Friday, January 31, 2014
My last article is up at WDWNT: The Magazine. The article, "Thor's Journey Into Mystery" explores the comic book origins of Thor: The Dark World's main characters including Thor and Loki. The article discusses both first appearances, what happened afterwards, and a Disney connection to Thor in live action form.
As a bonus, if you want to hear my thoughts on Thor: The Dark World you can check out Welcome to Level Seven's podcast review. Warning, it is full of spoilers!
Thor: The Dark World will be released for home video February 25th.
Monday, January 27, 2014
Between Books - The Cast Member's Guide to Walt Disney World: An Insider's Look at the Ultimate Disney Vacation
Let me be honest, we all want to feel like we are in the know when it comes to planning our Disney vacations. I have often myself thought about writing down my starting points and tips for a Disney vacation, because I clearly know best (I am actually insulted when not consulted). And I think others feel the same way. Walt Disney Cast Member John Kenney is one that has taken the jump to bring words to paper (including virtual paper) to describe his best tips towards planning a Walt Disney World vacation.
The Cast Members Guide to Walt Disney World: An Insider's Look at the Ultimate Disney Vacation by John Kenney is what you would generally expect from a guide book. The text starts out with some general information about how to get to Walt Disney World including when, how, budget and more. This is followed by chapters breaking down each of the theme parks of the resort including checklists of slow moving attractions, intense attractions, and attractions to avoid. And after the parks, Kenney highlights the fun one can have outside the parks at places like Downtown Disney or experiences like renting the Grand 1 Yacht. And he adds information about tours, marathons and special events for those traveling when these occur.
The reason this caught my eye was the promise of a cast member sharing his tips. And Kenney does give commentary based on being in the parks a lot. But honestly, and he admits it also, the majority of the text is common knowledge or common sense. There really are not behind the scenes stories that make you feel like the book is specifically written by a cast member of several years. Maybe 20 years ago many of the tips would have seemed like secrets in this text. But in the age of the Internet and a Disney community which shares its best tips, well it is not really that secret anymore.
The book itself is clear and easy to read. And it is organized in a topical logical manner that is easy to flip through. Though I would prefer that there was a table of contents that would allow easy navigation in the Kindle version I read. There are some issues you find in typical self-published Kindle books like spacing issues. But for me the biggest problem is consistency. For example the attractions of Epcot receive descriptions that could be useful to the novice Disney parks visitor and this is generally done for the other parks. But it is not done for the Magic Kingdom Park, the Park that visitors are most likely to spend time in and spend multiple days in. So for me this was a miss.
I got this book for free. And I think that any visitor who does not have a guide book to help them plan could get value out of The Cast Member's Guide to Walt Disney World at that price. Honestly, I could see someone who did not wish to spend the current $9.20 for The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World but wanting a simple and useful guidebook on their phone looking into this text...if it was priced in a range around $3 to $5. However, as it is priced today at $9.99 it simply cannot complete with the consistency and completeness of the cheaper The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World.
The Cast Members Guide to Walt Disney World: An Insider's Look at the Ultimate Disney Vacation is a simply to use clear guide book to help plan your Disney vacation. And honestly, I would probably produce something not as good if I attempted my own guide. Though, mine would mention PhotoPass cast members will also use your camera. But in the end, where it is priced for the content included puts it in a tough place to compete in a crowded market.
Friday, January 24, 2014
The Lone Ranger must be horrible! Seriously, it was a box office bomb so it must be really really bad. Estimates say that for Disney it was a loss of anywhere between $160-190 Million (capital M). But box office success does not mean good. And I can thing of plenty of movies that were not good that were huge successes financially. And others that the box office was a disappointment but a personal hit for me. As many of you can guess, John Carter for me is a movie that I loved despite receipts.
So I was not out to get The Lone Ranger. And I was willing and wanted to go see this western starring Armie Hammer as the masked lawman and Disney golden boy Johnny Depp as the Native American warrior Tonto. But the summer schedule kept me out of the theater and by the time the summer was over we decided financially it made more sense to buy the movie instead of rushing into the theater while the film was on its way out (very quickly).
