Archive | January 2015

Book Review: Silver Screen Fiend, by Patton Oswalt

“…This is me…I think it’s apparent that I need to rethink my life a little bit.”

 Those were the first major narrative words that hit my eardrums, as I watched the first teaser trailer for PIXAR’s film Ratatouille, in 2006.  After that teaser, I began to wonder just who uttered those words for the studio’s latest animated lead. The voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. It was shortly after that I learned the name, Patton Oswalt.

A few years later, I got to see some of Patton’s genius onstage when I was able to get into a sold-out show (after the cashier took pity on me) at the now-closed Lake Shore Theater near my dwelling. It was the first actual stand-up I had heard/seen Patton do, and I think I came close to choking when he did his sketch on the song Christmas Shoes (which has become an audio-listening Holiday tradition some 5 years and running now!).

To me, Patton almost seems like a pop-culture ambassador. I’ve seen him preside over hosting duties at many a Comic-Con panel. He can also deliver ‘it’s funny because its true’ comedy (the stuff I like), and manages to whirl in enough popular culture without feeling like it’s clogging my arteries. Pretty much anytime tickets go on sale for one of his shows in town, I’m there.

I threw that line from Ratatouille in at the top, because it also seems to tie into Patton’s new book, Siver Screen Fiend. The bulk of the 192 page book chronicles a 4-year period (1995-1999), in which Patton found himself becoming a “sprocket fiend.” What soon started as a way to catch up on some important pieces of celluloid, soon ‘devolved’ into a manic-obsession, that caused him to get a little too deep into film-watching.

Fiend also seeks to illustrate a man looking back on his world many years later. Introspection is given to the folly of being in your 20’s, ready to take the world by the horns, and maybe shake things up in your own way…before the world doesn’t fully cooperate, and you attempt to find a happy medium. In between his manic retreats into the flickering darkness, Patton found time to write for MadTV, appear in Down Periscope, as well as found his groove on how to best hone his particular brand of comedy.

The book’s chapters also play out like one of Patton’s stand-up routines on CD. Some are a few pages, while others go on for quite a bit. But like his comedy albums, there’s several stories that just pop, and I’ve found myself reading several of the chapters over and over again.

One chapter that is rather intriguing (though a little messed up), is when an East Coast comedian Patton knew back in the day, shows up in Los Angeles. This fellow meets Patton with one goal in mind: Have Patton help him get onstage at The Largo Comedy Club, which will immediately net him a TV show. The chapter is like watching a car wreck, but you just can’t look away.

It sounds ridiculous to say ‘he writes the way he talks,’ but in reading Fiend, it’s so easy to hear Patton’s voice. In the chapter regarding his first night at The Holy City Zoo in San Francisco, Patton gives the view of a cocky Eastern comedy transplant ready to blow the doors off California’s comedy scene…only for him to learn a valuable life-lesson, narrated in a breathless page-and-a-half memory-gasm of his self-confidence crashing to the floor (I may have to pick up the audiobook just to hear how Patton narrates this part).

In reading Silver Screen Fiend, one can’t help but feel there’s truth to be gleaned from Oswalt’s latest book. Much like the ‘it’s funny because it’s true’ nature of his stand-up, there’s introspection amid the memories, that we could very well apply to our own daily lives.

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A few weeks ago, I attended a book-signing luncheon at Chicago’s The Standard Club. Following the lunch, the few dozen of us who were there, watched as Patton and Chicago Tribune critic Michael Philips, talked over Patton’s new book, as well as several of the different films he’d been in.

Patton Oswalt (left) has an expressive conversation with film critic Michael Phillips (on-stage, right) at Chicago’s Standard Club luncheon.

Even in these smaller moments, Patton can still be a great storyteller. One tale he told at the lunch, was in regards to a 2007 film he starred in, called Big Fan. A lot of people were impressed with Patton’s role as a sports-obsessed parking attendant, but the distributor of the film didn’t seem at all interested in doing anything more than just releasing the film, and putting it out on the home video market…even going so far as putting a football field on the DVD cover, even though the characters never went to a game. As well, when it seemed people wanted to nominate the film for awards, the distributor saw no joy in it.

Also of interest was a side-note regarding how he came to be involved in Ratatouille. Director Brad Bird actually had heard some of Oswalt’s stand-up routines, and that was what got him considered for the role. As well, to test how the voice synched up with a character, the studio’s animators did an animation of Remy the rat, dubbed to Patton’s sketch about Black Angus Steakhouse (oh, how I wish I could see that test footage!). What also stood out in his talks of working with the studio, was that Patton admitted that while he did the voice, much of the credit for Remy’s performance was to the people at PIXAR, in making the character come to life.

