Tuesday, November 27, 2012

'Brave': Not Pixar's Best, But There's Nothing Wrong With That

My friend Julia observed a few months back that a group of us on Facebook always have the same conversation whenever a new Pixar movie comes out. For lack of a better term, let's call it the "Cars Test." In a nutshell, someone will make a comment about the latest Pixar release. If any reservations about the film are expressed, the next person will almost invariably ask, "Is it better than Cars?", which we generally agree is the weakest of the Pixar films. After that, a lively discussion will ensue as to which movies are the best and which are the worst. Up, Toy Story 2 and The Incredibles are my favorites (along with Wall-E, which I'm surprised to find some of my friends don't care for--what is wrong with them?). At the bottom of my list are Cars (naturally) and Ratatouille (for all its beautiful animation, it's still about rats in a kitchen--ick). In the last year or so, I've come to the defense of Cars 2, which, despite being panned by the majority of critics, I find to be one of Pixar's most entertaining gee-let's-just-have-some-silly-fun-with-this movies.

I often wonder if Pixar's feature film track record is a blessing or a curse for the animators and film makers in Emeryville. They've made great films--some instant classics--and some flawed films, but they have never made a truly bad one, so every new release automatically comes with the baggage of high expectations. Consequently, it's becoming increasingly difficult to review a Pixar film on its own terms anymore without making a knee-jerk assessment of how it ranks against its predecessors.

That said, Brave--now available on home video--is not perfect, but it's better than Cars. Very much so.

It's an exquisitely animated film steeped in Scottish folklore that presents Pixar's very first female protagonist. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald)  is a headstrong young princess in a clan ruled by her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), a burly and gregarious warrior who lost part of his leg in a legendary battle with a vicious bear named Mor'du. Merida takes much after her father. She's grown up learning his fighting ways and has become very skilled with weaponry, especially a bow and arrow, much to the chagrin of her regal mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who believes Merida should respect tradition and act more like a proper princess.

Merida and her mum, Queen Elinor
That is the central conflict of Brave, mother steadfastly adhering to the ancestral ways, daughter asserting her independent thoughts and ideals. When Merida, against the Queen's wishes, defiantly shows up three oafish would-be suitors in an archery competition to win her hand, it results in an angry confrontation between mother and daughter. Merida storms off, eventually seeking the services of a witch (Julie Walters) to cast a spell that will change her fate. Merida wants to follow her own path and not be subject to the dictates of her mother.

As the expression goes, be careful what you wish for. The spell indeed changes Merida's fate, but it also puts her family in mortal danger and threatens to destroy the entire kingdom. It's up to Merida to somehow mend the damage and, in the process, learn the values of understanding and compromise.

Brave is both humorous and heartfelt, adeptly tapping into the complex emotions that bind all mothers and daughters together. There is depth to both Merida's and the Queen's characters. You see the love and the stubbornness that define them both--the emotions that push them apart and ultimately bring them back together. If there's any weakness in the film, it's that the emotional moments don't always flow smoothly with the comic ones, which tend to be too broad at times. There's the obligatory what-Scotsmen-wear-under-their-kilts joke, and I thought the witch was unnecessarily over the top in a Warner Bros. Witch Hazel sort of way. These are minor beefs, however, in a film that otherwise has its heart in the right place.

So, where does that put Brave in the Pixar hierarchy of films? For me, it lands it squarely in the bottom half of Pixar's 13 feature-length productions. But that's no sin, not when you consider it's in the company of Toy Story and A Bug's Life. That's the pleasure of Pixar films. Even their second bests are better than most.

I'll post my ranking of the Pixar films one of these days.  In the meantime, what's your favorite? Your least favorite? And where does Brave fit in the mix? Leave your comments below or share your thoughts on Facebook.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Snow White, the Walt Disney Family Museum and Diane Disney Miller in The Mouse Castle Lounge

© Disney. Courtesy Walt Disney Animation Research Library
I took The Mouse Castle Lounge on the road last week to San Francisco for my visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum and their new Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs exhibition. I came back impressed, educated and enlightened. And a little geeked out.

The day was full of win just to be able to talk about the Museum's mission with CEO Gabriella Calicchio, animation art preservation with curator Lella Smith, and old movies (not to mention Snow White) with historian J.B. Kaufman. The icing on the cake, however, was spending a few minutes with Walt Disney's daughter, Diane Disney Miller.

