Friday, November 30, 2012

Dreaming Disney - Writing Walt Disney World

Full disclosure: I stole this idea from the Couponing to Disney blog.  The Between Wife found a link to the original Couponing to Disney post on Pinterest.  And the minute I heard about the idea, I knew it was a Dreaming Disney concept.
Betweenlanders you need you to know that you can write Disney characters at the Walt Disney World Resort and get a response.  At one time, the response you received included an autographed photo of the character you sent the letter to.  But Couponing to Disney also noted this had changed.  And I needed to verify for myself and you the actual experience of writing to your favorite character at Walt Disney World. 
Earlier this summer I had a great opportunity to try this experiment out with four Betweenland children forced to spend time with me.  I worked with each kiddo to select a character, print off a picture which they colored, and write a letter to the character.  This process itself was pretty easy except some of the youth changed their minds several times to who they wanted to write.
Their targets were the following:
·         Between Kid 1 who is the youngest always chose Lightening McQueen, which was a relief since it led to the least amount of work for me.
·         Between Kid 2 wavered a lot.  The kiddo chose Tinker Bell, then shifted to Merida, and then went back to Tinker Bell, and then finally got completely bored!
·         Between Tween 1 started with Rapunzel, changed to Merida and then chose the Mad Hatter which is a character which fits this kiddo better than the other choices.
·         Between Tween 2 is the oldest and shifted only once starting with Tiana and then choosing Mulan, which like the other tween was a better fit for this youth.
4 letters and pictures colored by kids.
Our Letters

I packaged up the photos and letters and asked what will you get? 
Between these four Between Kids there are two addresses in two different states.  So I was also interested in the timing of the responses they would receive. 
Between Kid 1 received a postcard of Mickey and Friends with a message from the Big Cheese.  Between Kid 1 was thrilled and is currently keeping the postcard alongside some other special items, including family pictures from past Disney vacations (man I love this kid).

A postcard showing Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto
The Mickey Postcard
 Between Tween 1 received a postcard from the Disney Princesses with a special message from Cinderella.  The Tween was not thrilled.  It was okay to receive a message from Cinderella, but what was really wanted was a card or message from the Mad Hatter.  The Tween has moved somewhat away from princesses and the Hatter is a bigger impact character in the Tween’s life.

A postcard showing Disney's princesses.
The Princess Postcard
These two kids received a response in around two weeks.  Between Kid 2 and Between Tween 2 are still awaiting a response months later.  I actually felt like I had to have made an error in addressing the letters since they both live at the same home and it seemed odd that one address would get responses and another would not.  I have since confirmed the address, but I am still convinced there was a user error on my part. 
So here are my lessons learned from this experiment.
1)     Spending time with kids you like, even if indecisive, is very fun.  Don’t forget it!
2)      If you are a girl writing a character at the Walt Disney World Resort you are probably getting a princess postcard.  And if you are a boy you are probably getting a response from Mickey and his friends.  I am assuming that there is some variation and maybe if a boy wrote to Cinderella he might get the princess postcard.
3)     Kids love getting mail.
The book is closed on the Walt Disney World writing experiment.  The Between Kids have not asked to write again.  But I wonder about what happens if they write that west coast park? 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Between Books - Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends and the Genesis of the Disney Theme Park

Cover showing Monorails running into different directions and bubbles showing Walt Disney and Disney castles.

Jeff Kurtti in Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends and the Genesis of the Disney Theme Park outlines the lives of 30 Imagineering legends, both official Imagineers and unofficial ones, that help build the Disney theme parks that we love today.  Kurtti begins with Walt Disney himself, whom Kurtti labels as the original Imagineer.  Kurtti follows with themed chapters including The Prototype Imagineers, The Executive Suite, The Place Makers, The Story Department, Masters of Mixed Media, The Model Shop, The Machine Shop, The Music Makers, and The Unofficial Imagineers.  The book concludes with a section titled The Renaissance Imagineer which provides a slightly longer biography of John Hench.  Most of the biographies are less than five pages and filled with photos and illustrations from the legend’s career.   

