Showing posts with label Disney. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Disney. Show all posts

December 3, 2018

Talking Movies on The Tomorrow Society Podcast

Tomorrowland remains an underrated gem and deserves more attention.

This site has been quiet lately, with the exception of my detour into Stargate Origins earlier this year. That doesn’t mean I’m not still involved with talking about movies, however. My focus these days is The Tomorrow Society, a blog and podcast focused on the world of theme parks. It’s a different sphere yet still veers into the world of movies periodically.

On The Tomorrow Society Podcast, I speak with authors, filmmakers, and experts that work behind the scenes on theme parks. Two of my recent episodes might interest you because the guests work in the film world. They’re still connected to Disney, but the conversations dive into the process of making movies. Here i a quick summary of each episode; John Walker and Mark Mancina had a lot to say about their careers in movies.

Episode 60: John Walker, Producer of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, The Incredibles 2, and Tomorrowland

My latest podcast was just released today and focuses on the box-office disappointment Tomorrowland from 2015. I talked with Producer John Walker about making that movie and why it wasn’t a bit hit. I’m a big fan of Tomorrowland and believe it deserves more attention. We also cover John’s work with Brad Bird on The Iron Giant and the two Incredibles films.

The music of Moana from Mark Mancina holds up really well to repeat viewings.

Episode 55: Mark Mancina, Composer for Moana, The Lion King, Tarzan, Training Day, and Speed

Back in October, I was thrilled to speak with composer Mark Mancina about his diverse career. The talented musician has brought his interest in progressive rock to scores on popular films like Speed and Training Day. He’s also worked regularly on Disney films, most recently Moana. We talk about Mark’s background plus the music for The Lion King, Tarzan, and a variety of projects.

If you’d like to learn more about everything that I’m doing at The Tomorrow Society, you can go to tomorrowsociety.com or follow me on Twitter or Facebook. You can also subscribe to The Tomorrow Society Podcast on Apple Podcasts.

February 19, 2015

Treasures from the Disney Vault: The Vanishing Prairie (1954)

The Vanishing Prairie, released in 1954
This post has moved to a new location at The Tomorrowland Society, a blog that takes a smart look at theme parks and their future. You can access it through this link.

February 13, 2015

Treasures from the Disney Vault — Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier

Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen star in Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier.
Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen star in Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier.
An updated version of this post about Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier has moved to The Tomorrow Society, my blog that focuses on Disney and the world of theme parks. You can locate my article on this 1955 Disney movie at this new location.

February 4, 2015

Treasures from the Disney Vault: The Reluctant Dragon

Robert Benchley tours the Disney Studios in Burbank in The Reluctant Dragon.
Robert Benchley tours the new Disney Studios in Burbank in the 1941 release The Reluctant Dragon.

An updated version of this post about The Reluctant Dragon has moved to The Tomorrow Society, my blog that focuses on Disney and the world of theme parks. You can locate my article on this 1941 Disney movie at this new location.

January 13, 2015

Treasures from the Disney Vault: Santa’s Workshop, On Ice, Chip an’ Dale

Santa's Workshop, released in 1932
Santa's ready for action in this 1932 Technicolor short from Disney's early days. 

One of the most exciting aspects of TCM’s “Treasures from the Disney Vault” series is the chance to see vintage animated shorts that reveal a different side of Disney history. These shorts are available on various DVD releases, but they’re sometimes out of print. We’ve grown accustomed to the harmless (and sometimes grating) images of Disney's current TV shows. Seeing familiar characters acting very differently is refreshing, even when they drift into murky territory. It’s also intriguing to note important advancements in the world of animation that came from Disney in its early days.

Ben Mankiewicz and guest Leonard Maltin host this segment and offer historical background about each short. Maltin is the right choice because of his connections to Disney and extensive knowledge about the company. His story about first getting involved there follows the shorts and provides an interesting look at Maltin’s love of Disney. His overly friendly style isn’t for everyone, but it works for this type of segment. Maltin is a fan but doesn’t gloss over the less savory parts of these films. The culture was a bit different in the ‘30s and ‘40s, so it helps to have some context for the time period.

Santa’s Workshop (1932)


One of the earliest shorts presented in Technicolor, this Silly Symphony entry is fun because of the well-choreographed animation. The many toys and elves move seamlessly together and mesh with the music to show what the medium can do. It’s a pretty simple tale of Santa and his helpers preparing for Christmas, but there are some cool touches. The giant books with the naughty and nice lists while Santa opens the letters are clever and play well on the silly ideas of the Christmas myth. The running time is only seven minutes, but there are a lot of sight gags packed into the brief story.

One downside is some unfortunate racial caricatures, particularly Asian stereotypes. Mankiewicz and Maltin mention them during the introduction, and it’s refreshing that they’re noted but uncensored. Given the attention from the hosts, I expected them to be more prevalent. There are also inventive touches in the toys, including Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp and Noah’s Ark. Watching the presents come alive and jump into the bag is endearing and creates the right tone for this pleasant short.

On Ice, released by Disney in 1935
Mickey gives Minnie a hand with skating in the 1935 Disney short On Ice

On Ice (1935)


The familiar Disney characters appear in this Mickey Mouse cartoon that seems fitting in the cold of winter. Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Clarabelle all appear to skate on the frozen pond. Three years after Santa's Workshop, the animation has already improved significantly. Shots of Mickey dodging around trees include surprisingly inventive camera moves. The technical success is the best part of this forgettable short, however. We spend a lot of time watching Donald laugh at Pluto, and it’s stunning to see him acting so mean. He’s been converted into more of a likable grump today.

Another unfortunate aspect is the fact that the women can’t skate and need the guys to help them. Mickey shows off his amazing skills but must help Mickey even stand up on her own. It is fun to see a less sanitized version of the characters with Goofy cutting up tobacco as bait for unsuspecting fish. He plans to hit them with a club but is no match for the clever adversaries. It’s interesting to note how supporting characters like Donald and Goofy take over this short. Mickey is the best skater, but he offers little comedy and is really just the starting point for the others to entertain us.

Chip an’ Dale (1947)


This final short brings the arrival of a new enemy for the easily irritated Donald. Chip and Dale repeatedly prove they’re too bright for the volatile duck in their first starring roles. It’s hard to feel too much sympathy for Donald, who laughs at the chipmunks after stealing their house. He’s still a mean duck, though that might explain why audiences took to him more than Mickey. There’s little depth to the mouse, who keeps everyone together but isn’t very exciting. Donald gets angry and will use dirty tactics to battle opponents like Chip and Dale, and that’s a lot more interesting.

Chip an’ Dale received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film in 1948, and it’s easy to understand the acclaim. The physical comedy works because it’s simple and easy to like. The ingenious way that Chip and Dale take out Donald with the giant snowball (and then kick him in the butt) is a fitting ending. It isn’t a milestone for animation techniques but sets the stage for numerous battles in other shorts. I’m surprised to realize just how many films showed Donald fighting with Chip and Dale. Disney recognized a popular formula and kept it rolling until the audience lost interest. Chip and Dale remain present in Disney’s modern shows, but they lack the same bite as they did in the ‘40s and ‘50s. That’s the most telling part of these three shorts. They showed Disney in a less sanitized form with rough edges that are long gone today.

January 5, 2015

Treasures from the Disney Vault: The Disneyland Story

The Disneyland Story, the premiere episode of the Disneyland TV series
TCM aired "The Disneyland Story", the 1954 pilot of the Disneyland TV series, as part of its "Treasures from the Disney Vault" series on December 21st. 

