, "Disney's A Christmas Carol" made its world premiere Tuesday night in London's Leicester Square. Robert Zemeckis' 3D motion-capture animated take on the Dickens classic stars Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. The cast also includes Gary Oldman (Bob Cratchit), Colin Firth (Fred) and Bob Hoskins (Fezziwig).

Early reviews of the film have been decidedly mixed. Critics are praising the improvements to Zemeckis' performance-capture animation (it's come a long way since "The Polar Express"), but question whether it's a bit over-the-top for this simple and oft-told tale of ruin and redemption. Scrooge's story was never meant to be a thrill ride.

"A Christmas Carol" opens in the U.S. on Friday in both conventional and IMAX theaters.


Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Walt Disney Family Museum: The Smithsonian of Walt

The Walt Disney Family MuseumBy the end of my visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum, I was running out of superlatives to describe it.

"Amazing," "eye-popping," "whimsical," "profound," "fun" and "moving" all work, but none come close to capturing the experience. You have to be there to truly appreciate it, whether you're a casual Disney fan, an armchair historian, or a scholar of entertainment arts.

The museum opens to the public on October 1st, but this past weekend, members of the museum, D23 and the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society were treated to a special sneak preview of the facility, housed in a renovated former military barracks in San Francisco's historic Presidio.

Baby WaltThe museum is full of memorabilia and artifacts from Walt Disney's personal and professional life and is cleverly integrated with high-tech interactive displays. There are many video monitors and listening stations to completely immerse you in the story of Walt's life and to present him as the living, breathing PERSON he was and not just the corporate symbol he became, especially in the 40+ years since his death. It's as much a testament to his daughter, Diane Disney Miller, and the Walt Disney Family Foundation that Walt is given back his humanity while still surrounded by all the iconic films, characters and attractions so closely associated with him.

The museum gets just about everything right as it takes you chronologically through Walt's life, starting with his Midwestern childhood and early fascination with drawing. We meet his entire family through photos and rare film footage shot by Walt himself when he was a young, aspiring filmmaker in Kansas City (a clip of his parents, Elias and Flora, playfully jostling with each other is a real treat). And after Walt rides the rails west (his love of trains is a recurring theme throughout the museum) on the journey that will make him "Walt Disney," his family never fades into the background. In each of the ten galleries, no matter what significant cultural or business event is being depicted in Walt's life, you'll find plenty of family treasures, whether through pictures, film or audio clips. It's the "family" part of the experience that gives the museum its name and makes Walt as accessible as he's ever been to the public.

Letter from Walt to the Davis familyNot that you'll ever fully separate the man from the company he founded. And, let's face it, as a fellow Disneyphile, you've come to gawk at all the toys, tools and trinkets that made the man and made his studio. The museum definitely does not disappoint in that area. You'll see the original, hand-written note from Walt to Virginia Davis's mother, inviting young Virginia to Kansas City to become Walt's first silent-screen Alice. You'll also see the earliest known drawings of Mickey Mouse--most likely from the hand of Ub Iwerks, but probably with an assist from Walt. There's concept art, pencil sketches and cels representing virtually every feature-length animated film released during Walt's lifetime. My personal favorites are Ward Kimball's drawings for the never-used soup-eating scene in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (he almost quit the studio over the scene being cut), and Bill Tytla's dramatic sketch of "Fantasia's" evil lord Chernabog, complete with production notes. Likewise fun is a multitude of concept artwork by Mary Blair for such films as "Peter Pan," "Alice in Wonderland," "Saludos Amigos" and "The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad." Of course, just when you think that Walt's artists are getting a bit too much of the credit (not that they don't deserve their share), you come face-to-face with a copy of the studio's poster-size organizational chart with Walt's name clearly displayed at the top. There was no argument about who ultimately made all the decisions at the studio.

For all his successes, Walt Disney hit more than his share of bumps in the road, and the museum doesn't shy away from them. On the heels of such artistic triumphs as "Snow White," "Pinocchio," and "Fantasia" (don't miss the multiplane camera on display--it takes up two floors!), the museum takes a somber look at the 1941 animators strike that divided and almost destroyed Walt's company. In a presentation that never takes sides, you see and hear from both the striking animators and those who aligned with Walt, as well as those who got caught in the middle trying to be loyal to both sides. Regardless of who you think was right or wrong, you come away realizing that the strike forever changed Walt and the studio--and not necessarily for the better.

Likewise objective is the treatment of Walt's 1947 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Still stinging from the strike six years earlier, Walt was subpoenaed to Washington, D.C. as a "friendly" witness in Congress's investigation of Communist infiltration in Hollywood. The museum lets you listen to Walt's unedited testimony--he only implicated strike leaders and groups he though had "smeared" him--and draw your own conclusions.

