Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Seventeen - Least Favorite Book Adaptation

Taran comes to the aid of  the
sweet enchantress Eilonwy.
The Black Cauldron was not the worst movie Disney ever made, but it was darn close. It was certainly the studio's most legendary failure. The film languished in production for ten years, nearing completion in 1984 at the time when the company's leadership was in upheaval. Following a series of hostile takeover bids at Disney, Michael Eisner was named CEO and Jeffrey Katzenberg was appointed head of the movie studio. One of Katzenberg's first orders of business was to check on the progress of The Black Cauldron. After previewing it, he was not impressed. His instructions to writer/producer Joe Hale were succinct.

"It's bad. Fix it."

Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew and then head of animation, admitted he didn't understand what the story was about. Even the company's own animators were split over it. Some saw the dark and violent (it was the first Disney animated film to earn a PG rating) sword and sorcery epic as the perfect vehicle to give Disney back its long lost edge in animation. Others felt it was a poor project choice that didn't mesh with the Disney brand.

The doubters were right. After its summer 1985 release, The Black Cauldron grossed a mere $22 million at the box office, significantly less than what it cost to make. Adding insult to injury, it was out-earned that year by the non-Disney The Care Bears Movie. Even Disney's re-release of 101 Dalmatians at Christmas did better than The Black Cauldron, selling $33 million in tickets.

Despite its failings, the movie had a noble pedigree. It was based on the popular Newberry Award-winning series of books, The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. In the film, a young pig keeper named Taran must protect his prized pig, Hen Wen, from the evil clutches of the Horned King. Hen Wen has clairvoyant powers that the King needs to help locate the mystical Black Cauldron, which can be used to raise an invincible army of the undead. Needless to say, Horned King + Undead Army = Bad. When Hen Wen is captured, it's up to Taran and a ragtag group of friends to rescue her, defeat the Horned King and destroy the cauldron.

Taran and Gurgi
What sounded good on paper, though, lost a lot during its execution. Despite some very attractive animation (shot in widescreen 70mm) The Black Cauldron is a mess of storytelling. It is, in turns, both dull and confusing with characters that lack charisma and a story that never really grabs your attention--except when it leaves you scratching your head (What do the pixie-ish Fairfolk do, anyway?). The movie's lone saving grace is a hyper-cute fur ball of a creature named Gurgi (voiced ever-so-sweetly by John Byner), who wants only to be Taran's friend and steal his food. That Gurgi ultimately becomes a hero is the film's sole touching moment, but it's lost in the muddle of understanding what's going on (How, exactly, were the Horned King and the cauldron destroyed? They were destroyed, right?).

The Black Cauldron was meant to resurrect Disney animation. Instead, it almost brought it crashing down.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Sixteen - Favorite Book Adaptation

I first read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea when I was in fifth grade. My interest in the book was fueled by Disney's re-release of the film in 1971, although I can't recall if I actually saw the movie back then. Whether my first recollections of the film came from inside a darkened movie theater or from a television preview, it doesn't really matter. They were unquestionably vivid. I remember the iron-clad submarine Nautilus, its jagged spine and bulbous yellow windows resembling eyes. I remember the grand pipe organ in Captain Nemo's salon and the intense battle with a giant squid in a fierce rainstorm. This was heady stuff for an imaginative 10-year old.

Captain Nemo (James Mason) and
Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas)
aboard the Nautilus
Jules Verne's original book did not disappoint, either. Nearly 40 years later, I still have that same dog-eared paperback and its episodic tale of futuristic undersea adventure.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was one of Walt Disney's most ambitious live-action films, with extensive (and difficult to shoot) underwater scenes, intricate sets and impressive special effects. It boasted a cast of Hollywood A-listers, a rarity for Disney films of the 1950s and 60s. James Mason was ideally cast as the Machiavellian Captain Nemo, whose warped sense of vengeance leads him to wreak havoc on all seafaring vessels. Kirk Douglas played Ned Land, the cocky, rough and tumble harpooner who becomes captive aboard Nemo's ship along with the studious marine expert Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his testy, but loyal assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre).

