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

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.

December 24, 2012

Post Disney Renaissance Marathon: Tarzan (1999)


Despite the title of this marathon, the general thinking is that the Disney Renaissance ended with the release of Tarzan in 1999. The company tried to recapture the magic with movies like Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, but the shift was dramatic. Pixar became the new leader during the 2000s and changed the genre with 3D animation. Disney recaptured much of this feel with The Princess and the Frog in 2009, but the must-see status was gone. I wasn't interested in Tarzan when it was originally released and didn't realize it was such a financial success. It earned more than $440 million worldwide and did better than its two recent predecessors. That's quite a haul for a film that isn't considered part of the company's recent heyday. Critics also gave serious praise to this release, and it earned an Academy Award for Best Song. Would my response match up to this lofty status? Let's check out the questions before I get overtaken by a horde of baboons!

What's this story about?
When an English couple is stranded on the African coast with their baby, they try to make the best of it and build a tree house. Sadly, the leopardess Sabor kills them and orphans the boy. He's saved by the gorilla Kala (Glenn Close), who names him Tarzan and raises him as her own. He tries to fit in with gorillas like Terk (Rosie O'Donnell) and struggles to gain the acceptance of the leader Kerchak (Lance Henriksen). As an adult, Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) realizes that he's human when he meets Jane (Minnie Driver) and her father. They arrive on a peaceful expedition, but their guide Clayton (Brian Blessed) has nastier goals. While the evil guy plans his next move, Tarzan has a potential romance with Jane. They come from different worlds, so it isn't clear if they have a real future.

Jane (voiced by Minnie Driver) in Tarzan

Is Tarzan on par with the most popular movies from the Disney Renaissance?
I'm truly surprised to say that Tarzan is a movie that is worthy of being mentioned with classics like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. It's very similar to the latter but still finds ways to provide an original experience. The combination of interesting lead characters, striking animation, and excellent songs leads to an entertaining movie. The opening sequence with Tarzan and his parents is handled remarkably to set up his life among the apes. We're immediately drawn into his plight as the lone human trying to prove his worth among the skeptical mammals. Clayton is a pretty generic villain, but he plays a relatively small role in the story. Jane is one of the most engaging heroines in a recent Disney movie. Minnie Driver's voice work is strong and makes us root for her to get a happy ending. The only major negative is the character of Terk, a painful sidekick for Tarzan. It's clear that she's set up with Tantor (Wayne Knight) as the Timon and Pumbaa of this film, but they aren't in the same ballpark. Rosie O'Donnell is grating and unnecessary but doesn't receive enough screen time to really diminish the success.

How is the animation? Has it lost any of its luster today?
Another positive element is the animation, which even improves on the attractive work in Mulan. The "Deep Canvas" 3D rendering technique provides a much deeper look that moves beyond traditional animation. It lacks the artificial look of much 3D animation while gaining the ability to show detailed backgrounds. When Tarzan is sliding down the trees and working comfortably in his environment, it feels believable while still presenting a stunning world. Even though it differs greatly from what we see in modern Pixar films, there's still a timeless feeling to Tarzan that keeps it from being dated. Unlike Hercules, it doesn't feel stuck in the '90s and still provides a striking experience today.

Kala (voiced by Glenn Close) in Disney's Tarzan

Do the songs deserve a place with the best Disney songs of that time period?
I may have a soft spot for the music of Phil Collins, but I enjoyed the songs. If you find him grating, then it's going to be a tougher ride. He shows up during the first few minutes and gets plenty of time. The big number is the Oscar winner "You'll Be in My Heart", which became a pop hit. "Strangers Like Me" is a fun upbeat tune that fits nicely inside this story. In most cases, Collins is an omniscient voice supporting the action. The music feels similar to Elton John's work on The Lion King, though it falls a bit short of those songs. Even so, it's still the strongest group of tunes from the three movies in this marathon.

