Saturday, March 30, 2013

An Easter Drink With Roger Rabbit

In honor of Easter, we're buying one of our favorite bunnies a drink. What could possibly go wrong?

It's hard to believe that it's been 25 years since Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that landmark blend of hand-drawn 2D animation and live-action film-making, was released. It's finally available on Blu-ray--it came out earlier this month--and it looks terrific, even if the bonus features on the disc are lacking. They're just reissues of previously released material. Still, if you missed out on the previous DVD release or are jonesing for that pristine high-def look, you really need to get this.

I can't deny that Roger Rabbit is a necessary piece of my movie collection for it’s technical wizardry alone, but it’s always been a film I've been torn over. I love how it looks. I love seeing all those great animated characters share the screen. I love Bob Hoskins’ performance as detective Eddie Valiant. But, I've always had issues with the story. I’ll talk about that later.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a joint venture between Disney and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment group. In their agreement, Spielberg and director Robert Zemeckis—fresh off his 1980s successes Back to the Future and Romancing the Stone—got full creative control and a share of the profits, while Disney retained all the merchandising rights. It was an arrangement that would cause considerable tension at Disney during production.

Disney liked having Spielberg on board and it saw Roger Rabbit as a way to resurrect its languishing animation department which had only released two films in the early 1980s, the moderately successful The Fox and the Hound and the disastrous The Black Cauldron. The Great Mouse Detective was in production and it would eventually be a big step towards Disney’s return to animation glory, but the studio needed to be attached to a project with some prestige and genuine innovation. Roger Rabbit was that project.

It wasn't a cheap project by any means. It was originally budgeted at $50 million, which probably made Disney CEO Michael Eisner's brain explode. This was a guy known for making movies on the cheap and getting the maximum bang for his buck. The final budget did get pared down to just shy of $30 million, but once production started, costs mounted and Eisner couldn't do much about it except whine, complain and send Jeffrey Katzenberg to keep an eye on things since Spielberg and Zemeckis had creative control. Before it was all done, Roger Rabbit would cost about $70 million.

The cost was driven largely by the slow, painstaking efforts it took to blend the animation and live action together. Keep in mind this was long before computers took hold in Hollywood. As a reference point, Roger Rabbit was released the same year (1988) that John Lasseter and Bill Reeves at a struggling computer company named Pixar produced a short cartoon called Tin Toy, which would become the first computer-animated short film to win an Oscar. So, comparatively speaking, there wasn't a whole lot of technology available to the Roger Rabbit crew, but there was a lot of artistry.

The animation was done in England under the direction of Richard Williams. After the live action sequences were shot, photostats of each individual frame of film were sent to London. Where props, puppets or robotics took the place of cartoon characters in the photos, the animators simply drew over them. Well, maybe not that simple. It was a time-consuming and deliberate process that had to be very attentive to the sight lines of the live actors and shifting camera angles (a locked down camera would've been easier for the animation scenes, but Zemeckis insisted on a more realistic look). All told, there were over 82,000 frames of animation drawn in Roger Rabbit. The film spent a year in post-production.

What resulted was a technically astounding film that integrated hand-drawn animation and live action on a scale never seen before or since. Critics were mostly enthusiastic. Roger Ebert with the Chicago Sun-Times called Roger Rabbit "not only great entertainment, but a breakthrough in craftsmanship." Janet Maslin with The New York Times said, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit [is] a film whose best moments are so novel, so deliriously funny and so crazily unexpected that they truly must be seen to be believed." The bunny cleaned up at the box office too, taking in over $150 million in the U.S. alone. The film would be nominated for six Oscars, winning three for film editing, visual effects and sound effects editing. Williams would also receive a special achievement award from the Academy for his impressive animation work.

Twenty-five years later, the technical achievements still hold up. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a wonderful film to look at with plenty of memorable scenes: Eddie Valiant's walk through the toon-populated R.K. Maroon Studios, Donald and Daffy Duck's epic piano duel at the Ink and Paint Club, any scene with Roger's beloved (and bodaciously buxom) Jessica Rabbit--yowsa! Where I've always had my troubles with the film, however, is in the overall tone of the story. I get that the biggest joke of Roger Rabbit is the normalcy with which humans and toons interact. The problem for me is when these worlds collide, what's funny in Toontown often isn't funny in downtown Los Angeles.

As a kid, I grew up watching countless anvils drop on Wile E. Coyote and I lost track of how many times Daffy Duck lost his head during Rabbit Duck Season. I laughed every time.  Still do. These are extreme jokes in an environment where falling boulders squish characters into accordion shapes without permanent damage. Roger Rabbit plays to that idea--toons are impervious to just about everything but Judge Doom's dip--and yet when it crosses over into the human world, it's not quite as funny. Somehow, gag mogul Marvin Acme having a piano dropped on his head inspires more awkwardness than laughter. Eddie's partner being killed by a toon does the same. It's a jarring aspect of Roger Rabbit that I've never particularly liked.

