Sunday, December 29, 2013

Year End Odds and Ends

Here are a few random things on my mind as we draw a close to 2013:

I'm really looking forward to the newly announced exhibition that will open at the Walt Disney Family Museum on March 13, MAGIC, COLOR, FLAIR: the world of Mary Blair. It will feature nearly 200 works from the famed artist, designer and colorist who contributed her unique artistic sense to Disney films like Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Blair's vivid style can also be seen in It's a Small World and the epic Grand Canyon Concourse mural inside Walt Disney World's Contemporary Resort.

MAGIC, COLOR, FLAIR: the world of Mary Blair will spotlight not only Blair's work at Disney, but also her student art at the Chouinard Art Institute and her illustrations for Golden Books among many other items. The exhibition will be guest curated by Academy Award-winning animator, author and historian John Canemaker.

For more about the exhibition, visit


Hi. My name is Tim and I love Disney Infinity. Yes, these are all mine.


In the generous spirit of the holiday season, I decided to give The Lone Ranger, now available on Blu-ray, another shot. I panned it in July, but I wanted to see if time and the friendly confines of my living room would soften my attitude towards it.

Nope. It's still an overblown, erratic mess that veers wildly from broad humor to violence. It's patronizing to Native Americans, Tonto (Johnny Depp) has mental issues, and our iconic title character (Armie Hammer) is a buffoon.

Hi yo, way. God, I miss Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels.


I'm really tickled with the new Oscars trailer. Host Ellen DeGeneres leads a pack of dancers through the Warner Bros. backlot to the tune of Fitz and The Tantrums’ The Walker.

Ellen will be back for her second go-round at the Oscars on March 2nd. I'll be back on the red carpet (a few days before the ceremony) to host my annual preview show in The Mouse Castle Lounge.


Disney Animated was rightfully named Best iPad App of 2013 by Apple. It's an extraordinary interactive compilation of 90 years of Disney animation. It's part animation tutorial and part history lesson with a generous assortment of finished clips, pencil sketches and concept art. You can step frame by frame through select scenes from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Frozen, manipulate your own computer animation, and delve into the complex creative process that produces animated feature films. Currently priced at $9.99, Disney Animated is worth every penny if you have any kind of appreciation for Disney's animation legacy.


"I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now." -- Edna Mode

I'm not a fan of compiling year-end lists and I don't make New Year's resolutions. I do, however, like looking forward to the next project, the next movie review or the next interview. 2014 is already shaping up to be an exciting year for The Mouse Castle and The Mouse Castle Lounge. Later this week, I'll be chatting once again with historian Didier Ghez. He was a guest in the Lounge in July to talk about the latest edition of Walt's People. When we meet again, he'll be talking about Disney's Grand Tour, Didier's intricately researched book about Walt's 1935 trip to Europe, a trip which would have profound impact on the studio for decades to follow. Also on the docket is Jim Korkis, an accomplished historian and author with a thing to two to say about Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. Look for Jim's interview sometime in January.

I have a few other exciting projects I'm working on that I'm not ready to talk about yet, but give me time. Since I started blogging on my own nearly five years ago and later caught the podcasting bug, I've been on a remarkable journey full of fascinating people and wonderful experiences and it's been my pleasure to share them with you here. Stay tuned. The best is yet to come.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

'Saving Mr. Banks' and Saving Walt Disney's Birthplace in the MCL

Concept image of the fully-restored
Walt Disney birthplace home.
Merry Christmas from The Mouse Castle Lounge!

It's not just the season of giving this year, but the season of saving, as in Saving Mr. Banks and saving Walt Disney's birthplace. In the MCL today, I chat with Brent Young and Dina Benadon, the husband and wife team who head up Super 78 Studios, a company that designs and develops media for theme park attractions. They also happen to be the owners of the house in Chicago where Walt Disney was born. Brent and Dina have embarked on an ambitious plan to restore the two-story home on the southwest corner of Tripp Avenue and Palmer Street to its original state. Walt's father Elias built the home in 1893 and Walt was born on the second floor in 1901.

To help pay for the restoration, Brent and Dina have launched a Kickstarter campaign in an attempt to raise $500,000. There are less than two weeks left to make a donation to the campaign, so please consider giving to this worthwhile cause.

Also in the Lounge today, we take a look at Saving Mr. Banks, the charming (and yes, very fictionalized) account of the making of Mary Poppins. I'll give a short version of my review (you can read the long version here), plus we'll hear from the stars of the film, Tom Hanks (Walt Disney) and Emma Thompson (P.L. Travers).

All this--plus breakfast booze in your holiday coffee--in today's edition of The Mouse Castle Lounge. Enjoy!

