Wednesday, March 24, 2010

LEGO My Woody

Disney released a Special Edition Blu-ray/DVD combo of "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" this week (both movies look fantastic in hi-def, BTW). To promote the release, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment partnered with Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) and LEGO to construct a huge mural of the "Toy Story" characters in LEGO bricks.

Toy Story mural in LEGO blocks
Six individual sections of the mural were built at Boys & Girls Clubs locations in Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Denver, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, before being combined together in Los Angeles.

A Boys & Girls Club member puts a block in Buzz
Disney has had a long-standing relationship with the BGCA. Walt himself served on the organization's board of directors in the 1960s when it was just called the Boys Club.

Jason Katz and Erik Varszegi
Pixar Story Supervisor Jason Katz ("Toy Story," "Toy Story 2," "Toy Story 3") and LEGO Master Builder Erik Varszegi were on hand to host the event.

"Toy Story 3" hits theaters on June 18th.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Saving the Birthplace of Animation: Kansas City Says 'Thank You Walt Disney'

For the past 12 years, the old two-story wood and brick office building on Forest Avenue and 31st Street in Kansas City, Missouri has quietly been coming back to life. Saved from the wrecking ball after years of neglect, its crumbling walls have been shored up with steel framing and its collapsed roof repaired and replaced. For the first time in years, the building is safe from the elements. And this is just the beginning.

One day, the fully-restored structure will house a museum and theater honoring a young entrepreneur who once ran a struggling animation studio inside its walls. This businessman would eventually declare bankruptcy, close up shop and head west to California, seeking his fortune in motion pictures.

The Kansas City studio was called Laugh-O-gram Films. The young entrepreneur, Walt Disney.

The McConahy Building in the 1920s
Walt and his young but eager staff occupied the old McConahy Building for just over a year, from the spring of 1922 until the summer of 1923. It was here Walt produced a handful of silent short cartoons with titles like "Puss 'n Boots" and "Little Red Riding Hood." It was also at Laugh-O-gram where Walt kept a small mouse in his desk drawer as a pet. He named the mouse Mortimer and, as legend has it (Walt himself would perpetuate the story), the furry creature would later be an inspiration for none other than Mickey Mouse. It's this tale that gives Thank You Walt Disney, the non-profit organization behind the McConahy Building restoration, its motto: "Save the house where the mouse was born."

Whether you buy the story or not, there's no denying that Kansas City in general, and the Laugh-O-gram Studio in particular, were the birthplaces not only of Walt Disney's entertainment empire, but, arguably, the entire 20th century animation industry.

Among Walt's colleagues at Laugh-O-gram were Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising, each of whom would one day work for Walt's fledgling studio in California. They would be joined in Hollywood for a time by Friz Freleng, who, like Walt, also worked for a time at Kansas City Film Ad. Add to the mix Carl Stalling, the organist at the Isis Theater across the street from Laugh-O-gram and you have the core of the "Kansas City Gang" that would one day transform 20th century animation.

Freleng eventually had a 30-year career with Warner Bros. as an animator and director of over 250 cartoons starring the likes of Daffy Duck, Sylvester and Tweety, and Yosemite Sam. In the 1960s, Freleng would co-found Depatie-Freleng Enterprises, creator of the animated Pink Panther.

Stalling, likewise, would have a legendary career at Warner Bros., composing and adapting music for countless cartoons. But, it was his early days at Disney where he pioneered sound and music synchronization--he worked on many of the early Mickey Mouse shorts and helped Walt develop the "Silly Symphonies."

Harman and Ising worked on Walt's "Alice Comedies" as well as the Oswald series. They were among the animators who jumped ship from Disney following Walt's contract dispute with his Oswald distributors in 1928. Harman and Ising would go on to form their own partnership and contract with Leon Schlesinger to create "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies" cartoons at Warner Bros. Eventually, they would both land at MGM where they would train two young animators named William Hannah and Joseph Barbera, who would go on themselves to rank among the most prolific cartoon producers of the mid-to-late 20th century.

Ub Iwerks had a flair for innovation and was the most gifted animator of his time. He spent most of his career at Disney and worked extensively on the Oswald and Mickey Mouse cartoon series. His technical prowess would result in the development of the multiplane camera, the "Xerox" process for duplicating animation cels and the invention of the Circarama, or Circle Vision 360, camera.

Not bad coming from a failed little animation studio in Kansas City.

Dan Viets appreciates the importance of Laugh-O-gram. This attorney and lifelong Disney fan partnered with a group of friends to purchase the McConahy Building in 1998 and begin the long, slow process of rebuilding and restoring it. Says Viets, "I think it's fair to say that Walt really set the pattern for his whole career in the work he did there at the Laugh-O-gram building."