James Mason, Paul Lukas and
Robert J. Wilke on location
While some underwater footage was shot on a Disney sound stage, most of it was shot off the coast of Nassau in the Bahamas. Over 20 tons of equipment was used on location, including cameras, air compressors and underwater breathing apparatuses. Shooting a single underwater burial scene required 42 submerged actors, divers and technicians using hand signals to communicate. They were limited to being underwater no more than 55 minutes at a stretch, 20 minutes of which involved getting to and from the ocean floor. In total, it took three days for director Richard Fleischer and his crew to shoot a scene that lasted less than two minutes on screen.

Even more impressive was the movie's climactic giant squid battle. Set at night in a raging storm to hide the fact that the mechanical monster looked pretty fake in decent light, the scene is an epic example of editing and special effects wizardry, circa 1954. The squid weighed over two tons with 40-foot long moving tentacles and a snapping beak. It took a team of 28 men to operate it. The efforts paid off as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea would go on to win the Oscar for Best Special Effects as well as for Best Art Direction. It would be ten years later with Mary Poppins before Disney would again see this level of popular and critical success in a live-action film.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Fifteen - Favorite Play Adaptation

In the 30-Day Disney Movie Challenge, it would've been easy to come up with a favorite Disney movie based on a stage play (1953's Peter Pan, based on the 1904 play by J. M. Barrie--next), but for this installment, I decided to reverse the tables and go with a stage adaptation of a Disney movie, if only because the choice is so remarkable a piece of entertainment.

It's The Lion King.

The Tony Award-wining musical, directed by Julie Taymor and featuring the music and lyrics of Elton John and Tim Rice, debuted on Broadway in 1997 and has been going strong ever since with numerous national tours and international productions (it just began performances in Singapore earlier this year). Two years ago, it took up residency at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas (my hometown), where I've seen it twice and have been totally enchanted each time.

In June 2009, I wrote:
The story is familiar to even the most casual of Disney fans. Simba, a young lion, must choose between the two life paths set before him: the path of his father, Mufasa, the mighty king of the pride lands; or the path of least resistance, an escapist world in the jungle where "hakuna matata" ("no worries") is the philosophy to live by. In choosing, Simba must come to grips with his nagging sense of responsibility and ultimately confront his treacherous uncle Scar, who has plans of his own to rule the African savanna.

The Lion King tells its tale on stage utilizing an exquisite blend of lighting, rotating sets and nifty gadgetry. After seeing many stills and clips of the stage production over the years, I always wondered how much of a distraction the combination of live actors, masks and mechanical puppets would be. It turns out to be no distraction at all as they seamlessly meld their animal and anthropomorphic characteristics. The audience's attention is always directed where it needs to be, whether on an actor's face, the lion mask/headdress he or she wears, or the whirligig contraptions that evoke soaring birds and frolicking antelope. It's a feast for the eyes that requires only your very willing imagination to make complete.
Disney recently announced that The Lion King would extend its run in Las Vegas to the end of this year. Looks like I'll be able to catch it a third time (at least) before it leaves town.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Fourteen - Favorite Documentary

The Walt Disney Studios has an impressive history of documentary film making, from the True-Life Adventures and People and Places series of the 1950s and 60s to the more recent Disneynature films. The greatest Disney documentary, however, is not among them. It's Disney alumnus Don Hahn's fascinating look at the perfect storm of creativity and ego clashes at the mouse house, Waking Sleeping Beauty. I reviewed the film for its DVD release last December. Below is a reposting of that review:

Peter Schneider, Roy E. Disney
and Jeffrey Katzenberg, back in the day
Between 1984 and 1994, the Walt Disney Studios had one of the most remarkable runs in film history, producing the classic animated features The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. They were critical and commercial successes that ushered in a new golden age of animation. That these movies came from a company almost broken up and sold for scrap in the early 1980s is even more amazing.

After Walt died in 1966, the company he co-founded--particularly the animation division--languished. Rudderless without the presence of the great man and paralyzed by a "what would Walt do?" mentality, the studio released a number of mostly forgettable animated films including The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. The studio was still attracting talented young animators like Glen Keane, Tim Burton and John Lasseter, but they lacked direction and the studio had difficulties retaining many of them. Troubles were compounded when Disney became the target of a hostile takeover in 1984 that threatened to dismantle the company. It wasn't until "the perfect storm" of creative forces and studio leadership miraculously came together that Disney began to rise from the ashes.

