Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Legacy of 'Tron'

OK, let's be honest here. Tron was never a great movie.

Visually stunning for its time, yes, but not much else. The story had something to do with a video game geek (Jeff Bridges) getting back the game programs that the evil corporate hot shot (David Warner) stole from him.  The game geek hangs out with the computer geek (Bruce Boxleitner) and the lab geek (the hot chick from Caddyshack). Lame dialog, trite storyline. The game geek gets zapped into a computer grid. Complications ensue.

If Disney had made Tron ten years earlier, Kurt Russell would've starred as Kevin Flynn and Cesar Romero would've been Master Control. But, this was 1982 and computer animation was about to change everything you knew about movies. What do you remember about the first time you saw Tron? It sure as heck wasn't the story. It was all about super-cool special effects and light cycle races. Am I right?

But, 28 years later, it's still with you. And come December, if you're of a certain age, you're taking your kids--maybe even your grandkids--to geek out once again on the private lives of computer chips. And the special effects might have improved just a wee bit this time around. I took in the 23-minute preview of Tron: Legacy at Thursday's nationwide "Tron Night" presentation.  As a first impression, it did not disappoint. The movie's darker, even brooding at times, with young Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) pulled into the same computer world where his father Kevin (Bridges) apparently disappeared 20 years ago. When we discover Kevin this time, though, he seems less a prisoner of the game grid and more its sullen Zen master. For now, let's just call him the Dude in the Machine.
To get to his father, Sam must fight his way through a series of games, throwing deadly lighted discs and, oh yes, racing light cycles. He's assisted by the chirpy but mysterious Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a cross between Trinity from The Matrix and Abby from NCIS.
Even in the preview, there are story elements that don't quite make sense--like why was the phone service turned off at Flynn's Arcade 20 years ago, but not the power?--but the purpose of the whole movie is to get you on the grid, and once you're there it looks fantastic. There's a sense of realism in Tron: Legacy that simply wasn't possible in 1982. The grid looks like a real place, not a day-glow computer effect. Credit director Joseph Kosinski for using real light whenever possible, even embedded in the characters' costumes. It's makes the CG enhancements that much more realistic.
Allow me to gripe about 3D again, however. It's superfluous and doesn't improve the look of Tron: Legacy. I'll be catching the final release in 2D, thank you very much.
Tron: Legacy opens December 17. I'll be the one in line with all the rabid fanboys. We've waited 28 years for this. That's an awfully long time to wait for a sequel to a mediocre movie.
But, geez, that light cycle race was cool.

Remembering a Legend: Ollie Johnston

Disney Legend Ollie Johnston was born today in 1912.

A master of personality animation, Johnston grew up in Northern California, studied art at Stanford and later attended the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. In those early days, animation interested him, but he was never truly inspired by its potential until he saw Disney's 1934 Pluto cartoon Playful Pluto.

The flypaper sequence in Playful Pluto is an animation landmark for being the best earliest example of a cartoon character demonstrating a thought process. It was drawn by Norm Ferguson, a gifted Disney artist who went on to be a supervising animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio. He was also an animation director on such films as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Johnston joined Disney in 1935 and had a career at the studio that spanned over 40 years. He was one of Walt's "Nine Old Men," the core group of animators who created virtually all of Disney's animated feature films from the 1930s to the 1970s. Among Johnston's most notable characters were Thumper (Bambi), Alice (Alice in Wonderland), Mr. Smee (Peter Pan), Baloo (The Jungle Book), Prince John (Robin Hood) and Sir Hiss (Robin Hood).
Johnston forged a lifelong friendship with fellow animator Frank Thomas. Together they wrote several books, including what is considered to be the bible of modern animation, The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation.
Johnston passed away on April 14, 2008 at the age of 95. He was Disney's last surviving "Old Man."
Video clips are from the 1995 documentary Frank and Ollie© Disney. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Walt Disney Family Museum: One Year Later

Richard Benefield
Walt Disney famously said, "Disneyland will never be completed as long as there is imagination left in the world." In San Francisco, the Walt Disney Family Museum is taking a similar approach.  It continually tweaks things--adding additional seating here, moving a display there--to improve the appearance and flow of the ten galleries that trace Walt's life from his humble Midwest beginnings to his perch atop an entertainment empire.  "We've done a few very minor changes," says museum executive director Richard Benefield.  And many of those changes have come at the direction of the museum's co-founder, Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller. "She's so much like her father," says Richard. "She knows how things have to be presented really in a high-quality way."

