Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Motion Picture Academy Releases New Oscar Poster

It's an encouraging sign that Oscar is getting back to its roots. First, Billy Crystal will return as host of the Oscars for the ninth time next year, replacing Eddie Murphy, who departed in the wake of the Brett Ratner debacle. Second, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is paying tribute to its past with the release of the official poster for the 84th Academy Awards.

The poster shows a large Oscar statuette next to images from Oscar-winning films Forrest Gump, The Godfather, The Sound of Music, Gone With the Wind, Driving Miss Daisy, Giant, The Gladiator and Casablanca.

The most recent film of the bunch (Gladiator) is 11 years old. This pleases me. I like the Academy Awards steeped in history. In recent years, the show has tried to be hip and modern to attract a younger audience. That approach never works. Hip and modern results in painfully awkward hosts like James Franco and Anne Hathaway. Give me traditional, thank you very much. Billy Crystal is a funny and entertaining pro and he's been sorely missed. Recall he got the biggest round of applause as a presenter during last year's Oscar show.

Now, if the Academy would just make the presentation of the Thalberg Award and other honorary Oscars part of the telecast again, I'd be a happy movie fan.

It's great to celebrate the best films of the past year, but it means nothing without honoring the history too.

The 84th Academy Awards will be televised on ABC from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on February 26. Nomination ballots were mailed to the 5,783 voting members of the Academy this week.

You can download the new Oscar poster at

Monday, December 26, 2011

Catching Up with 'The Rocketeer'

With the hectic holidays (almost) behind us, I finally checked out Disney's newly-released 20th anniversary edition of The Rocketeer on Blu-ray.

What a letdown.

No, not the movie. The movie's fun. It's a sincere piece of action hero hokum, with straight arrow aviator Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) coming into possession of a top secret rocket pack that both the good guys and the bad guys are after. Set in the 1940s, the movie pays tribute to the delightfully absurd serials of that era, pitting good against mustache-twirling evil. There's a beautiful, spunky girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly), a plucky sidekick who's handy with tools (Alan Arkin) and a charmingly slimy villain (perfectly cast Timothy Dalton--if Errol Flynn had been a Nazi, this would've been him). The film has a striking Art Deco design--our hero's crash helmet looks like it was torn right off the Chrysler Building--and director Joe Johnston keeps the action moving forward nicely, climaxing with a nifty chase aboard a very flammable zeppelin.

The problem with The Rocketeer is the Blu-ray disc itself. You'd think commemorating the movie's release 20 years ago would be worth some tribute, right? Maybe a "making of" documentary or a commentary by Johnston (who added to his action hero cred this year with the whiz-bang Captain America: The First Avenger). Nope, nada. With the exception of a paltry 1991 movie trailer, The Rocketeer has absolutely no bonus features, and that's a shame. It may not be Disney's most acclaimed film, but it's well crafted and does have a loyal following--filmmaker Kevin Smith admits to being a huge fan. This year, Smith moderated a Q&A with some of The Rocketeer's cast and crew at a 20th anniversary screening at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. Some of that footage would've been a nice addition to the Blu-ray package. A commentary by Smith would've even been better.

That Disney pluses direct-to-video piffle like the Buddies franchise (see: Spooky Buddies or the upcoming Treasure Buddies) more than The Rocketeer is a disservice to one of its more under-appreciated films. I can recommend the film as the diverting action adventure it is, but its Blu-ray release deserved better.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My 1967 Disneyland Nostalgia Trip

1967 Disneyland Hotel logo

Rummaging through some old Disneyland memorabilia, I came across this July/August 1967 issue of Disneyland Hotel Check-In. Needless to say, it conjured up all sorts of memories of summer vacations spent with my family at Disneyland.

Check-In was a free magazine given to hotel guests that spotlighted events and attractions in the Anaheim area.

This particular issue celebrated the grand opening of the Anaheim Convention Center. On the cover were Goofy, Mickey, Pluto and "Miss Disneyland" Marcia Miner, Disneyland's 1967 ambassador.

The Anaheim Convention Center opened on July 12 with a gala performance by the Orange County Symphony Orchestra under the direction of special guest conductor Arthur Fiedler. Three days later, '60s rock icon Jefferson Airplane shared the stage with Jim Morrison and The Doors. The inaugural meeting event at the Convention Center was the Home and Decorators Show.

In this aerial photo from the magazine, you can see the nearly completed Convention Center (bottom left) with its 9,100 seat dome-shaped arena. Top left is the Disneyland Hotel with its single Tower Building. Look carefully behind the tower and you can see the 9-hole executive golf course (sized down from 18 holes) that was once part of the resort. On the right is Disneyland and its massive parking lot.

Compare the photo to this modern day shot from Google Earth. The area's filled in a bit over the last 44 years, and not just with Disney California Adventure.

When the Anaheim Convention Center opened, it had 375,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space. After three major renovations, today the exhibit hall space alone exceeds 800,000 square feet. 

Since 1967, the Disneyland Hotel has added two more towers, which have recently undergone major remodels themed to Adventureland, Frontierland and Fantasyland (the Fantasy Tower will be completed in 2012). 