- Mrs Banks: Someone at Central Casting must really like English actress Ruth Wilson. I first saw her in a theatrical release in Saving Mr. Banks as Margaret Goff. And though I thought her character was very understated, I did feel sympathy for her as we experienced the Goff family troubles through her oldest daughters eyes. What I did not realize is that Wilson had made her Disney debut earlier in the year as Rebecca Reid, wife of Texas Ranger Dan Reid, in The Lone Ranger and served as the primary romantic interest in the movie. As both characters, Wilson in effect plays pioneer women who work on the edges of modern society. And Wilson brings to both roles brings the air of someone who longs for a more civilized life.
- The Disneyland Railroad: One of the reasons I did not see The Lone Ranger in the theater was because I was traveling to Disneyland for my summer vacation while Depp's newest film was released. When we arrived at Disneyland we entered the park for the first time on the Sunday after and sitting in front of the park right after the bus loading area was The Constitution the train from the film. Two cast members dutifully guarded the train. And it was really impressive to see the size difference between this train and the ones in the park. Now I really had not listened to box office reports, because I was too busy with my family. And I took some pictures in front of the train with my kids. But I have no family free pictures to share with you. Because on Wednesday the train was gone. The way I remember it was we went into the park and the train was there. And then we came out after lunch for a nap and the entire train was gone. Seriously, it was a huge engine. But it was gone. It was like it never existed! Then I knew it had not gone well for Mr. Depp and I figured The Lone Ranger was getting the John Carter treatment!
- Family Friendly: I do not want to sound like I am a grumpy guy, but I really do wonder if Walt Disney would have released The Long Ranger under the Walt Disney name. I did enjoy the action adventure that the movie provided. And I thought the moral compass was true to a Disney family film with the Lone Ranger being a champion for justice. But, it has a huge body count! It has to have more deaths that any of the Pirates films, maybe more than the four combined. And this is not the A-Team where shooting happens but bullets only hit non-living things. No, this is a movie that I would question before showing a youngster. A day before I watched The Lone Ranger I received a text asking if it was kid approved. I said it was Disney so how bad could it be! I may have been wrong. And Disney may have done their core audience a favor be releasing this film under Touchstone instead.
- The Old Mill: The William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini has been used in a number of media pieces. These include the Disney classic short The Old Mill which uses the "Ranz des Vaches" or "Call to the Cows" segment to open the morning. But probably the most famous use is in the classic television show The Lone Ranger, which used the "Finale" as its theme song. As a kid who grew up with four television stations, I saw a ton of the Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels program despite the fact it entered production nearly 30 years before I was born! The Hammer and Depp collaboration pays homage to the classic show by using the Overture throughout the final big action segment (maybe it should be BIG ACTION). And because of the use of this musical tribute it makes the ending sequence even more enjoyable. Honestly, it really does show how a piece of music can set a mood. For someone like me, I knew something exciting was happening. For the Between Kids who have no idea who Clayton Moore is, they knew something fast paced was breaking out in front of them.
- Infinity: Okay, it is not part of the movie, but the Disney Infinity Lone Ranger Play Set is really really fun. The Between Kid and I crushed it over our holiday break. And even for me as a fairly mature adult I enjoyed playing cowboys and robbers, occasionally going out on our own two man posse on missions. You may have overlooked this Play Set if you play Disney Infinity. If you have I recommend grabbing it since it may be my favorite Play Set to date.
- John Carter: Everyone is going to compare The Lone Ranger to John Carter. I will admit they did get the same post-release treatment. Disney quickly washed their hands of both. And I do not expect Disney to try a Western again soon. But let us remember they did not get the same treatment before their releases. John Carter was marginalized. The Lone Ranger was included with the release of Disney Infinity! John Carter did not have a big name actor. The Lone Ranger had the Disney golden boy Johnny Depp. Yes, Disney wanted this film to succeed, so its failure is even more disappointing than the film Disney wanted to forget!