San Francisco BayOne of the most spectacular sights at the museum isn't even in the museum. Turning the corner from a darkened Gallery 7, full of memories and memorabilia from the the post-WWII years ("Cinderella," "Peter Pan," "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"), you emerge into the bright light of Gallery 8 - Walt and the Natural World. On your right are video monitors, cleverly hidden inside a variegated white wall resembling a cliff face. On your left is nothing but glass, giving you a breathtaking view of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. The video monitors tell about Disney's "True-Life Adventures" and "People and Places" documentaries. You're excused if you forget to look at them.

The one gallery you won't forget is Gallery 9, the largest and most elaborate room in the museum. On display here are the trappings of an entertainment icon who, after decades of making a name for himself as a producer of (mostly) animated films, is still looking for worlds to conquer. For all the accomplishments and life experiences we've witnessed in the previous galleries, this room may be the one that epitomizes the artistic genius at the height of his creativity.

DisneylandFollowing a walkway that gradually winds and slopes from the upper level to the ground floor, you first pass Walt's beloved Lilly Belle, the 1/8 scale train he built and operated in the backyard of his Holmby Hills home in the 1950s. You learn about the development and construction of Disneyland and see the Circarama (also known as Circle-Vision 360) camera with nine individual cameras arranged in a circle. I was surprised to see the camera that shot "America the Beautiful" for Tomorrowland looked much smaller than I expected. There is the original torso frame for the first Audio-Animatronic Mr. Lincoln at the New York World's Fair, monitors showcasing the many Disney television shows of the 1950s and '60s, and even Walt's personal Autopia car. The display that is the most jaw-dropping, mouth-gaping experience, however, is the "Disneyland of Walt's Imagination," a scale model of the park not just with all the rides and attractions open at the end of Walt's life, but also with those that were under construction or in development at the same time. So not only will you see a mini Main Street, Mine Train and Monorail, you'll also see Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion and Tomorrowland 1967, which were completed after Walt's death. There's a wispier, more ethereal Space Mountain too, consistent with its '60s-era concept art. Walt's Disneyland is a miniature Magic Kingdom on steroids, an Olszewski model gone slightly mad with plenty of whimsical touches. And yes, Tinker Bell is there, making magic above the castle. You could study the display for hours and still pick out new details. It's simply amazing.

Your tour of the museum concludes with a final, fitting tribute to Walt in the form of the world's reaction to his death in 1966. Editorial cartoons mourning his passing adorn the walls while a period television plays the network news stories that honored his memory. Move to the next room of this gallery and you'll see, one last time, a splashy medley of old photos, films and quotes about him. It's a touching coda for the life of a man who may have been "Uncle Walt" to millions, but was foremost a son, brother, husband and father.

And isn't that what a family museum should be about?

Walt reads to his daughters
For more information on the Walt Disney Family Museum, visit www.waltdisney.org. If you're planning to visit, make sure you order your time-stamped tickets in advance through the website. You should allow at least 4-5 hours for your visit. Museum memberships are also available.


Friday, September 11, 2009

D23 Expo - Day One Recap

Impressions, thoughts, and maybe a picture or two from day one of the D23 Expo in Anaheim:

Anika Noni Rose performs during the opening session at the D23 ExpoRobert Iger's Opening Keynote

A great, big, beautiful commercial for Disney (not that the whole of the D23 Expo isn't anyway) with an opening video splash of all the elements in the Disney universe. Everyone had their favorites and the crowd showed its appreciation accordingly. "Alice in Wonderland" (Johnny Depp especially), "Lost," and "High School Musical" all drew generous shares of applause. The audience positively roared for "Tron Legacy," though. Anticipation is very high for the 2010 game geek movie release.

Iger was pleasant and professional and apologized to the crowd for a nearly half-hour late start. He blamed it on giving more time for all the attendees to be seated. You could argue it was about crowd control, but it also could've been an issue of attendance--the arena was only about 2/3 full.

He talked at length about the Disney legacy and how we all grew up with it. Iger even admitted that, as a child, he owned a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. Nice. He followed it up with a montage video of Walt and the entertainment world he created.

Iger's mention of Disney's recent acquisition of Marvel Entertainment drew a pretty good round of applause. Disney fans (this group, at least) seemed to be ok with Wolverine standing side by side with Mickey Mouse.

The highlight of the opening was the screening of the first half-hour of "The Princess and the Frog," Disney's return to 2D animation coming out on November 25th. The movie definitely has a "Little Mermaid"/"Beauty and the Beast" feel to it--and I mean that in the most positive way--telling the story of Tiana, a working class woman with dreams of running a high class restaurant in New Orleans, who has a curious encounter with a cursed frog-prince. The movie has an jazzy musical score that absolutely grabs you. "Friends on the Other Side," performed by the the film's voodoo-practicing villain, Doctor Facilier, is an absolute show stopper. Think "Oogie Boogie's Song" meets "Under the Sea." Disney's return to fairytale story telling is going to be a hit. As an added treat after the preview, Anika Noni Rose, the Tony Award winning actress who voices Tiana, performed music from the movie.