When Disney and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) announced their partnership in November, the headlines focused on TCM’s sponsorship of The Great Movie Ride. This signature attraction of Disney’s Hollywood Studios needed a refresh, and there was no partner more fitting than TCM. What’s interesting is how those stories buried the lead of the real value. On December 21st, TCM aired a full night of programming from Disney’s past that included full-length movies, TV episodes, and animated shorts. This diverse selection offered something for everyone and showed the potential to tackle every corner of Disney’s rich history. Everyone knows the animated classics, but it’s easy to forget all the other releases from Walt Disney and his company. This series will take a look at the offerings of the first “Treasures from the Disney Vault” event and how the various films and shows play today.

It seems fitting that my first entry covers the pilot of the Disneyland TV series, known more commonly as the Wonderful World of Disney. Titled “The Disneyland Story”, this hour-long episode offers a peek at plans for the Disneyland theme park. That’s really just a small part of the goals for this presentation, however. It looks back at the history of the company and sets the stage for the entire series. Walt was a brilliant marketer of his products, and we shouldn’t downplay the commercial benefits of this show. He’s able to sell the public on his dream project while connecting us with Walt the individual. It’s no accident that people still identify Walt with the jolly character that he plays on this series. It’s a friendly version of him that removes all the rough edges and sells the “magic” of Disney’s creative enterprises.

Beyond the interest for Disney fans, there’s enjoyment in this episode for anyone intrigued by early TV. It opens with old-school sponsorships from American Motors Corporation (who?) and Derby Foods, the proud makers of Peter Pan peanut butter. It’s a nice touch that places the episode in a much different era. The original air date was in late 1954, and we receive a cool window into the period. A helicopter shot reveals Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, and a narrator describes the bustling activities of that famous site. Kirk Douglas and James Mason shoot 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, animators sketch a model for Sleeping Beauty, and the music department creates odd sounds for the films. It provides a glimpse behind the scenes, though everything is choreographed specifically to create a certain mood.

A drawing of Davy Crockett, played by Fess Parker
Davy Crockett was an extremely popular character for Disney in the 1950s.

Walt first appears in front of a framed photo of Mickey Mouse, who will play a key role later in the episode. Walt’s only 52 and looks younger than we remember him, but the warm demeanor is familiar. Any time he starts talking about Disneyland, his enthusiasm shows just how much it excites him. Walt reveals an incredible 1/4-inch scale model of Disneyland that should thrill any theme park fans. The camera scrolls down Main Street, and it really sells the charm of the future site. With a title like “The Disneyland Story”, it feels like we’re in store for sequences like this one throughout this feature. Instead, the park is really just a model for the series to follow. The Frontierland section sets up the upcoming episodes on Davy Crockett more than anything at Disneyland. Star Fess Parker even appears for an awkward performance of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” in front of a fake log cabin. This moment reveals the shift into a full-fledged commercial for this show and Disney in general.

The Adventureland and Tomorrowland sections set up future episodes on nature and space, but they quickly fade from memory when Walt reveals a clip from Song of the South. Bob Iger and Disney management today would like to forget this film exists due to its controversial content. Sixty years ago, Walt gave it a prominent place on his new TV series. The sequence has Br’er Rabbit outsmarting the mean Br’er Fox and dim-witted Br’er Bear and escaping their clutches. Although I’d like to see the complete film get released, Disney’s hesitance is understandable. Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Bear are racist stereotypes and presented as laughing fools in this segment. There’s still historical value in showing Song of the South to modern audiences, and this partnership with TCM could offer the right opportunity.

Mickey Mouse in his first cartoon, Plane Crazy
Mickey Mouse's first appearance was in the animated short Plane Crazy in 1928.

The final section of “The Disneyland Story” concentrates on Mickey Mouse through some of his famous animated shorts. Walt’s statement about Plane Crazy that “maybe it was crude” is priceless. There’s a huge difference between Mickey’s first appearance in 1928 and the likable guy we see in Lonesome Ghosts nine years later. We also see his signature moment about The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, though it’s less powerful in black-and-white. For younger viewers accustomed to the harmless character in Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, this history should be surprising. It should be familiar to Disney fans but has value for showing how Walt presented Mickey in 1954.

TCM usually does an excellent job with the intros and conclusions that bookend their features. Leonard Maltin is the right choice to appear in these segments given his knowledge and history with Disney. What’s odd is the ineffectiveness of Gary Landrum from Walt Disney Imagineering with “The Disneyland Story”. He joins TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz yet has little to offer beyond standard material. The strangest moment comes when he’s asked what Walt would think of the parks today. After giving a lengthy intro about never speaking for Walt, Landrum does exactly that and believes he would be a “kid in a candy store”. This moment ends the presentation on a hollow note and reminds us that Disney is always selling the brand. The TCM partnership will benefit fans, but it’s still a marketing exercise. Like its founder 60 years ago, Disney looks for new ways to package the magic for the largest possible audience.

August 21, 2014

My Favorite Shot: Mary Poppins (1964)

Walt Disney's Mary Poppins

My daughter Elise is five years old, and she’s fallen for normal movies that kids love like Frozen and Despicable Me. Neither is her favorite, however. Her first choice is Mary Poppins, and the fandom is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. I’ve seen it many times without even trying, and it’s an entertaining movie. The 139-minute running time feels too long, and certain sequences lag on repeat viewings. Even so, my favorite shot doesn’t arrive until the final act. Last year’s Saving Mr. Banks made the case that what cracked the mystery for Walt Disney was discovering that Mary Poppins hadn’t come to save the children. That story line doesn’t take hold for much of the movie. It’s the final visit to the bank for Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) that sells that point. His son incited a riot earlier by refusing to deposit his tuppence there, and it’s time for his dad to face the music. The once-proud employee knows he’s getting fired, and he mournfully walks to the bank.

Mr. Banks faces his bosses in Mary Poppins

The pivotal shot happens when Banks enters the bank and sees his bosses waiting. It’s a gigantic room that dwarfs the little guy, who seems nonexistent. The set design feels more like Citizen Kane than a Disney musical. The stern bankers sit at the far end of the shot and also look tiny, yet they’re an imposing force at the end of his journey. The room is unnaturally large, and there’s little reason for them to meet in such a massive space. The red colors make the place Banks’ own version of hell, which he must endure to reach his salvation. This feels like the most depressing moment in the film, but it’s actually uplifting because it sets him up to succeed. Banks realizes that trying to please these petty guys is pointless. Mr. Dawes Senior (Dick Van Dyke under heavy makeup) is a relic of a different time, and his compassion is gone. When he finally enjoys a joke, it’s too much for his body to bear. The death is a strange moment yet corresponds to Banks’ own resurrection.

Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins

The build-up to this pivotal moment does a great job in setting the stage for this scene. Bert (Van Dyke again) gives Banks a subtle push towards realizing he’s a bad father. His song appears to encourage the guy about his current road, but it really helps to reveal his shortcomings. A man who sang earlier that “tradition, discipline, and rules must be the tools” starts to realize it’s a sham. If he doesn’t let it go and enjoy life, he’ll waste the precious time with the kids. He’s been doing the wrong things in hopes of running a proper household, but it means little without enjoying it. Bert knows exactly what he’s doing and is finishing the touchdown drive that Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) initiated. Fitting lines about the children like "And all too soon they've up and grown and then they've flown, and it's too late for you to give" are phrased just the right way to push him forward. Despite their efforts, Banks needs to be the one who takes the last steps towards a different life.

Peter Ellenshaw's matte paintings in Mary Poppins

One masterful use of the longer running time is not cutting from the house to the arrival at the bank. Instead, we join Banks while he walks to his execution. It’s a mournful scene, yet there’s hope that the guy who rarely listens finally understands his predicament at home. Banks needs the walls of his perfectly constructed façade to crash down around him. I love Peter Ellenshaw’s gorgeous matte paintings of London, which create the perfect backdrop for the story. They sell the fantasy yet maintain a connection with reality like the overall film. The shots from the rooftops during “Chim Chim Cher-ee” give the city such an elegant and romantic feeling. This atmosphere helps to lift the movie beyond similar Disney films of the time period. The music wouldn’t work as well in a more generic setting.