Download the episode:

Subscribe to The Mouse Castle Lounge on iTunes and Stitcher. Tune into us on Swell Radio.

Related: A Great Day to Be a Walt Disney Fan
Reviewing 'Mr. Banks'
'Saving Mr. Banks,' 'Mary Poppins' and 'Thor' in 'The Mouse Castle Lounge'

Friday, December 13, 2013

Reviewing 'Mr. Banks'

Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) implores
P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to let him film Mary Poppins.
"Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking." -- Mary Poppins

Call Saving Mr. Banks muddled, then. Deliberately and unapologetically so. Yes, this makes for a less than perfect movie, but Banks approaches its subject matter with such heart-on-its-sleeve earnestness, only the most hardened cynics will fail to get caught up in its spell.

Purporting to tell the tale of how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) cajoled the prickly author of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), into signing over the film rights of her popular children's book to him, Saving Mr. Banks jettisons much of what really happened--Walt never escorted Mrs. Travers through Disneyland; in fact, he left town during her visit--in favor of depicting a highly fictionalized battle of wills between two creative forces of nature. You can decide for yourself if this fast and loose handling of the facts is a deal-breaker or not. I chose to not let it be.

Mrs. Travers meets The Boys, (l. to r.) B.J. Novak,
Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford and Emma Thompson.
Mrs. Travers comes to Walt's Burbank studio hell-bent on protecting her story from becoming Disneyfied. She's against it being a musical, against it having animation, against it starring Dick Van Dyke (apparently she was okay with Julie Andrews). She confronts not only Walt on her crusade but also screenwriter Don DeGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). The source of her stubborn determination is presented through a series of childhood flashbacks in a remote, hardscrabble town in Australia where we meet her gregarious, alcoholic father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell, quite good) and her meek, overwhelmed mother Margaret (Ruth Wilson). P.L., nicknamed Ginty (Annie Buckley) as a child, adores her father, but is repeatedly let down by his many shortcomings, most notably his weakness for strong drink. It's only with the arrival of Margaret's Poppins-like sister Ellie (Rachel Griffiths) that the Goff family finds any sense of stability.

Young Ginty (Annie Buckley) and her father,
Travers Goff (Colin Farrell).
All this backstory exists to soften the audience's attitude towards Mrs. Travers--or just "Mrs." as her good-natured L.A. limo driver (Paul Giamatti, effortlessly affable) refers to her. It's also there to ultimately provide Walt with the key to unlock Mrs. Travers' cold heart and earn her trust. This is all Pop Psychology 101 stuff with pat solutions to what otherwise would be complex problems in the real world. We never doubt for a moment that director John Lee Hancock and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith are going for a happy ending here. It's also no spoiler to reveal that Mrs. Travers ultimately capitulates and Mary Poppins gets made into a movie. Perhaps you've seen it.

The Happiest Place on Earth? Walt (Tom Hanks) escorts
Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson) to Disneyland.
And yet, for all it's feel-good predictability, Saving Mr. Banks never comes off forced. It finds its soft, sentimental center honestly through the strength of its fine cast. Emma Thompson does a wonderful job at striking just the right balance between P.L. Travers' sharp-tongued defiance and her humanity. Mrs. Travers doesn't resist the creative overtures of Walt and his crew just to be difficult, but rather in steadfast defense of the very real characters that inhabit her books. She is the immovable object to Walt's irresistible force. As Walt, Tom Hanks is, well, Tom Hanks. And although he never disappears entirely into the role, he exudes a wily charm as the studio mogul who's used to getting his way and will play every card in his hand to do so.

There are those who will carp about Saving Mr. Banks lack of historical accuracy. To them I say it's a movie, not a documentary. Meet it on its own terms and you will find magic there, a celebration of the creative process and the determined people who intend to see their stories told their way.

Related: 'Saving Mr. Banks,' 'Mary Poppins' and 'Thor' in 'The Mouse Castle Lounge'
'Saving Mr. Banks' and Saving Walt Disney's Birthplace in the MCL

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sam Gennawey's 'Disneyland Story' in 'The Mouse Castle Lounge'

Sam Gennawey
Sam Gennawey is an urban planner by trade who has a serious obsession with Disney. In 2011, he wrote his first book, Walt and the Promise of Progress City, fusing both his professional and personal passions to explore how Walt Disney dared to dream and develop living, breathing 3-dimensional spaces like the Disney Burbank studios, Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Sam's book ultimately focused on Walt's unrealized vision for EPCOT, not the quasi-World's Fair it is today, but an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow that would live on the cutting edge of technology and city design. 

