Archive | December 2013

Music Review: Frozen (2-Disc Deluxe Edition)

I’ve been trying to break free of the recent release of Frozen, but much like Elsa finally letting her powers go, the long-dormant Disney fanatic inside of me is just bouncing off the walls. Not that my apartment is decorated in Frozen paraphernalia, but I’m taking a more low-key, “adult” approach to my fandom. Along with having seen the film over 3 times (with plans to see it several more!), I have also been an early adopter of the film’s soundtrack. But then again, I was already sold on the film’s music quite some time ago.

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My first taste of the music, came during my attendance of D23’s Destination D event in 2012. During a small segment about upcoming productions, those of us in the room were treated to a small presentation regarding Frozen, from concept art, to names of various characters. We were also clued in that it would be a return to the classic musicals, with the names of Robert & Kristen-Anderson Lopez given to us as the film’s main song writers.

The Frozen segment was concluded with a demo singing of the song Let It Go. I only remembered a few scant lyrics of the song, but the rhythm and the strength of it defining the character of Elsa, kept it stuck in the back of my head long after the event was over.

A year later, I returned to Anaheim for the D23 Expo, where we were given more information on Frozen, with not only final images from the film, but two songs: one with actual imagery from the film, and another that was performed live. The live performance, was Let It Go, this time performed by Elsa’s voice, Idina Menzel. Needless to say, that excitement I had felt a year ago, had leaped from the pinnacle of “can’t wait,” to “I want this song now!”

Once the soundtrack was released the weekend before Thanksgiving, the song was mine in no time. But, I soon after bit the bullet, and went for the full, 58-track, Deluxe Edition soundtrack.

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Online, the general thought seems to be that it’s been ages since we’ve had a Disney Musical. In truth, we’ve had 2 within the last 5 years, with The Princess and the Frog in 2009, and Tangled in 2010. While they had some decent songs, neither really stuck with me. Even in the realms of PIXAR, Randy Newman just has never really pressed my buttons with his orchestrations and lyrics, and only a couple from Princess made me take a little notice. Tangled felt like it would be a perfect return to form for Alan Menken, but overall, the film felt like it just didn’t utilize his talents to their fullest. When I listened to Tangled, I felt that Alan did more (and better work), with 2007’s live-action film, Enchanted.

With 2011’s release of Winnie the Pooh, a new songwriting team made the scene within a Disney film: Robert & Kristen-Anderson Lopez. Prior to his work with Disney, Robert had been turning heads for the last decade, with his tongue-in-cheek work on Avenue Q, and The Book of Mormon. Personally, Lopez’s ability to get “cheeky” in his work, put me in mind of one of my favorite theatrical persons who worked at Disney: Howard Ashman. Ever since his death in 1990, it’s felt like something was missing from all post-Aladdin lyrics, and the Lopez’s work was some of the first that really got me excited. Going in to see Winnie the Pooh, I was sure I was going to get a fun story, but I didn’t expect to be tapping my feet so much during the songs. There was even a whimsical musical number about a devious creature called The Backson, that quickly ended up on my iPhone.

The songs in Pooh, coupled with Robert’s work on Mormon and Q, were in the back of my mind when it came to keeping the faith regarding Frozen, in the face of one of the most atrocious marketing campaigns since Tangled. It was almost like Disney was ashamed to tell the public they were releasing a musical. In fact, it wasn’t until early October did we even get a trailer that had some of the Lopez’s musical work in it.

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For the final film, the Lopez’s have crafted 9 songs. Each one has its own distinct style, with examples including a shanty-style song (Frozen Heart), and even a syrupy-sweet love song (Love Is An Open Door). Some have complained that Love is a little too sappy, but the more I listened to it, it grew on me. It best exemplifies a feeling of young, innocent love.

For those that are fans of Wicked, Idina Menzel comes through with bells on, and delivers with the film’s centerpiece song that I’ve gushed over above (Let It Go).  But, if there’s one person that just surprised me, it’s Kristen Bell. At the D23 Expo, Bell spoke of how she would sing along to her Little Mermaid cassettes as a kid, and here, she gets to do speaking/singing double-duty, in the same realms of Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel), and Paige O’Hara (the voice of Belle). When she begins to let loose with the song For The First Time In Forever, she’s able to keep the same vocal intensity and characterization, that helps make her character Anna, have a well-rounded personality.

If there’s one song that seems wedged into the final product, it’s Reindeer(s) are Better Than People. With Jonathan Groff’s vocal talents available, it felt like they had to find some way to get in his talents, and this 51-second piece definitely seems to fit the bill.

