Sunday, June 20, 2010

'Toy Story 3' is an Emotional and Visual Treat . . . in 2D

OK, let's get the gripes out of the way.

First, "Toy Story 3" is not as good as "Toy Story" or "Toy Story 2."  But, then again, Michelangelo's David wasn't as good as the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Second, seeing "Toy Story 3" in 3D is totally unnecessary.  The effect is subtle and adds absolutely nothing to the viewing experience.  I grow less and less a fan of 3D with each new movie that uses it.  The last 3D film I saw that was meaningful was "It's Tough to be a Bug" at Disney's California Adventure.  Its silly, in-your-face insect gags are what 3D was meant for--and rightfully housed within an amusement park.

3D is a gimmick, not a medium unto itself.  You don't need forced visual depth to appreciate the joy, warmth and emotion of "Toy Story 3," this rare sequel to a sequel that holds its own against its predecessors and brings a satisfying conclusion to the secret lives of toys.

"Toy Story 3" begins as Andy, the long-time owner of Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and their fellow toys, has grown up and is heading off to college.  Still residing in Andy's old toy box, the gang anxiously awaits their fate.  Will Andy take them to college with him? Are they destined to be boxed up in the attic or tossed to the trash heap on the curb?  These are serious existential questions for toys.  And while most of the toys resign themselves to a dismal future, Woody steadfastly believes that Andy will always take care of them.

Through a series of mishaps, the toys get carted off to Sunnyside, a daycare center that offers them a toy's dream:  the opportunity to be played with always and forever.  Sunnyside's toy world is overseen by Lotso (voiced with oily homespun charm by Ned Beatty), a seemingly kind and benevolent plush bear that harbors a dark secret.  Among his top assistants is Ken (pitch-perfect Michael Keaton), a vain, shallow clotheshorse of a doll who can't come to grips with the fact that he's just a fashion accessory for Barbie.  When this deceptively idyllic existence turns horribly wrong, it's up to Andy's toys to engineer an escape from daycare hell and find their way back to the only real home they've ever known, regardless of what might await them there.

As with the best Pixar films (just about all of them, when you come to think of it), story is king, and story guys John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich (who also directed) have crafted a tale that builds logically on the previous two movies rather than rehashes the old material (see: the "Shrek" sequels).  The story inspires a screenplay by Michael Arndt that moves along at a brisk pace from fun to danger to sadness to satisfaction.  If there's any criticism, it's that these characters have become too familiar, so there are no real surprises anymore, no joy of discovery that came when Woody and Buzz were fresh out of the box.  They behave exactly like we expect them to, but we enjoy their company so much that we don't really mind.

The themes of abandonment and moving on with your life are prevalent to "Toy Story 3," so it's a much darker and sadder experience than the earlier films.  The emotion is never belabored, though, and the movie keeps plenty of funny and light moments peppered throughout (Buzz's involuntary turn as a swashbuckling Spanish Lothario is a gem).  But, keep the Kleenex handy.  As decisions are made and goodbyes are said, the last half-hour will get to you.

With "Toy Story 3," Pixar does it again.  Do these guys even know how to make a bad movie?

Just save your money and see it in 2D, ok?

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Friday, June 18, 2010

What Makes the 'Toy Story' Movies So Good?

Here are a few hints:

"The focus was to get great characters and a great story--that was the first and foremost thing.  And we wanted really strong acting."  John Lasseter, director, "Toy Story" 

"This film is driven by characters and story first.  And even though it is the first ever computer-animated film, the technique we're using is secondary to the story that we want to tell."  Ralph Guggenheim, producer, "Toy Story" 

"(After 'Toy Story') there was talk of a sequel almost immediately.  The characters were so strong and well developed, we thought of them more like friends or family or fellow employees than we did creations."  John Lasseter, director, "Toy Story 2" 

"We're audience members first and film makers second."  Andrew Stanton, co-writer, "Toy Story 2" 

"At Pixar, we always felt that the only reason to do a sequel to "Toy Story" is if we could come up with the story that was as good as the first, but was different.  And we really worked hard in the emotional side of the story because, you know, the humor and the staging and the action and the great visuals we knew would come.  But, it's that emotion that was so important to us because what we value is a story in which characters change, characters grow."  Lasseter, "Toy Story 2"