Also, the parallels between Roger Rabbit's Ink and Paint Club and real-life Harlem's Cotton Club of years past are concerning. Toons, like African Americans, were there for entertainment purposes only and weren't welcome in the club as guests. It's obvious Zemeckis and screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman had something to say about the second-class treatment of toons by humans, but it's only touched upon. It's never fully fleshed out. Perhaps that's a sidebar to the film that would've gotten in the way of the 1940s detective noir story it was trying to tell. It still manages to cast a pall over the proceedings without really explaining what the toons' status in society was. Maybe I'm overthinking this, but I always see the toons like oppressed minorities and it detracts from my overall enjoyment of the film. Toons just don't seem to be having very much fun outside of the safe, non-exploitive confines of Toontown. They may sing "Smile, Darn You, Smile," but they don't seem to have a lot to smile about.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Going Red For Marriage Equality

Yep, this is a different look for The Mouse Castle. This is a different kind of article too. I've never used this blog as a platform for political or social commentary before. I don't plan on doing it a lot in the future. Sometimes, however, you just need to speak your mind.

I'll keep it simple. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments to overturn California's Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Both laws discriminate by denying American citizens the basic right to marry the people they love. The Mouse Castle joins the Human Rights Campaign in support of marriage equality.

I'm happy to call many people within the LGBT community my friends and I appreciate the kindness and support they've shown me in this crazy online endeavor of mine. It's my pleasure to send that love and support back to them.

Okay, it was really weird just writing that. I never thought I'd ever be forced to single out a particular group of readers on this blog, but there still exists an unfortunate social climate in the U.S. that thinks alienation and discrimination is acceptable behavior. It needs to stop. I appreciate all my readers (and podcast listeners), gay or straight, stranger or friend, and I cannot understand how a civilized society can continue to isolate a group of people and tell them they aren't entitled to the same rights as all Americans.

Growing up a Disney fan, I once put a lot of faith in nine old men. It is my hope in the coming weeks that a different group of nine old men (and women) will make the right decision on the side of equality.

Find out what you can do to help:

Sunday, March 24, 2013

'Cars Toons Shorty Shorts' Now Viewable Online

The name is a bit precious ("Shorty Shorts"), but the stories are kind of fun. Disney and Pixar have started a new series of very short (less than two-minutes long) Cars Toons that debuted on The Disney Channel on Friday. They can now be seen exclusively online at

Hiccups” - When Lightning McQueen gets the hiccups, everyone in Radiator Springs thinks they have the cure.

Bugged” - Red's peaceful morning routine is interrupted by a pesky visitor.

Spinning” - Guido discovers he has a hidden talent as a street corner sign spinner.

All three "Shorty Shorts" are directed by Jeremy Lasky and produced by Mary Alice Drumm. These "Tales From Radiator Springs" won't take more than a few minutes of your time to view and you'll get a nice chuckle in the process.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

'The Emperor's New Groove' Coming Out on Blu-ray

Some home video releases are a big deal, like when Disney lets a Fantasia or Snow White out of the vault "FOR A LIMITED TIME ONLY." Others cause barely a ripple (Air Buddies movies, anyone?...anyone?).

Some, though, just make you smile. The Emperor's New Groove is that kind of release. It's silly and irreverent--really one of the most un-Disney of Disney's animated films--but, it's still one their most fun and purely entertaining pictures. It will be out on Blu-ray in the U.S. this summer.

Emperor's very existence is the stuff of legend. Originally titled Kingdom of the Sun, it was intended to be an ambitious retelling of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper set in ancient Incan times. Roger Allers began directing Kingdom fresh off his incredible success with The Lion King, but the production bogged down because of creative differences between Allers and Disney management, not to mention poor audience test screenings. Allers was eventually removed from the production and replaced by Mark Dindal, who finished the film that evolved into The Emperor's New Groove. This long process of creative conflict and studio politics was captured by film maker Trudie Styler, who had access to much of the behind-the-scenes wranglings. Styler is the wife of singer-songwriter Sting, who wrote the original songs for Kingdom only to see a scant few of them make the final cut in Emperor. Styler's documentary The Sweatbox has been mostly kept under wraps by Disney, since it depicts the media giant as driven mostly by high-concept commercialism and disdainful of genuine creativity (now there's something we haven't heard before). A rough-cut version of The Sweatbox leaks out online periodically--I saw it as recently as last year--but Disney does a good job of quickly quashing it.