My three-and-a-half year old daughter Elise watched this movie. What did she think?
Elise was excited to watch this movie and hooked on the songs. Apparently she's a fan of the smooth grooves of Phil Collins. She enjoyed the music and some of the animal moments, but lost interest in the human story. At one point, she made it clear repeatedly that "Mulan is better than Tarzan." One interesting part of watching these movies with her has been noticing how certain parts could be scary for kids. The opening chase where Sabor tries to kill Kala and Tarzan may be harrowing for young ones. Elise handled it like a champ and wasn't scared, but it's clear that it wasn't her favorite part. The death of Tarzan's parents was subtle enough to not be clear, but that type of loss could be tricky. I focused on what was happening on the screen and didn't dwell too much on the murder.

Tarzan and Jane in Disney's Tarzan

Has Disney made good use of this film in its theme parks?
Tarzan is easily the most well-represented of the three films at the Disney theme parks. It actually has its own full attraction with the Tarzan's Treehouse at Disneyland. Formerly the home of the characters from the Swiss Family Robinson, this walk-through spot in Adventureland includes presentations that call out moments from the movie. It's a nice place for kids to burn off some energy and offers a good view of the park. Fans of the main character might have a hard time finding him in the parks, though. His live show Tarzan Rocks! was replaced at the Animal Kingdom by Finding Nemo: The Musical in 2006. Although it was a box-office success, this film doesn't have the status of the big '90s movies. That makes the absence of more Tarzan appearances today more understandable.

Next week, I'll explore a different sphere with mind benders, starting with Black Swan.

December 19, 2012

Vintage Disney: The EPCOT Film

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.

December 17, 2012

Post Disney Renaissance Marathon: Mulan (1998)

Disney's Mulan

Following the male-centric tale of mythology and monsters in Hercules, Disney went a different route and created a female heroine for a less fanciful story. Mulan was considered a return to form by many who felt that the company was slipping from its early '90s success. Co-directors Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook (Arthur Christmas) both made their debuts on feature films, and the change shows. There's a much different feeling despite its connection to classics from the past. Animators were sent to China for inspiration, and there was plenty of attention to detail put into the four-year production process. This was my first experience checking out this movie despite the fanfare that accompanied the 1998 release. Would it hold up to scrutiny 14 years later given all the technological advances?

So, what's this story about?
When the Huns invade China, The Emperor (Pat Morita) sends a conscription notice to male warriors that include the father of Fa Mulan (Ming-Na Wen). She disguises herself as a man to take her father's place and join the army. Her ancestors try to send help in the form a great stone dragon, but the small Mushu arrives instead. After struggling with her training under Li Shang (BD Wong), Mulan is forced into action when the Huns arrive. Their leader is the vicious Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer), a massive guy with eyes on the top prize. Mulan and her comrades may have the only chance to stop his impending victory. She must continue to hide her identity or risk facing the ultimate price for her dishonorable actions.

Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) and Li Shang (BD Wong) in Disney's Mulan

Is Mulan on par with the most popular movies from the Disney Renaissance?
It falls a bit short of the best films, but it's only a slight drop-off. The story of a young woman inadvertently becoming a national hero is universal, and Mulan is a likable character. Unlike a bland guy like Hercules, we're on her side and are pulling for her to succeed. Ming-Na Wen (Stargate Universe) does great voice work as Mulan and sells her bumbling attempts to protect her dad. There are some truly exciting sequences, especially the key battle where she steps up to stop the Huns. Most of the story lacks the overly comic touches that could drag it down. One exception is Eddie Murphy's part as Mushu, which feels out of place in this setting. I understand that he's the key to connecting with kids who might get antsy. The reason I mention it is because the setting is mostly realistic beyond the small dragon. Another issue is some problematic gender dynamics even with the strong heroine. The obstacles of being a woman make her triumph more difficult, but it also lets the men off the hook. It's not a huge issue but gets a bit shaky when even the good guys are confirming the stereotypes of that society. When Li Shang discovers Mulan's secret, he doesn't kill her but still leaves her stranded in the wilderness. That falls a bit short of the type of forward thinking we might hope for in a modern film.