Let's Go Fly a Kite in Mary Poppins

It’s been surprising to catch up with Mary Poppins as an adult and recognize parts that I missed as a kid. The animated sequences with the talking penguins and horse race are fun, yet it’s the emotional through line that pulls me today. When an excited Banks dances around the house and sings “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”, it’s an earned happy ending. I can’t help but smile, and the reason is that we’ve experienced his transformation. Mary Poppins gives the kids fun memories, but her presence truly saves Mr. Banks. David Tomlinson can play the goofball, especially in a movie like The Love Bug. His considerable stage work also helps him to sell the emotions. The story takes some extended detours, but it succeeds because it mixes fun and poignant moments. That combination is hard to pull off in a family film, but my favorite sequence hits all the right notes and delivers a remarkable film.

August 19, 2014

Disney in the 1940s: Education for Death (1943)

Disney's propaganda film Education for Death

I've spent a lot of time watching Disney films, but I knew little about their work supporting the war effort until a few years ago. Todd Liebenow of Forgotten Films did a series on forgotten Disney releases, and it gave me the opportunity to explore that blind spot. I wrote about the remarkable short film Education for Death, a powerful piece of propaganda about the way Hitler corrupts the German youth. Since that time, I've caught up with other examples from that era, including Der Fuhrer's Face and Reason and Emotion. Both show interesting ways that Disney sold the war. Neither has the same ultimate impact at Education for Death, however. It packs quite a punch. With Todd's permission, I've included my 2012 review here of this surprising 1943 short film.

One of the lesser-known periods of Walt Disney’s career is his work producing films for the government and armed forces during World War II. The company was reeling financially despite the huge success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Disney used recognizable animated characters like Donald Duck to promote the war effort. Some of these short films were designed more for comedy, while others went further and took a more serious route to attack Hitler’s regime. Some of these pictures remain stunning today, especially when you consider the source. Disney’s movies and theme parks are successful because they masterfully deliver a specific message and feeling. His propaganda films were no different and remind us of his tremendous artistic and intellectual talents.

Disney's short film Education for Death on World War II

One of the prime examples is Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi, a 1943 release that depicts the ways Hitler’s regime indoctrinates kids. Based on a book by Gregory Ziemer, this 10-minute short provides a series of remarkable shots that strike at our hearts. Legendary animator Ward Kimball drives home the message with striking juxtapositions of characters in each frame. The shot of small boys giving the Hitler salute is effective and clearly delineates the point of this film. Director Clyde Geronimi is trying to show how the enemy is doing more than corrupting its adult citizens. They’re basically taking over their lives at birth and never letting go. The main character is a boy named Hans, and his parents must prove they’re pure Aryans right after he arrives. He never has a chance to do anything but serve Hitler and prepare for war. The shadow of the Nazi looms over them and takes up most of the screen as he grabs control of Hans’ life.

A striking image from Disney's Education for Death.

Art Smith narrates the story, which includes German dialogue and no subtitles. This is another purposeful move to avoid humanizing the Nazis. Having a narrator ensures there’s no doubt about the point of each shot. When Hans grows sick, the footage of his mom with her son reminds us there are humans living under Hitler. While they’re shot warmly, the Nazi soldier is presented like a monster ready to devour Hans. Smith calls him a “superman”, and his giant shadow fits with that over-the-top image of the villain. His teacher looks more like a regular guy, but he’s also a huge man who gets more imposing when Hans counteracts his message. He also ridicules the boy in front of the class — a clever way to show how peer pressure drives the German populace.

There are attempts at comedy with the much-different version of Sleeping Beauty that’s reportedly told to Nazi children. This is the only misstep of the movie and could easily have been removed. The joke of the very fat German woman and a goofball Hitler doesn’t work, and it takes Smith’s narration to explain the point. It’s a fairly short sequence and stands out because it feels tacked onto a generally convincing production. It seems designed solely to retain audiences who need generic comedy to stay focused. Once we exit this interlude, the remainder stays grim and on point.

Hell in Disney's Education for Death about World War II

The most convincing sequence is the final act, which shows Hans accepting and becoming a full member of the Nazi army. The hellish scene of book burning is enhanced when the Bible morphs into Mein Kempf. We also see the crucifix being replaced with a sword as the violent carnage ensues. While Hans quickly grows up and becomes completely shackled, it’s setting us up for the final shocker. The image of a row of gravestones as far as the eye can see is a definitive mission statement for the movie. Disney and the U.S. Government paint Hitler as a madman leading his people to ultimate destruction. It’s a classic piece of propaganda that creates a hyper reality from the worst elements of the Nazi regime. It might seem out of character for casual Disney fans, but they don’t really know the company’s namesake that well. He was a politically motivated guy who had more on his mind than creating fantasy. Education for Death is a surprising example from his past that is forgotten or unseen by most viewers. It’s a classic example of war-time propaganda and the rampant possibilities of the animated medium.

August 18, 2014

Disney in the 1940s: Der Fuhrer's Face/Reason and Emotion

Der Fuhrer's Face, starring Donald Duck

I recently finished Mark Harris’ intriguing book Five Came Back, which documents five directors’ experiences supporting the military during World War II. Some were directly involved in propaganda films, which others were focused on depicting what it felt like on the front lines. It seems crazy to think of modern filmmakers risking their lives and postponing their careers for a war. It was a much different time in the 1940s. The stakes were so high, and the battle to control the message was pivotal. That fight still happens today in the TV and online media landscape. Harris didn’t choose Walt Disney as a subject for his book, but he also played an important part in selling the war.

The On the Front Lines DVD release from the Walt Disney Treasures collection offers a wide range of remarkable material from that effort. Some were pretty hard to locate before this 2004 release, and they give a stunning look at effective propaganda. Two years ago, I discussed Education for Death in a guest post for Forgotten Films’ series on forgotten Disney movies. It’s a brutal look at the ways Hitler is leading the German people to their deaths. In this post, I’m focusing on two of the most interesting shorts — Der Fuhrer’s Face and Reason and Emotion. Both aim to deliver a similar message and paint the Nazis as cruel automatons who’ve forgotten the traits that make them human.

Donald Duck in Der Fuhrer's Face

Der Fuhrer’s Face (1943)

One brilliant way that Disney made their points about the war was using familiar characters the audience loved. Donald Duck first appeared in 1934’s The Wise Little Hen and had already become a favorite by the start of the war. He starred in many short films to help this country sell the conflict and demonize Germany. The most famous example is Der Fuhrer’s Face, which depicts a terrible scenario of being a Nazi solider. Donald must constantly salute pictures of Hitler and work feverishly to help their cause. The ridiculous opening of Nazis marching to the Oliver Wallace title song sets the comic mood. They’re presented as large and misshapen guys with no warm characteristics to connect with the audience. Even the chickens must salute constantly, and there’s no fun in this single-minded totalitarian state.


Donald works at a factory that resembles hell with monstrous-looking machines controlling the action. Directions come from off-screen soldiers represented by knives to remove their personality. He battles an assembly line of bullets that keeps increasing his speed; it’s essentially the famous I Love Lucy chocolate episode. Donald’s vacation is looking at a photo of the Alps for a moment, and he’s immediately thrust back to work. The life of a Nazi solider shown here is pure hell and leads to madness. Donald enters a surreal nightmare with bullets and other objects saluting Hitler. There are plenty of laughs, yet they come from painting the enemy as a caricature. It’s a brilliant way to make them look utterly ridiculous.