Betty White and Robin Williams share a laugh with Mickey Mouse at the 2009 Disney Legends ceremony at the D23 Expo. Photo courtesy Disney/D23.Disney Legends Ceremony

In a rare public ceremony, Disney inducted this year's Legends honorees. Among the highlights:

Bob Iger singling out 97-year old Legend Art Linkletter (inducted 2005). He still looked pretty spry.

The daughters of Leota Toombs Thomas accepting the award for their mom with a warm and sincere speech. Leota did so much more in her decades of service to Disney Imagineering than just be a head in a crystal ball.

Tony Anselmo accepting his Legends award with a Donald Duck pitch-perfect "Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!"

Betty White jumping the gun before host Tom Bergeron and Bob Iger finished introducing her. Even better was her later admission that she still owns a Mickey Mouse doll from when she was a child. She's one of us.

Robin Williams marveling at how Disney animators kept pace with him during his brilliant voice work as the Genie in "Aladdin." Who knew you could ever squeeze Jack Nicholson and William F. Buckley into a Disney cartoon?

It's tight, make no mistake. For the arena events (Bob Iger yesterday, Dick Cook today), when they say no cameras, recording devices or cell phones, they mean it. Bags are searched, electronic items must be checked and, oh yeah, you'll be wanded just to make sure you're not sneaking anything in. It makes for a tense situation, though. Can that many people be without their iPhones and Crackberries for three hours or more? Scary.

Richard Sherman performs at the D23 ExpoMost Pleasant Surprise: Richard Sherman

The piano on stage was a dead giveaway, but how nice to see songwriter Richard Sherman perform following a showing of "The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story." The movie is a nostalgic and touching look at Disney's prolific musical team, who wrote "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "I Wanna Be Like You," "It's a Small World" and many, many more. The film focuses not only on Richard and Robert's songwriting successes, but also the decades-long strained personal relationship that leaves them virtually estranged from one another today. Richard performed some of their lesser-known songs, "Won't Be Long Until Christmas," "Your Heart Will Lead You Home," "The Ugly Bug Ball," and "River Song," but he couldn't resist reverting to the tried and true, leading the audience in a chorus of "It's a Small World." A terrific performance from a songwriter who, with his brother, doesn't get as much credit as he deserves for helping write the Great American Songbook.

I've got plenty more to share from the D23 Expo. On tap today is Dick Cook's Walt Disney Studios keynote--Nicolas Cage, Tim Burton and Robert Zemeckis will be paying a visit. Also slated is a screening of "Tron" with a sneak preview of "Tron Legacy," and look at the new "World of Color" nighttime water show headed to Disney's California Adventure next year.

See you real soon . . .



Thursday, September 10, 2009

D23 Expo Opens Today!

D23 Expo at the Anaheim Convention CenterDisney's official fanfest, the D23 Expo, opens in just a couple of hours at the Anaheim Convention Center. Over 30,000 attendees are expected for this four-day event, showcasing everything Disney has to offer in movies, TV, theme parks and merchandise. There'll be a significant dose of history too as Disney unlocks the vault to display "Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives," an exhibit of memorabilia that includes costumes from "Mary Poppins" to "Tron" to "Captain EO" to "Hannah Montana." There will also be the original Nautilus from "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and the jewel-encrusted storybook used in the opening scene of "Sleeping Beauty."

As far as events today, tops on the list are president and CEO Bob Iger's opening keynote and a rare public ceremony to induct this year's Disney Legends. Honorees include Robin Williams and the cast of "The Golden Girls."

I'll be at the Expo all week with photos, news updates and commentary. You can follow me on Twitter or Facebook and, of course, you can check back here for daily updates on my blog.

I'm heading over to the Expo right now. I've heard there's a big line forming already. Cover me, I'm going in.

See you real soon . . .



Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What to See at D23 - Day Four

Pixar takes center stage on Sunday, the final day of the D23 Expo. Expect a heavy dose of "Toy Stories 1, 2 and 3" and an eye-popping print shirt on John Lasseter. Besides the shirt, here's what else stands out:

Sunday, 9/13/09

9:30 a.m. - The Making of Toy Story Midway Mania!, Storytellers Theater
It may seem like just a ride through a video game with "Toy Story" characters in it, but Midway Mania is a lot more than that, a technological marvel that integrates state-of-the-art ride mechanisms with elaborate gaming systems. Get the inside skinny on how the Disneyland and Walt Disney World versions all work and, most importantly, how you can improve your score playing the game.