Disney's Mulan, released in 1998

How is the animation? Has it lost any of its luster today?
One of the strongest parts of Mulan is the animation, which has the timeless aura of the best Disney movies. It seamlessly weaves in the computer-generated effects with the hand-drawn animation. The color and artistry are remarkable and stand out even more when compared to the dated look from Hercules. It may not have the same appearance as today's three-dimensional movies, but I actually think it feels more lively than many of those releases. The scenes of massive crowds are surprisingly effective and don't seem like digital creations. This is where the animators shine and give a unique style to the entire movie. The close-up moments fall a bit short of this beauty, but it's still effective.

Do the songs deserve a place with the best Disney songs of that time period?
If there's any specific element that places this movie below a beloved Disney release like Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin, it's the songs. First of all, they appear so infrequently that it's almost jarring when the characters start singing. The Oscar-nominated score from Jerry Goldsmith is well-done, yet something is slightly off about the vocal tunes from Matthew Wilder and David Zippel. They're decent songs but aren't memorable enough to stick with you much beyond the ending credits. The soundtrack is notable for an early appearance of Christina Aguilera doing the pop version of "Reflection" before she hit it big. Seeing just how young she is in the video included with the DVD is pretty surprising.

Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) in Disney's Mulan

My three-and-a-half year old daughter Elise watched this movie. What did she think?
Unlike our experience last week, Elise stayed attentive for most of the 90-minute running time. She still wasn't blown away by it, though. The battle scenes are bloodless yet surprising for a Disney animated film. She had little interest during those sequences, which is okay with me. Mulan wasn't a new character for Elise, yet she kept confusing her with Pocahontas. She hadn't seen either movie prior to this point, so the misunderstanding makes sense. When presented a ratings scale of "great", "good", or "okay", Elise chose the lowest grade. However, she did emphatically state that it was better than Hercules.

Has Disney made good use of this film in its theme parks?
While it doesn't have its own attraction, Mulan remains a staple of Disney parks around the world. This trend isn't surprising given her status as a role model for young girls who have less interest in the standard princesses. Character greetings are pretty common, and she even gets a spot with the strange appearances in It's a Small World in Disneyland. Footage from this movie also appear in the Fantasmic stage show, which projects images on a bubble floating above the audience. She's also perfectly suited to the China pavilion in EPCOT and appeared there for a while, but that's not a common practice now.

Next week, I'll close out this marathon and rock out to Phil Collins in Tarzan.

December 10, 2012

Post Disney Renaissance Marathon: Hercules (1997)

Disney's Hercules

The period known as "The Disney Renaissance" is generally considered the 10-year period beginning with The Little Mermaid in 1989. While the final three movies of Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan fall within that time, they don't have the same reputation as the earlier blockbusters. They have limited representation in the theme parks and aren't regarded as classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. I grew up with the Disney films and caught the big '90s movies in the theaters. By the end of this golden age, my interest waned and caused me to miss the last three releases. I'm calling that era the "Post Disney Renaissance" since the movies don't have the same acclaim. Each has its share of fans, yet the general feeling is different about them. This trio offers the perfect opportunity for a short marathon. Also, my daughter Elise is three-and-a-half, so this gives me a chance to watch them with her. I'll be documenting her reactions in each post since she hasn't seen them. As a Disney fan, I'm excited to catch up with a blind spot in their history. The first selection is 1997's Hercules, which I knew little about before this viewing.

What's this story about?
Hercules (Tate Donovan) is born on Mount Olympus to Zeus (Rip Torn) and Hera (Samantha Eggar) and is set for the life of a God. Unfortunately, Hades (James Woods) has other ideas and tries to eliminate the new baby. The Fates have shown Zeus' evil brother that Hercules will squash his plans to release the Titans and take over the world. The boy survives the attack but is now part-mortal and living on Earth. His mentor is Philoctetes (Danny DeVito), a satyr who's trained star heroes like Achilles. Hercules grows up and learns how to fight and save people from monsters. He becomes a celebrity and is very popular, but he may be set for something greater. Meanwhile, Hades learns his whereabouts and schemes to take out this final obstacle. A key part of his plan is Meg (Susan Egan), a brash young woman who's caught Hercules' eye and could give Hades the chance to take him out.