It’s still amazing to consider the Donald we have today playing a Nazi, even in a propaganda film. The final scene reveals everything as a terrible nightmare, but the images remain. Donald wakes up in an American flag outfit and hugs the Statue of Liberty; could the point be any clearer? If that wasn’t enough, his last line is “Am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America!” This ending nails home the contrast between our freedom and the German war machine. It blatantly makes the case yet disguises it behind a comic tale of Donald in a strange land. It's no surprise that it took home the Oscar.

Disney's Reason and Emotion propaganda film

Reason and Emotion (1943)

Another route to win the information fight was educating the public on how to react to bad news. Reason and Emotion takes a roundabout path to nail home the point that fear is our enemy. We may hear about losses, but we shouldn’t worry about the “Nazi superman”. That message comes at the end after a presentation on the conflict between the two sides of our brain. We begin inside a baby’s mind, where emotion pushes reason aside. The caveman inside each of us is dominant in the undeveloped brain. When we get older, our rational thoughts gain control. They’re represented by a well-dressed guy driving our mental processes. Of course, all it takes is an attractive woman to change the dominating force. The caveman is ready to act and go back to the simple emotions of a baby.

Reason and Emotion, Disney's propaganda film for World War II

It’s a simple point that might be convincing if it wasn’t for the blatant sexism. The guy is shown as having a one-track mind obsessed with sex, and it gets even worse when we enter the woman’s mind. Her emotional side wants to eat a giant sandwich and chase down the guy. The rational part explains her case by stressing the importance for women to not get fat. We’re veering pretty far away from the main points. I realize it was a different era, but it’s still jarring to watch such an unfortunate look at gender dynamics. It’s played for comedy yet sticks with young longer than the war propaganda. The key theme is less impactful at the end despite the triumphant imagery about a future victory. It’s an intriguing look at a different way to present the message, despite the murky road to get there.

Interested in Disney? Check out my page for my writing about their movies and rides.

August 11, 2014

Disney in the 1940s: Fun and Fancy Free (1947)

Mickey and the Beanstalk

An updated version of this post about Fun and Fancy Free has moved to The Tomorrow Society, my blog and podcast that focus on Disney and the world of theme parks. You can locate my article on this 1947 package film from Disney at this location.

August 4, 2014

Disney in the 1940s: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

The Headless Horseman in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow

It’s been interesting to look at Disney’s package films in the context of today’s releases. Combining multiple shorts into a single feature would require a thematic connection. There was the travelogue atmosphere to Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, but the later ‘40s releases lacked the same connective tissue. A perfect example is The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which combines two stories originally planned as separate features. The title makes it sound like the two characters will be hanging out together, but they don’t even meet for coffee in a highway diner. The only similarity is that both are based on famous written stories. Brief live-action segments have the camera drifting among stacks of novels before settling on the title. It’s a clever way to bring the different tales into one product, though it’s just a device to sell it as a coherent whole.

It’s hard to separate my love for the classic attraction Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride from discussing the adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind and the Willows. The ride creates a similar tone and includes characters from this movie, but it isn’t a straight retelling. Winnie the Pooh has replaced the Florida version, and that makes sense given that Toad is hardly a household name. He remains at Toad Hall at Disneyland, though I expect many riders have never seen this film. Would his popularity be different if the story was its own feature? I’m not so sure, especially given the shift that followed this release towards long-form stories beginning with Cinderella in 1950. Given the slower pace of much of this film, I wonder if Toad could have carried the audience for much longer than 35 minutes.

Toad has motor mania in the Wind and the Willows

The title character is an elusive playboy who parties and gets into mischief. He’s basically Russell Brand in Get Him to the Greek. Toad’s loyal friends Angus, Ratty, and Moley are forced to pick up the pieces and keep him out of trouble constantly. His latest affliction is “motor mania”, which brings an insatiable obsession with cars. His pals confine him to bed and lock him in his room; they’re essentially performing an intervention for a drug addict. Toad must go cold turkey and sweat it out or his addiction will consume him. Unable to live without another fix, he escapes out his window and is subsequently arrested for stealing a car. He’s an odd protagonist for a kids’ movie. Should we admire his antics like a classic anti-hero? His fun-loving horse Cyril Proudbottom drives Toad to greater adventures, and they make a silly pair. Even so, I found myself identifying with his straight-arrow friends. This probably relates to following the rules quite a lot during my childhood.

The saving grace is the final act, a madcap heist to capture the deed to Toad Hall. He’s turned the castle into a den of weasels that are letting it fall into disrepair. It’s like Jesse’s endless house party in Breaking Bad. The inspired sequence has Toad and his friends trying to snag the deed from a sleeping Mr. Winkie, dodging knives, and scrambling to escape the weasels. The deed becomes a hot potato that briefly ends up in everyone’s hands during the chaos. Toad even employs a classic paper airplane trick to keep their pursuers on their toes. His skills with throwing them are a lot better than mine. The near-constant action of the second half matches the energized craziness of the ride and involves all types of vehicles. In this type of world, it’s easy to see how Toad got his motor mania. The result is pretty forgettable, but it’s fairly entertaining given the limited running time.

Badger and Mr. Winkie in The Wind in the Willows

The Wind and the Willows is narrated by the great Basil Rathbone, who portrayed Sherlock Holmes in numerous films. He passes the reins for the American story to Bing Crosby; let the singing begin! There’s little to tie the two segments together. We venture from mid-century England back to colonial America. Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a familiar story with many variations. This version of Ichabod Crane is a tall and goofy guy, but he also brings the charm with the ladies. Brom Bones is his more athletic rival for the affections of Katrina van Tassel, but his chances are limited against Ichabod. All is not as it seems, however. Neither Ichabod nor Katrina is being very honest, and he’s destined to face off with a supernatural villain that could mean his end.

Despite the 1790s setting, this film connects to the 1940s through Bing Crosby’s singing. Along with narrating and voicing Ichabod and Brom, he belts out several memorable tunes. The standout is “Headless Man”, which Brom sings to freak out the superstitious Ichabod at a Halloween party. It’s a clever bit of theater from the guy, who sees Katrina slipping out of reach. There’s a similarity between Brom and Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Both are strong and square-jawed yet can’t seem to connect with the girls. Brom seems nicer on the surface, but there are hints that he may be closely aligned with the Headless Horseman that terrorizes Ichabod. There’s also an unfortunate scene with Brom where he’s pursued by a less-attractive woman at the party. He ends up tossing her in the closet, and it’s played for comedy. This moment reminds us that we’re still in the ‘40s.

Brom Bones in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is known for being one of Disney’s scarier cartoons, and I was freaked out by the Headless Horseman as a kid. Of course, I was afraid of a lot of things at that age. This memory made me wonder if my five-year-old daughter Elise was ready. She’s a daredevil, but sometimes a certain moment scares her. My worries were unfounded, and she handled the scenes like a champ. For me, the cackling laughter of Ichabod and his horse right before the Horseman arrives was still creepy today. There’s also a subtle hint that our hero was killed. That’s a pretty daring move for a film that’s primarily geared towards kids. There’s no happy ending for anyone, unless you’re rooting for Brom. He’s either very lucky or played a hand in the ultimate result.

The highlight of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the final sequence that begins with “Headless Man”. The tone shifts dramatically, and the lighting and shadows are solely designed to scare Ichabod. The Horseman animation stands out because his gliding movements contrast so sharply with the scrambling of his victim. What’s odd is the way that the set-up has little connection with the Horseman's arrival. If we didn’t know about the story’s background, there would be few hints that trouble was around the corner. It feels like a light-hearted yarn about two guys battling for a girl’s affection. The jarring shift makes the end more effective and delivers quite a punch. It’s still an uneven result on the whole, but the finale reveals the potential for Disney animation going into the next decade.