The original front of the Disneyland Hotel was torn out in the late 1990s to make way for Downtown Disney. Here's a question for Disneyland Hotel veterans: Remember when you always took the Monorail or the tram to get from the hotel to Disneyland because walking was just way too far? Now it seems like nothing to stroll the length of Downtown Disney. I guess that's what happens when you have something other than pavement to look at. Of course, the absence of a hotel tram kind of limits your options.

The Future Isn't What it Used to Be

Disneyland Hotel Check-In also featured an article on the new Tomorrowland, the $23 million makeover of the land of the future that introduced the classic PeopleMover, Carousel of Progress and Adventure Thru Inner Space attractions.

Pluto hitches a ride on the PeopleMover
while the Rocket Jets soar overhead.
Check-In called Tomorrowland "a world on the move--entertaining space-age exploration and scientific adventures aboard a whole network of totally new transportation systems."

Disneyland's Carousel of Progress, transplanted from
the 1964 New York World's Fair.
This Tomorrowland of my childhood was bright, wondrous and constantly on the move. Today's Tomorrowland of Space Mountain, Star Tours and Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters, though entertaining, just doesn't have the same energetic feel. Maybe it's just childhood bias. As we get older, the good times of our youth always seem that much better.

Tomorrowland Today
Or maybe Tomorrowland 1967 really was better. My dad shot this 8mm home movie of Disneyland that year. The Tomorrowland footage, complete with the Skyway, PeopleMover, Submarine Lagoon and Autopia, starts at 4:03.

Yep, 1967 was a very good year.

As I dig through this old box of childhood memories, I've got a lot more Disneyland items to share--and some Walt Disney World stuff as well. Stay tuned...

Friday, December 9, 2011

Stan Lee Stars in New Spider-Man Storybook App

Your kids may not appreciate it, but you will.

Stan Lee narrates the new Disney/Marvel Spider-Man storybook app.

Seriously, that's like Walt Disney reading Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to you.

The app, available now for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, is based on The Amazing Spider-Man: An Origin Story, a children's book written by Rich Thomas and taken from the original comic book tale created by Lee and Steve Ditko.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Walt Disney's Possible Impossible

Walt Disney
"Well, it's kind of fun to do the impossible."

It's one of Walt Disney's most well-known quotes (and my personal favorite), but do you know where the quote came from?

In the Winter 1967-68 issue of Disney News, the article "Nature's Wonderland: The Early Western Wilderness Reborn" reveals the origin of the quote. The article talks about the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland, Disneyland's journey into the natural splendor of the True-Life Adventures. Passengers boarded open-air mine cars that chugged through mysterious tunnels and under spectacular waterfalls into the western wilderness of Beaver Valley, Bear Country and the Living Desert. There were scores of animatronic critters to see on your travels and one predictably unpredictable geyser, Old Unfaithful.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

'Prep & Landing' Available on DVD

In December 2009, ABC debuted its first TV special produced by the Walt Disney Animation Studios. Prep & Landing quickly became a modern holiday classic, winning both an Emmy and an Annie for its clever tale about Santa's advance team of elves. Comedian Dave Foley voices Wayne, a veteran elf whose been getting "nice" houses ready for Santa on Christmas Eve for 227 years. Passed over for a promotion and burning out on the same-old-same-old, Wayne slacks off one Christmas while breaking in a new guy, Lanny (Derek Richardson), with potentially disastrous results. With the holiday on the line, it's up to the duo to make things right and save Christmas.

Monday, November 21, 2011

'The Muppets': Most Sensational, Celebrational

Jason Segel knew expectations would be high. He acknowledged the pressures placed on him by his friends, colleagues and legions of Muppet fans. They told him, more than anything, "Don't mess it up."

He didn't.

He played the music. He lit the lights.

Congratulations Jason. The Muppets is a delight.

It's been 12 years since a Muppet movie has been seen in theaters (1999's mediocre Muppets From Space). Segel (How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) took on the responsibilities of writer (with Nicholas Stoller), executive producer and star to resurrect the neglected franchise, make it relevant to a new generation of moviegoers and stay true to the faithful who grew up with Jim Henson's sublime Muppet Show of the 1970s and 80s. With director and fellow Muppet fan James Bobin (The Flight of the Conchords), he's managed to pull it off with an energetic balance of silliness and sentiment coupled with a daffy "let's put on a show" earnestness.

Segel plays Gary, a happy-go-lucky Midwestern lug in love with Mary (oh-so-perky Amy Adams), a local schoolteacher who teaches auto shop dressed in flowered pastels. Gary's devoted brother Walter is a puppet (don't ask, it works) who's idolized Kermit the Frog since childhood. When Gary takes Mary on a trip to Hollywood, Walter tags along to fulfill his lifelong dream of meeting the Muppets. Mary is a bit chagrined by Walter's presence, expecting a more romantic getaway with Gary, one during which she hopes he'll propose to her.