This book is considered a memoir of Patton’s life, along with his previous book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. One has to wonder if one day, after a few more of these books, we’ll be able to stitch them together like Frankenstein’s monster, and have the whole story.

Btw Patton, in regards to your autograph (see above), I did. Thank you very much.

Movie Review: Strange Magic

Ever since its early days, George Lucas’ effects company Industrial Light & Magic, has dabbled in the art of animation. Though not on the level of what Walt Disney was doing, the Marin County effects company would put in little touches, like the ghostly hand reaching through the TV set in Poltergeist, to animating the light and lightning strikes in films like Back to the Future.

Though with the addition of computer-generated imagery to their repertoire, the group soon found themselves adding character animation to their list of offerings. Over the last 30 years, the company has been a pioneer in animation of computer-generated characters (even in a small division that was spun-off…called PIXAR), but it did make some wonder: with all this technology at their disposal, why hadn’t ILM made a fully computer-generated feature film?

In 1999, word was that the company had the chance to do an all-CG Frankenstein and Wolfman feature with Universal Studios. Though it was never stated why, the project was shelved, in favor of making the film, Van Helsing. If you look on Youtube, video of the 13-seconds of test animation ILM did on the Frankenstein Montster can be seen. Here’s a still: It wouldn’t be until almost 12 years later, that the studio would finally get its chance to do a fully computer-generated feature: the Gore Verbinski-directed, Rango. The overloaded film about acting, identity, wealth, desperados, and much more, showcased some stellar rendering and character texturing on the studio’s part. It also cleaned up during awards season, winning Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, and The Annie Awards. Though after those wins, the future of the company’s animation division went silent…until, 3 months ago.

That was when it was announced that a new animated feature titled Strange Magic, would be released in January, leading some to scratch their heads as to why a company like Disney, would choose to just drop-kick an animated feature like this.

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The film takes place in a realm of Fairies, and a Dark Kingdom, with both sides forbidden to trespass into the other’s realms.

In the fairy realm, dwell two sisters: the done-with-love Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood), and her younger, romantically-minded sister, Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull). However, a number of romantic entanglements end up causing a life-wrecking love potion to get the ball rolling, causing Dawn to be taken by the Dark Kingdom’s Bog King (Alan Cumming). As well, an elf by the name of Sunny (Elijah Kelley), is tasked with retrieving the absconded love potion, after it is taken by a mischievous, chittering white imp. It also happens, that Sunny also harbors feelings for Dawn as well.

When it comes to Marianne and Dawn, some will probably draw a few parallels to two recently-popular “Princess sisters.” Though unlike Elsa, Marianne has chosen to let out her inner ‘warrior princess,’ in the aftermath of her happily-never-after. She’s become the ‘darker’ of the two sisters, carrying a sword, and dressing less regally than her father would like. The film also seems rather vague regarding their relationship as sisters. Just a few little scenes here-and-there, and we get to fill in the blanks regarding their familial closeness. Even the girl’s father (voiced by Alfred Molina) is just…there.

Fairy sisters Dawn (left), and Marianne (right).

At times, it is a little hard to figure out the logic in parts of the films. For example, even though the fairies have wings, there are a few times where it seems they would use them…but don’t? As well, Marianne practices fencing with some smaller creatures that are in her company, though using THEM for targets. It’s not that she slices them to pieces, but each blow sounds like she’s hitting them hard. If they were maybe hard-bodied bugs I could understand that, but we see her hitting several on the head with her sword(!).

Time in the film, is also a strange thing. Aside from the main story of the film, I felt like the beginning portions we were seeing was taking place over a period of weeks, but it could be just a few days?

The designs of the fairies have seemed very non-interesting from the previews and still images, almost seeming a little close to the styles from the 2006 film, Arthur and the Invisibles, with the long ears, and exaggerated features. Though I think once you see them in motion after awhile, like watching The Hobbit in 48 FPS display, the brain begins to accept what you are seeing.

Pretty quickly, it becomes evident that the film is meant to be a musical. These are not original compositions, but adaptations of such songs as I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch), and I’ll Never Fall in Love Again. The way the songs are interspersed, one might be put in mind of Moulin Rouge, which also took musical pieces, and tweaked them to fit their film’s scenarios. Though unlike that film,  Strange Magic contains no original musical singles.