Hercules (Tate Donovan) and Hades (James Woods) in Disney's Hercules

Is Hercules on par with the most popular movies from the Disney Renaissance?
Not really. The marketing pushed the fact that it was based on mythology, not a fairy tale. It's interesting to see them taking a different approach, but the results are bland. Following the surprising adult themes in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this feels like a step backwards. It's the standard good vs. evil story where the brave hero stands up to danger and saves the day. I enjoyed the sequence when Hercules becomes a celebrity and starts taking out all types of monsters. In a strange way, this mirrors the opening "Eye of the Tiger" sequence in Rocky III and shows the commercialism around the guy. He transforms into something different than a hero who wants to go home. While I don't expect an in-depth look at celebrity in a kids movie, this brief stop helps this typical adventure. Snappy dialogue from James Woods' Hades and Susan Egan's Meg livens up the proceedings, but they can only do so much with such a bland hero.

How is the animation? Has it lost any of its luster today?
Hercules arrived at an interesting time when animation was incorporating more CGI but hadn't yet transitioned to it. This gives it a strangely dated style because it feels closely tied to the late '90s. Unlike the classics of Disney's past, it uses hand-drawn animation but looks different. It's obvious that serious care was put into the movie, but it falls short of other stunning Disney films. That said, there are still some impressive sequences. The highlight is the battle with the hydra, who regenerates two heads for every one chopped. Hercules is oblivious at first and keeps eliminating the heads, which is not wise. This creates a massive enemy that seems indestructible and looms over the little guy. It's an exciting sequence that gives the story a much-needed boost. While it's fun to watch Hades scheme to take him out, we don't really care if Hercules saves Olympus or not.

The Muses in Disney's Hercules

Do the songs deserve a place with the best Disney songs of that time period?
One of the most intriguing parts of this movie is its approach to music. It has the Oscar-nominated ballad "Go the Distance" and songs written by Alan Menken, but it feels different. The Muses act as the narrators of the movie and sing R&B and gospel-themed tunes. Those performances are effective and bring life to the story, but they aren't matched by the other tracks. It's possible the changes come from David Zippel, who hadn't worked on Disney films in the past. That's probably a simplistic look, however. Zippel is an accomplished composer, yet the songs never really find the right tone. The music is professional, however, and most of the issues come from comparisons to predecessors. It isn't easy to keep topping music that remains beloved long after its original release.

My three-and-a-half year old daughter Elise watched this movie. What did she think?
For the first 20 minutes, Elise was engaged and enjoyed the baby Pegasus. Once Hercules reached Earth and the story started rolling, she quickly lost interest. A few days later, Elise responded to my questions about liking it with a succinct "no". She did call out the baby Hercules as a favorite part, so she may have enjoyed a Muppet Babies-like spin-off. One exception was the Ricky Martin video for "No Importa La Distancia", his Spanish-language version of "Go the Distance". I checked it out since there were few DVD extras, and she requested it two more times. It's hard to compete with a cheesy ballad sung in a different language. I will say that it's a lot better than Michael Bolton's rendition over the credits.

Meg (Susan Egan) in Disney's Hercules

Has Disney made good use of this film in its theme parks?
Unfortunately, the characters from Hercules haven't enjoyed a long-standing place in the theme parks like Simba, Belle, and others. They used to appear at meet and greets but have been retired due to lack of interest. A "Hercules Victory Parade" appeared for a year at Disneyland in 1997, but it's faded into the background. While it's an okay movie, the fact that Disney hasn't retained the characters in the parks shows its lack of staying power. They created a straight-to-video sequel and TV series, so it was hardly a big loser. The burden of high expectations is too much for this movie to overcome. It's worth checking out for animation fans, but it doesn't rank among the must-see Disney releases.

Next week, I'll venture across the pond to China and check out Mulan.