July 29, 2014

Disney in the 1940s: Saludos Amigos/The Three Caballeros

The Three Caballeros

The Disney Company has become a gigantic international corporation with a brand that’s recognizable everywhere. They do a lot more than create animated features and theme parks. It wasn’t always that way, however. Back in the early 1940s, Disney was struggling with finances and had just gone through a vicious union strike. World War II made it even tougher to function in the normal way, and Walt Disney and his animators spent most of their time on military projects. The exception was a series of “package films” — animated shorts that were much cheaper than releases like Pinocchio and Bambi. The first instance was Saludos Amigos, a 42-minute compilation released in 1942. It originated from a trip to Latin America by Walt Disney and a group of artists and other employees. Depicted in the documentary Walt & El Grupo, this trip inspired two pictures. The first release includes four short films that range between interesting cultural journeys and pretty standard comedy.

Saludos Amigos feels awkward because there’s little connection between the shorts. The opener “Lake Titicaca” sends Donald Duck to the famous South American body of water for comic interactions with the residents and animals. It’s hard to dislike anything with Donald, even if he’s a little different than the current incarnation. The best moments in this film involve his exasperation at navigating this new culture. The finale “Aquarela do Brasil” introduces José Carioca, a parrot from Rio de Janeiro that gives Donald a tour of the area. This lively segment uses the formula that would be employed to greater success in The Three Caballeros two years later. The music and dancing might paint a limited picture of life in South America, but there’s more energy than the typical animated material.

Pedro in Saludos Amigos

The lone segment that doesn’t involve a familiar Disney face is “Pedro”, which presents the first flight delivering air mail for the title character. This “baby plane” faces many obstacles, and they generate a few chuckles, but it’s hardly thrilling. It begins at an airport in Chile and feels like a missed opportunity. We do learn a bit about natural features of the country from the narrator during Pedro’s misadventures. The other entry is “El Gaucho Goofy”, a silly take on the cowboy. Goofy is an American that learns how to become a gaucho, and some laughs come from the comically inept character and his horse. It’s what you’d expect from animation at the time and is fun but not that memorable.

Disney returned to South America two years later with The Three Caballeros, a 72-minute film with six segments connected by Donald opening presents from friends. The early shorts are pretty standard and follow Saludos Amigos’ style in presenting South America. It opens with “The Cold-Blooded Penguin”, which shows how even a penguin wants to live there. He’s leaving his home to find the good stuff! A common theme is Donald’s obsession with women. In “Baía”, he re-joins José Carioca to explore the Brazilian state. He pines mightily for singer Aurora Miranda, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Howard the Duck. The combination of live action and animation is rudimentary, yet it works for the most part. Donald gets jealous of a man with a guitar and does everything that he can to get Miranda’s attention. They’re really missing out on this side of his personality on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. There’s also a creepy guy playing music with a pencil in his teeth.

The Three Caballeros' surreal finale

The final 15 minutes are what move The Three Caballeros into a different realm. First of all, Donald leads the trio to an Acapulco beach to chase after women hanging out in bathing suits. It’s meant to be endearing and the women enjoy it, but there’s a desperate slimy side to Donald’s behavior. This is just the beginning. Singer Dora Luz arrives to sing “You Belong in My Heart”, and the dastardly duck is desperate for a kiss. When he finally gets one, the film turns into a surreal reverie that might surprise some Disney fans. It’s closer to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas than your usual Disney film. I’m not sure how this sequence inspires people to visit South America, but it’s quite entertaining. Seeing the Caballeros' heads with women’s legs beneath them is hardly the craziest moment.

These films offered an interesting start to this marathon, which will tackle diverse releases from Disney in the 1940s. I’ll cover the work for the military, including Victory Through Air Power and other shorts. I’ll also catch up with package films like The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad that I haven’t watched since I was a kid. I’m not sure any will live up to the final act of The Three Caballeros. Will I see the Mexico boat ride at EPCOT in a new light? I’m amazed that fairly unknown characters still have a presence in the Disney parks. They provide fun moments, despite the questionable gender dynamics.

April 16, 2014

Icons: Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks

What is it about Walt Disney that keeps enthusiasts so enamored nearly 50 years after his passing? An obvious reason is Disneyland, which remains one of America’s cultural touchstones. When you combine that success with so many animated classics, it’s easy to see why the Disney Company remains so prominent. On the other hand, many of us were born well after Disney was gone. I’ve only seen videos of his TV programs, yet I’m intrigued by the guy. He was cantankerous and so powerful, yet he created the image of the friendly grandpa for the general public. That isn’t an easy feat, yet that persona remains in place today for a whole new generation of movie goers and theme park fans.

Given the continued interest in Disney, it’s surprising that he’s never been portrayed in a significant fictional film. One reason is how protective the Disney Company is about the face of their organization. Millions of visitors aren’t going to Disneyland because they love Bob Iger. This Icons marathon will give me the chance to look at different ways to view unique individuals of the past and present. In Saving Mr. Banks, Tom Hanks plays Disney as the friendly public figure, but there are hints about the more forceful guy lurking beneath the surface. Despite what he says to P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), his interest in adapting Mary Poppins isn’t just to fulfill a promise to his daughters. Disney sees the commercial potential for a hit yet faces an equally determined opponent every time he meets with her.

Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks.

Although Disney plays a key role, the real protagonist of this story is Travers. She may be opposing his plans to put her prized work on the big screen, but it’s hardly a one-sided affair. Travers has justifiable reasons to distrust Disney since her primary goal is protecting the source material. Once the movie hits it big, the image of Mary Poppins will always be Julie Andrews flying with an umbrella. She recognizes how signing her rights away would make it a much different tale than her book. There’s also a personal connection that goes back to her childhood in Australia. Her father has many similarities with her version of Mr. Banks, though his final destination wasn’t flying a kite and singing.

A surprising amount of the two-hour running time goes back to Travers’ young life with her dad, played warmly by Colin Farrell. He’s full of energy but can’t get out of his own way once alcohol enters the picture. These scenes are presented with such nostalgia but grow quite sad once the situation falls apart. Although they’re effective in explaining Travers’ standoffish behavior, they also feel overdone and make the relationship too obvious. It’s clear where the situation is going very quickly, and more time in California would add some mystery to the dilemma. There’s a sharp contrast between the movie studio and rural Australia, and that’s by design. Even so, the transitions don’t always flow so seamlessly.

Colin Farrell in Saving Mr. Banks

The depiction of the making of Mary Poppins at the Disney Studio is so lively, particularly when Bradley Whitford’s Don DaGradi joins Bob (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) plus Dolly (Melanie Paxson) to present the planned songs. This vision of California shows a bright and colorful place where artists create the magic. Travers isn’t so thrilled by the songs and fanciful inclusions, but her guard eventually recedes to the determined group. How can she resist “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”? The scene with Disney hearing the Shermans play “Feed the Birds” is also one of the best and does justice to his favorite song. Hanks plays the moment so well and shows the man behind all the bravado.

Hanks doesn’t resemble Disney, and it would take a more dedicated fan to comment on how close his mannerisms are accurate. What sells it is the feeling that Hanks embodies the emotional side of the complex guy. The coughs as he enters a room are legendary, and his stories will be familiar to passionate Disneyphiles. When Travers visits Disneyland, Disney’s clearly in his element in the second home that he loves. This sequence is a highlight for a Disney fan and offers a glimpse at its early heyday. Shot at the Anaheim park with some alterations to fit the time period, the fairly brief sequence is convincing.

