Thursday, June 30, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Twenty-Three - Movie That Inspires Me

It's a simple inspiring notion, really.

"Adventure is out there."

We all know it's true, but how many of us ever really act on it?

Carl (r.) and his reluctant
stowaway Russell
In Pixar's Up, it becomes the mantra of Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), a quiet, nerdy kid who idolizes Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), a famous adventurer and explorer who travels the globe in his well-appointed dirigible. Carl shares his dream of seeing the world--just like his hero--with Ellie, an equally nerdy girl who eventually becomes Carl's wife and the love of his life. Together, they hope to one day have a home overlooking exotic Paradise Falls at the remote edge of a South American jungle. That would be their ultimate adventure.

But, as the saying goes, life is what happens while you're making other plans. As much as Carl and Ellie try to make it to their jungle paradise, it never quite works out for them. Still, they manage to carve out a comfortable and loving life together. When Ellie dies and Carl is left alone (a touching scene that still brings tears on repeated viewings), the dream dies with her.

Or does it?

(l. to r.) Kevin, Russell, Dug and Carl
Now old, grouchy and misanthropic, Carl faces an uncertain and unfulfilling future in a retirement home. Refusing to give up without a fight, however, he draws upon his experience and resources as a lifelong balloon salesman to attach thousands of helium balloons to his house and set it aloft in search of the adventure that has always been out there.

With one complication: Russell, the young, earnest and clumsy Wilderness Explorer who's gotten trapped on Carl's front porch.

With Russell on board, Carl somehow finds his way to South America, where he encounters exotic birds, talking dogs, cones of shame and the elusive hero of his youth, Charles Muntz--who turns out to be not nearly as noble as young Carl thought he was. In the end, Carl and Russell must fight to save a rare bird (which Russell has named Kevin) from the evil clutches of Muntz. And Carl still never quite makes it to Paradise Falls, at least not the way he and Ellie intended. That bittersweet conclusion forms the core of Up's inspirational message. Life is not about the destination, it's about the journey. And the greatest adventure of all is the one that happens right outside your doorstep.

This is the latest installment of my 30-Day Disney Movie Challenge. Next up, my favorite movie soundtrack.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

'Cars 2' Rules the Road

John Lasseter's wall of toys at Pixar
John Lasseter really likes to play with his toys.

You can see them in his office at Pixar. On the wall behind his desk and scattered throughout the room are toys, mostly from the Toy Story franchise, but plenty from Cars as well. It's an explosion of Woody and Buzz, McQueen and Mater, and it's a reminder not only of the power of Disney/Pixar merchandising, but also of the kid that still lives in Lasseter.

That kind of sums up how I feel about Cars 2, which was directed by Lasseter. It's going to sell a lot of merchandise, but it sure is fun when John shares his toys with us.

Tow Mater and Lightning McQueen on Pit Row
The critics have not been kind to Cars 2. After seeing a fairly dismal consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, I was having my doubts about the movie myself. Some reviews were pretty scathing. Was Pixar losing its touch?

Not the way I saw it. Cars 2 is an entertaining and fast-paced romp around the race track. Is it among Pixar's best? No, it isn't. It lacks the emotional depth of Up and Wall-E, but it still accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, and that's to rev up the action and be nothing more than a fun time at the movies. It won't tug on your heartstrings like Toy Story 3 or Monsters, Inc., but who says every Pixar film has to? The first Cars movie tried to be about something, evoking the nostalgia of Route 66 culture while reminding us how important it is to stop and smell the roses every now and then. Unfortunately, it put too much emphasis on the laid-back ways of Radiator Springs and slammed the brakes on the story. When it wasn't about Lightning McQueen ka-chowing around the oval, Cars dragged.

Cars 2 has no time for introspection, instead going pedal to the metal with a spy caper tale that puts Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) in a World Grand Prix racing competition while his slow-witted, tow truck buddy Mater gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity and international espionage. There's nothing about this premise that says subtlety or pathos, so if that's what you're expecting from Pixar this time around, you best move on down the road.