Presentation is everything at the museum, with multimedia screens, listening stations and hands-on activities working side-by-side with the carefully preserved artifacts of Walt's life. I visited earlier this month as the museum was celebrating its first anniversary and had the opportunity to speak with Richard in person and catch up on the developments of the past year.

Business has been brisk, but not overwhelming, with just over 120,000 people visiting in the last 12 months. "It's not as much as we thought it would be," says Richard. Still, the museum has uniquely established itself as a destination museum attracting Disney fans and historians worldwide. "Just a little over fifty percent of the total visitorship comes from the Greater Bay Area," says Richard. The rest come from elsewhere. "There are a lot of people making a pilgrimage here."

Walt Disney's special Oscar for
"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"
The museum benefited in September from a free "Museum Day," a nationwide program put on by the Smithsonian Institution that brought a capacity crowd of 1,402 visitors to the museum in a single day. Movie screenings and educational events have also been driving traffic. Summer camp programs were introduced earlier this year, giving kids and teens the opportunity to try their hands at digital animation, sound design, pencil animation, claymation and stop-motion photography. The museum also stepped up its Internet presence, launching its Storyboard blog over the summer. The blog shares fascinating insight into Disney history and museum activities.

November 18 is Mickey Mouse's official birthday and he'll be in the spotlight throughout the month with museum screenings of his classic cartoons, including Steamboat Willie and The Band Concert. On November 13, Vincent Vedrenne with the Walt Disney Company will give a presentation on the Evolution of Mickey Mouse. Original Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketeers Bobby Burgess, Sharon Baird and Cubby O'Brien will be on hand November 20 to share their memories of working for Walt.

In December, the museum will bring back its popular film Christmas with Walt Disney, a compendium of winter-themed Disney cartoons and rare holiday footage of Walt at the studio and with his family. The film was produced by Don Hahn (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King), who has become a good friend of the museum. Hahn compiled material for this weekend's HallowScreen presentation of spooky Disney cartoons and reportedly has a documentary about legendary Disney artist Mary Blair in development.

Between its special presentations and detailed exhibits, the Walt Disney Family Museum has committed itself to give the most accurate account of Walt that it can. Again, Richard gives much of the credit to Diane. "She wants to get the story so right that she doesn't even trust her own memory on a lot of things. She's always willing to consult with the other experts like J. B. Kaufman and Jeff Kurtti and other people at the company to make sure everything is exactly right."

For ticket information and a full calendar of museum events, visit

Other articles about the Walt Disney Family Museum:
The Walt Disney Family Museum: The Smithsonian of Walt
A Conversation with Richard Benefield with the Walt Disney Family Museum

Sunday, October 24, 2010

New Disney Digicomics Reveal Secrets of 'Epic Mickey' Wasteland

"The fun of adventuring is finding out for yourself."

And so begins Disney's latest Digicomic app for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, which offers some clever insight for gamers chomping at the bit for the new Epic Mickey game for the Wii console coming out on November 30.

The app contains character profiles and digital comic book stories about the Wasteland, the magical world created by Fantasia's sorcerer Yen Sid that contains all the lost and forgotten ideas in Disney history.  Wasteland is an off-kilter Magic Kingdom, presided over by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Disney's first cartoon star.