Like John Carter I enjoyed the escapist adventure in The Lone Ranger. I still prefer Andrew Stanton's sci-fi film on a critical level. Which did not lose quite as much for Disney as Depp did in this adventure. But like Stanton, Depp has a good Disney track record so he is allowed a Disney stumble, though the relationship with producer Jerry Bruckheimer is effectually at an end for new intellectual property. I would say if you have not seen The Lone Ranger, grab some pop and popcorn and give it a chance some Friday night. It might just be fun.
Monday, January 20, 2014
When I was in Junior High I discovered the writings of Walt Disney's friend Ray Bradbury and loved them. It is fair to say I crushed the Bradbury contents of my school library reading every volume on the shelves in weeks. And stories from volumes like The Martian Chronicles still capture my mind decades later. Recently the Between Tween was introduced to this master of Sci-Fi through a school assignment and a request went out for more Bradbury. Doing some research, I found a volume of short stories that had a Disney connection and that I had never read.
I Sing the Body Electric! by Ray Bradbury is a collection of the author's short stories. The stories include Sci-Fi, horror and general dramatic themes. As I read through the volume there were several tales I felt could have fit easily within The Martian Chronicles with the stories set on the Red Planet. The title story, "I Sing the Body Electric" portrays a family that leases an robotic grandmother to fill an hole in their lives and the family's reaction to it. The story feels like one that Walt Disney could have enjoyed with it focusing around both family and what you could claim is an Audio-Animatronic figure. The story with the most Disney connection is "Downwind from Gettysburg". This tale focuses around a man obsessed with Abraham Lincoln and his creation of an Audio-Animatronic Lincoln. The figure is assassinated during one of its performances and an employee contemplates how to address the fact that Lincoln has been killed. The story feels like Bradbury borrowed from Walt Disney himself, a man fascinated by Abraham Lincoln and who made the late president come to life. And Disney had to face this murderous problem in real life, when the internal hydraulics would break and make the figure appear to be bleeding. My favorite story, which surprised me, was "The Parrot Who Met Papa" which depicts the kidnapping of a bird who had memorized Ernest Hemingway's last and unpublished novel.
Overall, this volume was a Meh for me. There were stories that I really enjoyed, but several just never really caught my interest. I guess that is the challenge of a short story volume, not every story will connect with every reader. The story I was the most excited about, "Downwind from Gettysburg", was probably over hyped in my mind and it simply did not hit the chord I wanted with it. I have friends that love this tale, but since I had connected it to Disney I wanted to love not just like it. Honestly, if someone asked me for a good volume to start with for Bradbury, I would not recommend this collection. Instead I would tell them to start where I did with The Martian Chronicles. And I am not passing this onto the Between Tween, who I think is a few years away from enjoying this volume. Honestly, the Tween is caught up at the moment into action which is lacking from this thinking volume.
Should one read Ray Bradbury? I absolutely say yes. And for the completist, I Sing the Bod Electric! is a must read. But for those who have glancing interest in Bradbury I would recommend exploring elsewhere, at of hopes of making fans of this master storyteller. I do not want you to think I hated this book, I did not. I just want not in love with it and it failed to capture my early wonder at Bradbury's words. I think for a Disney fan there is some interest in this specific set of stories. But I would recommend a borrow over a buy until one knows their personal thoughts on this late and great storyteller who helped imagine Epcot Center!
Friday, January 17, 2014
I, like many other Disney fans, have been waiting patiently for Disney Kingdoms: Seekers of the Weird for months now. I love comics, I love Disney, this could almost be as good as peanut butter and chocolate together. And I would love for this comic title to be a hit, give us a new way to put Imagineering concepts into other platforms, and maybe get Marvel comics into the parks. So yeah, I want this story to be good too while achieving all these goals.