The organization that Viets helped form, Thank You Walt Disney, received nearly $500,000 from Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, and the Walt Disney Family Foundation to help with the restoration. "We had the privilege," says Viets, "of showing Diane and (her husband) Ron Miller many of the historic sites in Kansas City, but in particular, the Laugh-O-gram building. And it resonated with her. I can recall as we drove by that building, Diane understood and appreciated how important it was in the story of her father's life."

Thank You Walt Disney has been supported by Kansas City area individuals and corporations, even local construction companies that have donated materials and services towards the restoration. It's also benefited from a series of fund-raising events, most recently a screening of the Disney documentary "Walt & El Grupo" in January at the Screenland Theatre in Kansas City.

The most memorable event by far for the organization occurred last May when Thank You Walt Disney hosted a special evening with Virginia Davis, Walt Disney's first star, who appeared in the "Alice Comedies" beginning in 1923 when she was only four. Her very first film, "Alice's Wonderland," was the only "Alice Comedy" shot at Laugh-O-gram. All her subsequent films would be shot in California, once Walt convinced her and her family to move west.

Dan Viets interviews Virginia Davis in May 2009
As Viets recalls, Davis was a complete delight and, in front of a packed audience, shared many stories about her early days working for Walt. "She was so much fun. I asked her, 'Didn't you do some modeling work for the Disney Studio?--I think it was "Make Mine Music" that had the jitterbug sequence in it.' She says, 'Yeah, you wanna see?' And then she stands up and starts jitterbugging!

"It was a great occasion. We were so happy we brought her out. Her daughter told us how much fun Virginia had."

This would turn out to be Davis's last public appearance. The Disney Legend passed away on August 15th at the age of 90.

This spring, Thank You Walt Disney will once again bring the magic of Disney to its supporters. On May 15th, it will present an evening with newly-inducted Disney Legend Bill Farmer, the long-time voice of Goofy. A Midwesterner himself, Farmer was born in Pratt, Kansas, less than 300 miles west of Kansas City. Proceeds from the event will go towards the ongoing preservation and redevelopment of the Laugh-O-gram building.

"What we feel like we've done," says Viets, "is completed the first phase of the project, which is to keep the walls standing, to save the building from the wrecking ball and to stabilize it. And that's where we are now. We can catch our breath--we don't live under the constant threat of losing the building. We're at the point where we need to find the funding, of course, to complete the interior. It's not as if the outside is finished, either, but at least it's stabilized."

For more information about Thank You Walt Disney, including ways you can support the restoration, visit

Sunday, March 7, 2010

'Alice' vs. 'Alice': A Wonderland Smackdown

I caught the midnight showing of "Alice in Wonderland" Thursday night and, like many Disney fans, immediately started comparing Tim Burton's somewhat dark vision of Lewis Carroll's classic tale with the 1951 animated film. There were some revisionist improvements that Burton hit upon (the coming-of-age, sword and sorcery storyline was not one of them), but mostly it reminded me how great the story and characters were in the Disney original. So here, in a totally arbitrary head-to-head character comparison where I decide what matters and what doesn't, I give you Burton Alice vs. Animated Alice. Let's see who wins.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

Alice - Alice in WonderlandAlice - The Alices in both films are headstrong girls escaping their humdrum everyday lives. Animated Alice deals with the madness of Wonderland with peevish impatience--she just wants to go home and these mad people won't let her. Burton Alice is pursuing her destiny, whether she wants to or not, and ultimately faces her fears while wielding a mean vorpal blade. Animated Alice, on the other hand, wouldn't be caught dead in a suit of armor. Kathryn Beaumont charmingly voiced the more iconic Animated Alice, but Mia Wasikowska creates an Alice that overcomes more adversity, takes down the Red Queen and kicks Wonderland (oops, Underland) ass.
Winner: Burton Alice.

Queen of Hearts - Alice in WonderlandThe Queen of Hearts - Make no mistake, Burton Alice may call her the Red Queen (from "Through the Looking Glass"), but she is unquestionably the Queen of Hearts from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Both the Animated and Burton Queens subscribe to the "off with their heads" school of conflict management, with the Animated Queen coming across as a deliciously psychotic bully. But, Helena Bonham Carter takes the Burton Queen an extra step, turning her into a petulant child who sends a new head into the moat every time she has a tantrum. She even offed the King, crown and all. Let's see the Animated Queen try that one.
Winner: Burton Queen, by a head.

The Mad Hatter - Alice in WonderlandThe Mad Hatter - "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" Neither Mad Hatter knows or tells, and that's where the similarities end in two distinctly different character interpretations. Ed Wynn voiced a broadly comic--and more entertaining--Animated Hatter much in the same manner as he portrayed the majority of his live action characters in radio, movies and TV (see Mary Poppins' Uncle Albert if you have any doubt). Johnny Depp plays an emotionally complex Hatter in Burton's version with mixed results. When he's manic, he absolutely shines. When he becomes thoughtful and fights the good fight, he doesn't ring true. No self-respecting Hatter would ever take sides in a conflict at the expense of an unbirthday present or a good cup of tea.
Winner: Don't let's be silly! Animated Hatter.

