Monday, November 29, 2010

DVD Review: Waking Sleeping Beauty

Powerful. Dramatic. Sensational.

Don Hahn and Peter Schneider, both modern heroes in the pantheon of Disney animation, offer this remarkable tale of the rebirth of the animated feature film. Waking Sleeping Beauty (WSB) tells the story of the Walt Disney Feature Animation Studios from 1984 to 1994; more than just a litany of facts and photos, WSB is a testament to the artists and executives that created some of the biggest and most memorable animated films in history.

The film opens with images of Michael Eisner and home video footage of the studios from 1980. You meet a ragtag group of young animators who seem to know that they are in a hollowed environment yet seem to be without a rudder. As the story unfolds, we meet the three major players in the film: Roy E. Disney, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Most Disney enthusiasts are familiar with the conflict that developed between the three, but WSB provides such a greater nuance to the machinations of the executives. We quickly discover the roles being played by Eisner, Katzenberg and Disney--the heavy, the upstart and the traditionalist (and soul of the company).

I was surprised at the honesty and apparent truthfulness to the film. Hahn, who was involved with the majority of the releases during the time period, does his best to tell an exciting and unbiased story. Granted, he is one of the artists as opposed to the executives, but it is obvious that Hahn was more concerned that the film succeeds in telling as much of the story as possible. One of the unsung heroes of the film is the late Frank G. Wells. Schneider and Hahn spend time proselytizing the former President and COO; Wells was truly loved and admired. Reading anything about the company post-Eisner and you will see the same theme: the death of Frank Wells really shook Eisner in confidence and ability.

The producers spend a lot of time focusing on Howard Ashman who passed away in 1991, shortly before the release of Beauty and the Beast. Ashman and his songwriting partner Alan Mencken were responsible for the change in direction of the Disney animated feature. Ashman pushed for a return to the animated musical. Ashman believed that music is central to what Disney animation is. In the film and the bonus features, he is referred to as the next Walt Disney. A scary, but very heartfelt appellation.

The film is told through a unique viewpoint. Instead of using archival interview footage with random talking heads, Hahn had the idea to use historical photos and videos with various voice overs from key persons. Hahn and Schneider tackle a very touchy subject and partway through the film, you wonder if they were going to make enemies. They address this in the bonus features, stating that they told the truth and were personally involved--that they wanted to show everything, including the warts!

Anyone who is a fan of the movies released during this time period will enjoy Waking sleeping Beauty. It is so much more than a documentary about the people; it is a heartfelt and emotional journey into the politics and infighting of the Disney Studio at the time. And above it all, amazing animation was produced. Which Hahn notes, is really what people will remember.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

DVD Review: Walt & El Grupo

Walt & El Grupo is finally on DVD and this is every Disney geek's dream film.

Directed by Theodore Thomas, this film is an important look at a singular year and event which defined a Studio, a man, his artists and the direction of the company. Frank Thomas, one of Disney's Nine Old Men and an artist on the trip was Theodore's father. Theodore also directed the wonderful film Frank & Ollie about his dad and fellow animator Ollie Johnston.

In 1941, Walt was reeling from the Animator's Strike. He had just opened his new Studio in Burbank, found his European funds cut off from the war and he needed to downsize the staff. The US Government had created a new department, the Office of Coordinator of Inter American Affairs (CIAA) in order to strengthen relationships between the United States and their neighbors in South America. Oil Magnate Nelson Rockefeller was in charge of the CIAA and used the offices for two main purposes: to foster goodwill with South American countries through ambassadors and goodwill trips; to keep an eye on foreign investments (oil and hotels).

Walt was given a $70,000 grant by the government for the goodwill tour, but he knew there would be long term fiscal rewards for befriending the populace in South America. It was also a tactical ploy by FDR to try to remove Walt from the situation to lessen the stress of the animators' strike. While Walt, his wife and 16 key Disney animators were on the goodwill tour, Walt's wife, Lillian remarked that Walt was treated more like royalty than anything else. Children and grown-ups alike heralded the creator of Mickey Mouse (El Ratón Mickey). During the South American tour, the US Labor Department Conciliation Service was able to settle the strike.