October 26, 2012

30 Years of EPCOT: An Appreciation

Spaceship Earth

When EPCOT opened on October 1, 1982, Walt Disney World was a much different place than the giant Orlando resort that exists today. The land owned by Disney included more than 27,000 acres, but only a small part was being used for guest areas. The Magic Kingdom had opened 11 years earlier, and the destination included several impressive resorts along with a water park and campsite. It was very popular, but the idea of building a second gate was still a risky proposition. Instead of simply copying their earlier efforts, Disney took a different approach and built a theme park that remains completely unique today. To honor this anniversary, I'm stepping away from my normal blog topics to highlight what's arguably the most original creation in the history of the amusement industry. Thirty years later, I'm looking back at an incredible place that remains one of my favorite spots in existence.

I first visited EPCOT in the summer of 1984 at the age of eight, and I fell in love with the place. Even though some of my favorite rides are gone, the experience hasn't dissipated over the years. Modeled partially after the famous World's Fairs of the 1960s in New York and Montreal, EPCOT combines an optimistic look at the future with intricate displays of countries around the world. Given the difficulties involved with creating such an ambitious park, the ultimate success was remarkable. It has an unfair reputation as being "boring", and Disney has worked to modify the park to make it more exciting. I've never thought that the changes were needed, but I understand why they've occurred. EPCOT is one of the few places I could visit and not do any attractions. The grand and stunning structures like Spaceship Earth look even better at night and create an atmosphere that's never been duplicated. When you add in the diverse food and drink options from across the globe in World Showcase, the result is a must-see destination.

Walt Disney in the original EPCOT film

"I believe we can build a community here that more people will talk about and come to look at than any other area in the world. I'm sure this Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow can influence the future of city living for generations to come." - Walt Disney

The original EPCOT ideas were presented by Walt Disney himself in a film recorded in 1966 just two months before his death. His vision was much different than what the company ended up building 16 years later. Walt wanted to build a city of the future that used the latest technologies to change how cities functioned. It was an ambitious and expensive project that could have failed spectacularly, but skeptics thought the same thing about Disneyland in 1955. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if he'd lived to see the "Florida Project" come to life. Walt knew that the Magic Kingdom was necessary for the site to function, but he was a lot more interested in EPCOT. Sam Gennawey's remarkable book Walt and the Promise of Progress City provides an in-depth look at his plans and whether they could have worked. It's a fascinating read if you're interested in urban planning or Disney history. When the company decided to tackle EPCOT, they tried to incorporate Walt's vision while making sure it would also generate profits. It was a tricky balance that didn't work for everyone, but I think it's a great combination.

A postcard for Horizons, EPCOT's best extinct attraction

Looking beyond the history, the EPCOT of the 1980s had a group of dark rides that incorporated the latest robot technology known as audio-animatronics. The centerpiece was Spaceship Earth, which chronicled the history of communication as you rode inside the giant sphere. This ride has gone through various incarnations, but it retains its original style to this day. My personal favorite was Horizons, a fun look at visions of the future in the past and looking ahead. Its centerpiece was a giant pair of Omnimax screens that would remain impressive today. It ended with the novelty of getting to choose your route back to Earth. A different point-of-view video would play in front of you depicting space, sea, or desert; this fun device foreshadowed the interactive rides of today. Sitting next to Horizons in a wheel-shaped building was World of Motion, a light-hearted look at the history of transportation. Both of these rides have been replaced by more thrilling attractions. The newer rides are good fun, but they lack the same connection that I'd developed with the earlier ones.

I could spend a long time raving about each attraction, but that territory has been covered by many writers. There are plenty of people with similar stories; they visited EPCOT as a kid and haven't been able to shake the experience. Even when Disney makes questionable moves like adding characters from Finding Nemo to its Living Seas pavilion, the park continues to thrive. The grand structures still have plenty to offer, even with diminished results. That location is a massive aquarium with all types of marine animals, despite the influx of movie characters. Even marketing gurus can't eliminate the park's original aura. While these comments might feel silly, it's hard to explain just how effective it remains. I love strolling among the futuristic structures at night while the area music plays. With some minor tweaks to a few attractions, EPCOT could return to its former glory. The engineering involved with its construction was a remarkable achievement. Steve Alcorn and David Green chronicle the massive undertaking in Building a Better Mouse, an intriguing book that explains the insane amount of work necessary to meet the opening date.

The France pavilion in World Showcase at EPCOT.