Secret agent cars Holly Shiftwell, Finn McMissile and...Mater?
What Cars 2 does offer is non-stop action and the same love of spy thrillers that The Incredibles had for super heroes. There's joy to be found in the details, from the clever guns and gadgets packed inside super spy car Finn McMissile (an insouciant Michael Caine, perfectly cast) to the extraordinary architectural elements found throughout Cars 2's auto-fied venues (London's Big Ben becomes Big Bentley, complete with grille work; the bottom arch of Paris's Eiffel Tower has wheel spokes). It's a feast for the eyes that makes you want to watch it again if only to see what other fleeting details you missed the first time.

It's pure entertainment, from flying cars to intentionally lame puns ("You da bomb!") to a bad guy who wears a monocle. You can see Lasseter and his creative crew gleefully letting their imaginations run wild ("We'll put magnets on Finn's tires so he can climb!" "Let's trick out Mater with spy weapons--won't that be cool?!"). Cars was held back when it kept its characters in the friendly confines of Carburetor County. Like with any fine vehicle, Cars 2 proves that it's way more fun when you let it run on the open road.

Thanks for sharing, John.

Friday, June 24, 2011

John Lasseter's Job is Way More Interesting Than Yours

Cars 2 is opening today to less than stellar reviews (currently 37% on Rotten Tomatoes--OUCH!), but even if the movie is a clunker (I'll post my review later this weekend), it will do little to tarnish Pixar's image as a haven of cutting edge animation and, well, a really cool place to work.

Below is a photo essay chronicling a day in the life of Pixar's chief creative officer and Cars 2 director John Lasseter. As much as I would have liked to follow Mr. Lasseter around all day and take pictures (now there's something to put on my bucket list), all the words and images are from Walt Disney Studios public relations and photographer Deborah Coleman. It's pure studio fluff, but anytime you can get a glimpse behind closed doors at Pixar, it's a good thing. Enjoy.

A SWEET START (7:48 a.m.) -- Kissing wife Nancy goodbye, "Cars 2" director John Lasseter hits the road for the 60-minute ride from his Sonoma County home to Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif.

A WORKING COMMUTE (8:13 a.m.) – Lasseter rides instead of driving to work, allowing precious minutes to review "Cars 2" materials on an iPad. Supervising technical director Apurva Shah created a special application for Lasseter that allows the director to record notes verbally and email his feedback to the appropriate department.

A GRAND ENTRANCE (8:52 a.m.) – Lasseter chats with fellow Pixarian A.J. Riebli, a Sonoma County neighbor, upon arrival at Pixar Animation Studios.

WHAT’S THE SCOOP? (9:38 a.m.) – Executive manager Heather Feng downloads Lasseter on the day ahead in his office.

BEHIND THE DESK (9:43 a.m.) – With hundreds of "Toy Story" toys looking on, Lasseter reviews a "Cars 2" trailer on his office computer.

BREAKFAST WITH A SIDE OF “CARS 2” (10:09 a.m.) – Jim Murphy, director of creative artists, stops to chat while "Cars 2" producer Denise Ream and assistant Heather Feng review materials—and breakfast—with Lasseter at Pixar’s Luxo Café.

IN UNIFORM (10:27 a.m.) – Producer Denise Ream joins Lasseter en route to a meeting. The "Cars 2" director dons his daily uniform, a Hawaiian shirt themed to his current project (this one features "Cars" characters). Lasseter currently has 350 Hawaiian shirts in rotation.

BECOMING A TOY (10:47 a.m.) – Lasseter discusses product details of the John Lassetire toy car with Jay Shuster, character art director; Ben Butcher, manager of art, consumer products; Andy Dreyfus, marketing creative director; and producer Denise Ream. The character, John Lassetire, makes a brief appearance in "Cars 2" as World Grand Prix contender Jeff Gorvette’s pit crew chief.