Walter, Mary (Amy Adams) and Gary (Jason Segel)
take on Hollywood in The Muppets.
Upon arriving in Hollywood, Gary, Mary and Walter visit the now dilapidated Muppet Studios, long since abandoned by the Muppets, who have split up and gone their separate ways. All that remains of the once great studio are a collection of run down buildings and a jaded tour guide (Alan Arkin). Wandering off on his own, Walter overhears the details of an evil plot devised by oil baron Tex Richman (stone-cold Chris Cooper) to take over the studio, tear it down and start drilling for oil. Horrified at the prospect, Walter sets out with his friends to reunite the Muppets and raise the $10 million needed to rescue the studio from certain destruction.

Our trio first enlists the help of Kermit the Frog to round up his far-flung former friends. The years have not been especially kind to Kermit, who now lives an isolated existence in a dark, depressing mansion. Elsewhere, wisecracking Fozzie Bear has moved to Reno to become the front man for an angry Muppet tribute act. Beak-nosed Gonzo has fared much better, becoming a highly successful plumbing tycoon (go figure). And in France, Kermit's past porcine paramour, Miss Piggy, is making a name for herself as a fashion editor for Paris Vogue. It's going to take a lot of work to get the old gang back together.

But, as Mary notes, if they fail, it's going to be a really short movie.

So, what do you think's going to happen?

Making a connection (l. to r.): Scooter, The Swedish Chef,
Fozzie Bear, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Sam Eagle
and Beauregard.
The Muppets succeeds because it remembers exactly what made the Muppets a big deal to begin with. To be sure, there's plenty of music, awful puns (good God, we missed you Fozzie) and backstage insanity as the Muppets frantically scramble to clean up their old theater and get the show going. But, there's also that sly self-awareness the best Muppet Show episodes always had. Just when you think the movie's going to bog down in some overwrought, sappy sentiment, Rowlf or Floyd or Gary or whomever will chime in with a snappy comeback to remind you that this is all really silly and you shouldn't be taking it so seriously.

Like the human guest stars of three decades ago, the cameo appearances in The Muppets are first rate. Surprise appearances by the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez and Mickey Rooney (looking a bit like a Muppet himself) are great fun. And, for reasons I can't completely explain, there's just something inherently funny about seeing political pundit James Carville share the screen with Neil Patrick Harris. The best cameo, however, belongs to The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons, who incongruously shows up in the middle of The Muppets finest--and funniest--musical number.

The film is loaded with sincerity and heart, but it's those odd juxtapositions and off-kilter moments that really get things started on this most sensational Muppets movie.

Related Story:
Jason Segel, Muppet Freak

Sunday, November 20, 2011

When Mickey Mouse Was Middle Aged

Last Friday, Mickey Mouse officially celebrated his 83rd birthday (Happy Birthday, big guy!). To mark the event, Storyboad, the Walt Disney Family Museum's blog, posted a terrific story about the evolution of Mickey's birthday through the years--it wasn't always celebrated on November 18. The article was written by historian Jim Korkis, who's excellent book The Vault of Walt is a must-read for any Disney enthusiast.

The article inspired me to rummage through my own Walt Vault (not as extensive as most, but I have a few odds and ends) and pull out memorabilia from Mickey's 40th, 50th and 60th birthdays. I was pleased to discover that an article I have about Mickey's 40th from the Summer 1968 issue of Disney News actually disagrees with Mr. Korkis's story. He indicates that Mickey's 40th birthday was observed on October 28, 1968. According to Disney News, it was celebrated on September 27.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Jason Segel, Muppet Freak

Jason Segel and a few of his friends.
It's appropriate that actor-screenwriter Jason Segel and director James Bobin would make The Muppets together.

Just ask Amy Adams.

"Jason is a Muppet freak," she says. "He knows more about the Muppets than anyone, well, except maybe James Bobin."

Bobin often watched The Muppet Show when he was writing his quirky HBO musical comedy series The Flight of the Conchords. There's even a Muppets tribute in one of the Conchords episodes. Bobin says, "I watched the Muppets at a very early age in England, and they have significantly influenced my sense of humor and what I find funny."

Segel worked in a puppet musical (based on Dracula, no less) at the end of Forgetting Sarah Marshall with puppets designed by the Jim Henson Company. That experience inspired Segel to approach Disney with the idea of making a new Muppet film, which he would co-write with his good friend Nicholas Stoller. Disney liked the idea and Segel and Stoller would become executive producers of the film as well.

Thus went the odyssey to bring the Muppets back to the big screen for the first time in 12 years.

Rumors of a new Muppet film had persisted since Disney acquired the characters from The Jim Henson Company in 2004. It wasn't until Segel came on board in 2008 that the project moved forward.

When it came time to cast Adams in the new film, Segel asked her via a video starring Kermit the Frog and him. Adams says, "They asked if I'd read the script and consider the role of Mary. Kermit was a big part of my decision. I don't like to tell Jason that 'cause he's a little sensitive that I might be partial to Kermit, but I am."

Here, the Muppets, as only they can, explain the plot of the film and what it's like to work with Jason Segel:

True to its roots, The Muppets will have plenty of singing and dancing, including a huge musical number filmed on Hollywood Boulevard in front of the El Capitan Theatre. "In the finale of the movie, "says Segel, "there are 200 extras, 100 dancers and 50 Muppets. It was very surreal and it happened to take place on my birthday. I walked out from my trailer thinking I was coming to film, and everyone sang 'Happy Birthday,' including the Muppets. I kept thinking, 'I've tricked everyone. Somehow I've made this weird childhood dream come true.' It was the craziest thing ever."