Walt Disney and Chazarreta troupe
Walt & El Grupo is a wonderful look at the South American trip and the events surrounding it. Arguably, one of the most stunning aspects of the movie is how the photographs and artwork come to life on the screen. Since most of the raw material were from photographs and 16mm footage, the filmmakers created photographic images that move and come to life.

Similarly, it is fascinating to see Walt Disney through these images and film clips. Since Walt's passing, he has attained a rather mythic status; it is wonderful to see how much of a superstar Walt was and how he affected people all over the world. You also catch rare glimpses of his lovely wife, Lillian, and how they interacted.

Part of the charm of the film is seen through the eyes of the individuals that were fortunate enough to have met Walt, through family members or media events. You can still see, 70 years later, how enamored they were of Walt and El Grupo. At first, it seems rather mundane to interview the journalists and people that were brought in as live models, but it helps to paint a larger picture of the trip and its effect. In all there are multiple stories weaved into this film: the political climate, the creation of the films, the goodwill tour and the experiences of the animators involved. The filmmakers visit the places made famous by El Grupo's visit and offer comparisons to the modern day cityscape and areas.

The bonus features are not as extensive as I would have liked, but the film covers so much ground that there could not have been much left over! One of the interesting inclusions is the full 1942 theatrical release of Saludos Amigos, which had been edited, previously, to remove images of Goofy smoking.

In all, this is a mesmerizing glimpse into working with Walt and his artists during 1941. Each artist is spotlighted during the film, including their contributions to the films and the Studios. Expert insight is provided by animation historians John Canemaker and J.B. Kaufman. Canemaker wrote the seminal work on Disney's Nine Old Men. Kaufman is the author of South of the Border With Disney: Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program, 1941-1948. Walt and Lilly's daughter, Diane Disney Miller makes several appearances in the film as well to provide a more familial take on the trip. Diane rarely grants interviews and it was nice to see her talk about her parents and that time period.

This is a movie that will resonate with animation fans, Disney Company enthusiasts and anyone interested in the art and making of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.
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Friday, November 26, 2010

Geek-End Update, Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Walt Disney Family Museum has released a video clip highlighting their store! (And, yes, they have some pretty amazing items!)

DVD Review: The Boys, The Sherman Brothers' Story

Their litany is unparalleled.

Their affect on popular culture is unmatched.

Mention any of the songs from Mary Poppins and most people will be able to sing along. (Are you humming A Spoonful of Sugar, yet?)

The tagline from the film, two brothers, fifty films, one thousand songs is quite accurate. If you were to present the Sherman brother's contributions to the film Mary Poppins or the seminal theme park attraction, It's a Small World, you would ensure their place in history. This film covers the spectrum of their musical contributions while interweaving the story of their lives together and apart.

Conceived and created by filmmakers and cousins Gregory V. Sherman and Jeffrey C. Sherman, this documentary divulges a unique portrayal of their fathers, Robert and Richard Sherman. We explore the brothers’ childhoods, marriages, early careers and close personal and professional relationship with Walt Disney. As the film progresses, you meet a larger cast of characters that worked with The Boys: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Landsbury, Alan Mencken, Randy Newman, John Williams and many others. When these celebrities and musicians speak about the Shermans, you can sense the love and admiration.

The overall tone of the film is reverential without being sappy or sweet. Gregory and Jeffrey Sherman (the filmmakers) set out to share their father's legacies and to show the world the inside story of the Sherman families. Although they were business partners, Bob and Dick shared a rocky and tumultuous sibling relationship. We meet the family members in the film and see their perspective of the famous patriarchs. Imagine, for a moment, that your grandfather helped to write It's a Small World (After All) or that you helped inspire A Spoonful of Sugar. Bob and Dick spent a large part of their adult lives apart; the filmmakers chronicled this aspect and set about to reunite the brothers. You will need to watch the film to see the outcome.

From a geekier perspective, it was great to see three of my favorite authors in the film and in the bonus features. Jeff Kurtti and Bruce Gordon served as co-producers for the film. Jeff and Bruce also served as the editors for the book, Walt's Time. Another author and frequent Geek-End Update blogger, Brian Sibley gets a lot of screen time, as well, as he discusses the Boys influence on the Studio productions.

This film is a joy for Disney enthusiasts and will leave you hungering for more Sherman Brothers.