PAYING ATTENTION TO DETAILS (11:14 a.m.) – Lasseter joins various teams, including animation and effects, in the East Screening room to review "Cars 2" shots during back-to-back meetings.

READY FOR HIS CLOSE-UP (11:50 a.m.) – Lasseter takes an up-close view of a shot in the East Screening room during back-to-back meetings. The director gives the team verbal notes, recorded by a production coordinator.

LUNCH “BREAK” (12:50 p.m.) – Producer Denise Ream, production manager Jake Martin and executive manager Heather Feng join Lasseter for a bite to eat at Pixar’s Luxo Café. Though the group shares lunch every day, today’s topic of conversation is Pixar’s museum exhibit that is traveling the world.

WE’RE WALKING (1:15 p.m.) – Lasseter walks with production manager Jake Martin to his next meeting, passing by a stunning and heartwarming piece of concept art from "Toy Story 3" that measures 11 feet by 22 feet.

MAKIN’ THE ROUNDS (1:22 p.m.) – Lasseter begins a regular animation walk-through in animator Jean Claude Tran’s office, reviewing shots and giving notes like only he can. Animation coordinator Max Sachar and supervising animator Shawn Krause look on and record the feedback.

NEXT! (2:04 p.m.) – Lasseter continues his animation walk-through in animator Tim Hittle’s office with supervising animators Dave Mullins and Shawn Krause looking on.

PARTY! (2:43 p.m.) – Lasseter breaks from his duties to share a toast in the Pixar atrium with character art director Jay Shuster, celebrating his last day on the "Cars 2" production with several crew members. Shuster officially moves on to another film.

THE RIGHT EFFECT (3:13 p.m.) – Lasseter touches base with "Cars 2" effects lead Gary Bruins in the East Screening room. Bruins and his team are behind the film’s more explosive moments.

DETAILS, DETAILS (4:40 p.m.) – Lasseter joins film editor Stephen Shaffer in Shaffer’s edit bay office to tighten up select "Cars 2" sequences.

EDITORIAL REVIEW CONTINUES (5:03 p.m.) – Lasseter’s editorial review with film editor Steve Schaffer and animator Michal Makarewicz continues late into the afternoon.

MORE THAN A MOVIE (5:26 p.m.) – As director and chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, Lasseter’s role includes approving items like poster designs and consumer products. Assistant Michelle Moretta walks him through the day’s materials.

NIGHT LIGHT (5:57 p.m.) – Lasseter makes his way to his car at the end of a busy day, passing by two of Pixar’s most recognizable icons—the lamp and the red, yellow and blue ball that pay homage to the studio’s pioneering and Oscar®-nominated short, "Luxo, Jr." (1986). The ball later bounced around 1995’s "Toy Story," and has made appearances in several of Pixar’s feature films through the years, including "Monsters, Inc." and "Up."

EVERY MINUTE COUNTS (6:04 p.m.) – Though Lasseter makes an effort to head for home by 6 p.m. each evening, the director does spend his commute reviewing shots from the film on his iPad. He should hit home by 7 p.m.—a home that is wired directly to Pixar with his own telephone extension, but the director tries to leave his work in the office (and car).

It was announced this week that Lasseter will be among the well known names to receive stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012. Congratulations, John, on a well-deserved honor.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Storybook Land: From Mudbank to Magic

The Storybook Land Canal Boats opened at Disneyland today in 1956. This fanciful boat ride through the gaping mouth of Monstro the Whale and into a miniature world of Disney animated films has delighted guests for 55 years. The attraction as we know it today, however, had a very humble beginning.

Say "Aahhhhhh."

