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.