As the story opens we meet siblings Melody and Maxwell in New Orleans, very fitting since the Haunted Mansion is in New Orleans Square. The siblings are very different with Melody being athletic and likely popular and Maxwell being brainy. They go home to their parents' curio shop, "Keep It Weird" and their parents ask they to watch the store as they complete some work. That work leads to mom and dad being kidnapped by a supernatural power, the kids meeting their long-lost uncle Roland, and being set on a quest to save their parents. And all of this revolves around something called the Museum of the Weird, which somehow is connected to "Keep It Weird."
|Del Mundo Teaser Variant|
Overall, I enjoyed this issue #1. Honestly, first issues can often be a mixed bag for me. And this is especially true with stories that have to introduce not just a problem but an entire cast. I stayed engaged, learned who my favorite characters would be, and saw enough classic Rolly Crump designs on the page to keep me reading. My interest was kept, which shocked me since this what I would call an all-ages comic. Since all-ages books often have to satisfy several age groups, they often do not fully satisfy any especially the adult in the room. But again I think the tie-in to Disney history and the promise of more kept me eager to turn the page. I did approve the issue for the Between Tween to read (there are a lot of comics I read that do not get this thumbs up). The review I got back was that it was good but weird. And the Tween really liked Melody because they share a passion for lacrosse.
|Crosby Imagineer Variant|
Being the Disney fan I am it was Uncle Roland, designed after Imagineer and creator of the original Museum of the Weird Rolly Crump, that I wanted to see on the page. Having read and heard his words, knowing that there is some eccentric to him, I thought the portrayal was respectful and fitting. In effect, writer Brandon Seifert has taken Crump and transformed him into an action hero of his own design. To me Uncle Roland was a combination of steam punk swashbuckler scoundrel. I think Crump would enjoy being described in real life in this way. And I really enjoyed Karl Moline's representation of this hero and I want to see more of. Honestly, I could see Uncle Roland in other solo adventures (fingers crossed).
Disney Kingdoms: Seekers of the Weird is full of fun for Disney fans. We get to see Crump designs that we have seen concept art for like Candleman and the Gypsy Cart, but have not seen in a story. And Uncle Roland as a concept is irresistible. This really is a unique and interesting way to see ideas that have not been included in stories before in a new way. And I really want Disney to continue this trend with their Marvel brand. And I like the fact that this is a title that I can share with my kids. It is also quite a thrill to read the names of Imagineers in the credits, and the story of how Marvel and Imagineering came together on this title in the back is a fun tale if you have not heard it yet.
With issue #1 ending on a cliffhanger I have a few questions that I look forward to having answered (at least partially) next month. And I look forward to joining Melody and Maxwell as they explore the Museum of the Weird. This sort of title shows how having Marvel in the Disney family not just adds great content to Disney, but can aid Disney in bringing already developed content into the hands of fans.
Monday, January 13, 2014
The CG Story: Computer Generated Animation and Special Effects by animation historian Christopher Finch is a comprehensive history of computer generated animation that presents the history of this now common application of computer technology from it's origins to its maturity today. Finch documents early attempts by computer pioneers to use their computing power to create images. He then outlines how these early images lead to very early computer animation by pioneers like Ed Catmull which would eventually lead to a dream to create an entire animated feature with computing power. The author outlines the evolution of that dream within Pixar which eventually lead to the creation of Toy Story. This is followed by a discussion of computer animated features and how they evolved the art and the growing use of computer generated special effects in live action films. Finch's words are illustrated by 350 images, primarily showing the results that programmers and artists generated.
The CG Story is a big big book. It is over-sized, and though I tried, it is not really a book you snuggle to in bed. The size allows the illustrations to be gorgeously displayed. There is no squinting for a reader in reviewing and appreciating the images. My only real complaint of the book is some images are turned on their side, and the size and weight of the book really does not allow a quick orientation change. But honestly that is a very small complaint.
Finch's text is well researched and has clarity. Especially in the early portions of the book there are a lot of technical concepts and words that could intimidate a non-specialist if handled incorrectly. However, I was able to keep pace with the text and never felt like I was missing out on content. If asked for a history of computer generated animation, that went beyond Pixar, I could see myself recommending this text in a heartbeat.