11:00 a.m. - The Future of Disney and Pixar Animation, D23 Arena
In what will probably be the most heavily attended presentation of the weekend, John Lasseter, the man who helped bring animation into the 21st century and the guiding force behind ten straight quality hit movies, will hold court in the D23 Arena, previewing not only what's in store for Pixar, but also what's waiting in the wings for Disney Animation. There'll be clips from "The Princess and the Frog," "Rapunzel" and "Toy Story 3" to be sure, but the main attraction will be the man himself. Lasseter is highly regarded by Disney fans, and deservedly so--he was a Jungle Cruise skipper, for God's sake! Don't miss what he has to say.

12:30 p.m. - Silver Banjo Barbecue Panel With David and Ron DeFore, Stage 23
A couple of years ago, I had the chance to meet Ron DeFore and had the most fascinating conversation with him about the early days of Disneyland. Here's a guy who, with his brother David, literally grew up at the Magic Kingdom where his father, TV personality Don DeFore ("The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," "Hazel") operated his own restaurant. There'll be plenty of tales told about Walt and Disneyland at this session, a fun and fanciful trip through the wayback machine.

1:00 p.m. - Special Muppets Presentation, Walt Disney Studios Theater
There's not a lot of background information on this presentation, making it all the more intriguing. Disney hasn't exactly done a lot with the Muppets since taking them over from The Jim Henson Company in 2004. Goodness knows "MuppetVision 3D" could use some freshening up. In August, promotional videos were shot at Disneyland featuring the Muppets, so it appears Disney is looking to give them a higher profile. Also, a new theatrical Muppet movie has supposedly been in the works for a while. Will it finally be time to put on makeup and light the lights again? Fingers crossed.

2:00 - How to be a Disneyana Detective With Tom Tumbush, Stage 23
Mickey Mouse meets the "Antiques Roadshow" when Disneyana expert Tom Tumbush shares tips on figuring out the value of your Disney collectibles. He'll even be available after the presentation to take a look at your old school memorabilia to see if you have any hidden Disney treasures.

3:00 p.m. - Imagineering Pixar for the Disney Parks, Storytellers Theater
Boy, produce ten straight animated hit movies and suddenly they want to build rides about them. Pixar has inspired a number of attractions at the Disney theme parks, including Toy Story Midway Mania, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage and the upcoming Cars Land in Disney's California Adventure. John Lasseter returns, this time with a group of Pixar peeps and Disney Imagineers, to talk about what other Pixar projects are being developed.

6:30 p.m. - 'Toy Story 3' Special Presentation
7:00 p.m. - 'Toy Story' and 'Toy Story 2' Double Feature Premiere Screening
The first two "Toy Story" films have been retooled in 3D, which will not only create synergy with next year's "Toy Story 3(D)" but also a mountain of cash for Disney/Pixar. These back-to-back presentations will be the first public showings of the original movies in 3D (they hit theaters on October 2nd) and a sneak peek of "TS3," which will tell the story of what happens to Woody and Buzz and company when their owner Andy grows up.

Alrighty then, that finishes my take on all four days of presentations and previews at the D23 Expo. It all starts Thursday with an estimated 30,000 - 40,000 attendees through the weekend. The complete schedule can be found on D23's website. Tomorrow, I'll have more on the can't-miss pavilions to see at the Expo and, don't forget, live updates all week on Facebook and Twitter.

See you real soon!

Monday, September 7, 2009

What to See at D23 - Day Three

If armchair Imagineering is your thing, Saturday is your day at the D23 Expo, with no less than four sessions dedicated to the nuts and bolts of theme park creativity. Throw in two digitally-restored screen princesses, one brand new one, and an auction of exclusive Disney merchandise, collectibles and events, and you've got a jam-packed day from morning 'til night.

Saturday, 9/12/09

9:00 a.m. - So You Want To Be an Imagineer?, Storytellers Theater
At 47, the boat may have sailed for me to become an Imagineer, but I'm fascinated by the creative process and by people who follow their passions. This panel discussion, led by retired Imagineer Marty Sklar, takes a look at the skills and drive needed to join the ranks of many a Disney geek's dream job.

11:00 a.m. - Imagineering the Future of Disney Theme Parks, D23 Arena
This one could be interesting. For a lot of hardcore Disney fans, there's no love lost for Saturday's keynote speaker, Jay Rasulo. As chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, he's drawn plenty of fire from critics who've accused him of diluting the individual character of Disneyland and Walt Disney World by creating the homogenized "Disney Parks" brand, of lowering maintenance and aesthetic standards in the parks, and of being out of touch with consumers, Disney employees and especially the fan base. Rasulo may also have shot Bambi's mother, we're not sure. The crowd's response to him, as he reveals what's in store for the parks worldwide, will tell all.

12:00 p.m. - 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' Panel Discussion Followed by a Special Screening of the Restored Print, Walt Disney Studios Theater
Walt Disney's first feature-length animated film will be released on Blu-ray October 6th. Get an early look at the digitally-restored version and enjoy a panel discussion led by Disney producer Don Hahn ("Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King"). Is Snow White still the fairest one of all? You betcha.