Shouldn't this be enough to get you to buy this disc: A Spoonful of Sugar. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room. Winnie the Pooh. I Wan'na Be Like You. One Little Spark.Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
All of that and so much more!

This is a perfect addition to your Disney Geek library!

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Book Review: The Art of Walt Disney World by Jeff Kurtti and Bruce Gordon

The Art of Walt Disney World Resort by Jeff Kurtti and Bruce Gordon. 2009. 139 pp. Theme Park Exclusive.

Jeff and Bruce have worked together on many projects about Disney. The Art of Walt Disney World Resort is one of the best; not only is it one of the best books they have collaborated on, but it is one of the best works on Walt Disney World.

Jeff Kurtti is a well-known and much-admired name in the Disney community. He has written many of the seminal works on the history of the theme parks, animated films, characters and theater. Since the World Began is one of his more treasured books and one of the few that looks at the early history of Walt Disney World. Jeff is also known for his work on several award-winning documentaries and as a consultant for film and theater. Currently, he is working with the Walt Disney Family Museum. The late Bruce Gordon was an Imagineer and consultant to the Walt Disney Family Museum. He co-authored many of my favorite books, including: The Nickel Tour, Walt's Time (with Jeff) and Disneyland Now, Then, and Forever.

This book is the sister companion to their previous work, The Art of Disneyland (2006) and carries a similar philosophy of presenting unheralded artwork. One of the unique features off this book is in its presentation--it is a true picture book in the sense that the images are all rotated 90 degrees for our viewing pleasure. In other words, you turn the book sideways and all of the images are presented the same direction.

I wish I could get reproductions of both of these Fun Maps of Walt Disney World.

The Art of Walt Disney World Resort is every Disney enthusiast's dream; a full-color look at the conceptual drawings, paintings and artwork that helped visualize the Vacation Kingdom. I can't stress how amazing and beautiful the artwork actually is. Spanning every decade of the Resort, you are introduced to different artists that laid the foundations for the parks, resorts and recreational areas. The visual styles are striking and as varied as the artists themselves.

The text that supports the art is informative and takes the book past being just a picture book. You will learn a thing or two! The accompanying descriptions serve not only to educate but also as mini art-appreciation lessons, as well. Jeff is one of the foremost experts on Disney history and his insight and commentary add tremendous value to the book. For those theme parkeologists this book is a rare treat. A large majority of the art is centered around the pre-opening years and the oft-maligned 1970s. Fortunately for us, Jeff and Bruce were able to collect many images that have not been seen outside of WDI and castmember circles.

Much of the artwork presents a scale and magnitude that was never put into place at Walt Disney World, for whatever reason. You can trace the transitions from Disneyland to the Magic Kingdom through much of the late-60's and mid-70's artwork. There is scale and openness that can only be achieved in the space that was the Florida property. Some of my favorite pieces recount the early days at Fort Wilderness when there was only the Magic Kingdom, Fort Wilderness and a growing Village. The days when a vacation was more than just squeezing four theme parks into a trip; when you could ride horseback, shop, eat and spend time vacationing. The images hearken to a simpler time at Walt Disney World Resort.

Enough proselytizing. This is a superb work that everyone interested in Walt Disney World should own. It carries a hefty price tag and it is a theme park exclusive, so it could be difficult to find on the second hand market.

Kudos to Jeff and Bruce for putting together such a massive work centered on the art of Walt Disney World Resort. I can only hope that we will see a second volume soon.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Blu-ray Review: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

This movie completely surprised me!

Jerry Bruckheimer, Nicolas Cage and Disney have created the beginnings of a possible new franchise (a la Pirates of the Caribbean) with The Sorcerer's Apprentice. As with most Hollywood films, if the premier weekend doesn't break records or surpass a certain level it won't garner any additional love from the Studio that created it. Unfortunately, the potential has been shelved.

Any movie with a magical and size-changing book makes me happy!
The film has a PG rating, which is mostly for some fantastical scenes of magical fights with spellcasting, flying bodies and a dragon! Both of my boys watched the film and thoroughly enjoyed it. It had some very formulaic moments, but the unique nature of the magic and action created some very exciting scenes.

In all, this is a fun movie to watch with the whole family. There is plenty of humor and the main cast of the film create a sensible and likeable group. I have to admit that I really loved Alfred Molina as the arch-nemesis Maxim Horvath. He played a delightfully charming and malicious villain to Cage's more sympathetic and engaging character.