"It was, of course, our goal to make a movie worthy of the first two 'Toy Story' films.  In the history of cinema, there are only a few sequels that are as good as the first, and we really couldn't think of any excellent third movies.  The only one that came to mind was 'The Return of the King,' but that was really more like the third part of one giant story.  That's when I had an epiphany.  We needed the three 'Toy Story' movies to feel like part of one grand story.  That notion became the driving force for us in creating 'Toy Story 3.'"  Lee Unkrich, director, "Toy Story 3" 

"It is our intention to make classic films that will last through the ages."  Darla Anderson, producer, "Toy Story 3"

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Getting My Game On: World of Cars, Split/Second, Epic Mickey and More

FULL DISCLOSURE:  A few weeks ago, I attended a "Bloggers' Night" reception in Hollywood hosted by the good people at the Disney Interactive Media Group.  They plied my friends and I with free food and beverages and allowed us to play some of their new and upcoming video game releases.  This article has in no way been influenced by the extraordinary hospitality and generous gifts we received that night.  So far as you know.

I'll be the first to admit my video game playing experience is somewhat limited, so when you get invited to a video game event, it's always good to bring an 11-year old with you.  My friend's son Shawn knows his stuff.  He speaks fluent Xbox, PS3 and Wii and recently had a Nintendo DS surgically attached to his hands.  Not that I was able to consult with Shawn at the party.  Once he hit the games, we pretty much lost him for the night.  How far he got sucked down the rabbit hole, though, was helpful in assessing some of the games.  So thanks, Shawn, for being my unwitting accomplice.

Here's some of what we got our hands on:

Club Penguin

"Club Penguin" was started by a Canadian company in 2005 as an online community where kids could play and interact in a safe, moderated, ad-free environment.  Disney acquired it in 2007 and the site has continued to grow since.  Players take on penguin personae in a perpetual winter wonderland full of games and activities.  You can join snowball fights and ice hockey games, act in penguin plays, make pizzas and even decorate your own custom igloo.

The official Disney PR plays up how "Club Penguin" encourages kids to use their imagination and improve their reading and math skills.  Blah blah blah.  I just think the game's friggin' cute.  I want an igloo . . . and a puffle . . . and coins, lots of coins.

Apparently Shawn's kinda familiar with "Club Penguin."  He spent the first half hour of the evening on it, showing the game host how to play.  Don't think for a moment she was showing him anything.

Basic "Club Penguin" game play is free at  Full membership, with access to more games, activities and stuff, costs $5.95/month.

Disney Sing It: Family Hits

After making a splash with the "Hannah Montana"/"High School Musical" crowd, Disney is finally releasing a version of their popular karaoke game "Sing It" for the rest of us.  "Sing It: Family Hits" features 30 songs from Disney's vast motion picture music library for the Wii and PS3.  It'll be available in early August.

I have one belief when it comes to karaoke.  If you can't sing well, sing loud.  I sing loud.  Especially on a night like this when I'm fighting a cold and my voice sounds something like Bea Arthur's.  It didn't make me shy away from the mike, though.  I took on "Cruella De Vil" (if my singing doesn't scare you, no evil thing will) and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" (I was confident enough in my Disney geekery to sing Mary Poppins' part).  For my finale, I absolutely tore up "Under the Sea."  That's how I roll.

The game scores you higher for timing the lyrics right and being on key.  Anika Noni Rose ("The Princess and the Frog") is even there in-game to give you singing tips.  This all seemed pretty irrelevant to me.  If I could sing well, I'd be on "American Idol."  At home or at a party with my fellow Disney friends, I just want to belt out songs and have fun.  It won't score me any extra points, but, hey, you can't put a value on style.

Guilty Party

We lost Shawn on this one for a lonnnnggg time, so, for that alone I'm giving it a thumbs-up.  "Guilty Party" is a family-friendly whodunnit game that looks and feels a lot like a video version of "Clue."  Players are enlisted as detectives for the Dickens Detective Agency to track down the elusive criminal mastermind Mr. Valentine.  Working together, you search crime scenes, interrogate suspects and unlock clues to solve the mystery.  To help you, your game controller can be used as a magnifying glass, a flashlight, a lock pick and other tools of the trade.  And once the mystery is solved, you can start over again, because the game never plays the same way twice.

"Guilty Party" will be available for the Wii at the end of August.


I'll get to the point.  In "Split/Second," you drive ultra-cool cars really fast and blow stuff up.  The first time I played it, I mercilessly beat a nine-year old into oblivion.  Yeah, I like this game.