The text itself is factual, well researched and a valuable resource for the lives of these Imagineering legends.  Each biography provides a quick overview on each figure spotlighted.  The biographies are more than just bland facts, with the Kimball chapter discussing the low points of Walt Disney and Ward Kimball’s relationship and another explaining why Yale Gracey is a mysterious figure in Disney history.  The only difference between the quality of information and style I have found in Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends and the Genesis of the Disney Theme Park and academic historical books and articles I have read is the sources which include fan magazines, which for Disney legends are an excellent resource for their past interviews.  Some readers may find the writing an obstacle since it is academic in nature.  Therefore, it can be difficult to “get into” each biography if one was hoping for a hook to pull you into the story.  

Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends and the Genesis of the Disney Theme Park is an essential volume for any Between Books library.  In less than 150 pages it provides an introduction to 30 key players including Walt Disney himself.  I personally have consulted this volume a number of times to verify and clarify information.  Due to its size and writing style it will never be a book one packs up to read poolside, but it is a book one will consult again and again as you ask yourself questions about these men and women.  If anything I hope Kurtti would consider another volume in the future including new Imagineering legends not included like Marty Sklar and Tony Baxter.    

Friday, November 23, 2012

Mousey Movies - Fantastic Four

Before Pixar was founded, before The Incredibles was a glimmer in Brad Bird’s eyes, before Disney purchased Marvel, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the world to the Fantastic Four.  Debuting in 1961, Marvel comics brought us the first family of Superheroes.  After an accident in space during an experiment, four astronauts underwent physical transformations that made them truly super.  Dr. Reed Richards or Mr. Fantastic developed the ability to stretch and contort his body into multiple shapes, like Mrs. Incredible.  Susan Storm or Invisible Girl developed the ability to become invisible and project force fields, like Violet.  Richards’ best friend Ben Grimm’s body transformed into rock and became super strong taking the name The Thing, strength being shared with Mr. Incredible.  And Johnny Storm or the Human Torch could turn himself into fire and fly, kind of like an anti-Frozone.  Yes, there are a ton of similarities between the superhero families.  Luckily now that Pixar and Marvel are all part of the same family there is no fear of any legal entanglements! 
In 2005, Marvel and 20th Century Fox brought the Fantastic Four to the big screen, in the movie Fantastic Four, providing both the origin of the team and showcasing their struggle against Doctor Doom.  I was really hopeful for this film.  The cast had my attention.  I had become a fan of Ioan Gruffudd in the Hortio Hornblower movies, movies that led me to read the entire book series.  And I had really enjoyed Julian McMahon (Doctor Doom) on Charmed, yeah I had watched Charmed!  And it was a superhero movie during a time when I pretty much went to any superhero movie.  And The Incredibles had just come out the year before making me open to the original family.  These things helped me overcome my lack of love for the Fantastic Four, Reed Richards has always been a character I was meh about.  Financially it fared well at the box office which led to the green light of a sequel. 
But for most fans the Fantastic Four was a miss.  I think there are a number of reasons for this result.  First, the Fantastic Four just did not have the fan base of other teams like the X-Men.  And though people came out to see the movie the performances were at times underwhelming.  There is a least one character (who’s indemnity I will protect) to me who seems to be sleep walking through the story. 
Yet, despite the fact that Marvel and Disney were not linked yet, there are still plenty of ties that make this a Mousey Movie:           
·         Cap:  Johnny Storm is pretty much a jerk and Ben Grimm is often a target of his pranks.  At one point he walks into a locker room and startles Grimm into attention by yelling, “Captain on the Deck.”  The irony of this line is that Johnny Storm is played by Chris Evans who would later play another Marvel superhero as the lead in Captain America: The First Avenger.  My guess, and I really mean certainty, is that with Evans ruling the box office in his Captain America projects and The Avengers that the future of this cast in any future Fantastic Four projects is non-existent. 

·         EXTREME:  Johnny along with being a jerk, also enjoys action sports.  He skies areas that have clearly not been cleared for tourists.  After Johnny’s powers manifest he decides to go out and blow off some steam.  Just like any other guy he grabs a motocross bike and performs some jumps at the X Games sponsored by Disney’s ESPN. 