I've barely mentioned World Showcase, but there's plenty to enjoy there. As a kid, I wasn't as excited about this section since it mostly involved shopping areas. There are a few rides and some impressive movies, but it's more of an adult environment. My perception has completely changed over the years due to two factors: interesting cuisine and beer. While the prices are high, the different countries offer food and drinks from all over the world. I understand this area is easily derided for its cookie-cutter takes on international culture. Disney fans even utter ridiculous statements like "We don't need to travel abroad; we can just go to EPCOT!" Even so, World Showcase has a cool atmosphere and is a great place for adults to take it easy. Unlike the Magic Kingdom, you can avoid the logjams of screaming kids. I'm a parent but still try to avoid getting stuck in that type of crowd. It might not seem like a place for her, but my three-year-old loved World Showcase because there's so much to see. The highlights for me include the indoor Mexico pavilion (with a tequilla bar!), the lush and quiet gardens of Japan, and the intricate details in France.

Future World at night in EPCOT

It's easy to dismiss EPCOT for its idealistic view on the future and simplified cultural offerings. If you look a bit further, it remains one of the most stunning creations in theme park history. The fact that Disney spent around a billion dollars in the early '80s to create a place not geared towards kids is remarkable. My feelings are stronger because of nostalgia, but that doesn't lessen the achievement. It's been disappointing to watch Disney let certain rides go or replace them with inferior experiences. That said, I have a feeling there may be a shift in the works. The company is facing serious competition from Universal and doesn't seem willing to compete with them on thrill rides. What better place to offer counter-programming than EPCOT? It remains popular and should continue to inspire younger visitors like it did for me nearly 30 years ago.

July 5, 2012

We Are Here to Change the World: Michael Jackson as Captain EO (1986)

Since my current marathon focuses on the '80s, this is the perfect time to discuss one of the theme-park gems from that era. Opening on September 1986, Captain EO is a 3D movie that appeared in four Disney theme parks around the world. Michael Jackson stars as the title character in a silly outer-space journey to save the world. The King of Pop belts out several tunes and shows the power of song and dance to overcome any evil. The $30 million production was actually directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas, so there was some serious power involved. James Horner wrote the score, and none other than Angelica Huston plays the Big Bad. The 17-minute film incorporated the typical 3D effects with smoke, lasers, and other in-theater effects to increase the fun. Let's start this look at the movie with the voice-over introduction that opens the story:

"The cosmos. A universe of good and evil, where a small group struggles to bring freedom to the countless worlds of despair. A ragtag band, led by the infamous Captain EO..."

The story opens by presenting the silly creatures on this spaceship. We have several robots, a double-headed pilot, the owl-like being Fuzzball, and the wonderfully named Hooter (Tony Cox). This clumsy blue guy resembles a small elephant but stands upright. He also has a problem with flatulence and inadvertently causing trouble. Getting the dramatic entrance on a rising platform is Captain EO, who gives a determined speech to rile up the ragtag bunch. Clad in a flashy white suit, he doesn't seem like your typical space hero. Jackson gives a laughably unconvincing "we're the best!" claim that isn't supported by their immediate crash.

Showing up to raise the pressure is their boss Commander Bog (Dick Shawn), who appears as a holographic head. Apparently, this isn't their first troubled mission. While being pursued by alien ships in a Death Star-like trench, they manage to stay alive while slamming into the surface. Their ultimate survival depends on Hooter jumping to press a red button. This isn't so easy for the diminutive alien. The in-theater laser effects and motion-controlled seats help to draw us into the big action scene. While they may seem a bit dated when compared to newer attractions, they still pack a good punch. After landing, he grabs a trash can for a disguise, which doesn't work so well. EO's gang is captured, so presenting "the gift" to the evil Supreme Leader (Angelica Huston) may be very difficult.