For me the real star of The CG Story was the discussions of character animation. And Finch gave me much to think about. His comparison of Toy Story to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs helped me see Pixar's new film in a new way. Finch notes how for both the Disney and Pixar animators working on their first full-length project they were pioneers into a unknown world. And I enjoyed the use of Glen Keane's comparison between Disney (Once upon a time) and Pixar (Wouldn't it be cool if) story approaches. That small included quote really made me see the two studios in a different way, and I wonder how those approaches will continue to bleed into each other with movies like Brave and Wreck-It-Ralph. Finch's discussion of animated features includes nearly every important feature including key international releases. Though Mars Needs Moms did not make the cut. Of course that is really not a bad thing!
As a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I was excited to see the inclusion of special effects. Though I was shocked to find out that Hellicarriers were not real, I loved a peak into these computer generated specials effects along with an understanding of their costs. I did not fully grasp the complicated system of computer generated special effects, with most movies contracting to numerous houses and even having competitors work on effects for the same frame. And I appreciated Finch's discussion between directors who rely heavily on computer generated effects and those that prefer the "weight" of a practical effect.
The CG Story by Christopher Finch details the evolution of the idea of using computer generated images in theatrical releases. The text outlines key moments, like the growth of Pixar, in both character animation and live action special effects. And that history is punctuated by the gorgeous color images used extensively in the book!
Review Copy Provided by Publisher
Monday, January 6, 2014
I loved Sam Gennawey's Walt and the Promise of Progress City. So I was pretty excited about the idea of him writing a Disneyland history. When I got my hands on The Disneyland Story, it looked small from the outside and thought it would take me less than 10 days to plow through this text. Instead, it took me around 3 weeks (maybe more) because this exhaustive book is not one that a reader can or should blow through quickly.
The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney's Dream by Sam Gennawey is as promised an exhaustive history of the Disneyland resort including origins, evolution, trends and important figures. Gennawey argues that Walt Disney had three children; Diane, Sharon and Disneyland. And like all children, Disneyland grew up! And it is the progress of the resort from a dream of a small park across the street from the Disney studio lot to a vibrant two parks, three hotels and a shopping district that it is today that Gennawey captures. Gennawey discusses not just the pieces of Disneyland that made it from concept to implementation, but the stalled and failed plans like WESTCOT. And most of all, what Gennawey captures is a fluid changing park that was constantly on the move as it grew from infant hood to adulthood.
The Disneyland Story is a strong historical monograph. It is well researched, cited and structured and demonstrates the maturity that Disney history has reached. This book would feel comfortable sitting within a history classroom or in the history section of the library. It is not a guidebook, though it is connected to The Unofficial Guide. It is a serious and thoughtful history down to its thesis that Walt Disney had three children with one being a theme park. And as a work of history, it easily could be used as a guide in teaching a course on the history of Disneyland or the life of Walt Disney. And I expect that it will be used to help support future Disney historical projects, even if it is only to examine the large bibliography.
The writing itself is clear, but dense. The book's size is misleading, as every page is packed with type. And because of its density I would not call it a easy vacation read. This is a book, an essential Between Book, for serious fans and researchers of the Disneyland Resort. I found that my reading pace slowed as I took in the entire story of the park, and that pace was due to the amount of information presented to me. But though it was a slow read, Gennawey's writing was quite clear and did not hinder the large amount of information bombarding me.
If anything, based on my own academic background, I wish that Gennawey had reminded us more frequently of his thesis of Walt Disney's three children. I can see how after Walt Disney's death that the thesis may have weakened due to a lack of involvement by the creator. However, children, including Disney's own, do lose parents and continue to mature and grow as they reach reach middle age and beyond.
Yes, if you are familiar with Disney history there are plently of facts that you already know. However, there are more you do not. I found myself amused over some of the little things, such as the compensation that Art Linkletter received for hosting opening day. And I am sure he was well compensated for years after (like a decade). Additionally, having all of Disneyland history in one volume really underlines the vast amount of change that has occurred within Disneyland. Disneyland really is a living organism and it is far from a monument. It changes constantly, which makes it difficult to complain about future changes. Additionally, Gennawey provides a history of something often neglected, the story of the Park's relationship with the city of Anaheim itself. The addition of Walt's Park greatly changed the sleepy rural community into the metropolitan area it is today.