The challenge of bringing back such iconic characters as Kermit and Miss Piggy comes with high expectations, a notion not lost on Segel. "Our whole goal was to make sure that, if we were going to do a new Muppet movie, that it live up to the expectations of what everyone feels about doing a Muppet movie. Whenever I tell my friends--anyone--it's always twofold and it's the same thing. The first is, 'Oh my God, that's awesome!' And the second is, 'You better not mess it up.'

The Muppets opens in theaters on November 23.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Cars 2's British Intelligence

An Oscar-winning movie legend, an accomplished actress of stage and screen and a cross-dressing stand-up comedian. Quite a diverse trio makes up the British voice cast of Cars 2, Pixar's hit summer release now available on Blu-ray, DVD and movie download. Even with their varying backgrounds, though, the Brits easily found a common ground in their admiration for Pixar and director John Lasseter, despite never getting to see each other during production.

Comedian Eddie Izzard voices Sir Miles Axlerod in Cars 2.
"I love doing animation," says Eddie Izzard, the voice of Cars 2's Richard Branson-esque tycoon and adventurer Sir Miles Axlerod. "But, I get upset that I never get the chance to meet the other actors in the movie. It never happens. We always record our dialogue alone in a sound booth. We don't meet each other until the promotional stage. It always feels a little strange to meet someone for the first time, even though you've been working on the same project for a couple of years."

Izzard is no stranger to animation, having voiced characters in several other films, most notably the caustic koala bear Nigel in The Wild. Sir Miles, the racing promoter who brings Lightning McQueen and a host of international race cars together to compete in the World Grand Prix, was somewhat of a departure for the comedian, who's more prone to waxing funny on topics ranging from religion to Stonehenge to evil giraffes, oftentimes doing so in full drag. "When it comes to Sir Miles Axlerod," he says, "I just had to be as real as I possibly could, but not use any of my comedy skills. I had to play Miles as a very straight-laced character, so I was very jealous of other actors like Larry the Cable Guy (Mater) who got to use their comedy chops in the recording booth."

Also playing it fairly straight (as straight as you can in a world of talking cars) was Emily Mortimer, daughter of the late author and screenwriter John Mortimer (Rumpole of the Bailey). Emily took a direct approach to her character, the earnest and competent spy car Holly Shiftwell. Says she, "They just wanted me to play the character from my own personal point of view. Obviously, she's a spy car and there are lots of technical words to get my mouth around, but I just put myself in her situation. I imagined that I was going through whatever she goes through in the story."

Emily Mortimer (l.) with Cars 2 director John Lasseter.
Emily put a lot of faith in director John Lasseter to help her find the heart of her character, a challenging feat when you're grinding away alone inside a recording studio. "Everything is very slow and gradual on an animated film," says Emily. "It's not like on a regular movie where you're given a shooting script and you know everything that's going to happen. You're completely reliant on the director to paint a picture and give you a feeling of what's going on. It's a very organic process.

"I found myself completely relying on (John Lasseter). He would guide me through the story and you know you're in safe hands with him. I would have freaked out if it had been anyone else, but John was amazing."

More comfortable in the recording studio was Academy Award-winner Michael Caine, a veteran of radio, movies and television for over 50 years. "I've done a lot of radio in my life," he says. "I did a number of radio plays for the BBC when I was young, so I'm used to the style of work where you just use your voice. Projects like this are always great for me because I have a very distinctive voice. I open my mouth and everybody knows it's me."

That recognizable voice solidly lent itself to Caine's character Finn McMissile, a super spy that mentors the young Holly Shiftwell and convinces himself that the dimwitted tow truck Mater is somehow an American master spy. Spies come easy to Caine, who played counter-espionage agent Harry Palmer in a number of films, most notably 1965's The Ipcress File. Palmer is a complete 180 from the flashy Finn, however, who has more in common with Palmer's more suave movie contemporary, James Bond. "Harry Palmer was an ordinary guy," says Caine. "He did his own shopping in the supermarket so there was a reality to it. That's exactly what some spies did back then. They pretended to be ordinary people. A friend of mine met (former Russion President) Vladimir Putin once. Putin was in the KGB, but he said to my friend, 'Tell Mr. Caine we used to watch all his movies and laugh because he was such a clever spy. We were never that clever!'

London concept art with "Big Bentley" in the background.
For Cars 2 to take its main characters on a trip around the world beyond the safe confines of Radiator Springs, authenticity was key. Destinations such as Tokyo, Paris and the fictional Porto Corsa (a cross between Portofino, Italy and Monaco) were designed by the filmmakers to look as real as possible, even in a world populated by cars. To create London, the Pixar artists designed close to 20 miles of environment and landscape, an effort not lost on the British cast. "The attention to detail is outstanding," says Izzard, "especially when it comes to the London scenes in the film. I've run the London Marathon, so I know certain areas of the city intimately. When the film pans along The Mall towards Buckingham Palace, I've run there and that is definitely the London that I know. They've done a fantastic job in recreating it in a Cars style."