12:30 p.m. - Growing Up Disney With Roy P. Disney, Stage 23
Roy Patrick Disney dishes on his grandfather Roy O. and granduncle Walt and talks about what it's like to be part of such a legendary family. There'll be lots of photos and film footage too. A great companion session to the Walt Disney Family Museum preview later in the day.

3:00 p.m. - 'The Princess and the Frog' Panel and Screening, Walt Disney Studios Theater
Something old: A princess in 2D animation. Something new: She's African-American. Fans get a sneak-peek at Disney's hugely anticipated fall release and a conversation with directors John Musker and Ron Clements and animators Andreas Deja and Eric Goldberg. This is one to be excited about.

3:30 p.m. - Sneak Preview of The Walt Disney Family Museum, Stage 23
Another one to be excited about, and of course it's running at the same time. The Walt Disney Family Museum opens October 1st in San Francisco, a labor of love spearheaded by Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller. Founding executive director Richard Benefield will give an early look inside the museum, paying tribute not to just a corporate icon, but a living, breathing human being who just happened to build an entertainment empire.

3:30 p.m. - The Making of the U.S. Presidents, Storytellers Theater
Tony Baxter and a group of fellow Imagineers will talk about the return of Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln to Disneyland later this year, as well as the earlier addition of Barack Obama to the Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World. Missing from the proceedings will be Blaine Gibson, who sculpted the original Lincoln figure as well as 41 of the presidents at Walt Disney World (Try to catch him at the "Imagineering Legends" presentation on Thursday.).

6:30 p.m. - D23 Expo Live Auction, D23 Arena
If you've got money to burn, or just like watching people who do, then don't miss Saturday night's live auction. Up for bid are 49 lots of Disney memorabilia and special event opportunities guaranteed to make you get your geek on. Among the more impressive items are a framed personal check signed by Walt Disney, original "Jungle Book" and "Sleeping Beauty" animation cels, an original 1940 "Fantasia" souvenir program, admission to the world premiere of "The Princess and the Frog," a personal tour of the Walt Disney Studios and Archives by archivist Dave Smith, and a slightly used pirate ship ride vehicle from Peter Pan's Flight. Expo attendees may watch the auction action at no additional charge, but auction participants must purchase a $40 auctioneers package in addition to their Expo admission. Look for me. I'll be right there on the arena floor with paddle in hand. And no, I'm not telling you what I've got my eye on.

10:00 p.m. - '50 and Fabulous' Screening: 'Sleeping Beauty' Panel and Screening
The best of the "50 and Fabulous" screenings during the Expo, even if this wasn't Walt's best princess story. "Sleeping Beauty" was artistically ambitious, with stunning background visuals and some nice visual effects, but the overall animation is flat, which is disappointing for a movie meant to thrill the senses in 70mm Technirama. Except for the exciting, climactic battle between Prince Phillip and the dragon Maleficent, the story plods along and really not a whole lot happens. The fire-breathing dragon makes it worth it, though, so don't miss this opportunity to see it in its original widescreen glory.

The D23 Expo is just days away with plenty more to preview. Don't forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter as I post live updates and photos from the Expo during all four days.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Back to Nature - Gallery 8 at the Walt Disney Family Museum

The Walt Disney Family Museum shares a few more images with us. Gallery 8 spotlights "Walt and the Natural World," a look at Walt's True-Life Adventures and People and Places documentaries. We also get a glimpse at Walt Disney, the outdoorsman.

An artist's rendering of Gallery 8:

A movie poster from the 1955 True-Life Adventure "The African Lion." The film was directed by James Algar, narrated by Winston Hibler and edited from over 100,000 feet of footage shot by documentarians Alfred and Elma Milotte:

Walt Disney was an accomplished horseman and, in the 1930s, an avid polo player. He was also a regular participant in the Ranchos Vistadores, an invitation-only trail ride event near Santa Barbara. Here is a silver mounted saddle from the ride:

The Walt Disney Family Museum opens October 1st in the Presidio in San Francisco.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What to See at D23 - Day Two

Robin WilliamsUpdating Day One, Disney has announced the honorees for this year's Disney Legends awards:

Robin Williams - Star of "Aladdin," "Flubber," "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Dead Poets Society".
The Cast of "The Golden Girls" - Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan and Betty White.
Leota Toombs Thomas - The WED Enterprises model builder Disney fans know best as the face of Madame Leota in the Haunted Mansion's seance room.
Tony Anselmo - The voice of Donald Duck since 1985.
Bill Farmer - The voice of Goofy since 1986
Harry Archinal - Former president of Buena Vista International, Disney's overseas film distributor.
Don Iwerks - Veteran film systems designer who did extensive work on "Mary Poppins" and Disney's "CircleVision 360" films. Don is the son of Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney's longtime friend and animator.

