*WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD*
In the realms of Disney‘s cable channels (The Disney Channel and DisneyXD), a number of entertaining and fun animated shows have come to light, since the company started making its own animated programming for cable.
The 2000’s brought such animated shows as Kim Possible, The Proud Family, and Phineas and Ferb, that delighted young and old, and garnered a small fan-following.
In 2011, Alex Hirsch brought a new show/concept to the Disney Channel, that soon became a hit for its combination of comedy, adventure, drama, and scariness!
When Dipper and Mabel Pines are sent to stay with their Great Uncle Stan in Gravity Falls, Oregon, it looks like it’s going to be a boring summer…that is, until they encounter gnomes, demons, lake monsters, and so much more!
Hirsch’s show managed to almost feel like a throwback to shows and films of the 1980’s, where you’d have humor, mixed in with a few possible bits of ‘nightmare fuel’ for kids (and the show does seem to stretch its Y7 rating pretty far!).
Of all the characters the kids and their family came across, one that was often wondered about online, was a strange triangle-shaped figure known as Bill Cypher. Bill was soon revealed to be an other-dimensional demon, who would often try to make underhanded deals with a number of figures, but his attempts usually ended with him promising that “big things were coming,” that nobody could stop.
At the end of the episode Dipper and Mabel vs The Future, Bill’s words seemed to finally come true! Gaining three dimensional form, he opened a dimensional rift over Gravity Falls, and plunged it into a dark and chaotic realm, the likes of which Disney Television Animation had probably never seen before (and makes the Negaverse in the Darkwing Duck series look like Sioux City, IA)!
Summoning his other-dimensional friends to help him take over, Bill declared himself Lord and Master of the town, and proclaimed the twisted state of his surroundings, to be called: Weirdmageddon!
In the last two parts of Weirdmageddon, Dipper Pines found himself teaming up with his friends Wendy and Soos, and attempting to break Mabel out of a fantasyland, that placated her feelings about not wanting to grow up.
Though Dipper was tempted, the strength of his convictions managed to make Mabel see past the candy-coated disguise of Bill’s tricks (think like what the Other Mother in Coraline used to trick that film’s title character), and escape back to the nightmare that Gravity Falls had become.
Retreating to The Mystery Shack, the group found Stan(ley) Pines huddled up with several of the last townspeople and otherworldly creatures from the surrounding woods, not captured by Bill and his minions.
Though Stanley wishes just to hide in the shack, Dipper, Mabel, and the others decide to storm Bill’s fortress, to try and free Stanford Pines (Stanley’s twin brother), who may hold the key to finishing off Bill once and for all!
However, Bill has found out that while Weirdmageddon has overtaken Gravity Falls, he can’t spread it beyond the town’s borders!…but he knows someone, who might be able to help him…
Ever since he was first introduced, Bill Cypher was an animated character that operated outside dimensional laws, in a way that was almost like that of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’s Discord. Both tended to have their own twisted machinations on how they would spread chaos and darkness, but of the two, Bill seemed the more evil, and threatening (and this was from a show on The Disney Channel!).
Being a fan of the weird and sometimes disturbing, the concept of Bill’s Nightmare Realm works pretty well, at times reminding me a bit of the unease I experienced, seeing the wizard Merlock transform Scrooge’s money bin into a hideous fortress in 1990’s Ducktales The Movie.
We’ve see the show get dark at times, but in this three-parter (and particularly this episode), they really up the ante for a Y7-rated production, with some scenes that made my eyes grow wide with shock!
Along with Bill, it is fun and exciting to see a number of supporting characters, come to the aid of the Pines Family. Some who have seen My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, may be reminded of that show’s 100th episode, Slice of Life. However, unlike that episode that felt like a glorified fan shout-out, most of the characters used here, actually feel like they work in the proper mechanism of the episode.
Though the showrunners do their darnedest to give everyone a chance to shine, some may be a little perturbed by the backpedaling done on the supporting character, named Pacifica Northwest. Many had hopes for her character after her major appearance in the episode Northwest Mansion Mystery, in which she stood up to her rich, socialite parents. However, here it feels like she regressed back a bit, into being the typical whiny, stuck-up rich girl.
When it comes to the group in The Mystery Shack fighting back, the story, animation, and music all come together to help give us an energizing, strike back at Bill and his friends.
The showrunners also had some fun including little jabs at popular culture here, and we get a few that made me a little giddy (I think they’re the first animated show to do a parody of Pacific Rim!).
Another 11th hour character development “sneak,” actually falls onto Stanley. He has been relatively absent for the first two parts, but once he’s on screen for part 3, he’s got some issues with his brother Stanford, that he’s not quick to let go of.
This to me is the one area, where the writers tripped up in making this a wholly-enjoyable episode. The fact that in the midst of so much world-destruction and all going on around them, Stanley’s digging in of his heels regarding Stanford, just feels like it was thrown into the mix a little too late. Though we have known that the two brothers have not been on good terms since Stanford’s return (in the episode, A Tale of Two Stans), it just breaks up the flow.
And then there’s…the end.
When it comes to the final moments of the show, some things you may have predicted will come to pass, but just as well, some other things will shock you.
Much like the character bits with Stanley and Stanford, the showrunners throw a small wrench into a moment, that could have sent some people’s “waterworks” into a full-blown waterfall…but sadly, they pull something akin to a PIXAR film that I won’t name here (if you see the scene, you’ll know which one I’m referring to).
Even with the few nitpicks above, the show still manages to rise head-and-shoulders above many animated series’ finales (some animated series I watched as a kid, never even HAD a proper finale!).