The Bog King and his legion of dark realm forest creatures take advantage of the studio’s texturing techniques. Though to be fair, the creatures in this dark realm look like concept art from the film The Spiderwick Chronicles. One area of question I had, was that given he’s more insect than fairy, why then did they give him such normal blue eyes? I can’t help but feel this was a decision to make him a little more ’emotive’ for some scenes.

The Bog King (left), and The Sugar Plum Fairy (right).

There’s not a whole lot regarding the animation that really made me take notice. If anything, the sword-fighting moves reminded me a little of the staccato-like movements used in the Clone Wars lightsaber fights.

The bright spot in the film, is the rendering of the plant-life and natural surroundings. By the looks of a lot of this film, there’s bound to be at least several dozen pages of conceptual art and design work that would be suitable for a coffee-table book…though as of this review, there’s no such book-listing.

Gary Rydstrom helms the sophomore effort from ILM, based on a story by George Lucas. The advertising using this name in the last month has caused many to shy away from the film, but one has to know, it’s not like he had full control of the film. In fact, the screenplay was written by David Berenbaum, and Irene Mecchi. Mecchi has written on several Disney animated features, while Berenbaum is known for writing the 2003 film, Elf. Rydstrom also has a co-screenwriting credit.

Gary’s career has been intertwined between both Lucasfilm and PIXAR. After doing sound mixing for a number of major films, Gary was given the chance to direct at PIXAR. He directed the short Lifted, and Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation. He was also attached to direct Newt, the first PIXAR film to be cancelled during production. One has to wonder if Strange Magic was offered to him in the aftermath of the cancellation of Newt.

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In the end, Strange Magic feels like a strange concoction of Moulin Rouge, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, as well as that Shakespearean dash of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that has been referenced in several interviews.

The marketing push on this film reduced it to seeming childish and somewhat pervasive to the final product. Seeing the film, I was surprised at no pop-cultural references, or the occasional mild rude humor that is prevalent in almost every PG-rated family film these days.

Sadly, there’s not a whole lot here to make me want to come back for more. The characters never really feel like they reach a point of sticking distinctly in our heads, and the song renditions will probably not be embraced by the populous…yet, it’s got some good effort put into it. In conclusion, it’s ‘passable’ entertainment.

Then again, being a weird and strange individual for much of my life, it probably makes a little sense that I wouldn’t completely shun an animated film called Strange Magic.

Toy Review: Princess Celestia, and Princess Luna vinyl figures

With the late August releases of Rarity and Discord, Funko had quietly declared two major events for fans of their My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic vinyl figure line:

1) Rarity’s figure concluded production of the “Mane 6” figures from the show.

2) Discord’s release signaled the inaugural start of larger vinyl figures from the series

I had noted at the end of my review of those two figures, that it now seemed an open field to finally see some of the other major supporting players in the world of Equestria, and that’s what Funko gave us. As 2014 wound down, they released two figures of Equestria’s most powerful Princesses: Princess Celestia, and Princess Luna.

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Some cartoons have a major figure who is a mentor, or a god-like presence, and Princess Celestia fits that mold. The all-powerful ruler of Equestria for untold centuries, Celestia towers over almost all her subjects, commanding the utmost attention, as her ever-flowing mane of colored hair continues to waver in the wind.

The princess has been given multiple depictions by Hasbro since the Friendship is Magic toyline began…as well as her “Principal” counterpart from Equestria Girls. However, none of the designs really seemed to come close to the Flash-based cartoon stylings that many had become accustomed to on television.

I held off on other variations, certain that Funko could eventually deliver the goods, and…they kinda, did?

Given her design, Celestia looks almost like she was made by a committee…one that said, “make this figure, but shave off about 22% of her overall proportions to save on money.”

For this review, I’ve included a screencap of the episode, “Keep Calm, and Flutter On,” seen below. This image shows a good representation of Celestia, as well as her height when it comes to the regular ponies of the show.

Comparing the screen cap to the images I took of the Funko figure, it’s like they put the princess in a vice, and squeezed her down in size. The length of her legs is definitely smaller, as are the size of her wings. It’s almost like she’s a video game character that is a few levels away from achieving level-up to her final form. As well, the small representation of her on the box, is closer to her actual cartoon appearance, proportion-wise. It feels like the only thing that survived the money-crunch, was the length of the horn on her head.