·        Ordinary Hero: Actor Michael Chiklis has had a long relationship with Disney’s ABC.  His breakout roll was as the lead in ABC’s 1991 The Commish.  The Commish ended it’s run in 1996 the same year Disney purchased Capital Cities/ABC.  The show starring Chiklis allowed him to show his range delivering both comedy and drama.  He would later reach greater acclaim leading another police drama The Shield, for FX.   In 2010 having played Ben Grimm in two Fantastic Four movies, Chiklis returned to ABC and the concept of a superhero family in No Ordinary Family.  Chiklis instead of portraying the Frozone character as the buddy took his turn as the Mr. Incredible head of the family, matching super strength.  Sadly, the show failed to find an audience and was cancelled during its first season.  I say sadly, but I have to admit that the show failed to catch on in the Between Household.        
·         Lieutenant:  As noted early it was Gruffudd’s work in the Hortio Hornblower franchise that made me think I might really enjoy Fantastic Four.  He brought Hornblower alive from me playing the young British Royal Navy officer both smart and likeable.  Much of Gruffudd’s work, like Hornblower, is British film and television work with him not catching on in the United States as much as I would like.  He does have some Disney connections.  First, he is Harold Godfrey Lowe, the Fifth Officer, in James Cameron’s blockbuster Titanic, an officer lucky enough to survive and pull Rose out of the water.  Okay, the ties between Gruffudd and Avatarland are pretty tenuous.  His true Disney connection is 102 Dalmatians, where he plays Kevin Shepherd, the owner of an animal shelter setup by Cruella de Vil, played by Glenn Close, for the theft of Dalmatian puppies in another attempt to make a spotted coat.  Honestly, as much as I enjoy Gruffudd, I cannot remember if I have ever seen this movie!        

·         The Architect:  I have said it several times about the DC movie franchises, they need a Kevin Fiege.  As the President of Production for Marvel Studios he oversees the film projects and with the Avengers Initiative ensures the films weave a cohesive story.  As Christopher Nolan ends his stint on Batman and a new Superman movie releases summer 2013 some fans ask if the DC universe will mesh together in the same way the Marvel Cinematic Universe does, due to Fiege.  The answer for DC could easily be no as they consider rebooting Batman.  Though not part of the Avengers Initiative, Fiege executive produces this offering.     

With everything going for it, and against it, the Between Family enjoyed Fantastic Four, despite compared to The Avengers it is fairly bland and nowhere as funny.  The Between Wife is not a comic book fan, yet she has been known to ask to watch Fantastic Four on family movie nights.  So those saying they did not see Fantastic Four in the theater are likely lying.  In the end, who can resist a movie that has a Stan Lee cameo and mirrors in live action The Incredibles, even if the cast at times appears to be phoning it in.  If you enjoy this Mousey Movie, please feel no shame in consuming this mindless flick!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Between Books - Disney Trivia from the Vault

Book cover showing a vault shaped like a D with a mickey head in it's center.
Disney history fans owe much to Dave Smith, the Chief Archivist Emeritus and founder of the Walt Disney Archives.  Thanks to Smith’s efforts much of Disney corporate history has been preserved.  He has over the years also interacted with fans, using the resources of the Archives to answer fan questions in magazines and newsletters.  Smith takes this a step further in the book Disney Trivia from the Vault: Secrets Revealed and Questions Answered, providing 260 pages of questions and answers. 
The format will be familiar to anyone who has read any of Smith’s “Ask Dave” columns.  Fans submit questions and Smith uses his knowledge and resources to respond.  The book is organized into chapters based on theme; Animated Features, Animated Shorts, Disneyland, Live-Action Films, Publications, Television, Walt Disney World and Walt Disney. Each chapter includes numerous questions with a typical page having at least 3 to 5 questions and responses.
The content will be very familiar to anyone who has read the “Ask Dave” columns.  Smith’s responses are factual, straight to the point and typically have no commentary.  Though I sometimes feel I sense a dry humor being injected, but that could be strictly due to my own internal monologue as I read the book.  Some topics do repeat themselves, typically separated by a few pages.  When this occurs the answer is something new, not just copied and pasted from the earlier response.  I am not sure if this is due to editing or was intentional.  If I have to criticize, it really is me getting nitpicky, wondering if a editor understood that It’s a Small World should really be it’s a small world and other similar small errors. 
I found myself trying to answer the questions before reading the responses.  Typically I could not, though there are a few I did know.  There is a great amount of good information in this volume.  I found myself seriously contemplating the Disneyland Park golden marker and how Disney represents it elsewhere.  And the book really serves as a great reminder how big the live action catalog for Disney really is, with Smith being asked questions of many a film that I have never heard of.  I think the best use of this would be as a bathroom book, because it would be easy to pick it up and put it down a few minutes later.  The content within it makes me wish it could be a useful research resource, but the lack of an index makes it difficult to use as a reliable tool.
Honestly Disney Trivia from the Vault surprised me.  It was about twice the size of what I expected for the price.  And the content is good, though some editing would improve its usability as a research tool.  The volume would probably serve as a nice gift for a Disney fan, who could use it as an enjoyable distraction read.        