In the seven years or so I've been writing and reporting about my obsession, I've been very fortunate to meet a number of well known and well regarded people in and around the world of Disney. Only twice have these encounters ever rendered me speechless, or worse, stupid. First, was my first visit to the Walt Disney Archives. Overwhelmed by the amazing art and memorabilia that surrounded me, items that my childhood was built upon, the only semi-intelligent thing I could manage to say to archivist Robert Tieman was, "Gee, it must be great to work here!" I've been back to the Archives since. I'm a lot less wound up there now.

The second time I found myself at a loss was last week when I met Diane.

I suspect over the years she's become accustomed to fans of her father becoming starstruck in her presence. As more than one friend of mine pointed out, "She's got Walt Disney's DNA in her!" It's not fair, really. For all the work Diane has done over the years to preserve her dad's legacy, it's not the only thing that defines her. She's a wife and mother and, with her husband of over 50 years, Ron Miller (himself former president and CEO of Walt Disney Productions), is co-owner of the Silverado Vineyards Winery in the Napa Valley.

Diane worked tirelessly to make the Walt Disney Family Museum a reality, and now, three years after its opening, there she was, strolling through the Museum's first big expansion, an exhibition dedicated to one of her dad's greatest triumphs. As I was introduced to her, I tried to put my game face on, that of a serious blogger/podcaster working on a story. But then, fan geekery started assaulting my professional instincts. My heart raced. Butterflies invaded my stomach. My mind reeled. "I just shook hands with Walt's daughter!"

Inwardly, I was all nerves. Outwardly, I'm sure I gushed to Diane way too much about what an honor it was to meet her. This is perhaps common when meeting her for the first time, but I didn't want to be that guy. I struggled to get through the interview, trying to find the right words, trying to be too clever. Diane was patient and gracious through it all and shared a great story about the first time she saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when she was three and the Queen's transformation terrified her. When we were done, we shook hands again and parted ways. Of course, that's when my brain finally unlocked and I thought of the hundred different things I should've said to her instead.

Later on, Andi, my contact at the Museum who does a fantastic job in communications and PR, confessed that she acted the same way I did the first time she met Diane. That helped. Disney dorks understand.

One day, I hope to sit down with Diane again when I'm not such a bundle of nerves. Maybe we'll chat over a glass of Silverado wine and I'll run down the list of things I should've said to her the first time around. That would be nice. I think I deserve a do-over. Stay tuned.

My Diane fixation aside, this week's episode of The Mouse Castle Lounge is jammed with Snow White history. You're going to love my conversations with Gabriella Calicchio, Lella Smith and J.B. Kaufman as they talk at length about the Walt Disney Family Museum and the lasting legacy of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Enjoy!

The Mouse Castle Lounge is also available via iTunes and Stitcher.

Related Story:
75 Years of Snow White on Display at the Walt Disney Family Museum


Saturday, November 17, 2012

'Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two' Doesn't Live Up to Expectations

I've spent the last couple of days revisiting Wasteland, the mythical world of forgotten Disney dreams, in the new Epic Mickey installment, Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two.

A few hours into the game, I was already tiring of it.

Despite the added dimension of tandem play between Mickey Mouse and his new best friend Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Epic Mickey 2 really breaks no new ground in the franchise. Like its predecessor, it looks great with plenty of clever and imaginative visual treats that will impress any bona fide Disney geek (I'm particularly fond of the Pink Elephants on Parade that populate various hidden rooms and secret passages on Mean Street, Epic Mickey 2's twisted take on Main Street, U.S.A.), but that still doesn't change the fact that the game is bogged down with tedious and repetitive game play that feels exactly the same as the first installment.

In Epic Mickey 2, the intrepid mouse is called back to Wasteland to help save it once again from epic destruction. This time, the world is being ravaged by earthquakes and strange forces that the villainous Mad Doctor from part one says he can fix (in song, no less) with the help of some friends with heart. Has the Doc turned over a new leaf? Should he be given a second chance? Personally, I don't trust him--and neither do the characters of Wasteland.

Equipped with his trusty magic paint brush, Mickey sets out to repair the damage and solve puzzles using paint to build and create and thinner to erase and destroy. By his side, he also has Oswald, who can use a remote control to activate machines and zap bad guys with electricity. Oswald automatically tags along with Mickey in single-player mode, but he's definitely more useful when he's under the control of a second player. How the duo uses the tools at their disposal determines the direction of the game play. There are always choices to make that affect future outcomes.