BTW, Disney has made very clear that cameras and recording devices will not be allowed during Bob Iger's opening keynote and the Disney Legends presentation. If you think they're kidding, just try them.

And now, the best of the D23 Expo's day two, which may have the strongest lineup of the four days. Lots of terrific sessions here, with more than a few scheduling conflicts to resolve. I believe Ursula put it best. "Life's full of tough choices, in'nit?"

Friday, 9/11/09

9:00 a.m. - Early Bird Books: 'Kingdom Keepers'/'Peter and the Starcatchers' with Authors Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry, Stage 23
I'll admit I haven't read "Peter and the Starcatchers" or any of the "Kingdom Keepers" books. But, I'll also admit I've been a big fan of Dave Barry from his many years as a nationally syndicated humor columnist with "The Miami Herald." The guy is flat-out funny, even if he'll only be at D23 via video feed. Pearson and Barry's new book "Peter and the Sword of Mercy" will be out in October.

11:00 a.m. - Disney Movie Magic: Inside the Walt Disney Studios, D23 Arena
Disney Studios honcho Dick Cook will screen clips from upcoming releases "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," "Alice in Wonderland," "A Christmas Carol" and "The Sorceror's Apprentice." In a perfect world, he'll also bring a few celebs with him. What say you Tim Burton? Johnny Depp? Helena Bonham Carter? Anne Hathaway? Jake Gyllenhaal? Jim Carrey? Robert Zemeckis? Nicolas Cage? Fans aren't coming to see suits. They'd like to see some star power. It could happen. Just sayin.'

12:30 p.m. - Author Jason Surrell Discusses the Haunted Mansion, Stage 23
Surrell has written two of the best theme park attraction histories with his "From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies" books on Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. I'll remember him (and forever be grateful) for rescuing an abysmal MSN.com webcast on the red carpet at Disneyland for the 2006 premiere of "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." MSN's entertainment reporter, Dish Diva, was in over her head and unprepared for the 2 1/2-hour live show, but Surrell, along with fellow Disney historian Tim O'Day, saved the day with their insightful comments about POTC. Surrell knows his stuff and it will be a pleasure to see him in person.

1:00 p.m. - Screening of 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' in Disney Digital 3D, Walt Disney Studios Theater
I saw it during its original theatrical run. I own two DVD versions of it, plus the soundtrack. However, I've never seen Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" during any of its seasonal 3D runs. So what better time to see it than in a convention center full of Disney geeks? Also, Burton's early shorts "Frankenweenie" and "Vincent" will be shown with it. It makes me wonder if Burton himself might put in an appearance. Again, just sayin'.

2:00 p.m. - The Making of 'World of Color,' Storytellers Theater
Visitors to Disney's California Adventure during the past year have seen a lot of construction activity in the drained Paradise Pier lagoon. Find out what it's all about when Imagineer Steven Davis gives you a sneak preview of "World of Color," DCA's "water-and-fire" spectacular debuting next year.

4:00 p.m. - 'Tron' Presentation, Walt Disney Studios Theater
I can't recall ever seeing so many fanboys get so worked up over a sequel to a movie that sucked so bad. Seriously. OK, the 1982-era special effects in the original "Tron" were kinda nifty and the light cycle race was totally cool--but the rest of the movie was Sominex dull. Still, Disney is getting major buzz for the CG-intense "Tron Legacy" coming out in 2010, and this early trailer hasn't exactly hurt its prospects. The presentation will include a screening of the digitally-restored original and a conversation with director Steven Lisberger.

5:30 p.m. - Disney Rarities, Stage 23
An opportunity to see some of Walt Disney's earliest animation efforts as well as other rarely seen short cartoons. Producer/author Don Hahn and Disney animator Dave Bossert host a session that I hope will include footage from Walt's Laugh-O-Gram work in Kansas City in the early 1920s.

7:30 p.m. - 'Walt & El Grupo' Panel and Screening, Walt Disney Studios Theater
This one is a tad misleading, since the screening will be of "Saludos Amigos" and not the new documentary about Walt Disney and his staff's 1941 goodwill trip to South America. "Walt & El Grupo" will actually be playing up the street at the AMC Theatre in Downtown Disney. Still, this promises to be a fascinating look at Walt and a select group of artists during uncertain times caused by financial problems at the studio, a debilitating animators strike and an American nation on the verge of World War II.

I'm only half way through the D23 Expo schedule and there are still plenty of goodies to look forward to. Make sure to check back soon for my look at days three and four. The Expo is just a week away!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What to See at D23 - Day One

In less than two weeks, Disney will kick off the first "Ultimate Disney Fan Experience" when it presents D23 Expo at the Anaheim Convention Center September 10-13. Disney has been teasing the Expo for weeks, releasing bits and pieces of information online and on various Twitter feeds. This week, they released the most detailed schedule of meet-and-greets, events and seminars yet (and they keep adding to it). Here's a look at what stands out on the opening day of the show:

Thursday, 9/10/09

10:00 a.m. - Bob Iger Presentation, D23 Arena
Disney's President and CEO will never be accused of being the most dynamic speaker, but give him his props. He righted the company's image after the fall of Michael Eisner, bought Pixar when it appeared to be lost forever, and made Disney an industry leader in Internet-based integration. He'll officially launch the D23 Expo with his opening keynote. Expect lots of video clips and maybe a few stars joining him on stage.