Celestia’s toothpaste-like mane also is different from other pony releases, in that it is a hollow plastic shell. Probably not surprising, as the amount of vinyl to make her hair, would have made her heavier (and more expensive) than what some would hope to pay. As it stands, the bulk of her hair probably would have outdone Fluttershy’s pink mane and tail.

The hair is rather ingeniously attached to her head in such a way, that they are pretty well hidden, and just like Big McIntosh, her neck/head attachment is hidden in the necklace where her body joins the neck, giving a nice clean ‘flow’ to the design.

Some have made mention that the attaching of the mane to her head, can cause an ‘imbalance’ to the Princess’ pose, and mine also seems to suffer from this symptom.

As you can see in the image to the left, the hair slightly raises Celestia off of her feet…but then again, how often does one look at her hooves?

Some will be quite pleased with the princess, but as someone who expects more accurate quality regarding the sculpts I’ve seen, Celestia sadly falls short. She’s not a mess, but if Funko could have put some more money and effort into crafting her, I’d have been fine paying for a larger, more show-accurate version of ol’ “Sunbutt.”

FINAL GRADE: B

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Of the two ruling Princesses in the world of Equestria, it is Princess Luna who has most fascinated the Brony fanbase. Luna’s jealousy of her sister eventually pushed her to become Nightmare Moon, leading to her banishment to the moon for 1,ooo years. Luckily, upon her return, Twilight Sparkle and her friends were able to harness the Elements of Harmony, and purge Luna of her dark powers.

Since then, her characterization and appearances have been very irregular to a ravenous fanbase who want to know more about the Princess of the Night. Some episodes that have been fan-favorites for her appearances, have been Luna Eclipsed, Sleepless in Ponyville, and For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils.

For the character of Luna, the image of her on the packaging seems a little odd. Instead of a more regal and somewhat statuesque pose, the image Funko has chosen, shows her almost about to break into a playful gallop.

Packaging aside, I think I can best sum up my feelings about this figure with: OMGWTFBBQ!!!”

When Funko released the first images of this figure, it was jaw-dropping: they had managed to make a version of Luna that shut down any critiques. The only thing my brain was thinking was: “…it’s Luna!”

Seriously, it’s hard to get my brain to be so accepting. Going over the figure, it’s one of the few I’ve gotten where I can find almost nothing to really criticize. The use of glittery clear vinyl, with a purple-blue overlay in portions, is a great way to make her ethereal mane and tail come to life. As well, her wingspan is also a thing of beauty, and not undersized like the figure of her sister.

When it comes to size, Luna’s height is at a mid-level between the normal ponies, and her sister, Celestia.

Unfortunately, the version of Luna I got had some abrasive marks on her head and neck (as seen to the right), almost reminding me of some of the issues that plagued a few of my other early pony purchases. As it stood, she was the only one I could find at my local Hot Topic, and so it was either this one, or nothing.

When it comes to figures that have been produced, Luna joins some of my other favorite sculpts that include Discord, Applejack, and Big McIntosh. If she’d had some very minor tweaks here and there, I might have pushed her to the highest grade there was.

FINAL GRADE: A

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Due to some issues at several ports this December, plans to release both Celestia and Luna around the same time failed to pass. In fact, I didn’t receive my figures until a month after their planned release dates.

Luna was said to be released first, but one wouldn’t know it from the Hot Topic stores I visited, where not a single Luna was to be found…but there were several Celestias to be found.

Also when it comes to these larger-sized figures, a comparison image is often something that I feel compelled to include.

L to R: Discord, Princess Celestia, Big McIntosh, Princess Luna, Twilight Sparkle

2014’s release of Discord is still the biggest figure in the vinyl series, height-wise. In truth, Celestia should almost be eye-to-eye with Discord, and not slightly shorter than Big McIntosh (her horn gives her a slight height advantage). Luna’s height level is acceptable, but when put between Twilight Sparkle and Big McIntosh, it does make her look a little puny.

These releases of Celestia and Luna showcase the good and the bad of Funko’s line. On one hand, it proves they can still do some wonderful detail. On the other hand, they are still working within a ceiling of size and pricing.

Queen Chrysalis

This does pose a dilemma when some consider an unmade character that could possibly be made, that is almost as tall as Princess Celestia: and that would be Queen Chrysalis (seen on the right), the villain revealed at the end of Season 2’s “Royal Wedding” episode.