Sam has just published a second book, The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney's Dream, and it's not just a history, but a biography of the Happiest Place on Earth that chronologically traces the park's almost 60-year existence. Sam takes us from Walt's early ideas about the park, to its construction, chaotic opening, and the many attraction hits and misses that have defined it over the decades. We follow the park's evolution during and after Walt's life, recalling major successes like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion as well as ambitious projects that never made it off the drawing board as planned like Edison Square and Discovery Bay. It's a fascinating read that's sure to stir up plenty of nostalgia for even the most casual Disneyland fan.

Sam is my guest today in The Mouse Castle Lounge. Enjoy!

Subscribe to The Mouse Castle Lounge on iTunes and Stitcher. Tune into us on Swell Radio.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Great Day to Be a Walt Disney Fan

Yesterday marked Walt Disney's 112th birthday and it was an excellent day to celebrate being part of this wonderful Disney fan community. Two exciting projects were launched and The Mouse Castle is happy to throw its support behind both of them.

First, Dina Benadon and Brent Young run Super 78 Studios, a design and development firm for theme park attractions. They recently purchased Walt Disney's birthplace home in Chicago and are raising money on Kickstarter to help fund the renovation and restoration. There are plans to ultimately turn the historic residence into a museum.

For more information about this extremely worthwhile project, visit

Another Disney podcast? Really? Well, considering it's being produced by the Walt Disney Family Museum, I call that a win. Give a listen to their first episode featuring longtime Disney producer Don Hahn and the last interview with the museum's founder, Diane Disney Miller.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

'The Disneyland Story': A Detailed and Fascinating Biography of The Happiest Place on Earth

I'm happy to welcome my friend, Susie Prendergast, as a guest columnist to The Mouse Castle. She's smart, clever and most importantly a longtime Disney fan. Plus, by my estimation, she's read every single book ever written, making her eminently qualified to review Sam Gennawey's latest book about Disneyland. Enjoy!

I recently finished one of the latest books about Disneyland, The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney's Dream by Sam Gennawey. Once I started reading, I found myself caught in that weird position of wanting to read it faster to get to the next chunk of information, while at the same time wanting to read it slower to make it last longer. Then, as I attempted to write this article, I found that it is really hard to review the book without trying to connect everything to myself. That’s the magic of Disneyland, I think; it’s such a personal experience for people that it is difficult to separate the emotional aspect from the historical timeline. As I read the book, I kept inserting myself into the story line because “I was there!” or “I know that guy!”

Sam Gennawey manages this separation of park and self in his well-researched book, and hopefully I’ll be able to do the same here. From the moment I saw the vintage photos on the cover, I was intrigued to start reading, and as he states in the introduction, this book is the biography of a place--not the people, not the movies, just Disneyland itself. If you are a Disney fan, you have surely heard some of these origin stories through the years, but Gennawey gives us a chronological map to follow from the project’s inception until we are brought up to date at the end of 2012, through the billion dollar do-over of the California Adventure park.

The book is laid out in chunks of time, for example Chapter 4 spans 1956-1958, and Chapter 9 covers 1996-present. As I read, I imagined the park being laid down in layers, like those transparent overlay pages you’d find in an encyclopedia, where attractions would be added and removed and the boundaries of the park were constantly shifting. In this way, we are taken through the pipeline of development as ideas arise and are developed or set aside, some to be revived and some to be tossed out completely. I found myself getting very involved in the planning stages of the Pirates of the Caribbean, only to find that particular story was abruptly cut off because the final attraction did not fit into that particular chapter’s time frame. Not to worry though, because every thread is woven through the larger narrative, and the author deftly picks them back up again at the appropriate place.

The great thing about this book is the mix of technical details about things like specs on the locomotive engines, Autopia cars, and Monorail designs, blended with anecdotal stories and quotes from many different sources, so there is something for everyone here. The book is peppered with “tips” and trivia along the way as well. One of my favorite sections was about the complete Fantasyland revival in the early 1980s,probably because I can vividly remember the old Fantasyland and how overwhelming it was to walk into the new version when it opened in 1983. Tony Baxter talks about standing in the middle of all the destruction after beginning the massive overhaul and looking around thinking, “Oh my God, what have we done?” It was one thing to just design a new Fantasyland, but to alter so much of the original park must have been a daunting task!

Just as interesting as the concepts that did make their way into the park were the many ideas that did not come to fruition, such as the Port Disney and WESTCOT projects, and the development of the second-gate into what we do have today.

Gennawey uses his background as a city planner to show how environmental impact reports, city bond measures, and planning commission concerns all affected the development of the Disneyland Resort, and makes it all interesting to the average reader. Not even Disney gets their way all the time.