11:00 a.m. - Disney Legends Awards, D23 Arena
Attend the Iger keynote if only to get a good seat for this year's Disney Legends ceremony, just the third time in its 22-year history that it's been open to the public and the first time it's ever been held outside a Disney property. Disney Legends honors those who "best embody the Company's unique creative spirit, personified by its founder." This year's honorees have yet to be announced, but past Legends include Julie Andrews, Steve Martin, Dick Van Dyke, Annette Funicello, Dean Jones, Art Linkletter, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.

1:00 p.m. - 'Beauty and the Beast' 3D Preview and Panel Discussion, Walt Disney Studios Theater
I'm not sold on the idea of converting 2D animated classics to 3D--if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Still, I saw B&B's opening "Belle" sequence in 3D at this year's National Association of Broadcasters show and it looked amazing. The clip is certain to be shown at this presentation, perhaps with other segments as well. Definitely worth a look.

2:00 p.m. - The World of Vintage Disney--In Color, Storytellers Theater
Regardless of the presentation, if it brings out Imagineer Tony Baxter, see it. Baxter has a long history with Disney and speaks heartfelt and passionate about his experiences. His theme park credits include Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, Star Tours, and the Indiana Jones Adventure. At this session, he and Media Preservationist Ed Hobelman will show off early film footage of Disneyland in the 1950s and 60s. Don't miss it.

3:30 p.m. - Haunted Mansion: Sounds of Spooks and Music of the Macabre, Stage 23
Randy Thornton is Supervising Producer at Walt Disney Records and his work includes the impressive boxed sets "Walt Disney and the 1964 World's Fair" and "A Musical History of Disneyland." Honoring the Haunted Mansion's 40th birthday, he and engineer Jeff Sheridan will talk about the musical history of one of Disney's greatest attraction and the challenges and joys of compiling a new commemorative CD.

4:30 p.m. - An Afternoon With Imagineering Legends, Storytellers Theater
Last month, after over 50 years at Walt Disney Imagineering, Marty Sklar hung up his mouse ears and retired. At D23 Expo, he'll host a panel of Imagineering legends that will include X Atencio (Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean), Alice Davis (It's a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean), Blaine Gibson (Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, Haunted Mansion, Enchanted Tiki Room) and Bob Gurr (Matterhorn, Submarine Voyage, Autopia). To quote Captain Barbossa, "There's not been a gatherin' like this one in our lifetime." Well, at least not at D23, anyway.

7:00 p.m. - 'the boys: the sherman brothers' story' Screening and Panel, Walt Disney Studios Theater
You'd be hard pressed to find a more prolific songwriting team than the brothers Robert and Richard Sherman--or a more dysfunctional one. Despite a musical partnership that produced "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "I Wanna Be Like You," and "It's a Small World," among others, "the boys," as Walt Disney referred to them, have barely spoken to each other in decades. This documentary looks at the musical talent that held them together professionally and the family politics that continues to keep them apart personally. The film was produced by their sons Jeffrey and Gregory Sherman, cousins who hardly knew each other until they were adults, and includes interviews with Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Roy E. Disney and Alan Menken. A fascinating look at one of the little-known stories of Disney lore.

Those are my faves for opening day. In the coming days, I'll be taking a look at the other D23 Expo events being held through the weekend, plus celebrity appearances and the must-see pavilions at the show. Stay tuned . . .

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Post-War Walt: More Goodies From the Walt Disney Family Museum

The Walt Disney Family Museum released a few more pics from their collection today, just a month away from September's preview weekend. They come from the museum's Gallery 7, which focuses on the studio's artistic and financial comeback in the 1940s and '50s in the wake of World War II.

"Cinderella" was Walt's return to the world of fairy tale princesses more than a dozen years after "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." "Cinderella" lacked the artistic detail of "Snow White," but none of its heart, and was a huge hit for the studio:

"Alice in Wonderland" wasn't nearly as well received--by fans or critics--in its initial release and, consequently, remains one of Disney's most underrated animated films. Featuring lively animation and spot-on voice casting, it benefits greatly from the unmistakable visual style of Mary Blair, whose design sketches took a significant departure from the original John Tenniel illustrations:

After the war, Walt took on more live-action films. In this 1954 cover from Look Magazine, we see James Mason as Captain Nemo locked in a fierce battle with the giant squid in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.":

Ever wonder why the famous squid sequence was staged in a heavy rainstorm? It wasn't just for aesthetic reasons. Early footage of the mechanized rubber sea beast looked so fake on calm waters that the scene had to be reshot on a darkened soundstage with waves crashing. It added intensity to the scene and covered up how bad the monster actually looked.

