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