Friday, November 16, 2012

Dreaming Disney - The ForceCast

Logo of hands holding a microphone.  Background text says The Galaxy is Listening.

Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise have joined the House of Mouse, and I for one am so excited to see you!
Fellow Disney fans are you behind on what Star Wars is?  You are probably at least familiar with the live action releases, but there is a much bigger universe than just six films.  Do you need to find a way to catch up on the latest news about this new Disney franchise?  Are you interested in dipping your toe into this universe?  Can I recommend to you The ForceCast podcast?  I think you will find it both educational and enjoyable!
Personally, I have been listening to The ForceCast for about five years.  My own reason was to catch myself up with the Star Wars universe as my kids helped me get back into this beloved franchise.  Yes I watched the movies whenever I stumbled on the marathons and I owned the DVDs, but Star Wars: The Clone Wars and sharing it with the Between Kids made Star Wars relevant in my household on a weekly basis.  And as I watched the episode I sought out a podcast to provide me news and information about the television show.   I could never imagine another live action release.  I sampled a few different podcasts but this is the one that stuck, and has stuck for years in my podcast diet. 
The weekly content is timely and interesting, and all about Star Wars.  A typical 2 hour show brings a variety of topics that may include news, an interview with someone associated with Lucasfilm, the Billy Dee Quote of the Week (always awesome), The Jimmy Mac Investigative Report which dives into the tough Star Wars questions, Star Wars in Pop Culture, and The Outrageous Unthinkable Story of the Week which typically is someone in the United Kingdom committing a crime with a Darth Vader mask on!  The shows are typically fun natured and enjoyable in an atmosphere set by the hosts.  What is really impressive to me is the amount of respect and cooperation that Lucasfilm has given The ForceCast.  Yes, former actors and contributors may appear for an interview in the Cantina, but a number of Lucasfilm employees and partners are frequent guests on this podcast.  Can you imagine if Disney creative forces appeared on fan podcasts on a more regular basis or any basis! 
It is not unusual for voice actors from Star Wars: The Clone Wars to make an appearance such as Ashley Eckstein, a big Disney fan, or James Arnold Taylor to discuss their current projects.  Many of these interviews will be highly interesting for Disney fans since these two actors have been very busy with Disney Hollywood Studio’s Star Wars Weekends the last few years.  And despite that fact that this is not a Disney podcast per say the coverage of this event has been fantastic and has included interviews with many participants.  Using their philosophy of no fan left behind, they have also shared audio from events at Star Wars Weekends that I have not heard on Disney focused podcasts.  If you are a Disney fan and a Star Wars fan, The ForceCast is your best chance to keep up with Star Wars Weekends from Betweenland. 
Another reason for Disney fans to sample The ForceCast is news from Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  With a future season in production and rumors that Cartoon Network’s contract ends after the current season there is a decent chance that this program could be added to Disney XD or the Disney Channel in the future.  Along with discussing news of the production of the show and interviews with actors, the program even has regular access to the Supervising Director Dave Filoni.  He regularly checks in during the season to share his thoughts, including creative choices they have made.  He even answers fan questions, though he does dodge some that refer to future plot points.  Additionally, they offer a separate podcast series, The Clone Wars Round Table, which breaks down each episode with a panel of guests in detail.  For me this is must listen content and I honestly prioritize these hour long episodes before the main show during the run of each season.  If one wishes to understand the newest Disney animated television production, The ForceCast is your go to source.   
The hosts Jason Swank and Jimmy Mac are professional, Jimmy is a radio professional, and both are knowledgeable on their topic being lifelong Star Wars fans.  What is sometimes hard to imagine is that they were not friends before they partnered as their chemistry is great, with them understanding each other’s perspective and roles on the show.  It is also enjoyable to see how they hosts have impacted the Star Wars universe, with characters they have advocated for like the unlikely Ben Quadinaros, who their pressure has lead to appearing on a poster within Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  With their power and influence surely Kitser’s appearance is soon to follow! 
The Clone Wars Round Table is just one of their other show offerings.  Bibliophiles Jay Shepard and Chris Wyman host the Jedi Journals which discusses Star Wars themed books, magazines and comics.  The show provides fans both news of current and future releases, discussions on the state of Star Wars publishing, and interviews with authors and those within the publishing industry.  Even this world is impacted by the Disney acquisition, as one of the early questions is related to comics and the future of the Lucasfilm/Dark Horse relationship.  Additionally especially long interviews are released as their own show as episodes of In the Cantina instead of including in episodes of The ForceCast. 
Disney enthusiasts we have a lot of information to take in right now!  And we can expect changes for Disney fandom.  The ForceCast is a great place for you to visit to get your Star Wars news and conversations.  And I expect as we try to determine how Disney will be changed by Lucasfilm, Star Wars fans will be having a similar conversation about how Lucasfilm will be changed by Disney.  

