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 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.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Disney Channel Stars Backstage at the Teen Choice Awards . . . And Not a Stripper Pole in Sight

Miley Cyrus may have gotten most of the buzz, for good or for ill, at the Teen Choice Awards last Monday night in L.A., but a few other Disney Channel stars kept busy going backstage at the Gibson Amphitheatre to autograph toys for the City of Hope, one of the top ranked cancer centers in the U.S.

The stuffed critters were animatronic Wowwee Alive Baby Animals that snuggle and move to the touch. Want one? They retail for about fifty bucks and are available on Wowwee's website.

Reportedly, one of Britney Spears' kids went nuts over the white tiger cub. What are the chances you think he got one?

Disney to Package Blu-ray/DVD Combos Through 2010, But Will it Matter?

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment (WDSHE) announced this week they will continue combining Blu-ray and DVD versions of their premium titles in the same boxes for home video release through the end of 2010. Citing popular demand by consumers, Bob Chapek, President of WDSHE, said, "The Disney Blu-ray Combo Pack is the perfect marriage of value, quality and versatility all wrapped-up in a single package."

That may be true Bob, but you failed to mention that Blu-ray hasn't exactly taken off in the hearts and minds of the public. A year and a half has passed since Blu-ray won the format war against HD DVD, and standard DVD is still the leader in sales and rentals. You can blame the higher cost of Blu-ray, especially in a sour economy, but I think it has more to do with Blu-ray simply not being the game changer DVD was over VHS. There are plenty of people who are perfectly content with their existing DVD collection and see no reason to upgrade to Blu-ray (I count myself among them).

There are some positive signs, however, as Toshiba, the last HD DVD holdout, recently announced they will release a line of Blu-ray players later this year. There's also a rumor (albeit a shaky one) that Apple will offer Blu-ray support on the next major release of iTunes.

Still, I think Blu-ray is destined to become a niche format for videophiles only, because the real future of home video is not in shrink wrapped Blu-rays or DVD's, but in on-demand content from the cloud.

Read between the lines of Disney's announcement and it's really not about consumer value. It's about Blu-ray not selling as a stand-alone format.

Upcoming Combo Pack releases from Disney:

8/18/09 - Hannah Montana: The Movie
10/6/09 - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
10/27/09 - Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure
11/10/09 - Up
11/10/09 - Monsters, Inc.
11/24/09 - Santa Buddies

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

This Week's Most Awkward Google Search

Miley Cyrus Pole Dancing

In a related(?) story, Miley/Hannah has launched a new clothing line at Walmart, which will no doubt reflect her unique fashion style.
It'll be a huge seller.

D23 Offers Benefits, Not Entitlements

Tickets to a sneak preview of the Walt Disney Family Museum came and went in a flash last Wednesday as D23 members clamored for the highly-anticipated ducats. Available on the museum's website with a special D23 activation code, they were gone in less than ten minutes.

And that's when the bitching and whining started . . . again.

It's a familiar scenario. D23 makes free tickets available to a special event like a Walt Disney Studios tour or a meet-and-greet with Disney imagineers and historians. Demand far exceeds supply and then, POOF, a handful of lucky members get a wish fulfilled and a bunch more just get pissed off.

A sample of comments on the Walt Disney Family Museum's Facebook page after the tickets were gone:

"I paid $80 for a magazine subscription. Way to keep Walt's dream alive."

"Yeah... this was CLEARLY not thought out very well. D23 & the WDFM really dropped the ball this time."

"It's impossible to get into any of the D23 events. I joined for the first year to see how it would be. So far it has been a huge disappointment."

"D23 has been a HUGE waste of money! My guess is they won't be around 5 years from now."

Tops among the frustrations this time around were error messages received on the WDFM website when people attempted to place their orders. It was clearly a case of an overwhelmed server unable to handle this sudden glut of traffic. Ever try to be the tenth caller to win concert tickets from your favorite radio station? That error message was your busy signal. So what do you do? You hang up and try again. I did--four times--before I finally got through. I have my tickets for the early afternoon on September 26th.

If I hadn't been fortunate enough to get tickets, would I have been disappointed? Absolutely. There's nothing wrong with that. But I wouldn't have blamed Disney, D23 or the WDFM for it, because, in the end, I still had the exact same chance to get tickets as any other D23 member. There were just more members than there were tickets, plain and simple.

There is an annoying sense of entitlement shared by some D23 members. I would remind them, and any person considering joining, to read what membership in the club actually includes: a subscription to "twenty three" magazine, a membership card and certificate, a "surprise gift", discounted admission to the D23 Expo, and, finally, "unique special event opportunities throughout the year" (highlight added by me). There is no promise that D23 will just hand you tickets to any event. So before signing up or renewing your membership, you need to decide if the 75 bucks it costs is worth the "opportunity" to attend these events. Personally, I think it is.

As a side note, the WDFM posted on Facebook that, contrary to what the rumor mill was saying, additional preview tickets for D23 members will NOT be available. There were still a handful of unclaimed tickets for museum members only around 3:00 yesterday afternoon, but I wouldn't expect them to last long.