Another song titled Fixer Upper also has me on the fence. It’s not that bad of a song, but much like Reindeer, it feels a little too much like “filler material,” given the scene it’s included in.

One song that may seem a little off-kilter in its execution, is a reprise to the song, For The First Time In Forever. It starts out with spoken-word dialogue, and then segues into lyrical speaking tones. It’s rather unconventional, and I think when Bell’s first lines go down that route, some audiences will either be invested in the film enough to buy it, or roll their eyes.

Josh Gad (the voice of the snowman named Olaf) has spoken of how inspired he was seeing Robin Williams’ performance as the Genie in Aladdin, and Gad gets to follow in that sidekicks’ musical footsteps. Much like the song Friend Like Me, Olaf’s song In Summer has visuals that break into modern-day visuals, yet it also has some rather clever lyrical bits. I’m sure it will remind some of Lopez’s work on The Book of Mormon.

It should also be noted that while the Lopez’s are the main songwriters of the album, one should not sell the film’s composer Christopher Beck short. Chris came to my attention when I first heard his haunting music for the animated short, Paperman, and his score compliments the Lopez’s song work very well. It never gets super-bombastic like some composers, but has a nice underlying structure of care and heart to it. There are even times where the tone sounds decidedly retro, like we’re listening to something made in another time.

The filmmakers also manage to intersperse some Saami and Norwegian culture into their music, with the track Vuelie. It’s a very beautiful piece that is both a chant, and an aria, but it almost feels like there could have been a little more of these bits interspersed throughout the music.

If you are a big fan of extra material, than you owe it to yourself to buy this 2-Disc set. The 2nd disc is a bonus disc the likes of which we rarely see these days!

The majority of the songs feature some opening commentary by Robert and Kristina Lopez. Their work on the album definitely helps show the evolution of their music. There are 9 tracks by them, two of which are demos of them singing music that made the final cut.

The other 7 tracks are songs that didn’t quite make the cut, yet provide a great little insight into the evolution of the songs they made for the film.

The song We Know Better is a very sisterly song, meant to show Elsa and Anna growing up, and is sort of a princess/anti-princess song about what is expected of one. I think it’s good they didn’t pursue this song further. It felt a few shades too close to Brave in my mind, and a little too “cutesy” at times.

The Spring Pageant song tells about a prophecy, that was eventually dropped from the final script of the film. The song got a chuckle from me, when they mention the words “our little play.” For those of you who were raised on Sesame Street, I’m sure you’ll chuckle/giggle as well.

In developing Anna’s character, the Lopez’s came up with the song, More Than Just The Spare. While older sister Elsa is considered “the Heir,” Anna is considered “the Spare.” Listening to the song, one can hear the underpinnings of the rhythm that would go into For The First Time In Forever. It also has a feel similar to Wicked’s song, The Wizard and I. It’s a song that builds up into one of determination. Kristen Lopez’s vocals add some wonderful heart to the piece, and is one of the bright spots in the unreleased pieces.

You’re You is a precursor to what would eventually become Love is An Open Door. It definitely has the air of a song being sung as a serenade to a pretty girl, yet one can understand its evolution into Love.

In regards to these outtakes, I think the ones that will most impress some, are the songs Life’s Too Short, and its reprise. Both songs are duets sung by Anna and Elsa, with Kristen pulling double-duty on vocals for both sisters. The main song feels a little too “dramatic” for the scene that eventually happened in the final film, but it drips with so much “drama,” that one can almost wish they could have gone there. The reprise functions as an aftermath/lament, and one can almost see both of the girls in separate spotlights, singing their sad duet.

The final song has Robert Lopez singing a longer version of Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People, in an outtake that was meant to be a end credits song of Johnathan Groff singing in a more modern-day Glee-style. It’s a fun little piece, but I feel it was best left as a musical “Easter egg” on this second disc.

There’s also some misleading titling on this second disc, with 12 tracks composed by Christophe Beck. In truth, these are not demo tracks (as their subtitling reads), these are additional cues from the main score that weren’t included on the first disc! In a sense, this 2-disc set gives us the full score from the film. Just arrange properly in your iPhone’s playlist, and you can listen to the entire film from start to finish musically!

And if those extras aren’t enough to entice you, how does the promise of karaoke tracks make you feel? That’s right, 5 songs get the treatment, including the Demi Lovato cover of Let It Go.

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I’m already seeing videos of people singing to Menzel’s Let It Go on Youtube, and I’m sure the album is going to mean continued success and big things for those who had a hand in it. If the film has needled its way into your cranium as deep as it has mine, than skip out on the 1-disc set, and get the Deluxe Edition. After all, you want a clean karaoke track to sing along to…don’t you?