Producer Peter Schneider and producer/director Don Hahn were there during those tumultuous and ultimately exhilarating years, but Waking Sleeping Beauty isn't about them. It's about everyone and everything that went on around them, from the long, exhausting hours put in by the animation department to the ego clashes among top executives Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney to the mercurial brilliance of the late lyricist Howard Ashman (in the bonus features, do not miss his eloquent lecture to studio employees about the connection between Broadway musicals and animated feature films). It takes hard work and more than a little office politics to make magic and Waking Sleeping Beauty never shies away from that harsh reality of the motion picture biz-ness.

The film benefits by relying entirely on archival material to tell its story. There are no reminiscing talking heads or crosscuts to present day to get in the way of the narrative. You're totally immersed in the sights and sounds of late 20th century Disney, whether from old news clips, interview footage or home movies shot by studio staff. Modern day comments are provided in voice over and they come from most of the major players. At times, it's quite candid, particularly from Schneider, Eisner and Katzenberg, who are not always depicted favorably, but are still treated honestly and fairly by Hahn. He proves that under the right circumstances, even the most dysfunctional family is capable of greatness. As Eisner notes in the film, "Go to any institution, any university, any hospital, any corporation, any home, any house. You know what? The human condition overshadows bricks and mortar, every time. And it's about fear, and envy, and jealously, and comfort, and love, and hate, and accomplishment. Every institution has it."

This willingness to look unflinchingly at Disney's past and revel not only in its enormous successes, but also its glaring imperfections, gives Waking Sleeping Beauty its strength. If you have any appreciation for Disney history, do not miss it.

December 1, 2010


Don Hahn, who produced both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King--among many other great films--has written a new book on the creative process, Brain Storm: Unleashing Your Creative Self. The book will be available on May 31, 2011. Leading up to its release, Hahn asked a group of diverse individuals, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" The responses he got resulted in this inspiring video:


Monday, May 23, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Twelve - Favorite Love Story

As I compiled this list of Disney movies, many of the categories required me to do my homework: re-watch films I hadn't seen in ages and even see a few I'd never seen before and knew only by reputation. It's been fun to do side-by-side comparisons and see how these great movies have held up over time.

A few categories needed no research at all, because the choices were so obvious. Disney's best love story is one of them. It's the "tale as old as time" and the finest feature film of Disney's third "golden age" of animation.

Beauty and the Beast.

Tale as old as time;
Song as old as rhyme.
The movie often gets categorized as just another Disney princess film (particularly for Disney merchandising purposes), but it's important to understand how much Beauty and the Beast breaks the mold of the typical fairy tale story. Our heroine, Belle (Paige O'Hara), isn't some waifish ingenue waiting for her prince to come. Quite the contrary. She's intelligent, literate and responsible, looking after her eccentric inventor father, Maurice (Rex Everhart), and fending off the advances of the ruggedly handsome, but exceedingly vain and arrogant, Gaston (Richard White). Belle is also incredibly beautiful, but probably doesn't realize it. She's too busy losing herself in books and pondering what adventures await in the outside world. This isn't normal for the residents of the provincial French village where she lives. They happily follow their same routines day after day--and think Belle is a bit odd.

When Maurice loses his way in the woods and is held captive inside a remote castle lorded over by a monstrous beast, Belle selflessly offers to take his place. In doing so, she sets the stage for one of the greatest romances in movie--let alone Disney--history.

The beast of the castle was once a selfish young prince, now cursed by an enchantress as punishment for his cold-hearted ways. He will remain a monster until someone can see through his ugliness and fall in love with him. But, this must happen before a magical rose, kept under glass inside the castle, loses its petals. If the last petal drops without true love being found, the prince will remain a beast forever.

We can sing, we can dance;
After all, miss, this is France.
Also under the spell of the enchantress are the beast's house servants, who have been turned into all manner of household objects. They include the butler/candelabra Lumiere (Jerry Orbach), the head-of-staff/clock Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers) and the kitchen maid/teapot Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury). All see the presence of Belle in the castle--even under these dire circumstances--as an opportunity for the spell to be broken, so they set about to make her as welcome as they can and try to push her and the beast together. They know there is good in their master that belies his appearance and actions. He just needs the right person to bring it out.