On Disneyland's opening day in 1955, what would become Storybook Land debuted as the Canal Boats of the World, a leisurely float past, well, pretty much nothing except mounds of dirt. The ride was originally intended to show miniature reproductions of famous world cities like Paris and London, but Walt Disney ran out of time and money to finish it properly. Instead, boat skippers had to pilot their crafts through an empty waterway, occasionally stopping to talk about coming attractions at Disneyland. Hardly an E-ticket, it was euphemistically dubbed the "Mudbank Ride."

In May 1956, my parents visited Disneyland for the first time and my father took these pictures of Storybook Land under construction from the Casey Jr. Circus Train:

The Old Mill under construction

Pinocchio's Alpine Village. Pardon our fairy dust.

When the Storybook Land Canal Boats officially launched in June 1956, four of the original Mouseketeers were on hand, as was the American Dairy Princess, who christened each vessel by pouring a pint of milk on it (I am not making this up).

Storybook Land has undergone a number of changes over the years, but it will always be a land of magical miniature sites and villages. The next time you ride it, though, try to remember that it all started as a pretty ugly ride to nowhere.

Cinderella's Castle today

Merrily on our way to nowhere in particular.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Twenty-Two - Movie I Wish I Could Live In

Nearly 74 years of Disney and Pixar feature films have taken us to all manner of interesting places. From fairy tale castles to idyllic high schools; from quaint forest cottages to apocalyptic waste dumps. Some would be quite wonderful to live in. Others, not so much. Still, despite all those choices, I had no trouble deciding which imaginary Disney destination I'd like to go to.

I want to live on the Grid.

Seriously, what better place to get a nice apartment on the edge of town...

...catch up with old friends...

...or have a drink or two with new ones?

I could partake in challenging recreational activities...

...or even check out the local music scene.

There's nothing like attending a major sporting event...

...although, the traffic can be a bitch.

And yeah, OK, that whole derezzing thing is kind of a drag.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to want to live on the Grid.

I'll send you a postcard.

Wait, make that an e-mail instead.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Twenty-One - Movie With My Favorite Actor

Jeff Bridges was 32 when he appeared in his first Disney film. It took him 28 years to do it again.

Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) faces off
with Clu (Jeff Bridges).
Bridges played video game geek Kevin Flynn and his digital doppelganger Clu in both Tron (1982) and Tron: Legacy (2010). For two movies where actors took the backseat to whiz-bang special effects, Bridges still managed to stand out, a credit to his gifts as an actor. Throughout his career, he's had a knack for making mediocre movies good and good movies great (see The Big Lebowski, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, and the criminally overlooked The Door in the Floor).

Neither Tron nor Tron: Legacy are great films, but they are entertaining eye candy and that's OK. That's all they were intended to be. Tron tested the limits of early computer animation and is the more groundbreaking film. Tron: Legacy, however, is the better overall movie experience, with bigger and bolder visual effects. Twenty-eight years of improved digital technology were kind to it.

You're messing with my Zen thing, man!
As far as Bridges performances, I prefer him as the cocky, goofy computer nerd of the first movie compared to the grizzled zen master he played in the second ("180 degrees from where we left him," commented Bridges). His nervous energy as he bounds up the stairs of the research lab or explains his plan to recover stolen game programs are what propel the scenes that are otherwise "off the Grid." He proves the perfect foil for bad guy David Warner, who does triple duty as the weaselly corporate drone Dillinger, his merciless program Sark, and the all-powerful Master Control Program (I'm pretty sure Warner played the villain in every movie produced in the 1980s--and then he sunk the Titanic).

In Tron: Legacy, using motion capture animation and facial mapping, Bridges played Clu as a younger version of himself. The effect is creepy, but it works. And it's still Bridges performance, even if it is digitally reproduced.

Kevin Flynn's ultimate fate in Tron: Legacy was up for grabs, leaving the door open for a new Tron installment (a script is already being worked on). Disney already put "day after" teaser videos on the Blu-ray release of Tron: Legacy, which were also briefly leaked online. Apparently, there is much speculation that "Flynn Lives."