After this album release, I think all that’s left to wonder is: what will the Lopez family tackle next for The Walt Disney Company?

Book Review: The Art of Frozen, by Charles Solomon

This winter to me, is a rather interesting milestone in my life. In December of 1988, our local cable company where I grew up, ran a free 2-week showing of The Disney Channel. I recall a few programs here and there, but the one that caught my interest, was one that gave a behind-the-scenes look (at the time) into the world of Disney’s animation studio. It was the first time I had ever seen anything showing just how the animated features that made up a good portion of my childhood were made. They even discussed the production of the just-released Oliver & Company, showing how they painted the characters on clear animation cels, and the computer technology to make vehicles drive around the animated New York City of the film’s world.

As the years passed, I ate up as much making-of material as I could, but I soon found that information on Disney’s animated features could be found within the pages of myriad books. One of those books that I encountered in 1995, was The Disney That Never Was, written by Charles Solomon. Within that book, Solomon wove a tapestry of information over decades of unproduced animated shorts and features, with images that had never been seen outside of the closed walls of The Walt Disney Archives.

Both an animation historian and critic, Solomon  has written numerous books on the subject over the years, including one of my favorite Chronicle Books releases, The Art of Toy Story 3. Reading that book, it was as if I had met an old friend after many years. Solomon’s use of interviews and descriptions, provided one of the most inciteful stories of a sequel that people had waited 11 years to see. So when I heard that Mr Solomon was the author of The Art of Frozen (also released by Chronicle Books), I made sure that I was going to get a copy to read as soon as possible…after I saw Frozen 3 times in theaters.

Artist: David Womersley/Digital

Since 2008, Chronicle has picked up the torch on publishing Art Of books for Disney’s animated features, and has given us some fine coffee table books on the likes of The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Wreck-It-Ralph.

With Frozen, Solomon divides the bulk of the material up into 5 sections, along with a preface by John Lasseter, and a foreword by directors Chris Buck, and Jennifer Lee.

The book offers some rather intriguing insights into the production, including a summary of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, and the task of making what was considered by some to be a “protracted” story, into an exciting film. The nut was cracked when someone suggested that the female lead and the Snow Queen should be sisters. Aside from 2002’s Lilo & Stitch, this was territory that had never been tackled in a fairytale setting: “Princess sisters.” One intriguing thing the story people did, was arrange “A Sister Summit.” Co-director Jennifer Lee explains a little about what happened in the book’s prologue:

“They brought all of us who have sisters into a room and we shared the real conflict, the real angst, and real heart. We had a lot of fun exploring what sisters do-from fighting over clothes to deeper issues like watching your sister struggle and not knowing how to help.”

Its little stories like that one that make Solomon’s book all the better. He doesn’t just lay out all sorts of great conceptual art, but he gets insight from various filmmakers, on many different aspects of the production.

Artist: Bill Schwab/Digital

We even get myriad images of character evolutions. Probably of all of the characters, it is Elsa who went through the most drastic changes. Early concepts show everything from her having blue-tinted skin, to a sharp-looking, “dark” hairstyle (as seen by the digital image on the right next to her sister Anna, by artist Bill Schwab).

One chapter that I didn’t expect to find so intriguing, concerned the production and costume design of Frozen. Early on, Production Designer Michael Giaimo (who had served in the same capacity on Pocahontas) claimed he wanted to give the film a Scandinavian style, and a team was tasked to go to Norway for research. In the last few decades, such excursions have proved valuable sources of insight and culture, that one would not get simply looking up pictures of Norway on Google. There’s even a great 2-page spread talking about the art of rosemaling, along with many different pictures Giaimo took for reference.

Costume design information on the film breaks down just how Giaimo and his crew decided to color and tone the various outfits, leading to several of the filmmakers to consider the film “a costume drama.” Compared to the light garment that Rapunzel wore in Tangled, the characters in this film wear several layers of clothing given their northern environment, with the likes of wool fabric taken into consideration.

Artist: Jean Gilmore/Pencil

This realm of characters in various costumes and patterns may seem boring to some, but offers some insight into the various directions the artists could have gone, as well as where the final product ended up. There are allusions in the stylings to such past inspirational Disney artists like Mary Blair (who did concept art for Alice in Wonderland & Peter Pan), and Eyvind Earle (who was responsible for the design aesthetic of 1959’s Sleeping Beauty).