With the Harry Potter movie franchise drawing to a close, Disney has missed a potential series that will attract the teen and young adult audience. My youngest has been talking about the movie and I have seen him playing Sorcerer's Apprentice with a few of his toys. Is anyone listening?

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Update! The History of Animation, The Boys, Waking Sleeping Beauty, Walt & El Grupo and Fantasia

The History of Animation, The Boys, Waking Sleeping Beauty, Walt & El Grupo and Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 all showed up at Imaginerding HQ. It looks like it is going to be an amazing Thanksgiving weekend!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Exclusive Epic Mickey Gameplay Footage from 2 Lonely Deeks

Yes, we were very  fortunate to get our hands on an early review copy of Epic Mickey for the Nintendo Wii.

Wasn't that simply amazing? Make sure to check out Two Lonely Deeks for more Disney News, Views and Reviews!

George's Geeky Gift Guide: Walt Disney Imagineering

The Imagineers have produced another great title about themselves--with tons of behind-the-scenes images and stories. This book should be on every Disney enthusiast's shelves!

Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making More Magic Real2010. 192 pp.

All you need to know is that you need to have this book!

If you want to learn more about it, though, keep on reading.

Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making More Magic Real is not an update to the seminal 1996release; it is a continuation. It is a look at the Magic that the Imagineers have created since the publication of the first book. Any fan of the Disney Company, the Theme Parks, the Resorts, the Animation or creative environments will treasure this book. Filled with more artwork than you can imagine, most of the pages offer paintings, concept art and photographs that have never been published before. Once again, the Imagineers pull back the curtain to reveal the puttering, popping, whirring, spinning and dreaming that they do to create their magic. You also understand that there are many more curtains yet to be revealed, let alone parted!

The book is constructed of three main parts:
Part I Theory
Over the years, Imagineers have developed ideas about creating great attractions for Disney Parks and Resort Guests. Every project team takes into account some basic notions--the unwritten ground rules of groundbreaking creativity.
Part II Tools
Imagineers make use of a variety of resources to create the magic of Disney Resorts and attractions--tools to visualize, analyze, explain and build.
Part III Portfolio
Recent work, and a look at the mosaic of people, talents, ideas, and projects that is Imagineering.
This book is not as groundbreaking as the 1996 version--it offers a more polished and accepted look at the Imagineering process. Considering the time that it was released, in 1996,  there was nothing that brought us inside the folds of Imagineering; nothing that allowed us to venture into the backrooms and creative side of Disney. The current book takes a different path to show how and why the Imagineers create the amazing attractions and resorts. Its focus is largely on the projects and concepts from the past 15 years of Imagineering. This book is not meant to replace the 1996 title, but to enhance it; to bring us further into folds of Imagineering. That being said, the coverage of attractions is very new and modern. There is not much focus on the first 40 years of Imagineering. The majority of the photos and artwork are from Tokyo DisneySea, Disney's California Adventure and Disney's Animal Kingdom.

The book is packaged with tissue paper between many of the pages. Instead of offering only large, fold-out pages (like the 1996 book), they have opted for the addition of smaller fold-outs that detail artwork from the same attraction or area. They are like postcard books. There are some amazing, large fold-outs, especially on the Disney Cruise ship. The addition of the extra art really makes the book feel like a family treasure or scrapbook.

Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making More Magic Real, in concert with the 1996version, should be on everyone's shelves. The artwork is astounding; there are pieces of art that you would love to have in your home. The main author, Melody Malmberg, has done a wonderful job with the text. It is informative, clear and does a fantastic job of describing everything that an Imagineer is and does. They have also included an index and a list of resources for further reading.

This is a book that you need to own!

I did receive a review copy of this book from Disney Press.

Monday, November 22, 2010

100 Years of Magic: 1940

During the nebulous 100 Years of Magic Celebration that swept the Disney Company in 2001, many different products were released to bolster sales and attendance at the theme parks. The celebration was also another 18-month event that was supposed to drive people back to the parks after the Millennium Celebration. One of the nerdier collectibles was the set of 28 trading cards that featured an important year in the Company's history--with a photograph on the front and several facts on the back. In order to be more inclusive, the cards featured a few non-Disney items as well.