Beauty and the Beast tells its story using a classic musical theater structure (small wonder it would become the first Disney feature adapted to the Broadway stage). The opening number, "Belle", is fun and energetic as it introduces us to the main characters of the village. In a matter of minutes, we learn everything we need to know about them (Belle is a "funny girl," Gaston is a pompous jerk). All the songs, penned by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, are memorable, from the endearing title tune to the exhilarating production number "Be Our Guest."

Both audiences and critics responded enthusiastically to Beauty and the Beast. It was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, the first animated feature film ever to be so honored. In an era when Best Picture nominations were limited to five films (instead of the current ten) and when there was no Best Animated Film consolation prize, this was an amazing achievement and a testament to the timeless quality of the film.

Beauty and the Beast (along with its predecessor The Little Mermaid), was Disney's triumphant return to quality feature animation after a fallow period of more than 25 years. With beautiful animation, classic tunes and a love story for the ages, it ranks as one of Disney's all-time bests.

The 30-Day (or so) Movie Challenge continues tomorrow with the best Disney chick flick. No, really.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Yo Ho, Yo Ho....Yawn

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides avoids the excesses of the last two movies, but also sucks the life out of the franchise.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and
Angelica (Penelope Cruz) search for the
Fountain of Youth.
By their own admissions, both Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski were confused by the numerous plot twists in the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films. Depp explained to Entetainment Weekly that he told Verbinski on several occasions, "I don't really know what this means," to which Verbinski would reply, "Neither do I, but let's just shoot it." This resulted in two movies that, although entertaining, had needlessly over-the-top visuals and horribly convoluted plots. Their sole purpose was to keep hurtling forward, even if they had no idea where they were going.

Breaking free of the wretched excess of Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides focuses more on characters, cutting down on the subplots and special effects. It's the right idea, but director Rob Marshall and screen writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio take it way too far, removing most of the excitement audiences demand from a Pirates flick. On Stranger Tides is a snore.

Oh sure, there are plenty of sword fights, chases and explosions as Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) goes in search of the Fountain of Youth, encountering his old flame (Penelope Cruz) and the vicious pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) along the way. The problem is there's never any real sense of peril to the action, never a moment when we think, "Wow, how's Jack going to get out of this one?" The movie just plods along from mild cliffhanger to mild cliffhanger with Jack effortlessly extricating himself every step of the way. It wants to be Pirates of the Lost Ark (complete with a scrappy ex-girlfriend and religious subtext), but it doesn't have the energy or heart to pull it off.

Ian McShane's Blackbeard is a bad man.
Which is an even bigger shame because the performances are pretty good. By now we've become very familiar with Johnny Depp's twitchy pirate captain, but in On Stranger Tides, he doesn't use the flamboyant gestures as a crutch like he did in Dead Man's Chest. Here, they're more subtle, the basic extension of a character Depp's become very comfortable with. Also effectively dialing it down a bit is Geoffrey Rush as Sparrow's longtime frenemy Barbossa, who's now sold his services as a privateer to the British navy and may have his own score to settle with Blackbeard. Rush has always channeled Robert Newton in his portrayals in the past, but this time he keeps the "ARRRGGHH's" to a minimum, making Barbossa less campy.

Cruz is smart and sexy as Capt Jack's former conquest Angelica. Even better is McShane, dark and menacing as Blackbeard, a "bad man" who will kill for sport and sacrifice others for his own self-interest.

If only they weren't all scuttled by Marshall's controlled, lazy direction and a tired storyline. Say what you will about Verbinski's bombastic approach to the first three Pirates movies. At least they were never boring.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush)


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Eleven - Favorite Kids Film

Hey, I never said the Movie Challenge would be on consecutive days. ;-)

An indulgence in all things Pirates and a fun but exhausting weekend at Disneyland put me off schedule a bit, but I'm back to continue our 30-day retrospective of Disney movies. Today, we take a look at the best Disney kids film.

This is trickier than it sounds. When you consider it, Walt Disney and his successors haven't really made a lot of films specifically for the younger set. Family films, certainly, but few that specifically targeted kids. Consider the darker elements of Snow White, Pinocchio and Bambi. These movies can be downright scary with some very mature (for Disney) themes. Even less intense animated fare like Cinderella, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland are still very accessible and enjoyable for adults. Likewise for live-action comedies such as The Absent-Minded Professor or Son of Flubber. They're a bit silly, but I still find them very enjoyable without requiring the presence of an 8-year old.