Adds Caine, "I think it requires a great deal of patience to create an animated film and I have very little patience. John Lasseter is a fabulous director and he must have tons of patience. He's very good with actors. The actors' relationship with the director when you do these sorts of movies is far more intimate than it is with a director on other movies. He's the best."

Related Stories:
'Cars 2' Rules the Road
A 'Cars 2' Toy Story

Friday, November 4, 2011

Catching Up With 'Winnie the Pooh'

Winnie the Pooh just can't catch a break.

Released to theaters in July, the same weekend as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, it was summarily crushed at the box office and never recovered, barely making back its $30 million production cost. Granted, Pooh didn't exactly scream summer blockbuster, but up against the overwhelming forces of Hogwarts, it could never gain any traction.

So, when the time came for Winnie the Pooh's home video release, what did Disney do? Sandwich it between the releases of the box office hits Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Cars 2.

If Christopher Robin falls down in the Hundred Acre Wood, does he make a sound?

Pooh has been available online and in stores for over a week now. Hopefully, you noticed.  Just in case you didn't, though, do yourself a favor and buy it, rent it, stream it--most importantly, just find it--and enjoy. It's a charming return to the gentle characters first introduced by A.A. Milne and brought to life by Disney over forty years ago. The silly old bear searches for honey, gloomy Eeyore loses his tail and Christopher Robin is captured by a monstrous imaginary creature (or not). That's pretty much all that happens and it couldn't be more delightful, particularly set against those lovely, hand-drawn, 2D watercolor backgrounds.

Bonus features on the DVD and movie download versions include deleted scenes and "The Mini Adventures of Winnie the Pooh," which consists of the "Little Black Rain Cloud" segment from the first Pooh short, 1966's Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. The Blu-ray version also includes a behind-the-scenes short, "Winnie the Pooh and His Story Too" and a sing-along feature that puts the film's song lyrics on screen. Sadly missing is a commentary track. Insight from Winnie the Pooh's directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall or even veteran Disney artist and story man Burny Mattinson, who worked on all the Pooh films, would've been greatly appreciated.

Best among the bonus material (available on all home video versions) is The Ballad of Nessie, the silly sweet short cartoon about the title creature's search for a new home in Loch Ness.

Related Stories:
'Winnie the Pooh' is Nostalgic, Delightful Fun
New 'Winnie the Pooh' Movie Links to Disney's Past


Thursday, November 3, 2011

John Lasseter Receives a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

On Tuesday, John Lasseter was honored with a well-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Chief Creative Officer with Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios attended the unveiling with a host of friends, family, celebrities and colleagues. Lasseter's star is 2,453rd on the famous walk and is located just outside the El Capitan Theatre.

Following the ceremony, guests were treated to an exclusive luncheon and after-party at the El Capitan and Disney's Soda Fountain and Studio Store, catered by celebrity chef Guy Fieri.

The event coincided with the release of the Lasseter-directed Cars 2 on home video.

John Lasseter gets his star.

Lasseter gets zinged by Mr. Potato Head himself, Don Rickles.

(l. to r.) Brad Paisley, John Ratzenberger, Patton Oswalt, Don Rickles,
Emily Mortimer, Nancy Lasseter, John Lasseter, Owen Wilson, Randy Newman,
Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin

John and Nancy Lasseter

Brad Paisley and Randy Newman

Cheech Marin and Don Rickles

A couple of Johns, Ratzenberger and Lasseter

(l. to r.) Nancy Lasseter, John Lasseter, Bonnie Hunt, Emily Mortimer

(l. to r.) Emily Mortimer, Brad Paisley, Cheech Marin, Randy Newman,
Bonnie Hunt, Owen Wilson, Patton Oswalt, John Ratzenberger

During the ceremony, Pixar's perennial "good luck charm" John Ratzenberger stole the show with an explanation of why he's voiced a character in every Pixar feature film.

In a fitting tribute, John Lasseter honored Pixar's late co-founder, Steve Jobs.

Bonnie Hunt, Emily Mortimer, Brad Paisley and John Lasseter comment on the day's honor and honoree.

Photo Credit: Alex Berliner/ABImages

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A First Look at Tim Burton's New 'Frankenweenie'

Tim Burton's Frankenweenie (1984)
Of his cult classic 1984 short film, Frankenweenie, director Tim Burton said, "I always wanted to do a feature length version of it that was more based on my original drawings."

He's getting his chance.

Currently in production, Frankenweenie will be released by Disney next fall as a stop motion animated film a` la Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride. Like the original short, it's being shot in black and white, an homage to the 1930s horror films that inspired it.

Frankenweenie redux, coming out next October.
Frankenweenie is your typical boy loves dog, boy loses dog, boy brings dog back to life in the laboratory story. It probably helps that the boy is named Victor Frankenstein. 

Come up to the lab and see what's on the slab. Victor Frankenstein at work.
The movie stars the voice talents of Winona Ryder, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara and Martin Landau, all veterans of earlier Burton films. Charlie Tahan provides the voice of young Victor.