We discover Wasteland in the time prior to it being decimated by the actions of a certain overly-curious mouse. Here are some of the details, which may or may not factor into the actual game. (spoilers ahead):

  • Oswald is a content resident of Wasteland, but he harbors a deep resentment towards Mickey Mouse, who had the amazing career Oswald believes he was entitled to.
  • Oswald has 420 children, all named Oswald.
  • Oswald's lady love is Ortensia, who looks an awful lot like Dot from Animaniacs.  No word if she's the baby mama of the 420 kids.
  • Oswald's best buddies are Goofy and Donald Duck. Not the original characters, mind you, but Audio-Animatronic copies.
  • Oswald's feet detach from his body and can be rubbed together for luck. His head and hands detach too. Not sure how lucky that is.
  • Horace Horsecollar is a private investigator for the Neighsayer Detective Agency in Wasteland.
  • Clarabelle Cow and the Mad Doctor run the Misadventurers Club, a tribute to Walt Disney World's now defunct Adventurers Club. Kungaloosh!
  • Wasteland's Haunted Mansion equivalent is called Lonesome Manor. It's named for the 1937 Mickey Mouse cartoon Lonesome Ghosts.
  • The It's a Small World clock tower in Wasteland gets annoyed having to play the same music over and over again (just like real life, we suspect).

The Disney Epic Mickey Digicomics app is free and includes one comic book story. Five additional comics can be purchased for $2.99.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Disneyland Piano Man Rod Miller Plays at the Walt Disney Family Museum

Mr. Piano Man, please . . . tickle those ivory keys.

Rod Miller can't read a lick of music. What he learned about playing piano came from mimicking player piano rolls and picking up bits from ragtime masters such as Joe "Fingers" Carr and Jo Ann Castle. For 36 years, though, Rod dazzled guests at Disneyland's Coke Corner with his piano playing prowess.

Rod retired from Disneyland nearly five years ago, but he put in an appearance last weekend at the Walt Disney Family Museum to help them celebrate their one-year anniversary. He told some great old stories about pranks played on guests at the park, and the time Louis Armstrong showed up unannounced with his horn to jam with the Dixieland band in New Orleans Square.

Mostly, Rod played, and all these years later he's still got some mighty fast fingers. Here, he knocks out a couple of tunes and talks about how he got hired at Disneyland in 1969 for an outrageous $10 an hour:

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

55 Years Later . . . Mouseketeers, Roll Call, Count Off Now!









There's really no other point to this article. I just felt like doing it. :-)

Related: The Mouse Castle Lounge 08-03-2014 - Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess

Destination D Rich With Nostalgia, Low On Polish

A packed house at Destination D
Purposefully searching Disneyland for obscure clues during September's Great Disney Scavenger Hunt gives you an appreciation for the minute details that make the Magic Kingdom and all Disney parks special. For all the countless times I've visited, there are always small items like signs, faux bulletin boards, newspapers and window decorations that previously went unnoticed. But, suddenly discover them and it makes me smile. Explore the queues of the Jungle Cruise or the Indiana Jones Adventure, for instance, and you'll find a treasure trove of knick-knacks that lend an authenticity to your experience and allow you to suspend disbelief just a little bit more. It's the minutiae you don't always pick up on, but you would definitely miss if it wasn't there.

Last month's Destination D, for all it's nostalgic pleasure, was missing that extra attention to detail.

D23 Head Steven Clark
It's hard to go wrong when you roll out the likes of Dave Smith, Tony Baxter and the original Mouseketeers to an audience full of Disney fans. Each was received enthusiastically, and rightfully so. They've been the keepers of our childhoods--and adulthoods, for that matter--for decades. But, while most individual presentations at Destination D soared, the in-between times, the continuity, were lacking. I found it odd that the event was meant to celebrate 55 years of Disneyland magic, but that the notable anniversary was barely mentioned during the two days of the conference. In his opening comments, D23 head honcho Steven Clark spent more time talking about fan club membership than explaining exactly why we were there. And, the man perfect to welcome fans to a celebration of Disneyland 55, Disneyland president George Kalogridis, was relegated to an afternoon session on day two of the event. How much more impactful would it have been for George K. and Steven to jointly open the show and properly set the tone for the weekend?

In an event like this, the little things do matter.