In recent years the Walt Disney Studios has embraced kiddy flicks more, putting out G-Force, Beverly Hills Chihuahua and any number of doggy Buddies movies. They're innocuous trifles geared for a younger audience, modestly entertaining, but instantly forgettable. None of these I consider "favorites."

For that, I'll reach back to 1961 for Babes in Toyland, Disney's take on the storybook operetta by Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough. The story is set in a town where all nursery rhyme characters reside and where they are about to celebrate the nuptials of Mary Contrary (Annette Funicello) and Tom the Piper's Son (Tommy Sands). Their joyous plans are soon dashed, however, when the jealous, misanthropic miser Barnaby (Ray Bolger) has Tom disposed of so that he may take the hand of the sweet Mary himself. Twists and double crosses ensue. Will evil Barnaby be foiled and the young lovers reunited? It's a Disney movie. What do you think?

Babes in Toyland is not a great film by any means. It's stagy and, at times, slow-paced. Sands and Annette are pretty dull as the young leads, and breezy song-and-dance man Bolger is entirely miscast (though he gives it his best shot) as the mustache-twirling villain. Still, Babes in Toyland is bright and colorful, with a enough bouncy tunes to appeal to kids. For adults, it has its charms too, mostly in its ability to bring together a stable of recognizable Disney stars from the 1950s and 60s. Aside from Mouseketeer Annette, there are Zorro alumni Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon doing their best Laurel and Hardy impersonation as Barnaby's bumbling henchman. Ed Wynn (Alice in Wonderland, Mary Poppins) appears as the befuddled Toymaker and Tommy Kirk (Old Yeller, The Monkey's Uncle) is his nerdy assistant. For perspective, this assemblage of talent would be (for good or for ill) the equivalent of bringing together the stars of Hannah Montana, Suite Life and Sonny With a Chance for a Disney Channel movie extravaganza today.

The point is to produce mindless, childlike fun. Despite its faults, Babes in Toyland delivers just that.

I'll be pulling an all-nighter tomorrow to catch the midnight showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, so I'll be resuming the 30-day Disney movie challenge this weekend with a tale as old as time, Disney's greatest love story.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

'Pirates' Premiere: On the Black Carpet at Disneyland

Here's some more video from Saturday night's premiere of Pirates of Caribbean: On Stranger Tides at Disneyland. It's the next best thing to being there:

On stage at the Pirates premiere (l. to r.): Producer Jerry Bruckheimer,
director Rob Marshall, Geoffrey Rush, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp,
Ian McShane, Keith Richards, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Sam Claflin.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Disneyland Hosts Premiere of 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides'

Direct from the black carpet (what, you expect pirates to walk a red carpet?), we've got early footage of the crowds on Disneyland's Main Street, USA getting ready to watch the celebrities arrive for the premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Some folks have been waiting in line for the arrivals since 7:00....yesterday morning.

This evening's presentation of the latest installment in the Captain Jack Sparrow saga will be projected on a giant screen on Tom Sawyer Island that stands six-stories tall. Special bleachers have been constructed along the Rivers of America just for the event.

I'll have more photos and video from tonight's festivities, with plenty of celebrity sightings, later this weekend. Stay tuned...


Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Ten - Favorite Foreign Film

So, ye come seekin' adventure and
salty old pirates, eh?
Out of the blue, my 4-year old granddaughter announced today that she wants to be a pirate. I suspect she might have caught a Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides commercial on TV.

I fully support her ambition. It'll save us a fortune in princess and pixie gear.

Before I immerse her in the oeuvre of Captain Jack Sparrow, however, I think I might first introduce her to young Jim Hawkins and the mutinous brigands aboard Captain Smollett's ship, the Hispaniola, and especially to the ship's highly suspicious sea cook, Long John Silver. Together, we'll set a course for adventure and sail to Treasure Island, my favorite Disney foreign film.

Hey, it is a foreign film. It was shot entirely in England by Disney after Great Britain froze foreign assets following World War II. It became Disney's first completely live action film and a whiz-bang high seas adventure that influenced decades-worth of pirate films.