Director Tim Burton holds his Frankenweenie.
Of the stop motion animation, rendered in 3D, executive producer Don Hahn said, "It's an amazing technique and Tim is a brilliant director and visual artist. Couldn't hope for more."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Second Look at Disney Second Screen

Earlier this year, I wrote about Disney Second Screen, the digital add-on to select Disney home video releases. At the time, I enjoyed the technology, but wasn't really comfortable with the experience of watching a movie and its bonus features at the same time.

After viewing Second Screen's most recent entries, however, I think I'm getting the hang of it, It really is a fun experience if you want to totally immerse yourself in the back-stories and minutiae of Disney film making.

Second Screen is available to view online at or as a free iPad app. I prefer the iPad version for its portability and ease of use. If you have a wireless network, you can sync Second Screen with your Blu-ray disc through BD Live. There's also an audio sync feature, where your iPad "listens" to the movie audio, but I found that to be a bit wonky and not as easy to sync as BD Live.

Of course, you can always skip the movie and just flip through Second Screen manually, but you do lose the context the film provides.

The Lion King

Animation seems best suited to the Second Screen format and Disney takes full advantage of it with its 1994 classic. The Lion King Second Screen app is chock-full of concept art and pencil tests that illustrate how the film developed. So, while you're watching Simba and Mufasa experience the great circle of life, you can also see how the characters evolved from early concepts to final realizations on screen. There are interesting video clips of animators at work--both in-studio and on location with live animals--and the occasional "Fun Fact" telling behind the scenes stories about the film. Sadly lacking from Second Screen, however, are any photos or video of the voice cast, which makes the experience feel somewhat incomplete. Still, it's a great compilation chronicling The Lion King's artistic development.

iPad screen shots:

"Hakuna Matata" concept art.

A Jeremy Irons and Andreas Deja "Fun Fact."

"Morning Report" concept art.

Rafiki leaves his mark.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

On Facebook, my friend Becky recently observed that in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, "Almost all pirates are stupid."

I replied with, "Yeah, but British soldiers are even stupider."

Of course, in On Stranger Tides, the Spanish are smarter than the whole lot.

But, I digress.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is by far the weakest of the four Pirates films. Despite spirited performances by the cast, the film is done in by a boring story and some pretty lazy direction by Rob Marshall. With the exception of the exciting "Mermaids Attack!" scene (a terrific mix of live action and CG effects), the action sequences fall flat, making POTC 4 a long slog across the ocean and through the jungle to an anticlimactic encounter with the Fountain of Youth.

At least Second Screen offers some diversions. It has plenty of concept art, behind-the-scenes photos and trivia to keep you entertained.

More screen shots:

Pirate adventures in London.

(l. to r.) Johnny Depp, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Rob Marshall.

My, what big teeth you have. Mermaid concept art.

Concept of Blackbeard's ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Geoffrey Rush: A Pirate's Life

Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa
In over eight years of making Pirates of the Caribbean films, Geoffrey Rush, who plays the wily and opportunistic pirate Hector Barbossa, has tracked the time in a unique fashion.

Through his children.

"My kids have visited a number of sets during the filming of the various Pirates of the Caribbean movies," says Rush. "In fact, I've got a series of photographs from 2002 onwards from their various set visits. There are photos where they are up to my hips, then my chest, then my ears and no they're even taller than me. Barbossa always stays the same, but the children have grown up a lot."

Barbossa hasn't stayed exactly the same over the years. Through four Pirates movies, he's been doomed by an Aztec curse, killed in a sword fight and resurrected with voodoo magic, He's sailed into a raging maelstrom, lost a leg to the infamous Blackbeard and even joined the British navy as a privateer. He's gone from being the outright villain of The Curse of the Black Pearl to becoming an antihero every bit as popular as Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow.

Barbossa is such an indelible character it's sometimes easy to overlook Rush's other accomplishments. He's a classically trained Australian stage actor who's found great success in movies. He's been nominated for four Oscars (winning Best Actor for 1996's Shine) and won an Emmy for his 2004 portrayal of comedian Peter Sellers in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.

His diverse resume is not lost on his fans and Rush has no problem identifying where their preferences lie. He says, "If I'm out and about in public and someone makes eye contact, I can tell what movie they recognize me from. I can see them approach me and I think, 'This is going to be a House on Haunted Hill or a Pirates of the Caribbean moment.' You can pick the different demographics."

The Pirates demographic has served him well. While not always popular with critics, the four films combined have raked in over $3.7 billion in worldwide box office. Quite a feat, considering pirate films in general were long considered dead in Hollywood. "The first (Pirates) film took everyone by surprise because there had been a 50-year period where nobody had been able to crack the pirate genre," says Rush. "People had tried to reboot it in many different forms, but it just didn't capture popular imagination."

Johnny Depp (l.) and Geoffrey Rush in POTC 4
That all changed when Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl became an instant surprise hit in 2003. Not bad for a pirate movie based on a Disney theme park ride. Says Rush, "At its heart, I think the great diversity of characters in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has been very appealing to audiences, especially with Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow. Johnny created an entirely new and different pirate, and everybody fell in love with the character."