Other high and not-so-highlights from Destination D:


The original Mouseketeers with Disney historian Tim O'Day (left)

The original Mickey Mouse Club ran from 1955-1959, a bit before my time to have seen the original episodes, but damned if I didn't get choked up a little singing the "Mickey Mouse Club Alma Mater" along with the original Mouseketeers. Fifty five years after making their television debut and a brief live run at Disneyland, eight of the gang were on stage with Disney PR maven and historian Tim O'Day to talk about old times. Among the stories shared were Doreen Tracey going on her first date with Spin and Marty star Tim Considine; Tommy Cole's fond recollections of Walt Disney ("We were all in awe."); and Bobby Burgess' and Tommy's tales of visiting Australia on a promotional tour (24,000 fans greeted the Mouseketeers at the airport). The most poignant comments were saved for Annette Funicello, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Bobby said, "We were all in love with Annette," and Doreen added, "She's a brave, brave lady." Sharon Baird commented that she was visiting Annette later that weekend. It's fair to say an entire audience sent its love.

Goofy Logistics

Imagine attending a stage presentation and having a front row a video screen. The odd configuration in the Disneyland Hotel ballroom afforded plenty of center seating with unobstructed views of the stage, but for late arrivals, a lot of the seats to the left and right allowed you only to see video screens of the proceedings or an extreme angle view of the stage. And with the left and right sides on permanent risers and the center section in a "pit," it doesn't appear this is a configuration that could be easily changed.

Adventures in Line Waiting

D23's Armchair Archivists (center)
with two trivia contestants
Destination D's open seating policy meant you needed to get to the Disneyland Hotel early to be at or near the front of the line. Or, as I did, you could have someone hold a prime space for you (I have great friends). With doors opening at 8:00 each morning, people were lining up as early as 6:00. The real fun happened during lunch and dinner breaks, though, when D23 cleared the ballroom (a smart idea, actually), requiring those of us who still wanted good seats the next time around to immediately get in line again. You could bitch about this constant waiting process, but the fact is it was kind of fun camping out in front of the hotel, communing with fellow Disney geeks and running for food in shifts.  It did take D23 a day to see the opportunity in this, however. Props to Steve Czarnecki and Josh Turchetta (D23's new Armchair Archivists), and "Voice of Disneyland" Bill Rogers for throwing together an impromptu trivia contest for the waiting crowd during Saturday's lunch break.

Don't Hate Me For This

(l. to r.) Imagineers Dave Durham, Tony Baxter,
Don Iwerks, Alice Davis, Marty Sklar, X Atencio,
Bob Gurr, Kathy Mangum and Kevin Rafferty
Friday's Imagineering panel, moderated by Marty Sklar, was full of great stories from Disney Legends and soon-to-be Legends. It's always a treat to hear Tony Baxter, Bob Gurr, Kevin Rafferty, Don Iwerks and others give all the behind-the-scenes details of our favorite Disney attractions. Their enthusiasm for what's coming up as well as what came before is infectious. Sadly, though, these days it's painful to watch Alice Davis (in her early 80s) and X Atencio (91) lose their concentration and struggle to answer questions. You can say it's great just to see them in person, but it's just as heartbreaking to see them display the ravages of age. It does no service to their legacies and it's painful to watch. They deserve better.

My New, Favorite Imagineer

Imagineer Dave Fisher
Dave Fisher. He was a bundle of enthusiasm and nervous energy during his presentation on Disney Undiscovered. He spotlighted design sketches and concept art for Disneyland attractions that either never made it off the drawing board or morphed into entirely different things.  So, instead of the Big Rock Candy Mountain or a Roman Garden of the Gods, we have Storybook Land. And who knew Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters was inspired by a proposed Black Hole adventure?  Through it all, Fisher was engaging and passionate. I'd look forward to seeing him more at other D23 events.
Hey Kids, Let's Put On a Show
Friday night's tribute to the music of Disneyland was a hit and miss affair. Among the hits:

John Tartaglia and friends
  • The legendary songwriter Richard Sherman. Though never a great singer, he still has more charm in his piano-playing fingers than most people have in their entire bodies. He went through Disneyland standards including Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow and Magic Journeys not as a man performing on stage, but as a congenial party host inviting you to enjoy a few old tunes with him around the piano. The man's a treasure.
  • John Tartaglia (Avenue Q) was ghoulishly funny using "flamboyant" ghost puppets to perform Grim Grinning Ghosts.
  • Michael Urie (Ugly Betty) performed a hysterical audience participation number, bringing three birthday celebrants on stage, only to ignore them as he sang The Unbirthday Song to everyone else. In an odd act of guilt, though, D23 opted to acknowledge the birthday group again at the next morning's opening session and give them a few Disney tchotchkes for their trouble. Seemed like a wasted apology to me.  I'm pretty sure they got the joke and all seemed to enjoy it.
  • Jeffrey Epstein (D23's Disney Geek) and Becky Cline (Walt Disney Archives manager) can really sing. He, in a Whole New World duet with Ana Ortiz. She, as part of the Melo-D 23 chorus. Who knew?
And . . . the misses:
    Ana Ortiz
    • Ana Ortiz (Ugly Betty) had an off night, forgetting lyrics to both A Whole New World and Yo Ho, A Pirates Life for Me. Plus, she hit her share of sour notes on both. When you're outsung by the Disney Geek, you know there's something wrong.
    • Celebrities who try to impress Disney fans by talking about what great Disney fans they are. Dear Entertainers: Unless you have a great story to tell like John Tartaglia did about his love for the Country Bear Jamboree, don't try to be one of us. Almost all of you did Friday night, with mostly awkward results. Tracie Thoms (Rent) loves Disneyland . . . but hasn't been there in 20 years.  Die hard Disney fans can spot poseurs in a heartbeat. We will turn on you.
    Best Running Joke of the Weekend
    Disney historian Paul Anderson and this spear:

    Presidential SummitI had heard good things about Disneyland president George Kalogridis--how he's approachable and has a hands-on management style--but I never had the chance to see it in person. After his Saturday afternoon conversation with L.A. weather guy Garth Kemp, I was sold. Kalogridis is affable, easy-going and clearly has an appreciation for Disney cast members and the demanding fan base. He started humbly with the company as a busboy at Walt Disney World and worked his way up. On the road to Anaheim, he did a stint at Disneyland Paris. He takes credit for introducing pin trading and character breakfasts to the parks, and he doesn't shy away from tough questions like . . . . "What's up with the PeopleMover, anyway?"

    Disneyland president George K.
    George was honest and gave a very reasonable answer about everyone's favorite former Tomorrowland attraction. The biggest issue would be making the ride compliant with state and federal OSHA requirements. Right now, that would mean widening the track and providing exit stairways at regular intervals, two elements that would detract significantly from the PeopleMover's aesthetic appearance. Its future sounded dismal until George chimed in with the quote of the weekend:  "As long as Tony Baxter is thinking, there is hope." Clap your hands if you believe.

    And Finally, From the Sublime . . .

    He talked about the old days of Disneyland and showed a multitude of vintage slides and construction photos. It was gilding the lily. Dave Smith has spent the last 40 years of his life creating and running the Walt Disney Archives. Later this month, he'll hand over the reins to Becky Cline and begin a well-deserved retirement. Just to see him on stage one last time was worth the price of admission. Thanks Dave. You will be missed.

    . . . To the Ridiculous

    Mickey Mouse doing gang signs? Say it isn't so. But, for the energetic new Disney Dance Crew musical show opening later this month, that's exactly what he looks like he's doing. And this is a Mickey with moving eyes and mouth. This shouldn't creep me out more than a Mickey with a fixed facial expression, but it does.

    Destination D will move next spring to Walt Disney World to mark the resort's 40th anniversary. Alternating years, Destination D's big brother, the D23 Expo, will return to the Anaheim Convention Center August 19-21, 2011. In addition to the regular exhibits and stage presentations, the D23 Expo will include the first Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament. You have 11 months to prepare. Get busy. I know I will.

    These D23 events may not be perfect, but I just can't resist them.