It seems a given that we’ll probably get that episode’s characters Shining Armor, Princess Cadance, and Queen Chrysalis…but like Celestia, it does feel we may be in for a letdown, with one of the remaining large-scale figures yet to come (note: as of the time of this writing, there has been no word if Chrysalis is coming. This is largely me fan-speculating).

On the other hand, I’m hoping that the medium-t0-normal scale figures that have yet to be made, will still turn out to be the kind that have made me excited in the past. The sky now seems open, regarding several of the show’s supporting characters, and maybe a fan-fave or two. I know after Season 4 of Friendship is Magic, there’s a few one-shot characters that would be eagerly snapped up by the show’s fanbase.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Animated Dissection: Remembering Fantasia 2000, 15 Years Later

“We all know it’s impossible, to see music…yet many composers have tried to take musical sounds, and give them, a pictorial meaning” – Walt Disney

“Walt’s original idea was that Fantasia would be a continuing work-in-progresss, and Fantasia 2000, is the realization of that dream” – Roy E Disney

The 1930’s was a time of great discoveries and experimentation for Walt Disney, and the men who worked at the Disney Studio. They pioneered character animation, the use of sound and color, and also took a gamble on proving animation could work in a feature-length medium.

In the midst of the experimentation, was Fantasia. What started as just The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with Mickey Mouse, soon evolved into “a concert feature,” with numerous classical pieces, and artistic interpretations of that music. Famed conductor Leopold Stokowski would be seen leading an orchestra, as the screen became filled with mythological creatures, abstract images, and much more.

Walt Disney (left) discusses The Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence with Fantasia's narrator Deems Taylor (center), and conductor Leopold Stokowski (right)

Walt Disney (left) discusses The Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence with Fantasia’s narrator Deems Taylor (seated), and conductor Leopold Stokowski (right)

Walt’s gambles had often paid off in the past, but this time around, Fantasia would become one of his first that failed to catch fire. At over 2 hours long, and oftentimes needing a required stereophonic system known as Fantasound, the public did not show lasting interest at the time. Over the years, it’d be clipped down, the narration (by music critic/composer Deems Taylor) taken out, and all sorts of other edits to make the film seem more appealing to audiences.

Even so, Walt still continued to meld music and animation together. Several productions during the 40’s such as Melody Time and Make Mine Music, used an almost similar set-up, though not as classical as Fantasia had been with its segments.

As the years went by, many grew to love Walt’s film folly. In the early 1980’s, an attempt was made to do a Fantasia-style film called Americana. Featuring a mixture of classical and modern music, it would have celebrated music from numerous cultures, but the project was eventually shelved.

One fan of Fantasia for many years, was Walt’s nephew, Roy E Disney. Roy often cited a part of the film’s Dance of the Hours sequence as one of his favorite animated moments. When Fantasia had good success after its 1990 theatrical run and home video release (in 1991), Roy had enough evidence to push CEO Michael Eisner, to give the go-ahead for a new Fantasia.

Roy E Disney, surrounded by animation maquettes for characters, from “Fantasia 2000.”

 

The film project was continually in the pipeline of Disney’s feature animation division during the 1990’s (and had proposed release dates set for 1996, & 1999 at various points of its production). Roy led the charge, with new segments being made by different creative teams. For filling the role of their conductor, the group recruited composer James Levine, who recommended The Chicago Symphony Orchestra
for the film’s musical tone.

When it came time to decide on returning pieces, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was kept. For a time, The Nutcracker Suite segment was also going to be used (a clip of the segment even made its way into the early trailers), but was replaced with the new Rhapsody in Blue segment, directed by Eric Goldberg.

Originally considered for a 1999 release, the official release date was pushed to coincide with the start of the year 2000. The studio decided to release the film exclusively in IMAX format, in 54 screens across the country, making its release an event somewhat similar to that of the original Fantasia, some 60 years prior.

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When it came to Fantasia, I had two experiences seeing it: as a 5-year-old in 1985, and then as a 10-year-old in 1990. I didn’t quite get what the film was about then (most kids were taken on the promise of Mickey alone), but as I grew up, a lot of what they were doing to marry animation and music fascinated me. When it came to considering animation as a career, the film was one of several I cited in the vein of wanting to do something ‘serious’ with animation. Forget making the audience laugh, I wanted to make them feel emotions. I think it also helped expand my mind to the possibilities that animation didn’t always need verbal dialogue.