Supporters of Allers will still contend over a dozen years later that had he been given the time and resources to complete his original vision, Kingdom of the Sun had the makings of a classic. Sadly, we'll never know. What we're left with is a film of less lofty aspirations that is nevertheless hugely entertaining. The Emperor's New Groove is about a hip, but egotistical and self-centered young emperor, Kuzco (David Spade), who runs afoul of a sorceress (Eartha Kitt) who means to kill him, but accidentally turns him into a llama instead. It's then up to Kuzco to find redemption with the help of an easy-going farmer (John Goodman) whose land Kuzco had taken to build a summer palace. It's lighthearted fare with plenty of laughs that's right out of the Chuck Jones and Warner Bros. school of animation. The clips below give good examples:

The Emperor's New Groove will be out in a two-movie Blu-ray package along with the direct-to-video sequel Kronk's New Groove on June 11, 2013.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Walt Disney Family Museum, Paula Sigman Lowery and BEER in This Week's 'Mouse Castle Lounge'

I'm phoning it in on The Mouse Castle Lounge. Well, two of my guests are anyway. This week, I'm happy to welcome back Gabriella Calicchio, CEO of the Walt Disney Family Museum. Last November, I was at her place for the opening of the Museum's Snow White exhibit. This time, Gabriella calls up the Lounge and brings me up to speed on what new exhibitions are in store at WDFM in 2013. The diverse nature of these exhibitions is proof positive of why the Walt Disney Family Museum is beginning to thrive not just as a tribute to the legacy of Walt Disney, but also as a showcase for gifted artists, past and present, who were influenced by his life's work.

Camille Rose Garcia: Down the Rabbit Hole
May 9 to November 3, 2013

Camille Rose Garcia challenges fairy tale archetypes with her vivid gothic reinterpretations of classic characters ranging from Snow White to Alice in Wonderland.

Maurice Sendak: 50 Years, 50 Works, 50 Reasons
Opening May 23, 2013

Maurice Sendak is best known for his seminal children's book Where the Wild Things Are, but had a long and prolific career as a writer and illustrator. He often acknowledged Disney as an artistic influence, particularly Mickey Mouse and Fantasia.

Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong
Opening August 17, 2013 

Tyrus Wong's association with Disney was brief but profound. He created the dreamy and evocative watercolor forest backgrounds for Bambi before moving to Warner Bros. where he spent over 30 years as a motion picture illustrator. Still active in the arts at age 102, Wong is a master kite builder who flies his colorful and fanciful creations regularly from the Santa Monica Pier.

Also in the Lounge, I have part two of my conversation with Disney historian Paula Sigman Lowery. We continue our discussion of the evolution of the Walt Disney Family Museum from its virtual origins to its real-life presence in San Francisco's Presidio. Paula tells a great story of how builders and designers told Museum consultant Bruce Gordon that his idea for a curving ramp in WDFM's Gallery 9 simply wasn't possible. Gordon gleefully proved them wrong.
You can't build a ramp in here! Oh, wait....Never mind.
Finally, I'll talk on the phone with Tina, who was attending baseball Spring Training in Arizona with the Angels when suddenly a beer festival broke out.

Play beer!
It's all part of the fun and excitement that is The Mouse Castle Lounge. Enjoy!

The Mouse Castle Lounge can also be heard on iTunes and Stitcher.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Paula Sigman Lowery and Happy Hour at the Anabella: This Week's Mouse Castle Lounge

Paula Sigman Lowery
It's coffee and cocktails with good friends in this week's episode of The Mouse Castle Lounge. And, what the heck, we'll throw in some Disney history and an Anaheim happy hour recommendation for you too.

First, we start off with a wonderful conversation with Disney historian Paula Sigman Lowery, who I've known via social media for about a year and a half, and finally sat down to chat with in person over lattes at Penelope's Cafe Books & Gallery, a quaint little coffee shop not far from Glendale in La Canada Flintridge. Our meeting was sparked by an article I came across that Paula had written for Disney Magazine over ten years ago about a virtual Walt Disney Family Museum. Before it existed in real life in San Francisco's Presidio, the Walt Disney Family Museum was an online extension of that had its origin in a CD-ROM version of Walt - The Man Behind the Myth. In our discussion, Paula and I talk about the evolution of the Museum from its virtual beginnings to its present day bricks and mortar reality. Paula spent 20 years working for the Walt Disney Company, 15 of them at the Walt Disney Archives, and offers all kinds of fascinating insight into Walt, his family and the development of the Museum. She also happily shares her full-blown geekery over the Mickey Mouse Club and Spin and Marty. Hey, she may be a respected Disney historian, but she's also a fan--and true fans are always welcome in The Mouse Castle Lounge.

The Tangerine Grill and Patio at the Anabella Hotel
Next, I'll join my friend Tina at one of our favorite Anaheim hangouts, the Nectarine Bar at the Anabella Hotel. You might recall a month ago Tina and I waxed profound about the offerings at the Mendocino Wine Bar inside Disney California Adventure. This time we chime in on the happy hour specials available seven days a week at this charming hotel within easy walking distance of the Disneyland Resort. For years, the Anabella has been my first choice for location and price when I visit Anaheim. The Nectarine Bar and the adjacent Tangerine Grill and Patio are two more reasons I like to stay there. It's all about the Tangerine martinis, baby!

And, before you ask, the Anabella did not pay me for this endorsement. I really do stay there and it really is my usual first choice. So there.

Podcasters at work at the Nectarine Bar. Back off! We're professionals.
Thanks for dropping by. Please enjoy this week's installment of The Mouse Castle Lounge:

The Mouse Castle Lounge can also be heard on iTunes and Stitcher.