"Split/Second" is available now for the Xbox, PS3 and PC.  It features impressive graphics, fast driving action and lots of explosions as you race through a "made-for-TV city built for destruction" (the back story, apparently, is that you're part of a reality show).  As good as the console versions are, though, it doesn't work as well as a mobile app.  I've been playing it on my iPhone the last few days, and despite looking great with decent game play, it lags terribly at times and crashes for no reason.  The game has potential, but Disney needs to work the bugs out before it's a top-notch iPhone app.

World of Cars Online

The cutest little town in Carburetor County comes alive in Disney's newest virtual community, the "World of Cars Online."  In open beta testing right now (which means it's not quite finished, but you can kinda-sorta play it), the game lets you create your own car-toon character and navigate the streets of Radiator Springs made famous in Pixar's "Cars."  You can race and chat with other players, build and customize your own personal garage home, play games, and go on adventures with resident characters like Lightning McQueen, Mater, Fillmore and Sarge.

Navigating your car on and off road takes some getting used to, as I struggled to using both a computer mouse and arrow keys to steer.  I actually found it easier to use the touch pad on my laptop--I've even won a few races that way.

The side games are fun.  My favorite is "Lightning Storm," an old-school shooter that feels like "Galaga Meets Defender Meets Mr. Goodwrench."  It's also a hoot (well, a honk, actually) to head out to Fillmore's Fields for some playful tractor tipping.  Moooooo!

During beta testing, the "World of Cars Online" is free to play at  When it's ready to officially launch later this year, you can continue to play a scaled down version of the game for free, or purchase a "sponsorship" for $5.95/month and get full access to all the bells and whistles including exclusive customizations for your vehicle and the opportunity to race online in the Piston Cup Series.

Epic News

At Bloggers' Night, Disney didn't have a word to say about the hugely-anticipated "Epic Mickey" coming out at the end of the year for the Wii. It seems they were saving the news for this week's E3 Expo in Los Angeles:

"Epic Mickey" looks like the coolest thing Mickey Mouse has done in decades.  It's already on my Christmas list.

That's about it for now.  Am I forgetting anything?

Oh yeah, has anyone seen Shawn?

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Disneyland Hotel Getting a Nostalgic New Look

I'll admit it.  I've never really gotten over so much of the original Disneyland Hotel being torn out and replaced by Downtown Disney.  Nostalgic memories of youth can be cruel that way.  I miss the Olympic pool, the coffee shop, the garden rooms, the Monorail Bar--heck, I miss a Monorail station that was actually attached to the hotel.  I even miss the ugly freight elevator in the breezeway that connected the front parking lot to the hotel grounds.

The Disneyland Hotel Monorail Station, 1963.  Photo courtesy Robert J. Boser. 

As new renovations have been going on at the hotel the last year or so, I'm missing the original marquee sign at the top of the Sierra (never the Dreams) Tower--not to mention the balconies, the glass elevator and the Top of the Park.  I don't think I like the blue windows that make up the hotel's new facade.  The jury's still out on that.

The Sierra Tower, 1990

Yes, I know it's important for the aging DLH to stay up to date, and that the rooms themselves need some serious makeovers, but it's long sinced stopped being the DLH of my youth, one that I meticulously explored from the Travelport to the marina (who remembers the pedal boats?) to the Dancing Waters stage.

Pedal boats on the Disneyland Hotel marina, 1990.

Still, the sentimentalist in me was encouraged by Disney's announcement of even more enhancements to the hotel.  Check out the new pool area set to open in 2011:

Yes, those are two scale replicas of the Mark I Monorail that stand at the head of two giant water slides.  Atop the structure will be a sign reminiscent of the original Disneyland sign on Harbor Boulevard.  The pool will be built adjacent to Hook's Pointe restaurant (adios shops and Lost Bar) and the Hook's building will be renovated in a Tahitian Terrace dining theme.  There will also be an adventurous Jungle Cruise-type bar.  

The existing Never Land Pool area will be spruced up and remodeled in time for a summer 2012 reopening.

The Sierra/Dreams hotel tower near the new dining area will be renamed the Adventure Tower and will be completed before the end of the year.  The Wonder/Bonita Tower will be the next one redone when it becomes the Frontier Tower in 2011.  Finally, the Marina/Magic Tower, which  houses the registration lobby, will get its makeover and turn into the Fantasy Tower in 2012.  Are you noticing a trend here?  

These are changes the kid in me approves of.  I can't complain one bit about the DLH looking to the future by giving a nod to its (and my) past.

Now, if they could just install an ugly freight elevator.

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