My collection of Fantasia 2000 merchandise from 15 years ago, with both retail items, and crew-only materials. I think they contain a clue to what my favorite segment from the film was…

I can’t say when I knew exactly about a new Fantasia, but I do remember reading little tidbits here and there in some magazines in the mid-90’s. However, the hype machine really started up in 1999. I recall the studio releasing little making-of clips on their website back then, and I’d spent quite a bit of time watching the small Quicktime movies, eager to see what these new segments would entail. As well, once I knew the music that would be playing, I sought out records in my University’s library, and spent some time listening to them, imagining what they’d inspire to the screen.

Being in Iowa, there were only two options for seeing Fantasia 2000 in IMAX near me. Taking the “simpler” of the two, on January 3rd, 2000, I made the 6 hour trek to Apple Valley, MN, in pouring snow. Eventually, I made to the IMAX theater near the Minnesota Zoo.

Being young and rather obsessed with the film, I ended up seeing it 3 times in 2 days. I remember one of the employees was so surprised to see me coming back (I had the ticket stubs to prove it!), that she gave me a discount for the third showing.

My fandom of the film was so great, that when I offered to give information on a piece for the film’s June 18th release in normal theaters, my local newspaper bit. I eagerly gave my opinions and views on the piece, the voice of a ravenous young animation-hopeful coming out. However, my positive attitude failed to help the film much, as when released in normal theaters, Fantasia 2000 failed to ignite with the summer audiences.

As such, I was left alone in Iowa with my fandom for the film, and when the film came out in the 3-disc Fantasia Legacy set that fall, I ordered away for it immediately. Fortunately by then, I had moved from studying graphic design to character animation, and had found like-minded individuals at my new school, that could share in my own feelings for the animated medium.

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When it came to the segments included in Fantasia 2000, the film was a mixed bag to say the least.

The original Fantasia was not afraid to go into long pieces, but this film seemed a little uneasy. Instead of 2 hours like the first film, this one clocked in around an hour and 15 minutes.

One segment that I was a huge fan of (before the film was released), was based around Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Steadfast Tin Soldier. combining both computer-generated animation and hand-painted backgrounds, the segment was one that really utilized some great warm and cold coloration to sell the mood of the piece.

Much like Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in the first film, director Pixote Hunt combined abstract animation, with a (truncated) version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Of all the pieces, this one really felt like it was hitting all the beats, though it sacrifices a little of the abstracted feel in favor of crafting a simple storyline. Even so, I still love the pastel work in this one.

The husband-and-wife duo of Eric and Susan Goldberg ended up contributing two segments. While the segment about a yoyo-obsessed flamingo was short yet sweet, their Al Hirschfeld-styled segment to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was one of the most talked about segments…and it wasn’t even supposed to be in the film! Even so, the style of seeing the Hirschfeldian “line” brought to animated life definitely had me entertained (and still does!). Probably of all the segments, this is the one I most remember seeming to capture the audience’s attention.

Donald Duck was given his chance to shine in a segment based on Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, but the segment sadly feels like a throwaway vehicle at times. There’s definitely effort there, but I just never got into the story (and needless to say, Elgar’s song has us constantly thinking “graduation ceremony”).

One of the first segments to be completed was of a pod of whales that take flight, to Resphigi’s Pines of Rome. It’s a nice concept, but feels a little limited due to the computer animation having been done in the early 1990’s.

Brothers Paul and Gaetan Brizzi give the new film its Bald Mountain/Ave Maria ending, utilizing Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. Following a forest sprite as her habitat goes through a major life cycle, the segment is one that really gave the film a high-note ending (I can still hear the pounding of the theater’s bass during part of it). As well, the forest sprite character in the segment, became an unofficial symbol of the film.

Unlike the previous Fantasia, this film adds a celebrity host to introduce each segment. This is where the film almost seems to slow down, and can get a little tiresome. Some host segments that are simple and sweet (like the one featuring Quincy Jones) are nice, but the ones featuring the likes of Steve Martin and Penn & Teller, can get a little too one-note.

While there were some negatives here and there, the film still gets some high marks from me. Given that the concept flew in the face of what a lot of people would say constituted an animated feature at the time, Fantasia 2000 showed a risk-taking venture rarely seen in the world of big-name animation.

That summer, Tarzan had excited me with what it had to offer, and Toy Story 2 that fall had proven to me that PIXAR was a new studio to definitely keep an eye on. Fantasia 2000 was another building block in getting me more excited to pursue a career in animation, and what I saw on that IMAX screen, probably had a hand in my eventual decision to look elsewhere for an art education shortly afterwards.

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In the summer of 2000, an online Q&A with Roy E Disney was arranged, with those in a live chat who could send him questions to be answered.