Will Jeff Bridges be back for a third go-round on the Grid? I expect he will, and he'll again be as much fun to watch as the digital bells and whistles on screen.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Twenty - Movie With My Favorite Actress

On TV and in movies, I grew up watching Jodie Foster. She was only a few months younger than I was (still is, I believe), so I always related to her and, yeah, had a crush on her too. In her tweens and teens, she usually played the savvy tomboy--tough on the outside, but with soft center--especially at Disney, where she appeared in four theatrical films during the 1970s. Her big screen debut was in Disney's 1972 flick Napoleon and Samantha. She was only ten when she made it, but she was already a veteran of commercials and series television, guesting on shows ranging from Bonanza to Gunsmoke to The Courtship of Eddie's Father.

In 1976, at the ripe old age of 13, Foster had her breakthrough role playing the teen hooker Robert DeNiro tries to save in the definitely-not-Disney Taxi Driver. It earned her an Academy Award nomination and the cred as an up and coming actress. She was still playing tomboy roles, though, and she appeared that same year for the mouse house opposite Barbara Harris in Freaky Friday. Two years later, she starred in Disney's Candleshoe, one of my favorite Foster films from '70s.

Welcome to Candleshoe.
(l. to r.) Leo McKern, David Niven
Jodie Foster and Helen Hayes 
In Candleshoe, Foster plays Casey, a street kid (with a heart of gold, we suspect) that bears a striking resemblance to the long-lost heiress of Candleshoe, an English estate. Casey is discovered by con man Harry Bundage (Leo McKern), who sees her as a means to unlock the mystery of a lost pirate treasure, if only they can convince the mistress of the house, Lady St. Edmund (Helen Hayes), that Casey is, in fact, her missing granddaughter. They must also convince milady's loyal butler Priory (David Niven), who has a secret or two of his own.

Candleshoe is a charming film, a high-water mark for Disney's style of light family entertainment at the time. It's a pleasure to watch Foster more than old her own against such old pros as Hayes, Niven and McKern. The story is pleasant with plenty of broad slapstick, including a fun, if somewhat protracted, fight to save the estate at the end of the movie.

It would be the last movie Foster made for Disney (unless you count 2005's Flightplan, which was released by Touchstone). She would go on to much bigger success as a grown-up, of course, winning Oscars for The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs. It's nice to know she never completely abandoned her Disney roots, though. In May, she put in an appearance on the black carpet at Disneyland for the premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. She was even heard talking about the Country Bear Jamboree.

I knew there was something I liked about her.

The 30-Day Disney Movie Challenge (give or take a few days) keeps plodding along. When next we meet, my favorite actor will catch a clue..errr...Clu.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Remembering Betty Taylor

Disneyland Resort president George Kalogridis called the passing of Disney Legend Betty Taylor a day after the death of her longtime Golden Horseshoe Revue costar Wally Boag a "tragic coincidence."


Betty died yesterday at her Washington State home. She was 91.

In January 1956, Betty joined the Golden Horseshoe, replacing Judy Marsh in the role of the cafe's owner, emcee and main squeeze to Pecos Bill, Slue-Foot Sue. Betty stayed with the show until 1987, racking up 45,000 performances, exceeding even that of Wally Boag, who retired in 1982.

Betty and Wally seemed destined to perform together. Both grew up in the northwest and took to music and dance at an early age. While Wally's calling was vaudeville, Betty gravitated towards nightclubs and big bands, singing with Les Brown and other popular bandleaders of the time. She even performed with Frank Sinatra for a series of shows in Las Vegas.

Betty had a smart and sassy stage presence and a rich voice that filled the Golden Horseshoe. Her signature tune was "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?", one of the many highlights of the show:

She also famously performed with comedian Ed Wynn atop a piano on wheels for a 1962 episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color:

Betty was a consummate professional with the attitude that "the show must go on." That was never more evident than when the Golden Horseshoe Revue went on a USO tour in 1968. In Wally Boag's memoir, Clown Prince of Disneyland, he recalled a stop they made in Iceland.