Rush's Barbossa owes more to the style of Robert Newton's Long John Silver in Disney's Treasure Island, complete with his throaty vocal delivery and the occasional ARRRRR thrown in. Every day is Talk Like a Pirate Day when you play Barbossa. There's more to getting into the character than putting on a long coat and strapping on a peg leg, though. It takes a couple of hours in makeup for Rush to transform into Barbossa. He says, "You have to rough up the skin, stick on the beard, put on the wig--and then you put on his clothes once you're ready. You slowly build up to Barbossa, which is great for getting into character. However, I always feel that the hat completes everything. Once the hat goes on, I enter into the spirit of it and I truly become Barbossa."

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides came out on home video this week. There's a pretty good chance Rush is already checking out the bonus features on it. "I love the bonus material you find on DVDs," he says. "In a funny way, the bloopers and the behind-the-scenes coverage is like a great personal home movie for me. Some actors like to photograph their experiences on a movie set. They take pictures of the friends and the mates they work with, but I never get around to it. However, I recently looked at the DVD bonus features for a movie called Elizabeth and it felt like I was watching a home movie of all of my friends. The DVD teams manage to record everything much better than I could. It's very professionally done, not like a hand-held camera."

I bet Rush got some great shots of his kids that way.

Monday, October 17, 2011

'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' Concept Art

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is available on home video beginning tomorrow and we have some very cool concept art from the latest chapter in the life of Captain Jack Sparrow. Pirates and a zombies and mermaids, oh my!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' Blu-Ray Giveaway

Jack's back on October 18, 2011 when Disney releases Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides to home video.

The Mouse Castle is giving away a 2-Disc Blu-ray Combo Pack of the 4th installment of the POTC saga to one of our loyal readers. The Combo Pack includes both a Blu-ray 2D and DVD version of the film. To enter, all you have to do is:

1. Visit The Mouse Castle Facebook page at and become a fan (click the "Like" button, if you haven't already).

2. Find the event "PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES Blu-ray Giveaway."

3. Confirm that you will be attending this event.

4. Wait for us to announce the winner, savvy?

Get your entry in no later than October 26, 2011 at 6:00 p.m. Pacific time. You must be a resident of the United States to enter. Only one entry per person, please.

Remember, you must "Like" The Mouse Castle on Facebook and RSVP for the giveaway event by clicking "I'm Attending" (mobile Facebook users may see a button labeled "Confirmed" or similar).

Sometime after the entry deadline, we will draw one winner at random. The winner's name will be posted on The Mouse Castle Facebook page.

Good Luck ye scurvy dogs!

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Making of 'The Lion King'

On the screen, a blazing yellow sun rose against a crimson sky, accompanied by a booming chant performed by South African singer/composer Lebo M.

"Nants' ingoyama bakithi baba!"

This was the moment it all came together, a moment when the creative team of The Lion King knew they had something special.

It was "The Circle of Life."

"The Circle of Life"
"When we finished the sequence and Hans Zimmer scored the music," says producer Don Hahn. "We watched it and were all amazed--even though it was our movie. Suddenly this little film about a lion cub became a much bigger epic."

Reaching that point of revelation was not an easy task. Disney's 32nd animated feature had been beset with obstacles, from story issues to the departure of one of its original directors. Before its release in June 1994, it even had to survive an earthquake, and all while being deemed the "B" project at the Walt Disney Studios. "Lion King was originally called King of the Jungle and was not well regarded around the studio," says co-director Rob Minkoff. "So when (studio head) Jeffrey Katzenberg announced that the studio would be split in two to make two films simultaneously, many of the top animators wanted to work on Pocahontas instead of The Lion King. Jeffrey had deemed Pocahontas the 'home run' and Lion King the 'risk.'"

Originally, George Scribner, who previously directed Oliver & Company, was assigned to co-direct The Lion King with Roger Allers. Early on in the production, they joined a team of artists that traveled to Africa to research the film. Hahn was not on the team--he was completing production on Beauty and the Beast at the time--but he recalls the impact Africa had on his studio mates. "(They) were blown away by the scope and scale of Africa. They came back with a load of images and a feeling for the land and color of the land that made it into the movie in many ways. There is an epic feeling to the landscape in Africa, that made the directors want to use it almost like another character in the film."

The Lion King directors Roger Allers (l.) and Rob Minkoff
The film makers came back home visually inspired and began in earnest to develop the story. "We wanted to do an animal picture based in a more natural setting," says Allers. "A story that dealt with the issue of taking on the responsibility of adulthood." What he and Scribner couldn't settle on, however, was what direction to approach it from. Scribner pressed for a documentary-like "Bambi in Africa" feel while Allers preferred a lighter and more accessible touch. Finding a middle ground only compromised both men's visions of the film. Tensions increased when Elton John was brought in to help write the songs, a move Scribner highly objected to. It wouldn't be long before Scribner was removed from the film and replaced by Minkoff, with the story development beginning anew.

Around that time, Hahn was assigned to produce The Lion King. As he recalls, "We sat in my office for two days with an amazing, small and mighty team of story artists that included Chris Sanders, Brenda Chapman and Beauty directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, and over those two days (we) wrote the complete outline for the film.There had been some amazing writers on the story, but those two days were an amazing time when the film came together in a big way."