The March Hare - Alice in WonderlandThe March Hare - Now here's a character that appreciates a good cup of tea regardless of the movie. Jittery, over the top, and, well, just plain mad, the March Hare is delightfully frenetic in both movie versions. You just have to decide whether you prefer a Scottish brogue (Paul Whitehouse in Burton's version) or a touch of crazy Italian (Jerry Colonna's animated version).
Winner: Call it a draw . . . by a hare.


The Dormouse - Alice in WonderlandThe Dormouse - Lewis Carroll said he was just sleepy. I always thought he was a bit drunk in the animated version. Tim Burton made him a female--and pretty feisty at that. So, which movie Dormouse wins? Well, both can recite "Twinkle, twinkle, little bat" with great aplomb, but the Burton Dormouse gets the nod because of her can-do spirit and her nimble ability with a sewing needle--or was it a hatpin? Either way, OUCH!
Winner: Burton Dormouse, with an eyeball to spare.

The White Rabbit - Alice in WonderlandThe White Rabbit - What could a rabbit possibly be late for? In the animated version, it seems just about everything, but particularly the Queen's croquet match. For Burton, it's Alice who's late and the rabbit is just there to keep her on schedule for her Frabjous Day date with destiny. That's not nearly as interesting as the harried, put-upon, no-time-to-say-hello-goodbye-I'm-late cartoon rabbit (voiced to nervous perfection by Bill Thompson). Bonus points for having your house overrun by Gigantor Alice and nearly burned down. Mary Ann!!!
Winner: Animated Rabbit.

The Caterpillar - Alice in Wonderland The Caterpillar - The Animated Caterpillar stays truer to Carroll's text: An impatient schoolmaster answering questions with questions and demanding absurd recitations. The Burton Caterpillar goes in a different direction and is the best revisionist take on any of the Alice characters. He's a prickly guru, a testy blue Yoda with the gravitas (courtesy of Alan Rickman) to ask, "Who are you?" and have it mean something. His gradual morphing into a butterfly serves as the perfect, albeit obvious, metaphor for Alice's own personal transformation. Still, the Animated Caterpillar does teach Alice how to properly consume a magic mushroom. How's THAT for a metaphor?
Winner: Animated Caterpillar, for every child of the 60s who listened to Jefferson Airplane.

The Cheshire Cat - Alice in WonderlandThe Cheshire Cat - Clever, devious and as cool as the other side of the pillow, the Cheshire Cat is my favorite Alice character. In Burton's hands, he ultimately becomes a hero, helping save the Hatter from the executioner's ax and returning the royal crown of Underland to its rightful owner. I like my grinning kitties more subversive, however, so props to the Animated Cat for always following his own agenda for his own amusement. Watching him mock the Queen and taunt Alice at the same time is an evil guilty pleasure, especially for those of us who aren't all there.
Winner: Animated Cat.


Tweedledum and Tweedledee - Alice in WonderlandTweedledum and Tweedledee - The Tweedles in Burton's Wonderland are not terribly bright, but they are earnest, well-meaning and brave. They're kind of cute and cuddly, too. The Animated Tweedles are also not terribly bright, but they are...well...they're pretty annoying, actually. They do spin a good "Walrus and the Carpenter" tale, however. This time, though, cute and cuddly wins over annoying. That's manners.
Winner: Burton Tweedles.

Talking Flowers - Alice in WonderlandThe Talking Flowers - No contest here. The Animated Flowers talk, sing and banish Alice for being a common weed--and they do it all in a golden afternoon. By comparison, Burton's Flowers are given precious little to do, other than to question whether Alice is the real Alice they're looking for. A terrible waste of floral finery.
Winner: Animated Flowers, petals and stems above the rest.

While they each have their qualities, neither movie is perfect. Animated Alice suffers from trying too hard to be like Carroll's book, a deliberately episodic story that, for all its sublime silliness, has never translated well to film. Alice just wanders from mad character to mad character, waiting to wake up. Disney's original has plenty of inspired scenes, the mad tea party among them, but never a cohesive beginning, middle and end. Tim Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton tried to get around this by introducing an entirely new story, but sadly settled into a routine CG-heavy adventure fantasy right out of Hogwarts and Narnia that misses most of their charms and all of their originality.

Given the choice, I'll take Animated Alice anytime. 'Tis brillig!

Final Score: Animated Alice 5 1/2, Burton Alice 4 1/2.