Top image artist: Lisa Keene/Digital
Bottom image: Final film scene

Another highlight since John Lasseter and Ed Catmull were brought into the studios, is the use of color keys to layout the tone and “atmosphere” of various scenes. Those of us who had seen Pixar’s Art of books for years have always seen such works included, and since the Art of Bolt, these 2-page spreads have become commonplace for the Disney Studios’ books. What’s amazing to consider when looking at these, is they seem to be just a few shades shy of what the final image became. Just take a look at the color key image above of Elsa’s coronation, and the final image from the film below it.

Speaking of Elsa, fans of her character will probably get a big charge out of the third chapter in the book, titled The Ice Palace. One sequence that has had people talking for several weeks, is when Elsa runs away from the Kingdom of Arendelle, and near the summit of the kingdom’s North Mountain, constructs a giant ice palace. Solomon devotes over 23 pages to design work that the studio’s artisans created to come to the final product. There are also myriad additional art pieces that show more of Elsa’s evolving character design.

Earlier this year, many were shocked that the attempts to once again revive hand-drawn animation in the studio had died, with the announcement that there were no current projects being worked on with the medium. It certainly seems that digital is the way of the future, even when it comes to the likes of concept art. I remember opening The Art of Toy Story 3, and being surprised how much of the work being done was now being classified as “digital,” away from the “pencil” and “pastels” that I had seen designated in the past.

Artist: Jin Kim/Pencil

When it comes to The Art of Frozen, much of the concept work that was done on the film was digital, but there are a few spots where we see the “old-school” techniques still being done by a few artists. Notable among them are works by Claire Keane (daughter of animator Glen Keane), and Jin Kim.

“Art Of” books can often serve as a great companion piece to our favorite films. While the Entertainment Media may fawn over the likes of big-name celebrities on the red carpet, there are those of us who wonder about the hundreds of artists who pour so much time and effort into making films like these. Charles Solomon’s The Art of Frozen is another great entry in behind-the-scenes material. Just as Beauty and the Beast and its Art Of book inspired me at the age of 11 to pursue animation as a career, I can see plenty of young people out there being inspired by what the artists at Walt Disney Feature Animation have created, and working to one day possibly go to Disney and work on something just as inspiring as Frozen is.

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Artist: Brittney Lee/Digital

“The fairy tale of film – created with the magic of animation – is the modern equivalent of the great parables of the Middle Ages. Creation is the word. Not adaptation. Not version. We can translate the ancient fairy tale into its modern equivalent without losing the lovely patina of its once-upon-a-time quality…We have proved that the age-old entertainment based on the classic fairy tale recognizes no young, no old” – Walt Disney

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The Art of Frozen is published by Chronicle Books. Standard List Price: $40.00 (US)

Movie Review: Saving Mr Banks

I think when it comes to books being adapted into motion pictures, the large majority of authors are just not satisfied. Word was Roald Dahl disliked the way Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory detoured from his original work, and video exists of Michael Ende voicing his displeasure at what Hollywood did to his book, The Neverending Story.

When it comes to “rewriting the book” in some cases, one can often look to Walt Disney himself. To this day, the majority of people tend to prefer the company’s versions of popular stories to their originals. Of course, when it came to authors voicing displeasure over Disney adapting their work, one of the more famously-known is author P.L. Travers, which is the subject of Walt Disney Pictures’ latest release, Saving Mr Banks.

The film starts in 1961, where Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson) seems to be in dire financial straits. However, there may be a silver lining that her agent Diarmuid Russell (Ronan Vibert) begs her to take. For over 20 years, Walt Disney(Tom Hanks) has been wanting to adapt the author’s Mary Poppins story, and is currently doing some pre-production work in California. Giving into this 20-year request, Pamela jets off to Los Angeles, though seemingly sure she is going to end her two week trip without signing over the rights to her book.

Robert and Richard Sherman (BJ Novak & Jason Schwartzman, on the left) are introduced to P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson, on the right), by Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford, center)

Needless to say, once she lands in California, Pamela has “a few words” on almost everything. She thoroughly detests her hotel room being filled with Disney merchandise, the use of “nonsense” words in the songs composed by Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman & BJ Novak), and refuses to fall under Walt’s charm. She also grows rather disconcerted over how the character of Mr Banks is to be portrayed in the film.

Also juxtaposed within the 1961 storyline, are remembrances of Pamela’s childhood in Australia. Colin Farrell plays the role of her father, whose imaginative flights of fancy and charm captivate the little girl, but when they have to move due to his job, the world slowly seems to change for young Pamela (Annie Rose Buckley), in many ways.