The story was developing into a coming of age tale with highly dramatic overtones rooted in classic literature. Minkoff explains, "When we first pitched the revised outline of the movie to Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher, someone in the room announced that Hamlet was similar in its themes and relationships. Everyone responded favorably to the idea that we were doing something Shakespearean and so we continued to look for ways to model our film on that all time classic."

"We looked at a lot of coming of age stories," adds Hahn. "Especially bible stories like Moses or Joseph where a character is born into royalty and then is exiled and has to return to claim their kingdom. Those are ancient stories, stories of underdogs that we as an audience love to see when we go to the theater."

The Lion King wouldn't fly, however, being anchored solely to Biblical and Shakespearean themes, so a concerted effort was made to introduce lighter moments. "We found ourselves constantly re-balancing the film to make sure there were enough comic elements to lighten the mood after the tragedy of Mufasa's death," says Minkoff. "Timon and Pumbaa really came along at the right time to give the film a lift and make it a more satisfying whole."

"Hakuna Matata"
That lift was epitomized in the song "Hakuna Matata," where the sly meerkat and goodhearted warthog introduce the exiled Simba to their no-worries lifestyle. It, along with "The Circle of Life" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?," became one of The Lion King's signature tunes, the product of a hugely successful--if unlikely--teaming of songwriter Elton John, lyricist Tim Rice (who just completed writing songs with Alan Menken for Disney's Aladdin) and composer Hans Zimmer. "Elton and Tim's songs help(ed) tell the story with humor and heart," says Allers, "while Hans' brilliant score and arrangements--along with Lebo M's choral work--gave it its scale, drama, and placed it in Africa."

"It was Tim who suggested Elton for the job," adds Minkoff. "Me, Don and Roger wanted Hans based on his work in The Power of One, whose score also featured Lebo M. Their collaboration on the score and musical elements really brought the story to life and gave it its enduring power."

So confident were they of the music's strength, the film makers decided to go out on a limb once the opening sequence was completed. As Hahn recalls, "We took a risk and sent 'Circle of Life' out to theaters as a trailer for the film six months before the film came out and it was a huge hit. Back at the studio we were still struggling with the story but at least we knew we had a great opening and if we could elevate the rest of the film to that level, we'd have something."

In addition to the powerful music and now promising story, The Lion King boasted  an impressive voice cast that included Matthew Broderick as the adult Simba, Jeremy Irons ("a gentleman and a brilliant actor," says Allers) as Simba's evil uncle Scar and Robert Guillaume ("his laugh was so amazing," recalls Minkoff) as the slightly crazed shaman Rafiki. Most memorable, though, was James Earl Jones as the fierce but wise Mufasa (a role that, surprisingly enough, Sean Connery was briefly considered for).

James Earl Jones
"James Earl Jones has one of the most incredible voices in the history of film," explains Minkoff. "Getting to work with him, especially being such a big fan of Star Wars, was an amazing experience. Watching him warming up his voice before a session was remarkable." Allers makes the same observation. "The very first time we had James in to record, before doing his first lines he proceeded to clear his throat. The strength and resonance of his 'harrrunfs' practically blew us off our chairs in the recording booth! That man IS a lion!"

Shortly after the "Circle of Life" trailer began appearing in theaters, The Lion King experienced its biggest setback yet, one that threatened to impact its June 1994 release date. Early on the morning of January 17, a 6.7 magnitude earthquake struck outside Los Angeles. The Northridge quake would devastate the area, killing dozens and causing approximately $20 billion in damage. As Hahn recalls, "The studio had to be shut down. For a few weeks we were driving drawings to animator's homes around Southern California and making the film in garages and on kitchen tables. The crew was amazing. They were dealing with the stress of a major earthquake while finishing the film."

Rising to the challenge, the production team managed to complete the film on time for its world premiere on June 15 and its U.S. wide release on June 24. Despite being Disney's "B" film, it still arrived with high expectations. "We were fourth in a succession of modern Disney animated classics," says Minkoff. "First it was Little Mermaid, then Beauty and The Beast and finally Aladdin. They were all tough acts to follow. We only hoped we would be compared favorably and not disappoint the Disney fans that had been growing with each new hit."

The Lion King did not disappoint.

Received with nearly universal acclaim by audiences and critics alike, it made over $300 million in its initial domestic release. It would go on to win two Academy Awards, one for Hans Zimmer's score and the other for the John/Rice tune "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?"

The Lion King producer Don Hahn and friends
And, 17 years later, it still resonated with audiences, raking in an additional $85 million in the U.S. during its 3D re-release this fall. But, was 3D the reason people flocked back to theaters?  Or, perhaps they were just nostalgic for hand-drawn animation. Hahn--who gives high praise to The Lion King's 3D conversion--doesn't quite think so. "Story, story, story!" he exclaims. "Nobody goes to the theater just to see a technique. The Lion King is a great story and that's why it's come back with such a roar."

Allers shares in that sentiment. "It's the balance of humor and drama and the resonance of its themes. The issues of life and death, and loss. The responsibilities of leadership and finding one's place in life."

The Lion King is now available on home video in Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D.

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