P.S. Principal Skidmore is a lady guys.  I guess you might say you are part of a whole new world now!     

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Walt's Windows -The Ub Iwerks Studio

For Disney fans the period of Ub Iwerks’ animation career, outlined in Leslie Iwerks’ and John Kenworthy’s The Hand Behind the Mouse, they are probably the least familiar with was Iwerks’ time running his own studio and producing his own shorts. 

Flip the Frog’s first short Fiddlesticks in 1930 was also Iwerks’ first story without Walt Disney.  Viewers may notice a familiar looking mouse, down to the red pants! 

Iwerks as a story man and producer attempted to break the mold from the regular shorts available to audiences.  The Brave Tin Soldier from 1934 was one of the most critically acclaimed stories that attempted to break the mold and is still applauded to this day for its depth.  Though originally the distributor demanded, “No more unfunny endings.”  

And despite complaints, Iwerks continued to push the boundaries, as can be seen in 1936’s Balloonland which symbolically provided warnings against isolationist strategy in the years before World War II.  

Despite pushing boundaries, without the partnership of Walt Disney, Iwerks was never able to make his studio financially stable.  And in late 1936, Iwerks closed his own studio.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Walt's Windows - Ub Iwerks at the Walt Disney Studio

When reading Leslie Iwerks and John Kenworthy’ s The Hand Behind the Mouse: An Intimate Biography of the Man Walt Disney Called “The Greatest Animator in the World” numerous animated short films are mentioned that many are not familiar with.  I found that it was helpful and enriched my reading experience to reference these short films, with many of them available for viewing online.

The following are shorts films that Ub Iwerks contributed to during his time as an animator at Disney. 

Trolley Trouble released in 1927 was the first Oswald the Lucky Rabbit Cartoon released and the second one produced.  Critics applauded this short, though Walt Disney and producer Charles Mintz were unhappy with the first offering’s jerkiness.  Being perfectionists Iwerks and Disney changes processes to improve future offerings. 

Steamboat Willie was the first released Mickey Mouse cartoon in 1928, though the third produced.  It is also the first cartoon with synchronized sound.  Though we generally think of Mickey Mouse as a nice guy, the animals in this short would likely not agree.  

Skeleton Dance released in 1929 was the first of the Silly Symphony series combined music and animation.  The animation by Iwerks showed off his skill and believed by some to be too scary.  And it lacked mice!  However, Disney believed in the short and released it to a press screening which showed the success of this new series.  Skeleton Dance is generally seen as the pinnacle of Iwerks’ career. 

These are just highlights from Iwerks’ first tour with Walt Disney Productions and many more can be found online.