"Betty broke her ankle while riding on a snowmobile from the plane to our first show. They flew her to the nearest hospital, and the rest of us went on with the show. When we went to see her we were told that they were going to have to send her home because they had to put her leg in a cast. She was devastated, but our accordian player saved the day. He was a weight lifter and said he could pick her up and put her on a stool so she could do her numbers. He did and she got a great response from our audiences."

Disney lost two legends this weekend, and for those of us of a certain age, a big chunk of our childhood goes with them.

Rest in peace, Slue-Foot Sue and Pecos Bill.

Related Story: Wally Boag, 1920-2011

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Wally Boag, 1920-2011

In his book, Clown Prince of Disneyland, Wally Boag wrote that spitting out his teeth was probably the bit people remembered most about the Golden Horseshoe Revue. As a kid, it certainly was for me. In the late 1960s, I can recall sitting at a left-side table with my family inside the Golden Horseshoe, not far from the stage. There'd be a really silly guy up there (Boag) wearing a floppy cowboy hat and six-guns that hung too low. With pretty Slue Foot Sue (Betty Taylor), he'd crack wise and sing about the legendary Pecos Bill. At some point during the number, he'd get smacked in the mouth and begin spitting teeth (they were actually pinto beans) at the musicians below him, who would pull out ping pong paddles and begin batting the teeth around. This would go on for quite some time. The audience roared.

In a 27-year stretch, Wally Boag did this same bit (and many others) nearly 40,000 times at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. But, his legacy isn't just about longevity. It's about talent and commitment. He put as much effort and heart into his first performance as he did into his last, and into every one in between. Wally understood that for as many times as he twisted his balloon animals, shot his water pistols or did his signature loose-limbed high kicks, there would always be people in the audience who had never seen the Golden Horseshoe Revue and who deserved a great show.

He was a born entertainer who gave dance lessons in his teens and worked the vaudeville circuit for nearly twenty years before signing a two-week contract (that just kept on going) at Disneyland. Wally first performed at the Golden Horseshoe during an anniversary party for Walt and Lillian Disney on July 13, 1955, four days before Disneyland opened. Aside from being the Revue's debut, it was also noteworthy for being the show at which Walt climbed over the railing of the stage left balcony to join Wally on stage. He was soon followed by Lillian (who took the steps, thank you very much). About the evening, Wally wrote, "Lilly loved to dance and Walt didn't. However, when the band began playing, he took her hand and danced around the stage. She didn't know it, but he had taken some dancing lessons because he knew how happy it would make her."

Wally had many memorable moments with the Golden Horseshoe Revue. In September 1962, the show's 10,000th performance was turned into an episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color:

During his career, Wally performed with some of the greats in entertainment including Julie Andrews, Donald O'Connor, Ed Wynn, the Mouseketeers and the Muppets. For a publicity stunt, he once took a cream pie in the face from silent screen star Buster Keaton. Wally retired from the Horseshoe in 1982 and was named a Disney Legend in 1995 along with his Golden Horseshoe co-stars Betty Taylor and Fulton Burley. Today, you can still hear him as the voice of Jose in Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room.

Wally had been in declining health for a number of years and passed away yesterday at the age of 90.

As a young employee at Disneyland, actor/comedian Steve Martin saw Wally Boag perform and was greatly influenced by his comedic talent. In the foreword to Wally's memoir, Martin wrote, "Wally had something about him, an infectious happiness and a mysterious something else I later learned was called comic timing. Everything he did had a rhythm, and it all came together in a kind of comedic concert as he charmed and teased the audience. There was a gentleness to his comedy, a feeling that you were being let in on some special secret."

Wally Boag leaves behind a legacy of fun and laughter that delighted audiences for decades. He will be sorely missed.

Our deepest condolences go to his family and friends.

Related Story: Remembering Betty Taylor