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks

Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) presents Saving Mr. Banks with such a glossy veneer that it may be too much for cynical viewers. Despite the conflicts with Travers and her tragic past, it’s meant to be an upbeat film that works for a large audience. Writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith bypass some generic plotting and craft a film that also connects with the fan base. That’s no easy feat, and the cast is sharp across the board. We never doubt Hanks or Thompson’s work, and they raise the human stakes for both characters. It’s a down-the middle commercial project, but they bring heart to the story. There are no villains in this battle of wills, and the result of their collaboration was an iconic movie.

January 23, 2014

Escape from Tomorrow: Disney Shouldn't Worry

It's a Small World in Escape from Tomorrow

If you’ve followed my blog for a little while, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of theme parks. We visited Disney World frequently as kids, and I’ve gone multiple times as an adult with our family. The story of Escape from Tomorrow’s filming is intriguing. The guerrilla production is old news, so I won’t waste any time describing it again. Writer/Director Randy Moore’s surreal tale of a family’s last vacation day in Orlando has so much potential. Any film that opens with stunning black-and-white footage of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is right up my alley. What’s amazing is how quickly it squanders that goodwill. How can a sci-fi film shot at the Disney theme parks fall flat? The reasons go beyond the toothless satire and relate closer to the basics of storytelling. Despite some fun gags, Moore gets sidetracked and loses sight of the mission statement that seems to be driving his film.

French girls in Escape from Tomorrow

Moore visited Disney World frequently as a kid, and he seems to be working through some issues with his dad in this movie. The main character is a distracted middle-aged father who cares little about his wife or kids. Jim (Roy Abramsohn) is most concerned with stalking and leering at two French teenagers. His behavior goes beyond a guy who takes a quick glance at an attractive girl. He barely hides the interest and acts terribly in front of his son and daughter. There’s nothing wrong with having a despicable lead character in the right hands. The problem is that Jim’s issues are so clumsily handled and occupy such a large portion of the movie. The entire middle act involves him tracking them from ride to ride, and it quickly grows tedious. What does this tell us about Disney and their parks?

On the positive side, the early scenes provide some cool perspectives on the Disney attractions. Snow White’s Scary Adventures is easy to portray in a terrifying fashion, and even Winnie the Pooh looks eerie. Stripped of its soundtrack and replaced with a creepier score, It’s a Small World is hardly magical. The black-and-white cinematography brings out the manufactured nature of these images. There’s the potential for something intriguing within this project. The problem is that the rides occupy such a small portion of the movie. They become the backdrop for the disintegration of an unhappy guy who’s just lost his job. There’s little to latch onto with that plot, and Abramsohn makes Jim hard to even tolerate.

EPCOT Center in Escape from Tomorrow

Moore spends a small portion taking shots at the Disney princesses, who work as prostitutes for wealthy business men in this vision. That’s hardly a huge stretch and has potential, but Moore is more interested in a crazy ex-princess obsessed with Snow White. He’s drifting around the notion that Disney sells about fulfilling dreams. That plays a key role in the ending, which does more than showcase a few odd parts of the Disney model. Jim literally becomes the version of himself that he dreams of being after a dire end. The key moment is a ridiculous scene in a room below Spaceship Earth with a helpful scientist. The shot of a miniature Spaceship Earth on top of Jim’s head is laughable but shows what might have worked for this movie. If Moore had gone for it, it could have worked as a ridiculously subversive comedy. He tries to walk the line between the sci-fi premise and Jim’s personal descent, and the result is all over the map.

For a Disney parks expert, there are so many silly moments. Moore shot the film in both Disney World and Disneyland, and he shifts frequently between the parks. Characters enter Soarin’ in EPCOT and walk into the queue for the California version. He also rides It’s a Small World from Disneyland, which might explain the confusion. Jim really needs to invest in a Touring Plan and stop crisscrossing the parks with his tired kids. He goes from Tomorrowland over to Adventureland and then back to his original spot. Who is running their day? There are also really obvious green screen moments that weren’t shot in the parks. Those take you right out of the movie and make it harder to accept what’s happening on screen.

Elena Schuber in Escape from Tomorrow

Escape from Tomorrow is a mess, but I might forgive a lot if Moore even tried to create an interesting female character. Jim’s wife Emily (Elena Schuber) is depicted as being a constant nag who cares little for her husband. The other women are simply sex objects. It’s easy to understand why Emily is frustrated with the sleazy and constantly distracted Jim. However, that doesn’t excuse Moore from making her such a one-note character. Schuber has little to do but complain about his failings as a father. His attempts to romance her are ridiculous; he wants to make out on Winnie the Pooh with their kids in the vehicle. Her rejection makes total sense, yet she’s presented as the villain in that scenario.

This limited perspective on women is the real crime within this film and kills its chances to work as a satire. Moore can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat and change the game in the last act. He’s already blown his chance by that point. The limited perspective on gender relations is so frustrating and carries through most of the film. There’s a truly subversive film hidden within Escape from Tomorrow, but Moore spends most of his time in less thrilling territory. Many expected Disney to sue him and prevent its release, yet the company has remained silent. That feels like the right move; there's no need to bring more attention to a film that's far less subversive than it seems.

Note: I caught up with Escape from Tomorrow at a local screening by the Webster University Film Series here in St. Louis. They're a great local resource for seeing independent and foreign films that aren't playing elsewhere in town.

January 8, 2014

Disney Transportation: Looking to the Future of Progress City

Spaceship Earth at EPCOT

This post has moved to a new location at The Tomorrowland Society, a blog that takes an intelligent look at theme parks and their future. You can access it through this link.

November 13, 2013

Ride the Movies!: The Evolution of Universal Orlando


This post has moved to a new location at The Tomorrowland Society, a blog that takes an intelligent look at theme parks and their future. You can access it through this link.

October 16, 2013

Pandora Rising: Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom


Two years ago, Disney surprised theme-park fans by announcing a deal to bring a land based on James Cameron's Avatar to their Animal Kingdom park in Orlando. It was a box-office hit and had great visual effects, but this wasn't Star Wars or another beloved franchise. Cameron had produced one film that was admired yet not loved. Looking beyond the imaginative look, the story was too familiar. Would guests clamor to visit Pandora in the same way they'd flocked to Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter? The odds seemed unlikely, and speculation has been rampant that it would never happen. After saying little about Avatar since the announcement, Disney finally released concept art and some details last week at their D23 Expo in Tokyo. Fans who've decried the idea for several years now seem ready to embrace the new land. After no announcements at the California expo a few months ago, they're relieved to hear anything concrete.

Why create a land based on Avatar? There are several main reasons for Disney. First, they're dealing with an aggressive Universal and could lose business when the second Harry Potter expansion opens next year. Disney's attendance remains strong, but it's only a matter of time before the crowds venture across town. The second need is specific to the Animal Kingdom, which hasn't had a significant new ride since Expedition Everest in 2006. It's a beautiful park with amazing wildlife, but the high ticket prices warrant more than impressive zoological exhibits. A big-budget expansion in an underused section of the park can draw huge benefits and reduce the congestion near the other headliners. It removes the "half-day park" label from the Animal Kingdom and makes it a top destination. Disney's revamp of their maligned California Adventure park has worked wonders and dramatically affected the Disneyland resort. They're hoping for a similar impact with this expansion.


The key factor in making the Avatar land a success is developing multiple attractions that please different types of guests. Universal's first Harry Potter expansion was really just one new ride, but they deftly re-themed two others to make it seem larger. Disney doesn't have that luxury. The images show a boat ride through Pandora that hopefully will match the success of classic attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean. There also will be a high-tech banshee simulator possibly in the vein of Soarin'. Another key element will be the theming, which needs to be immersive on the scale of Cars Land. All the shops, restaurants, and other structures must connect to the theme to create the right atmosphere. If the environment feels right, it could win over cynics who don't even like Cameron's film. The challenge is spending the resources needed to separate Pandora from the rest of the park. It must fit naturally in the overall scheme while standing alone as an individual land.