If you have a Between Books library, you will need a copy of The Disneyland Story. It is the most affordable and complete Disneyland history currently available. Basically if you read books about Disney history, well you need this volume.
Review Copy Provided for Purposes of Review
Friday, January 3, 2014
The film stars Emma Thompson as Travers, an accomplished actress who has taken a turn in a Mary Poppins like role in the delightful Nanny McPhee and its sequel(s). Tom Hanks, Woody of the Toy Story franchise and cough cough future Disney legend, plays Walt Disney himself. The film jumps between two settings. The first is a two week period in 1961, where Disney's team of the Sherman Brothers and scriptwriter Don DaGradi worked directly with Travers to flesh out the script for a possible Mary Poppins at the Disney Studio. The second is flashbacks to Travers' childhood in Australia, where the audience learns that the Mary Poppins' story has a deeper meaning to Travers. This story is based on real events, so audiences need to keep the perspective that some scenes in this Mousey Movie are either fictional or occurred at another time:
- The Evil Queen: Emma Thompson is wonderful! She makes you forget that she is an actress. She makes you hate Travers (okay I may have been pre-disposed to that), and she is also able to make you feel for the Travers' character. She really should receive the accolades that she has been receiving for this role. But Tom Hanks does an excellent job also. I know many have mocked his mustache, but I have looked at this role as Hanks the actor not mimicking Disney but portraying Disney. So I did not need or want Hanks to be a body double, I wanted him to act. And he does a great job researching the role and portraying a Missouri born business mogul. But it is likely Paul Giamatti as the chauffeur Ralph who steals the movie and provides it heart. Honestly, this entire cast does a great job!
- King of the Forest: There are plenty of moments that will thrill the Disney fanboy. These include a ton of Disney plush, pretending to be with the Sherman brothers as they compose their classic works and reproductions of concept art for Mary Poppins. My favorite moments are digging around Walt's working office. Here my favorite item is a picture from Marceline from Walt and Roy O. Disney's visit to their hometown. My other favorite moment is when DaGardi announces to the boys that Walt is coming using the Bambi based code phrase for the boss is coming, after Disney gives his warning cough of course. Really a lot of this story is about a culture clash, between the very proper Mrs. Travers and call we Walt, Mr. Disney. And the film does a great job of showing that culture including the use of first names, which Walt insisted on.
- Let It Go: Okay Disney fans to quote Princess Elsa, "Let it go!" Yes, when Disney and Travers go to Disneyland, you can see the computers of the modern ticket machines. And yes, the Mickey walk-around character is vintage, but Pluto looks a little too modern. Yes, it's true, you should not see the sign for Pinocchio's Daring Journey as they ride the King Arthur Carousel. I do have a background in history, so I am the guy who bored all my friends and family with facts about Braveheart instead of just enjoying it. So if I can let it go, you can too. Seriously, the cold never brothered me anyway.
- Daddy Day: An emotional touchstone of this movie is that Walt Disney explains that bringing Mary Poppins to light is to fulfill a promise to his daughters, a promise that he had spent 20 years pursuing. In his office there are pictures of both Diane and Sharon Disney, and he uses their images to underscore his desire to make this film. I have decided in the movie premiere scene at the end that the young lady walking with a tall handsome man is Walt's daughter Diane Disney Miller and husband Ron Miller. In my mind, I have decided this closes the circle on the promise. Additionally, those who wait until the very end will see this film is dedicated to Diane Disney Miller who passed away shortly before the release date of this film. And yes, I shed a little tear as I wondered what she would have thought of Hanks' portrayal of her father.
- Fathers and Daughters: The story of P.L. Travers is really not about her struggle with Walt Disney, it is her struggle to remember her father. As a dad, this story was very meaningful for me as I tried to imagine what my own children will remember about me. I did take the Between Tween to my second showing, and the movie lead to plenty of discussions about childhood, creativity and familial love. Oh, and there were tears, so many tears! This movie is not fluff! It gives you something to mull over.
Honestly, this short review barely touches all my thoughts on this Mousey Movie, which you need to go see if you have not taken it in yet!
I should warn you, you will want to go straight home and watch Mary Poppins!