One I asked was if we could see another rendition of Fantasia soon. Roy answered that there were already plans for another film to be released in 2005, or 2006. Of course, we all know what happened a few years down the line.

With the dismantling of the hand-drawn portion of feature animation in the wake of Treasure Planet’s box-office disappointment, all prospects for a new Fantasia never came to pass. Though as it stands, several of the segments that were being worked on and completed, found their way into the public in one form or another.

These segments included:

One By One – Roy had made mention of this segment in his Q&A, and would have featured a theme of how the music of this newer Fantasia, was to take music from other cultures. Telling of a number of African children making kites to fly, it was only released as an addition to the 2004 DVD release of Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride. This pairing somewhat made sense, as Lebo M, who had lent his voice to music for both of the Lion King films, also sang portions of One By One’s song.

Lorenzo -Taking the music of an Argentinian tango, the story tells of a pampered cat, whose tail develops a mind of its own. Word was in the mainstream, it was only released in 2004, showing before the live-action film, Raising Helen. Since then, it has never been released as part of any DVD or shorts collection.

The Little Match Girl – Included as an extra with the 2006 DVD release of The Little Mermaid, this retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story follows a young girl, as she struggles to sell her remaining matches on the cold streets of a Russian town (Word of warning: keep some tissues handy).

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As it stands now, it seems a little doubtful that another Fantasia may come to pass. With the studio pressing ahead with newer ideas and stories to be told, it’d take someone with a lot of clout to buy in to another interpretation of the concert feature.

The only continuation of the name Fantasia currently within the company, is the Harmonix-produced game, Fantasia: Music Evolved. The game uses the XBox Kinect motion-sensing device, to allow one to conduct almost like Stokowski. Sadly, the game seems more involved with having you conduct modern-day music, than many classical pieces (though if you really get into the music, it can be a good workout!).

Though Roy E Disney was not an artist per se, he did see the value in keeping animation alive within the studio. As well, when the studio seemed to reach a tipping point in the mid-2000’s, Roy led the charge for a management shake-up within its walls. Just like he had a hand in the studio’s resurgence in the early 80’s, his actions surely led to so many of the dramatic changes we’ve seen within the studio in the last decade.

As a result of those changes, Walt Disney Feature Animation has risen again to a new level of appreciation and fandom, that I didn’t think I’d ever see happen again.

Walt Disney (left) and Roy E Disney (right)

Walt Disney (left) and Roy E Disney (right), having their picture taken with promotional materials from “Alice in Wonderland.”

Sadly, the closest interaction I ever had with Roy E Disney, was him answering my question on that live chat in the summer of 2000. But still, if any film could speak to his love for the animation medium, Fantasia 2000 seems like a shining example of it.

Thank you, Roy.

Theatrical Review: Newsies

I realized in the last decade how ‘odd’ my viewing habits were as a child. Unlike many children, my parents didn’t raise me and my sisters on such live-action classics as The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. However, in their place, came a steady stream of animated cartoons and animated feature films.

Live-action family films (from Disney) soon joined my theatrical viewing experiences, after seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988. I would soon eagerly await many new live-action feature from the studio, with much anticipation for the company’s 1992 Spring release: Newsies. Touted as the first live-action musical from the studio since Mary Poppins, I eagerly came out on opening weekend with my Dad…only to find us 2 of only 6 people in that small movie theater in Waterloo, IA.

Christian Bale (center) took on the role of newsboy/strike leader Jack Kelly, in Disney’s 1992 cult-hit.

 

However, the music stuck with me, and a few months later, I got my Dad to buy the audio cassette of the film’s soundtrack. Unofficially, the soundtrack soon joined the rotation of audio cassettes for traveling to-and-from California, for the next 2 summers. Pretty soon, I had almost all the lyrics to Alan Menken & Jack Feldman’s songs memorized. The choral movements like Carrying the Banner, and Seize the Day were two that stuck in my mind for years.

Very rarely does Disney have a cult hit on their hands, but with home video and the internet, Newsies soon sparked interest from a newer, younger fanbase (some who call themselves, “Fansies”).

Throughout the years, there were numerous requests for a version of the story, that could be performed by high school or small theatre groups. Eventually, the fandom’s pleas to put this musical on stage was given the go-ahead by Disney, to which a small production was set to run at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. This got me excited, but I couldn’t scrounge up the money to buy a ticket, figuring it’d be a one-time event that I’d just hear about down the line.