Hanging from a giant mass of twisted metal, the Supreme Leader is quite the imposing figure. Her giant finger nails are perfect for reaching out and grabbing a 3D audience. The situation looks bleak for EO's group, but then he reveals the gift, which she must "not only see, but hear". Look out, here comes the King of Pop! I knew they hired that guy for a reason. After some convincing and expensive stop-motion animation, the group turns into an impromptu band. Hooter nearly ruins the day once again, but he recovers and gives EO the chance to turn the metal creatures into cheesy '80s dancers. Apparently, his powers also deliver information on choreographed dance moves. It's wonderfully hokey and ridiculous, but I challenge anyone to not start tapping your feet to the grooves of "We Are Here to Change the World".  EO seems ready to prevail, but then the Supreme Leader brings out the big guns. These enemies mean business, but a last-minute save by Fuzzball does the trick. EO releases some more dancers, and these guys have the best moves yet. When the funky bass line kicks in, you know that our hero's ready to uncork his greatest routine ever.

I know that Captain EO is dated and ludicrous, but that doesn't mean it isn't great fun. Even when it's watched at home on the small screen, this cult favorite retains the enjoyment. When Jackson belts out his Bad tune "Another Part of Me", it's a pretty infectious experience. I wouldn't call myself a devoted fan, but something about this short movie fits with his style. When a fairly young Angelica Huston is ultimately revealed, it makes little sense, but I'm totally on board at that point. Jackson throws out some dancing punches, and you know that EO has saved the world. What evil can compete with the power of music and dance? It transforms an ugly sci-fi planet into a bright, heaven-like land. EO and his team soar into space, ready for their next challenge.

Captain EO gave its last performance at EPCOT in 1994, and its other presentations ended their run a few years later. It was replaced by Honey I Shrunk the Audience, which originally drew large crowds but had become dated in recent years. Following Jackson's death in June 2009, Disney recognized an opportunity to bring back this attraction. They solved the problem of needing to replace the current show and knew the move would please the devotees. Captain EO returned to all four parks during 2010 in a tribute version that didn't retain all the original in-theater effects. However, they beefed up the sound and provided an experience that might even improve on the original set-up. While this seemed like a temporary move to capitalize on the revived interest in Jackson, it continues to run today. I made it a point to visit this attraction when we went to EPCOT this past February, and it remains highly entertaining. It offers an interesting look at a specific time period when Jackson remained at the height of his power. Before the scandals and other craziness, he was able to star in a new Disney attraction and draw major interest. The crowds aren't piling into the theater at the same level today, but the smaller groups seem to be having a great time. I expect that Disney will replace it at some point, but I'm glad they gave fans who grew up in the '80s another chance to check out this movie on the big screen.

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June 15, 2012

Top 5 Theme Park Attractions Based on Movies

For this week's Top 5 List, I'm combining two of my favorite passions, movies and theme parks. In the right hands, rides and shows adapted from films can expand on the source material and put us right inside the story. I should clarify that I'm not referring to the basic marketing of coasters (i.e., Batman, Mr. Freeze) that have little connection to the original. Six Flags is a master of this type of naming and the rides may be fun, but that isn't enough to make this list. The Disney and Universal parks have shown a superior ability to create highly entertaining and unique attractions from both great and mediocre movies. There have been some flubs along the way (Stich's Great Escape, Twister), but the majority are impressive. I should also mention that rides adapted into films like Pirates of the Caribbean don't qualify, even if certain movie elements were added to the show later. Finally, I've skipped anything that I've never ridden like the new King Kong encounter pictured at the top. These rides (particularly the top three) offer incredible experiences that you should check out even if you're not a fan of the movies. Let's pull down the lap bar and check out the list! Remember to keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.

Honorable Mention: Men in Black Alien Attack, Universal Studios Florida
This interactive ride is arguably the most ambitious shooter ride that's ever been created. You start out as an agent trainee and are quickly tasked with taking down a massive alien and saving the world. There are plenty of clever touches within this large attraction, including having a Steven Spielberg alien holding a newspaper. You even get the chance to shoot other cars and send them into a tailspin. In typical Universal fashion, Men in Black cranks up the intensity near the end. While traveling under the very impressive alien, you start wildly spinning, which can test even the strongest stomachs. It's still a great attraction with well-done theming, but the end brings it down a notch. Will Smith does give you a different message based on your score, which is a fun way to close it out.

5. Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters, Disneyland
We're staying with shooting rides for this choice, which improves on the original Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin at Disney World. It isn't as high-tech as the Men in Black ride but is a lot more fun. You'll find similar rides to this one in your local parks, but it's the extra touches that make the difference. The targets react to being struck by your blasters, and it's just a great time. This is one of those attractions that never gets old because you're competing with friends and looking to find a way to improve your score. It's based on the plot of Toy Story 2 and has a lot of clever nods to the characters and the entire franchise. Disney also has a newer interactive ride, Toy Story Mania, which is in 3D and has better technology. However, it falls a bit short of this attraction in terms of pure fun.

4. Revenge of the Mummy, Universal Studios Florida
Based on the Mummy films starring Brendan Frasier and Rachel Weisz, this elaborately themed attraction is a mix of a dark ride and a roller coaster. Even the queue is worth seeing because it sets up the production of a fictional sequel. You hop into mine cars to get a closer look, but this set is cursed. Skeletal warriors, hordes of scarab beetles, and the Mummy himself threaten you in this technologically advanced ride. When the coaster part takes over, it's disorienting because you're indoors and don't know where it's heading. There are fire effects, steep drops, and even a false ending. It's not as wild as some of the other Universal coasters, so it might be a good middle ground if those are too much. I've only chosen the Orlando version of this ride because it's longer and more detailed.

3. Star Tours: The Adventure Continues, Disneyland and Disney Hollywood Studios
Originally appearing in 1987, Star Tours gave visitors a chance to ride through the trench of the Death Star and catch a glimpse at the Star Wars universe. Riding a motion simulator was exciting, but there were only so many times you could take the same trip. Fans anticipated a new version for many years, and it finally arrived in May 2011. The result is a stunning revamp that provides a different ride nearly every time. The 3D images represent a new level of sophistication and go way beyond the previous technology. The big draw is the possibility of 54 different combinations. This is slightly deceptive because it takes into account each part of the attraction. Basically, you start at one of two points, then visit two worlds randomized by the computer each time. Options include Hoth, Tattoine for the pod race, and the congested air traffic of Coruscant. You also get a visit from familiar faces like Princess Leia or Admiral Ackbar. The reason I'm hesitant to go overboard is the fact that I've ridden Star Tours fives times and traveled to the Wookie planet during all the rides. This is just bad luck, but it shows how it may take a serious number of rides to experience the six planets. Regardless, this is a stunning improvement that doesn't lose any steam with repeated visits.

2. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Universal's Islands of Adventure
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was a blockbuster addition in June 2010 for Universal that completely changed the theme-park landscape in Orlando. It didn't put them on even par with Disney, but it earned them huge attendance gains. Theme-park fans were talking about them a lot more than their juggernaut competitor for the first time in a while. The centerpiece of this new land was Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a combination of a dark ride and simulator attraction. You board "enchanted benches" and soar through Hogwarts while encountering Dementors, a dragon, and other familiar entities. The queue for this ride is worth seeing even if you're not reading for the intense attraction. You walk by talking paintings, hear from a holographic Dumbledore, and Harry and his pals before boarding the ride. I wrote a longer post about this entire area back in March if you're interested. This ride lives up to the hype and uses amazing robot-arm technology to seamlessly move you through some amazing set pieces.

1. Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, Disneyland
Opening in 1995, this breakthrough attraction tells an entirely new story where you join Indiana Jones and explore an ancient Bengalese temple. You board vehicles that appear to be standard jeeps, but they're actually enhanced motion vehicles. Unlike typical simulators, they actually move through a large building but provide a greater range of motion to increase the excitement. The show building is huge for this ride, which incorporates many familiar Jones conventions while still being a new story. The theming is amazing and combines with fun surprises to deliver a remarkable experience. We also run into Jones (voiced by Ford) a few times during the craziness, which takes us past snakes, a giant boulder, and inventive fire effects. The queue for this attraction even surpasses Harry Potter and provides a remarkable setting. You're completely immersed in the story, and the huge scale sells the feeling that you've stepped into Jones' fantastical world.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list. What are your favorite theme park rides based on movies? You should also check out the archive of past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.