If most of this sounds familiar, it's because it is. The Power of Two is basically the first Epic Mickey with a two-player mode and different scenery. It does make some improvements from the original, like better camera movement and real dialogue in place of the gibberish characters used to spout (Frank Welker does a fine job voicing Oswald). It also adds interesting new areas to explore like Disney Gulch (Frontierland), Fort Wasteland (Tom Sawyer Island), and especially the best lands of the bunch, Rainbow Falls and Rainbow Caverns, which are at once homages to Disneyland's Mine Train and the Seven Dwarfs' Mine. I was also partial to this boss encounter with a maniacal, mechanical Pete's Dragon in Main Street Electrical Parade mode.

Still, this is all window dressing for a game that makes you slog through quest after repetitive quest--all reminiscent of the original Epic Mickey--to get to the good stuff. This may play well for gamers who missed out the first time (Epic Mickey was only available on Wii; Epic Mickey 2 is available across all major game console platforms), but if you've played Epic Mickey already, The Power of Two is going to feel more like an expansion pack of additional worlds than a full-blown original game.

I had high hopes for Epic Mickey 2. I came away disappointed.

Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two will be available tomorrow for Xbox360, PS3, Wii, Wii U, PC and MAC.

Related Stories:
Back to the Wasteland: Mickey and Oswald Reunite for 'Epic Mickey 2'
From Wilderness to Wasteland: Frontierland's Warped Virtual Makeover


Thursday, November 15, 2012

75 Years of Snow White on Display at the Walt Disney Family Museum

A new exhibition celebrating the 75th anniversary of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs officially opens today at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.  On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to preview the exhibit, which contains over 200 pieces of concept art, pencil sketches, cel setups, watercolor backgrounds, original posters and other items used in the production of the classic film.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic is housed in a separate two-story building behind the museum's main galleries. The building used to contain a basketball gymnasium in the historic Presidio.

On the second floor foyer, Walt Disney and Shirley Temple greet you with the special Oscar presented to Walt in 1939 for his achievements in making Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The award consists of a regular size Oscar, accompanied by seven little Oscars.

At Tuesday's preview, Walt's daughter and museum co-founder Diane Disney Miller was on hand with museum CEO Gabriella Calicchio to introduce the exhibition.

Said Calicchio, "For me, this exhibition is so special because it tells the story of the animation process, about this extraordinary film...But, what's really special to me is that it showcases the artistry that went into this film. There were some amazing artists that participated, and in this exhibition, you'll see amazing pieces of art."

Walt Disney once said, “Of all the characters in the fairy tales, I loved Snow White the best, and when I planned my first full-length cartoon, she inevitably was the heroine.”

The exhibition includes interactive kiosks that allow you to delve deeper into the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Charlie Chaplin, no slouch to comedy himself, once called Dopey "one of the greatest comedians of all time."

The exhibition takes you through the film scene-by-scene, often showing works-in-progress juxtaposed with the final product. Here, a cleanup drawing of the queen's transformation by animators Campbell Grant and Stan Quackenbush is presented with a video clip from the film.

Concept art by Samuel Armstrong of the hag in a rowboat is paired with two production cels.

While the exhibition does include some original production cels from the film, many of the cels were too fragile to transport to San Francisco, so reproduction cels were created at the Walt Disney Studios by its still active Ink & Paint department.

Diane Disney Miller (l.) views some artwork with exhibition curator and Walt Disney Animation Research Library creative director Lella Smith. In the next episode of The Mouse Castle Lounge, coming this weekend, I'll have interviews with Diane, Lella, Gabriella and an in-depth conversation with author J. B. Kaufman about the exhibition and his two new books about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic will run through April 14, 2013.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Home Video Preview: 'Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 2'

La Luna
Five years ago, Disney released the first Pixar Short Films Collection on home video. It was a seminal compilation of Pixar's early cartoons, starting with John Lasseter's breakthrough experiments in computer animation from the mid-1980s, The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. and Luxo Jr. This 13-film collection also included the Academy Award winners Tin Toy (1988), Geri's Game (1998) and For the Birds (2001), all films that would be the proving ground for up-and-coming animators (including Lasseter) as Pixar made its inevitable plunge into feature films. On this single DVD, you could witness the growth of computer animation in leaps and bounds as movement, texture and complexity improved dramatically with each short film.