A major challenge is maintaining the excitement during the lengthy construction time to make the plans come alive. Disney Parks Chairman Tom Staggs has cited a possible opening time of early 2017, which is still more than three years away. They'll need some additional upgrades to the Animal Kingdom to keep guests happy in the meantime. Staggs' announcement also described a nighttime show and evening version of their headliner Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction, so those changes might come sooner. If not, fans will probably get antsy during this extensive timeframe. My reaction is mixed, though I'm feeling more optimistic after learning more about this ambitious land. I still don't love the Avatar deal and its place in the Animal Kingdom, but there's still potential for something great. Cameron is planning to release sequels around the same time as this opening, so it could lead to big returns if everything comes together well.


It's clear that the future of the major theme parks is buying intellectual properties and putting them in the parks. Signature Disney attractions like Space Mountain, the Haunted Mansion, and Big Thunder Mountain aren't tied to a specific franchise, but they come from a different era. Disney's purchases of Marvel and Lucasfilm show the company's direction moving forward. The fierce competition will benefit visitors and should lead to incredible attractions. The downside of these massive acquisitions is an increase in ticket prices to pay for the expensive rides. They've priced out many visitors, and the costs should only continue to rise in the future. If you can afford the trip, there should be plenty to see in the next decade. Rumors have swirled for years about Lord of the Rings, and it seems like just a matter of time until that franchise joins the others in one of the major parks. It's sure to be amazing, if any of us can afford the experience.

June 26, 2013

Monsters University: Familiar, Yet Entertaining:

Pixar's Monsters University

There’s a major challenge for Pixar as they near the end of a second decade making features. How can they top the past achievements? Beginning with Toy Story in 1995 and carrying through 13 films, there were few missteps from the animation studio. The closest thing to a misfire was Cars 2, which earned a lukewarm response two years ago. Even so, it’s hardly a complete embarrassment and shows that the creative gears are still cranking. This brings us to Monsters University, the first attempt at a prequel and the fourth extension of a previous film. Its predecessor was well-liked, though it doesn’t rank among most viewers’ favorites. Warning signs appeared that perhaps the thriving company was sputtering. Thankfully, any rumors of Pixar’s demise seem unfounded. It’s hardly a novel story, but there’s still plenty to enjoy with this return to the world of Mike and Sulley.

Monsters University – Directed by Dan Scanlon; Starring Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, Tyler Labine, Nathan Fillion, and Audrey Plaza

Our story begins with a young Mike Wazowski (Noah Johnston) taking a field trip that inspires his obsessive goal to become a “Scarer”. We jump forward to college, where the idealistic new student (now Billy Crystal) arrives at Monsters University read to make his dreams come true. He quickly discovers that all the studying in the world might not be enough. It’s similar to when a basketball player realizes he can’t play in the NBA. His adversary and eventual partner in crime is James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman), who comes from a prominent family yet lacks the dedication of his diminutive counterpart. They become the outsiders at the school and must compete in the Scare Games to regain their position. There’s a feeling of inevitability with most prequels, and that sense exists here. We know that Mike and Sulley will eventually become friends, so the conflicts lack much punch. Even so, this story doesn’t fall prey to the mistake of constantly referencing the original. There are small touches and appearances from recognizable characters like Roz (Bob Peterson), but they don’t overtake this new tale. Despite following the expected path, there’s enough life to these characters to make a second film worthwhile.

Helen Mirren as Dean Hardscrabble in Monsters University

One of the reasons that Pixar’s movies work for adults is the clever references to other films that fly over the heads of youngsters. A good example is Toy Story 3’s escape plan, which came right out of prison break movies like The Great Escape. This film is paying homage to '80s comedies like Revenge of the Nerds and Animal House. The outsiders take on the arrogant jocks and find a way to succeed against all odds. Mike and Sulley join the Oozma Kappa fraternity, monsters that seem least likely to succeed at any physical competition. While these connections are pretty obvious, there’s warmth towards those silly films that’s hard to dislike. There’s also plenty in common with the first Harry Potter film, particularly in the classroom scenes during the first act. Helen Mirren’s imposing Dean Hardscrabble feels right out of that universe and echoes Alan Rickman’s role as Snape in particular. When Mike and Sulley show unexpected abilities during the climax, it feels strangely connected to Harry’s successes. These are common devices and hardly unique to either film. This makes for a pleasant experience, but it isn't groundbreaking material.

Despite the standard plotting, Monsters University succeeds because Billy Crystal and John Goodman are so damn likable. Even when Mike acts like a tyrant with their team, Crystal makes his mania understandable. He can feel the dream slipping away, and he’s doing everything he can to fight that impending doom. Goodman excels at playing the laid-back guy who acts like he doesn’t care but has heart beneath the slacker demeanor. Each actor is just the right choice for the character, and they bring believable emotions to even the predictable moments. It’s a bit strange to see them butting heads when we’ve already seen them as friends. Still, that’s expected with any type of prequel. The jocks are led by Johnny Worthington, voiced with the right amount of fake kindness by Nathan Fillion. It’s clear that this guy’s bad news from the start, yet there’s just enough charm to draw in the misfits. His true colors shine in a party humiliation that makes his villainy extremely clear. Fillion is channeling Captain Hammer from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog to play the Big Bad. He’s so certain of his victory that he doesn’t recognize the danger from the least likely opponents.

Billy Crystal as Mike in Monsters University

The film’s best scene has Mike cleverly using horror genre standards to induce a major scare. A door slams, a record player mysteriously plays, and a creepy doll walks across the floor. In a sense, he’s doing exactly what Pixar has accomplished so many times. The material is familiar, yet it’s packaged differently and isn't tired. It takes serious talent to continually surprise cynical modern audiences and make them care about characters in animated films. Even when they don’t hit a home run, they deliver entertainment for viewers from a wide spectrum of ages and backgrounds. Monsters University doesn’t change the game, but it provides solid entertainment. This is Director Dan Scanlon’s first time leading a feature, and he keeps the studio’s momentum in place. They’ll return next year with The Good Dinosaur, which isn’t tied to an existing franchise. Given their track record, it will almost certainly become a critical and box-office success. Despite a slight drop-off in recent years, Pixar is showing no signs of becoming just another production house.

April 3, 2013

Podcast Spotlight: The Season Pass


If you’ve read this blog for very long, you probably know that I’m a serious fan of theme parks. There are few things that I don’t enjoy about them, particularly when they’re done well. I usually keep this obsession to myself since most people believe they're just for kids. Beyond the experience of visiting the parks, I’m also intrigued by the extreme volume of behind-the-scenes work needed to create a seamless attraction. Way back in 2008, I was thrilled to discover the Season Pass Podcast. This intelligent show is a lot more than a fan project and gives an insider’s perspective on the industry. Founder/Co-Host Doug Barnes and Co-Host Brent Young are experts on the business side yet still love visiting them. This rare combination lifts the Season Pass above the crowd of theme park podcasts. Unlike the huge crop of Disney shows that paint a rosy view of everything, Doug and Brent give their honest opinions on new attractions. They aren’t afraid to say it when blockbuster rides and shows fall short of expectations. Their discussions with experts of all ages are candid but maintain the excitement about the latest offerings.