Let's take a look at 1940.
By the late 1930's, the Disney staff had expanded to a record high of nearly 1,500. Needing a bigger facility, Walt and Roy used the profits from Snow White to build a $3 million dollar studio in Burbank. By May 6, 1940, the entire staff had moved into its new home.

1940 - Artist Ub Iwerks returns to the Disney Studio as head of the technical research division.
1940 - Vermont was the first to issue a U.S. citizen a Social Secutiry check.
On February 14, 1940, a porpoise was born in captivity for the first time.
1940 - Disney issues its first annual report.
The Front of the 1940 Trading Card.
The Backside of Water, er, the 1940 Trading Card.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Book Review Walt Disney's Imagineering Legends and the Genesis of the Disney Theme Park

Walt Disney's Imagineering Legends and the Genesis of the Disney Theme Parkby Jeff Kurtti, 146 pp, 2008.

This has been an eagerly anticipated book in the Disney community. Since their inception with the creation of Disneyland, the Imagineers have always been the architects and dreamers of Walt's visions. Many of the names that you read about in the book will be familiar to Disney enthusiasts; as the name of the book implies, these are the legends of Disney Imagineering.

Jeff Kurtti is a well-known and much-admired name in the Disney community. He has written many seminal works on the history of the theme parks, animated films, characters and theater. Since The World Beganis one of his more treasured books. Jeff is also known for his work on several award-winning documentaries and as a consultant for film and theater. Currently, he is working with the Walt Disney Family Museum. The late Bruce Gordon served as editor on the project and his talents are seen throughout the book through the layout and design. Bruce was the author of The Nickel Tour,Walt's Time and The Art of Disneyland(with Jeff).

In an interview with Didier Ghez, Jeff talks about the motivation behind the book:
The inspiration for Walt Disney's Imagineering Legends was John Canemaker's Walt Disney's Nine Old Men. I say inspiration, since my book comes nowhere near the depth and erudition of John's great work, but the inspiration was to create a work that would familiarize people with the core team of creative people within the initial development of Disneyland.

The animation group, as a rule, is more familiar to people, and the Imagineering group is less well-known, the history of how they came together is much less documented. It's very important for new generations of fans to get a proper introduction to this information, it's important for the Company to preserve a record that illuminates and contextualizes key periods of its history.

I am not sure I could have said it better myself. In looking at a group as large and nebulous as the Imagineers, it is obvious that any work on them could not be inclusive. Many people have iterated their complaints about the lack of certain key members, but that is to be expected. Jeff has already stated that he hopes to create a second volume.

Imagineering Legends is able to meld several key ideas into one book: an introduction to 30 of the most famous and key Imagineers; an insightful look into the creation of the theme parks; and a journey through a history of Imagineering. There has not been another work published on this scale or within the same pages. Each of the Imagineers chronicled is presented within their holistic context. The classifications are well-reflected and well-thought. Jeff bestows the following categories: the Prototype Imagineers; the Place Makers; the Story Department; the Model Shop; the Machine Shop; the Music Makers and the Unofficial Imagineers. Special places are reserved for Walt Disney and John Hench.

Most of this information can be found in other sources, such as The E-Ticket, Walt Disney Imagineering, The Art of Disneyland, Disneyland: The First Quarter Century, The Nickel Tourand Disneyland: Inside Story. But Imagineering Legends is the only place you will find all of this information. That is the true brilliance of the book. Jeff presents a seamless and well-organized view into the Imagineers and the creation of Disney theme parks.

Bruce Gordon did an amazing job with the layout of Imagineering Legends. There are new photographs and concept art throughout the book. The layout is very contemporary and very appealing; you never feel lost in columns of text (although, Jeff is a great writer). My only issue with the layout is that some of the artwork and photographs are spread across two pages. Sometimes, it is difficult to get a good view of the artwork.

Bottom Line: This work is for everyone. Jeff has created a book that lays a solid foundation of knowledge for Disney enthusiasts of all levels. Whether you are new to the Imagineers or a seasoned researcher, this compilation solidly portrays Imagineering and their importance within the Disney Company. This book will be within constant reach on my bookshelf for many years. It will also be an essential addition to every enthusiast's library. Future Disney researchers will be thanking Jeff for years to come. You need to own this book.