This was a great entry-level read into the history of Disneyland and it makes for a terrific jumping-off point for people who want to know more about particular attractions, Imagineering, or Walt Disney himself. This book has so many citations and such a well-rounded bibliography that you could spend a few years getting caught up in doing more personal research to pursue your further questions. Reading this made me nostalgic for the past and the things that have changed over time in the park, but I also found it reassuring to see the evolution of the park over the long-term. (People have been resistant to change at Disneyland long before the Internet became a thing, believe it or not.) As the saying goes, Disneyland will never be finished, and sometimes you have to let things go to move forward, yet the heart of the park stays the same. The Disneyland Story made me optimistic and I can’t wait to see what the future will hold.
--Susie Prendergast

'Frozen' is Hard to Warm Up To

As I watched Frozen, I couldn't help but imagine a checklist of story elements crossed off line by line by the filmmakers as they worked their way through the production.

  • Empowered Disney princess--no, make that two--check.
  • Misunderstood main character yearning for acceptance, check.
  • Early tragedy that sets the first act in motion, check.
  • Good-hearted comic relief sidekick, check.
  • Evil plot twist that sets the third act in motion, check.
  • Love conquers all resolution, check.

(l. to r.) Anna, Olaf and Kristoff 
Fairy tales (and the films they inspire) by their very nature are formulaic. They follow a tried and true template of need, conflict, peril, rescue and redemption. But, the best ones (think of Disney's The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast) don't draw attention to the formula. They have a rhythm and flow to their stories that magically transport you to other worlds and introduce you to richly developed, relatable and complex characters.

Frozen tries to reach that level. It really does. But, it just doesn't pull it off.

The story takes place in the mythical Nordic kingdom of Arendelle, an idyllic community reigned over by a benevolent king and queen with two young daughters. The eldest, Elsa (Idina Menzel), has magical powers that enable her to create snow and ice out of thin air. The youngest, Anna (Kristen Bell), is sweet, idealistic and she adores her older sister. Elsa keeps Anna entertained with her wintry talents, but when she starts to lose control of her powers and Anna is injured as a result, the king and queen resolve to close the castle gates to keep Elsa hidden away (Anna gets locked up too--one of several plot points in Frozen that makes no sense).

As the two princesses grow up, Elsa isolates herself from Anna, fearing her unwieldy powers will further harm her younger sister. Years pass until Elsa comes of age and is due to be coronated at a gala event in her honor. The castle gates will be opened and Elsa will be tested to keep her powers in check. Anna, on the other hand, will jump at the opportunity to live the life she's always dreamed of outside the castle walls and to possibly meet the man of her dreams--who conveniently presents himself as the handsome and courtly Hans (Santino Fontana).

Hans and Anna
All does not go as planned, of course. Elsa loses her cool, literally, at the coronation and unleashes an icy barrage in the crowded ballroom. Labeled a freak and a monster, she flees Arendelle, leaving it covered by her snowy wake, a permanent winter that cannot be undone. Anna gives chase, determined to save her sister and bring summer back to the kingdom.

On her quest, Anna finds assistance from Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a ruggedly charming mountain man with a mangy pet reindeer named Sven, and Olaf (Josh Gad), a walking, talking snowman created by Elsa. Olaf is by far the most entertaining and interesting character in Frozen. He's a naive innocent who likes warm hugs and loves the concept of summer, even if the reality of it means his demise. Olaf could've easily become an annoying character, but directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (who also wrote the screenplay) are smart to give him just enough screen time to not wear out his welcome. Olaf gets the best lines in the movie and provides Frozen with some very welcome comic relief.

Aside from the sweet snowman, though, there's not a lot in Frozen that feels fresh and fun. The film is beautifully animated, it moves along briskly and there are certainly entertaining moments, but so much of the story is by rote. This is Fairy Tale 101 stuff without a lot of innovation or originality. Frozen was originally supposed to be released in 2014, but Disney moved up the opening date. They should've waited. A few extra months of story development would've only helped the movie.

Also a letdown are the songs. I had high hopes for the husband and wife songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, especially considering the way Mr. Lopez tweaked musical theater conventions with his work in the award-winning Broadway hits Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. The songs in Frozen are a mishmash of big theatrical and bubblegum pop tunes that never really gel. Even the film's intended showstopper Let it Go seems to exist only because Idina Menzel (known for her larger than life Broadway performances in Rent and Wicked) needed a big Idina Menzel song to perform. Let it Go doesn't fit in the flow of the narrative so much as it's just dropped in because it's time for Elsa's big number.

As I noted in The Mouse Castle Lounge, I was skeptical about Frozen for a number of reasons. But, since I don't like to make up my mind about a movie before I see it, I kept an open mind. I came away, though, feeling cold. Given the talent involved, Frozen needs to be a much better and far more original movie than it is.