While my blog focuses on movies, there are connections between the visual arts and theme parks. The artists working behind the scenes are telling a story and using every means at their disposal to create an immersive world. Doug and Brent understand that even the greatest technology only works if it matches the story that’s being created. While the script is usually thin for a high-flying roller coaster, even those rides are set within a narrative framework. In more than 220 episodes, the Season Pass continues to dig into every aspect of the amusement industry. They don’t simply focus on the giants like Disney and give plenty of time to Six Flags, Cedar Fair, and other companies. They also bring in representatives from the manufacturers that build and design the attractions. This expansive approach keeps the shows intriguing even if I’ve never visited the covered park. It takes a crazy amount of effort to cover such a large quantity of projects. The persistence has paid off and delivered remarkable guests like Bob Gurr, Jerry Rees, Garner Holt, and so many others.

A key factor in the Season Pass' success is the personal connection that Doug and Brent make with listeners. Several summers ago, Doug packed his family in a van and embarked on the “Wheels on I-80” tour. They visited a ton of parks all over the country and interacted with listeners along the way. I was lucky enough to meet up with them at Six Flags St. Louis to take in some rides, and it was a blast. The down-to-earth qualities of the hosts and their frequent guests make it more than just a cool show. Doug seems intent on building up the community and connecting with fans as much as possible. That takes even more dedication, and it’s trickier when it isn’t his full-time job. It’s challenging enough for me to find time for this blog, and doing a podcast with many different guests is so much tougher. Brent is the visual effects supervisor and co-founder of Super 78, and that industry experience gives him great insights about the process of making an attraction. Frequent participants like Robert Coker and Nick Hutson bring even more knowledge and passion to the table.

The Season Pass continues to expand its scope and look for interesting ways to explore the industry. Disney expert Chad Emerson presents the Disney Files to closely examine specific elements. The Seasoned Pros episodes bring together a panel to rate their favorites in categories where every fan has an opinion. The topics have included the best dark rides, steel coasters, and most beautiful parks. Although certain picks come up frequently, there’s hardly a consensus on the top choices. The hosts also frequently record live from the parks and bring us closer to the action. Although it lives in a specific niche, there’s so much variety to please anyone who’s interested in the industry. The show has evolved considerably since its humble beginnings, but the goal remains the same. Doug, Brent, and the entire gang are passionate about the industry and keep looking for new ways to explore it. A podcast is a perfect venue for this type of show, and they make the most of it.

February 12, 2013

Can Star Wars Still Be Original?


When the news arrived that J.J. Abrams would be directing the seventh Star Wars film, it was exciting because of his previous work. The Star Trek re-boot was so different than its source material, but it had so much energy and fun. Abrams is a great choice for extending George Lucas' epic story. He also did a nice job bringing a grittier feeling to the Mission Impossible franchise in the third installment. There are few obvious negatives, and it's clear that he'll bring a lot of excitement to the 2015 release. Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) has been hired to write the screenplay, and his involvement in Toy Story 3 shows his ability to write mainstream fare. With many of the original trilogy's stars rumored to return, this is shaping up to be a welcome improvement from the mess of the prequels.

There's a serious catch, however. Star Wars has become such an institution that delivering a truly original movie could be impossible. It's easy to place all the blame on the issues with the prequels at Lucas' feet, but that's too simple. He played a major role in the failures, but there were other factors that hurt their chances. First of all, the huge budgets and success of the original trilogy created such high expectations. Lucas believed the hype so strongly that he forgot the basics of story telling. Those films were overtaken by the marketing machine of toys, books, and other tie-ins, so the corporate pressure played a huge role. How could they really feel like original works of art? It's this question that's hanging over the new trilogy and the rumored spin-off movies. Can they overcome the gigantic mechanism from Disney and their partners? Will Abrams and Arndt create an inventive, unpredictable story that will stand the test of time? I'm thrilled to see how the next movie turns out, but my hesitation springs from more than just overly high expectations.


In a recent episode of the MAMO! podcast, hosts Matt Price and Matt Brown described Abrams as just a middle manager hired to keep everything flowing smoothly. This is an interesting way to look at his role in this product. While we love to think of the director's role as a visionary who approves every little detail of a movie, that's rarely the case. Disney hired Abrams because he's shown the ability to handle a project of this scale and deliver a satisfying movie. Those skills are a good start, but are they enough to make Star Wars a creative success? It will gross a gazillion dollars, but it will do that regardless of its actual value. Even the Transformers sequel made over $400 million in the U.S., and that doesn't have a sliver of the fandom of this project. While that enthusiasm guarantees financial returns, it also can shackle filmmakers because the machine has become so large. Knowing that fans will appear regardless, Abrams should take some chances and try to really challenge them. That's unlikely to happen, especially with the first new movie. If this one does well and doesn't turn off the audience, the sky's the limit for the franchise and Disney.

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in October, the response was generally positive because of that company's reputation. Creative individuals have thrived there and delivered remarkable animated features and theme park attractions. However, they're hardly the same company that Walt Disney led to prominence. Disney is a massive institution that has created plenty of stinkers in recent years. For Star Wars to succeed at this type of company, the suits have to give Abrams freedom to make something unique. In his book It's Kind of a Cute Story, former Imagineer Rolly Crump describes the way that Walt Disney gave his artists a lot of room to develop their craft. He could be a nasty micro-manager if you got on his bad side, but he also recognized great talent. Will all the corporate executives involved with this franchise have the same presence of mind to step back? When Lucas made the original Star Wars, he answered to studio heads but had much-needed support from powerful men like Alan Ladd, Jr. at 20th Century Fox.  Without that type of corporate backing, this franchise might never have gotten off the ground. Disney leaders would be wise to follow a similar path with Abrams, despite their massive investments.


The recent announcement of planned one-off movies about Yoda, Han Solo, and Boba Fett reveals the method behind Disney's madness. After the seventh movie, they're going to expand the universe by using the model that worked so well for The Avengers. These other films will take place in the past, but they'll likely connect to the stories of the eighth and ninth movies. Joss Whedon did an amazing job with the Marvel characters, but he didn't have the same pressure of matching legendary movies. Even when you ignore that baggage, another important lesson can be learned from the Marvel films. Iron Man was the first release in 2008 and surprised everyone by sidestepping the tired conventions of the genre. When its sequel arrived two years later, it was trying to do a lot more than just tell a good story. Jon Favreau felt the need to make a bigger movie, and he also had to introduce S.H.I.E.L.D. and characters that would connect with the other superheroes' vehicles. That film collapsed under that weight and was a major disappointment. Abrams should follow his Star Trek model and recognize that creating a thrilling movie is always the top priority.

When I ask whether Star Wars can still be original, I understand that even the first movie pulled from a lot of other sources. Lucas took inspiration from Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, Frank Herbert's Dune, and so many other sources. However, he used that material and created something unique. Is it possible for Abrams to do the same thing with this new movie? There is so much interesting material in the books that have expanded the universe. Will Arndt be willing to use those sources to create a better story? I'm pretty skeptical. This has nothing to do with their talent and relates to the pressure that I've described in this post. The Avengers has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, yet I'm not sure that it had the same impact of a movie like Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. That incredible film re-energized the comic book genre and spawned a legion of re-boots. Disney is counting on this new Star Wars release to have a similar effect on this franchise.


Considering the massive expectations and possible impact of the next Star Wars film, it's bound to disappoint in some fashion. Even with my reservations about its ability to be original, I still can't wait to venture back into this amazing world. Beyond updating us on Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and other familiar faces, Abrams and Arndt have the chance to create new characters that can lead future films. This was another mistake that Lucas made in the prequels. He focused so closely on the Skywalker story that he didn't expand the universe. Jar Jar Binks doesn't count. If Disney is committed to making side projects and other one-off movies, they should consider developing characters beyond Lucas' bland supporting players. Could there be a low-budget Star Wars movie? The possibilities are endless. High-flying space battles won't be enough to generate new fans and rekindle older ones. Shows like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly have upped the ante in that department with much smaller budgets. It's time for this proud franchise to return and raise the bar once again.