Instead, it did well, and even made it to Broadway, where it far exceeded expectations! The limited engagement was extended out to 2 years, and the production ended up winning several Tony Awards.

When it was announced that the show would start touring in 2014, I eagerly awaited its arrival in town. I had already become a fan of the show’s cast album, so I was more than eager to see it…an eagerness not unlike my 12-year-old self  wishing to see the film in 1992.

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Based on the events of the 1899 Newsboy Strike in New York, the production follows Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), struggling to eke out an existence selling newspapers, while pining to one day make it out west to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Along with spending time with his good friend Crutchie (Zachary Sayle), Jack soon finds himself helping out brothers Davey (Jacob Kemp) and Les (Anthony Rosenthal) learn the trade of selling “papes.” However, the boys’ lives are thrown into turmoil when the owner of The New York World newspaper raises their prices to purchase papers to sell. Pretty soon, the boys find themselves struggling to be heard, in a world that would most likely wish to ignore them.

Harvey Fierstein’s adaptation does a commendable job of tightening up the film’s original plot, which oftentimes kept wanting to say a little too much. This can be both a blessing and a curse to those who grew up on the film. I will admit, I had to stop the little person in my head from checking things off the scorecard. For example, the roles of Davey and Les are truncated, to focus more on Jack. Fierstein’s also added a minor story element of Jack being a sketch/scenic artist on the side, which felt like it was stretching the believability a little too thin for me.

Speaking of Jack, DeLuca’s take on our lead newsie ended up being a love it/hate it affair. His accented voice felt almost like he was straining at times, putting a little too much ‘tough guy’ into his performance. Even so, he does give it his all when it comes to the song and dance, but I guess I’m not as acclimated to Jack Kelly having a slightly lower register than what Christian Bale, or Jeremy Jordan brought to the part(s).

In terms of familiarity, I was surprised by Benjamin Cook as Race(track, originally played by Max Casella in the film). Of all the adapted characters, he really seemed solid, and easily identifiable with the cigar in his mouth. Sadly aside from Crutchie, it felt like I really needed a scorecard to figure out the other Newsies. Even so, the footwork they performed was definitely a sight to behold.

Stephanie Styles, & Dan DeLuca

The production also combines the film roles of reporter Brian Denton
(Bill Pullman), and Davey’s sister Sarah (Ele Keats), into the character of female reporter, Katherine Plummer (Stephanie Styles). Styles gives Katherine plenty of spunk to make her play well with the newsboys, and she definitely brought out some great moments when cutting down Jack a few times, helping provide some nice humor at times.

The majority of my theater-going experiences have usually been through touring company renditions, but I will say, that Newsies is the first one I’ve seen that deviates quite a bit from the direction of the original cast recordings. Several numbers (like Carrying the Banner) seemed to be taken at a slower pace, and several others seemed to have been re-written. The experience put me in mind of when in middle school we got to play music from Aladdin, but at a slower speed than I was used to.

A bright spot in the revamped showcase, was a song sung by Crutchie in the second act. It definitely helped keep Jack’s best friend at the forefront of the story, given he had been captured and taken away from the main newsboys.

Alan Menken and Jack Feldman’s reprisal of their songwriting duties (from the original film), definitely help improve on several areas. Medda Larkin’s performance numbers are reduced to one, and a rousing chorus sung by a number of Brooklyn newsboys, is a short-yet-sweet tune, with orchestrations that made me feel like I was 20 years younger (Menken’s music has that effect on me). As well, the rousing choral number Seize the Day is expanded out to become one of the performance highlights of the film. The number’s signature ‘paper-dancing’ moment had the theater applauding in approval.

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During the break in the loge seating area of The Oriental Theatre, I took some time to talk to some of the patrons around me. I was surprised that many of them were experiencing the stage show for the first time, with a couple mentioning how they were seeing how the stage production broke away from the film release.

I was seated next to a Mother and two sons, and asked just what had brought them their (visiting from Iowa!). The mother explained that when her children were younger, their babysitter had let them watch Newsies, and that was how they had become fans of the film.

What Disney Theatrical has unleashed, is definitely a grand re-imagining of the film, into a stage production that keeps up the music and energy that is enough to excite former, and newer fans. The touring production didn’t wholly blow my socks off, but I still say it is entertaining. If you are able to put down your mental scorecard (if you saw the original film), and let yourself get swept up in the fancy footwork of the cast, you’ll find plenty to still cheer about, from the front row, to the back of the rafters.