On Tuesday, Disney will release the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 2, and while you won't see quite the evolution of technology you witnessed in Volume 1, you will get a dozen entertaining tales, because the one constant in any Pixar creation is story. Even when computer animation was limited to anthropomorphic desk lamps, unicycles and windup toys, it's always been Pixar's gift to inject a good deal of heart, humor and humanity into its characters.

Tops among the Volume 2 entries is Day & Night (2010), director Teddy Newton's incredibly clever look at what happens when the keepers of light and darkness meet. First, they're overcome with suspicion and jealousy, but with time they learn to appreciate each other's differences with a sense of adventure, fun and common purpose.

Also notable are La Luna (2011), a gentle, dreamy fable about a boy who learns the business of tending to moonlight and falling stars from his father and grandfather, and Presto (2008), the story of a magician who learns there are repercussions when you don't properly feed the rabbit in your hat. I particularly enjoyed Presto for its frenetic silliness reminiscent of 1940s-era Warner Bros. cartoons. The gags come fast and furious as Alec the bunny uses his boss's magic against him to acquire the tasty carrot he craves.


For Toy Story fans, the Volume 2 collection also includes the "Toy Story Toon" shorts Hawaiian Vacation and Small Fry.

Small Fry

John Lasseter accepts his 1979 Student
Academy Award from actress Quinn
Cummings for Lady and the Lamp.
Now, if you're a collector of Pixar DVDs and Blu-rays, there's a very good chance you have all the short films in this collection already. They can all be found scattered among the bonus features in Pixar's home video releases over the past five years (La Luna is included in the Brave Blu-ray, also available this week). That said, the reason to get this disc is for the bonus features, which include the early student work of Pixar directing icons John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars), Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) and Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up). It's fun to see how their short film projects at CalArts informed (and still inform) their work decades later. Lasseter's Nitemare, about a little boy confronting the monsters in his bedroom at night, is a direct precursor to Monsters, Inc. and the upcoming Monsters University. Likewise, his film Lady and the Lamp (for which he won a Student Academy Award in 1979) would influence Toy Story and Cars in its ability to bring inanimate objects to life.

My favorite of the student films is Stanton's Somewhere in the Arctic, a simply animated (Stanton acknowledges he was one of the weaker animators in his group at CalArts) bit of silliness about a savvy polar bear who outwits a trio of high-strung hunters. Like Presto, it has a Warner Bros. sensibility to it with its use of random, non-sequitur jokes (where does a polar bear find a boombox anyway?). It's fun to watch and, as Stanton points out in his introduction, it's a reminder of how an audience will let a film maker get away with shortcuts in animation as long as there's a good story.

For all of Pixar's technological accomplishments in animation, the greatest strength of its creative people has always been their ability to tell a story. As the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 2 demonstrates, even before they ventured beyond the walls of CalArts, Lasseter, Stanton and Docter had that gift.

La Luna


Saturday, November 10, 2012

'Lucasfilm,' 'Wreck-It Ralph' and Jeff Kurtti in The Mouse Castle Lounge

The second episode of The Mouse Castle Lounge podcast featured a look at the Disney/Lucasfilm deal, my review of Wreck-It Ralph with audio clips from its red carpet premiere in Hollywood, and part two of my conversation with Disney historian, author and film maker Jeff Kurtti, who talks at length about his long-time friendships and collaborations with Roy E. Disney and the Sherman Brothers.

I think I'm starting to get the hang of this. I'm sure as hell having a lot of fun doing it. Why don't you drop by some time? It's never too late to join the party at your unofficial Disney happy hour.

Be sure to subscribe to The Mouse Castle Lounge on iTunes or keep up with me directly via the show's RSS feed.  

I'm already way excited about my next show. I'll be taking The Mouse Castle Lounge on the road to San Francisco next week to preview the Walt Disney Family Museum's new exhibit celebrating the 75th anniversary of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It'll definitely be a show you won't want to miss. See you then.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Happy Election Day!

Politics, romance and some catchy Sherman Brothers tunes. The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band (1968) starred Walter Brennan, Buddy Ebsen, Lesley Ann Warren, John Davidson and Janet Blair and was set against the backdrop of the 1888 presidential election between Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. Family Band was one of the last films Walt Disney had his hand in (it was in production when he died in December 1966) and is noteworthy for being the movie where Kurt Russell met Goldie Hawn (although they wouldn't become a long-term Hollywood couple until quite a few years later).

And, for what it's worth, in 1888 the Republican challenger (Harrison) defeated the Democratic incumbent (Cleveland).

Wherever your political loyalties lie, make sure you get out and vote today.