For that you can largely credit the charismatic character actor Robert Newton, who imbued Long John Silver with the speech patterns and tics we've come to accept as "normal" for a stereotypical movie pirate. His throaty "arrrrrrrgh, matey" became a pop culture touchstone that launched a million imitations and parodies. In Disney's modern day Pirates films, Geoffrey Rush's Hector Barbossa character, with his snarly voice and affinity for apples, can draw a direct line to Newton's Long John. International Talk Like a Pirate Day would not exist but for Robert Newton.

Long John Silver (Robert Newton)
and Jim Hawkins (Bobby Driscoll)
in a publicity shot from Treasure Island
Knowing what we know now about how pirates are "supposed to" sound, it's easy to make fun of Newton's performance. The fact is his interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic character is every bit as innovative, original and fun as Johnny Depp's first take on Captain Jack in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Hobbling on one leg, with the ever-present parrot on his shoulder, Newton commands each moment he's on the screen--you can't take your eyes off of him. And for all his theatrical gestures and bravado, he still exhibits a softer side when it comes to Jim Hawkins (Bobby Driscoll), the plucky young boy he develops a genuine respect for even as he manipulates him to take over the Hispaniola and claim the hidden treasure for himself.

On the day when the fourth Captain Jack Sparrow epic, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has its gala premiere at Disneyland, it's appropriate to pay tribute to Treasure Island, the pirate film that made all others possible.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go out and buy my granddaughter a pirate sword....and a hat....oooh, and a cool pirate jacket....and a fake hook. Gotta have a hook.

And a PARROT! She'll love a parrot!

ARRRRRRGH! This be part ten of my 30-day Disney movie challenge. When next we sail, we be partakin' in Disney's best film for the little ones. He didn't make as many as ye be thinkin'.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Nine - Favorite Musical

My "Mary Poppins" soundtrack
on vinyl. It's almost as old as I am.
I love Mary Poppins.

Maybe it's because I still have the original vinyl soundtrack from when I was a kid. Maybe it's because only the most cynical, heartless person could not like this delightfully charming movie musical. Maybe it's because last year I got to meet songwriter Richard Sherman in person and shake his hand.

Maybe it's because I can spell "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" without having to look it up.

Released two years before his death, Mary Poppins was Walt Disney's last great movie triumph. The story of the magical British nanny's impact on the Banks family of Cherry Tree Lane won five Academy Awards and transformed Julie Andrews from a Broadway sensation to a bona fide Hollywood star.

It contains some of Disney's most iconic scenes, from dancing chimney sweeps to racing merry-go-round horses to tea parties on the ceiling. And all of it is set to a catchy--and sometimes deeply moving--song score by the Sherman Brothers that includes "Chim Chim Cheree," "Spoonful of Sugar" and "Feed the Birds."

I've fought saying it for the last few paragraphs, but Mary Poppins truly is practically perfect in every way.

This is part nine of my 30-day Disney movie challenge. Next time, we go across the ocean, literally, for Disney's best foreign film.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Eight - Favorite Thriller

A daring kidnapping.

A crazed, charismatic villain.

A secret, underground group of unlikely heroes.

A hunt through a creepy, dilapidated mansion.

A harrowing escape in a snowstorm.

A thrilling car chase climax

Does this sound like the making of a great movie thriller to you? It is.

It's 101 Dalmatians.

It has a fair share of warmth and humor, but at its core, Disney's animated adaptation of Dodie Smith's book has all the elements of a classic suspense thriller--only with animals. Pongo and Perdita are the proud new parents of 15 dalmatian puppies. Together with their human "pets," Roger and Anita, they live a quaint lifestyle in London, where Roger works diligently at becoming a successful songwriter. Their lives are turned upside down, however, when an old school chum of Anita's, the appropriately named Cruella De Vil, becomes obsessed with the puppies (she longs for a--gasp--dalmatian fur coat) and masterminds their kid--er dognapping with the help of her bumbling henchmen, Horace and Jasper. From there, the search is on as Pongo, Perdita and a bevy of animals in the English countryside band together and risk their own skins to save the pups. Never underestimate the power of a "Twilight Bark."

Cruella is one of Disney's greatest villains. Her commanding figure is gaunt and skeletal, but her hair and fur coat are broad and bushy. She's the loudest person in the room at all times with smoke perpetually billowing from her ever-present cigarette holder. She was animated by Disney Legend Marc Davis, who previously drew Tinker Bell for Peter Pan. Cruella would be his last, crowning animation achievement. Davis would go on to enjoy a terrific second act as a Disney Imagineer (Pirates of the Caribbean, anyone?).