Gallery 7 will also include the camera used to film the underwater scenes in "20,000 Leagues" and items from Walt's personal collection of miniatures.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Human Again

This fall, The Walt Disney Family Museum will introduce us to Walt Disney, the man. It's about time we finally met him.

2009 is a landmark year for The Walt Disney Company, though you might not have noticed. In December, it will be 43 years since Walt Disney passed away in 1966, closing the curtain on an era of unparalleled creativity and innovation in entertainment. Forty three years is also the length of time Walt ran his eponymous studio with his brother Roy. When this year comes to a close, for the first time in its history, The Walt Disney Company will have existed longer without Walt than with him.

With each passing year, Walt is being perceived less and less as the eager, ambitious and restless Midwestern boy who made good in Hollywood, and more a corporate avatar, the iconic pater familias whose offspring include Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Snow White and Disneyland. It's an image Disney himself helped create, purposefully separating legend from the truth to become the idyllic dream maker baby boomers happily welcomed into their homes on Sunday night TV. As he once told a company employee, "I smoke and I drink and there's a whole lot of things I do that I don't want to be part of that image." No one understood the distinction between Walt Disney the man and Walt Disney the corporate symbol more than Walt Disney himself.

But, forty three years later, that symbol, like Monstro the whale, has almost swallowed the man whole. No corporation protects its namesake like The Walt Disney Company does. It holds Walt aloft as the ultimate representation of family entertainment and wide-eyed magic. In Disney theme parks, motion pictures pay tribute to his accomplishments and bronze statues are erected in his memory. But, that Walt is no more real than the cartoon mouse holding his hand in front of the storybook castle. This is Walt in his purest, most positive public persona. And while you can't blame the company for shining him up all neat and pretty, in the process we're losing sight of all the traits that made him interesting to begin with.

Walt Disney was the guiding force behind an incredible body of work in entertainment, but he was also a stubborn, short-tempered and argumentative man. He was a competent, but not particularly gifted cartoonist; a devoted, but somewhat distant husband and father. He chain smoked, enjoyed his scotch and appreciated a good dirty joke. He produced a multitude of classic animated features, but some of the most utterly forgettable live action films. He employed artists who would've gladly taken a bullet for him and others who eventually fell out of favor and to whom he would not speak for decades. He could motivate and cajole people to create art even they didn't think was possible, but he had few close friends. He was a 20th century visionary whose arrogance and naivete contributed to a crippling studio strike. He had his character flaws, but he also had a vivid imagination, a considerable work ethic and a childlike enthusiasm for the projects that interested him. He was a series of contradictions. He was a human being.

That's the Walt I like.

For the first time, the general public is going to get a close, first hand look at the man behind the curtain when The Walt Disney Family Museum opens on October 1st. And while I don't expect to see Walt, warts and all, we'll still get a better feel for him as a person than we would ever get from the official company line. Already, we're seeing it in the images the museum has released over the past few weeks (they'll continue releasing them up to the grand opening). Among the many studio artifacts pictured--the first drawings of Mickey Mouse, the Pinocchio and Dopey maquettes--we're also seeing the personal items--the family photos, Walt and Lillian's marriage certificate, the fiddle that belonged to Walt's father. One of the first pictures the museum released was that of Walt as an infant. See? He was a real person after all.

Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, is co-founder of the museum and has made it a labor of love to preserve her father's personal legacy. “My father's name is probably one of the most well-known names around the world, but as the ‘brand’ or trademark has spread, for many, the man has become lost,” she says. “We are committed to telling the story of Walt Disney’s life, in his own words, and in the words of others who knew him well and worked with him."

The museum is located in San Francisco's historic Presidio, significant not just because Walt's family moved to the area after his death (Diane and her husband, Ron Miller, own the Silverado Winery in Napa), but also in how far away the museum is from Burbank and Anaheim. Whether intentional or not, it's apropos that to get to know Walt better he has been separated, at least physically, from the company he founded.

The museum will take up 77,000 square feet and will consist of ten galleries chronicling Walt's life, a special exhibitions gallery (opening in 2012), a 123-seat screening facility, a learning center, museum store and cafe. Adding to the multimedia experience will be interactive displays, listening stations and over 200 video monitors.

A preview weekend event for D23 and WDFM members sold out quickly, but tickets are still available for opening day on October 1st. It's recommended that you order tickets ahead of time on the museum website at www.waltdisney.org. Tickets are issued for specific times, so plan your schedule accordingly.

I'll be attending the preview event and I'm relishing the opportunity. It'll be nice to finally meet the real Walt Disney . . . for the first time.