While much of the promotional material has shown Hanks’ Disney persona front and center, the real scope of the film revolves around Ms Travers (as she prefers to be called), to the point where I would nickname the film, Citizen Travers. During her time at the studio, each meeting she had was recorded, and numerous tapes were listened to by the cast and crew. Her character is definitely a juicy role for Emma Thompson, who was faced with a rather difficult task of taking someone who probably annoyed more people than she enlightened. Even so, Thompson is able to bring a vulnerability and understanding to the audience in the role she has undertaken.

Thompson even delivers one of my favorite lines in the film, when Travers fears the worst that Disney can do to her beloved nanny: “I know what he’s going to do to her. She’ll be cavorting…and, twinkling.” That line reminded me of the vitriol spouted by fans in the last few years, who have seen The Walt Disney Company acquire such companies as Marvel, and Lucasfilm, LTD.

Young Pamela Travers (Annie Rose Buckley) with her Father (Colin Farrell)

In some films, a rather abrasive character will be given a foil, and that role falls to Paul Giamatti, as Pamela’s limo driver. Giamatti’s role as “an ordinary man” is charming and enjoyable, rolling with the punches that his guest dishes out, and willing to be concerned when he notices her in contemplation.

While we know very little about Ms Travers, the one person who has been put under the microscope since the first images, is Tom Hanks. Even in interviews, Hanks has claimed he looks nothing like Uncle Walt, but where he excels, is in trying to capture the personality of a man that many know largely from popular culture. However, Hanks knows there is more to Walt than just squinting his eyes a little tighter. I think those who have heard candid interviews with Walt Disney will probably see more of Walt’s personality than most. For me, a highlight is when Walt is telling Travers about delivering newspapers in Kansas City. This is a key scene where it feels that Hanks just blends into his role.

One thing I do wish the film had, was a tagline stating, Inspired by Actual Events. Certain elements are true to life, but others seem to have been shoehorned in to make for a more entertaining experience. One of those revolves around the big scene of Walt taking Travers on a personal tour of Disneyland. Word is Travers did visit The Happiest Place on Earth, but not with Walt. As well, there’s a scene near the end that worked well in 1998’s The Parent Trap, but here, may make some go, “yeah, right.”

Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) shows PL Travers (Emma Thompson) around Disneyland

John Lee Hancock directs from a script penned by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, and the subject matter seems suitable material given his past credits. John’s resume includes films about those triumphing over difficult circumstances, with the likes of The Rookie, and 2009’s The Blind Side.

The filmmakers know that fans of the company and the Poppins film are going to want references, and they get them in spades. Even certain moments in Pamela’s childhood echo some of the film’s scenes. There’s even an “author” joke in here that is not time-appropriate, but I guess the filmmakers felt they could get away with it (and most likely, Travers would have said something about it too).

One highlight of seeing this film, was that I got to view it as part of a double-bill, with Mary Poppins playing right before it. I think until this screening, I had never seen Poppins all the way through in one sitting. Seeing it at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, with a nearly-full auditorium definitely helped make it one of the few great communal theater experiences I’ve had. I will admit, seeing the song Step in Time on a big screen made it even more exciting. In a sense, Mary Poppins is the perfect storm of a film combining the studio’s penchant for storytelling, animation, and live-action filmmaking, and physical special effects.

In fact, I’d say if you are planning to see Saving Mr Banks, it might be best to have a viewing of Poppins to refresh your memory. After going from Poppins to Banks, there were definitely some things I wouldn’t have noticed had I gone into the showing “blind.”

When it comes to viewing this film overall, some are going to come out on one of two sides. On one hand, you’ll have those being almost like Pamela Travers, rolling their eyes at much of what they just saw, hardly believing much of the circumstances or little details. The others will be more like Walt: they will give into the emotions and the images on the screen, and it will touch them deeply, as many a good Disney feature will.

The film almost subscribes to that old adage Walt had about the films he made: For every laugh, there should be a tear. That definitely seemed the case in several places in the film. The trailers do make the film look overly-cheerful, but there are a few places where it can get a little dark and unsettling, which explains this being rated PG-13, which is partially for “unsettling images” (and…there were a few).

Saving Mr Banks is not a masterpiece of film making, but it is a competently-created feature film. It manages to bring a new perspective onto a 40-year-old film, as well as two creative figures you might not know much about. While I do see it gaining favor with those who are fans of Disney, I figure we’ll have to wait and see how the general public receives it in the next few weeks.

*Saving Mr Banks will premier in limited release on December 13, and nationwide on December 20*