If you're going to cap an animation career, Cruella De Vil isn't a bad way to do it. Her bigger-than-life presence is the energy that drives 101 Dalmatians, Disney's best thriller.

This is part eight of my 30-day Disney movie challenge. Tomorrow, bring a spoonful of sugar to enjoy my favorite Disney musical.


Monday, May 2, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Seven - Favorite Animated Feature

"The Nutcracker Suite's"
dancing mushrooms
Even with a brief but memorable appearance by Mickey Mouse, Fantasia is the most un-Disney of Disney films. There are no fairy princesses, no singing animals, no catchy popular tunes. What there is,  is music. Classical music. And lots of it.

Even more so, however, there is art. Abstract, challenging, beautiful art. It commands your attention and presents itself in ways you'd never expect. Thus, Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite" is no longer a child's Christmas Eve fantasy. It's a nature ballet. Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" may still mark the passage of morning into night, but it does so by casting a delightfully absurd ballet with ostriches, elephants, hippos and alligators.

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" stays mostly true to the original story of a would-be magician who gets reckless with his master's tools, but I doubt composer Paul Dukas ever pictured a cartoon mouse as the lead character.

Fantasia spans so many musical and animation styles, you sometimes get the feeling Walt and his animators just threw every idea against the wall to see what would stick--and not every musical segment did. Both the "Rite of Spring," with its epic dinosaur battle, and "The Pastoral Symphony," with its pastiche of Greco-Roman mythology, lack the energy and verve of Fantasia's other musical pieces. Fortunately, though, they span the middle portion of the film, thus saving the best for last: the sublime juxtaposition of "the profane and the sacred," "Night on Bald Mountain" and "Ave Maria."

Was there ever an animated character more evil than the horned god Chernobog?

Fantasia was a movie ahead of its time, both technically and thematically. It was Walt Disney's most ambitious feature length film, establishing animation as a true art form (just in case there was any doubt after Snow White and Pinocchio). Despite being a box office disappointment (it would take multiple re-releases over decades before it turned a profit), Fantasia set the gold standard for all other animated films that followed in terms of passion, creativity and inventiveness.

This is part seven of my 30-day Disney movie challenge. Coming up tomorrow, intrigue, suspense, a legendary villain...and Kanine Krunchies. My favorite Disney thriller.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Six - Favorite Horror Film(s)

They're coming to get you, Snow White.
Think Disney didn't make horror films? Let's take inventory from one particular movie, shall we:

1. Evil Queen conjures up and converses with a spirit in her magic mirror.

2. Based on information obtained from said spirit in said mirror, Queen instructs her huntsman not just to kill a fair young maiden, but to cut out her heart and bring it back to the castle.

3. Fair young maiden runs away into the forest and, in a hallucinatory panic, believes she is under attack by various varieties of tree monsters and demonic animals.

4. Fair young maiden recovers from her trauma, only to move in with seven deformed men.

5. Evil Queen resorts to black magic to turn herself into a hideously ugly old hag.

6. Hideously ugly old hag stalks fair young maiden in the forest, then poisons her with an apple, resulting in "Sleeping Death."

7. Old hag dies violently in a thunderstorm and becomes vulture food.

8. Charming prince awakens fair young maiden from "Sleeping Death" with a kiss. Zombie maiden then attacks prince and eats his brain.

OK, I made that last part up, but can you see where I'm going with this?

People who think Walt Disney just produced kiddie fare need only look at his earliest feature films to learn otherwise. While not horror movies in the conventional sense, they still contained plenty of horror elements like the above plot lines from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In Pinocchio, young boys are imprisoned and turned into donkeys. In Fantasia, there's an entire segment devoted to disembodied spirits rising from the grave to participate in a fiery satanic ritual. And let's not forget one of the greatest scenes Disney ever put on screen. From 1949'a The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad:

Suspense, terror, a thrilling chase, a headless horseman!

Don't fool yourself. Walt could do some scary stuff.

This is part six of my 30-day Disney movie challenge. Coming up tomorrow, my favorite Disney animated feature.