Though I watched the show not as fervently as most of its diehard fans, I trusted its creators enough to follow them down whatever path they steered their characters. Most animated series start out like infants, toddling around until they find their footing, and know what they’re about. When it came to Gravity Falls, the show seemed to know what it was from the beginning, and surprisingly, never wavered from that decided path!
Many fans and viewers will probably beg and plead for another visit to Gravity Falls, but even if someone at Disney decides to take us back…it just won’t be the same.
Creator Alex Hirsch said the show was meant to be about an incredible Summer Vacation, and that’s what we got. Personally, I felt since summer vacation lasts about 3 months (at least it did in my day), they could have done 3 seasons…but still, to end it after 2 seasons on such a high note (and with 40 episodes), I’m not one to complain.
Many of us have seen other shows out there (The Simpsons, Family Guy, The Fairly Oddparents, etc), that have soldiered on well past their prime, their animated ‘corpses’ still making noise, but seldom making us laugh like they once did…with many fans wishing someone would help these poor souls, to be put out of their misery.
The summer that Dipper and Mabel Pines spent in this strange little Pacific Northwestern mountain town, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, that can never be replicated. It was a journey that resulted in new friendships, learning about relationships (both familial and romantic), encountering the strange and unusual, and even getting the chance to save the world.
You know…something like that could make for an awesome TV show!
Final episode grade: A- (Final Thoughts: The last episode of “Gravity Falls,” shows its creator managing to go all-out in bringing us a show-stopping ending, the likes of which many could have never fathomed…and manages to make it balance pretty well between chaos and comedy! We get to see both sets of Pines twins (Dipper and Mabel, Stanford and Stanley), work together in ways that shows just how strong their family unit can be. Bill Cypher may not come across as dark and powerful as the most fervent imagination wants, but he still manages to leave a lasting impression long after the show is over. Even the mixture of past characters and invention/devices, works surprisingly well, feeling as if they were somehow meant to fit into their respective places from the very beginning. Though the writers take the bite out of a few characters and scenes, the overall product still finishes in the best of fashion…and the last 5 minutes will make the most ardent fan, a little nostalgic for the journey they were taken on)
Most of us who grew up in the late 1980’s, know of Ernest P Worrell in some form or another.
Originally conceived of as as commercial pitchman, the character was embodied by actor Jim Varney, into a well-meaning, if often accident-prone Southerner, often addressing the camera as if it was his good friend, Vern…whether Vern liked it or not.
In 1987, Ernest made his leap from television to the big-screen, with Ernest Goes To Camp, making him one of several commercial spokespersons to make the leap to film personality. Though receiving a drubbing from a number of critics, the positive reception to the film by the public, quickly pushed the character onward into more adventures.
Ernest would ride out the height of his popularity over the next 5 years, with several films, and even the television series, Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! But unknown to some, Ernest also acted as a guinea pig/test pilot, for a brand-new Disneyland attraction, in the Summer of 1989.
Almost a decade after Disneyland opened its third mountainous attraction (aka Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, in 1979), a new mountain would rise up in the western section of the park near The Haunted Mansion. Billed as the world’s tallest flume-drop ride (at the time), Splash Mountain took the story of Brer Rabbit from Song of the South (before the world tried to forget the film was made), and interspersed it in an attraction that brought some relief from the southern California sun.
The cul-de-sac behind The Haunted Mansion was soon given the name of Critter Country, and was billed for awhile as a separate land of its own…albeit one that only had one attraction (for over 2 decades, anyways).
To tie in to the opening of the new attraction, The Disney Channel aired a network-only special, in which Ernest P Worrell would become America’s first “Splashtronaut,” and try out the ride. Just how Ernest got chosen? Well, those facts are lost to the annals of history.
The show starts with real-life news anchor Ralph Story in Splash Mountain News Central, our main eyes and ears on the mountain as Ernest prepares.
While the news team readies for Ernest’s arrival, the man himself is undergoing testing at his friend Vern’s Daredevil Training Camp (Vern is a man of all trades, isn’t he?). Needless to say, these sequences just last as small vignettes as Ernest seems to get into all sorts of trouble.
Interspersed within these little bits with Ernest, are news reports given by several different correspondents that Story talks to. Some of them act as little more than travelogue material to tell people what they’ll see if they go to Disneyland, but some do offer some behind-the-scenes material and facts about the attraction. In one scene, we see the water filtration area where the ride’s water is constantly pumped out and back into the attraction’s waterways. In another, a reporter (played by Sheryl Bernstein), interviews Walt Disney Imagineer Chris Gordon.
Unknown to many, Gordon was part of the next generation of Imagineers at the company, helping to orchestrate a number of new attractions and refurbishments, with Splash Mountain being one of his biggest projects. It is nice to see Gordon (who passed away in 2007) given some screen-time, even if the humor of the moment is that the reporter doesn’t let him get a word in edge-wise.
Eventually, Ernest makes his way to Disneyland, where he’s carried down Main Street USA, and into the ride. After some rather eye-rolling humor (“Someone call me a log!” “You’re a log!”), Ernest gets into one of the ride’s log-shaped vehicles, and starts on his way.
We’re treated to several interior shots of the the ride as Ernest eventually makes his way up the steep incline leading to the top of the ride’s flume drop. Of course, in typical Ernest-fashion, the plunge down the flume into the briar page lasts 3 times longer than normal, as Ernest freaks out in his typical over-exaggerated style.
Ernest soon returns to the station, seemingly in a state of shock, and at first, having a hard time getting any words out. It’s only when the reporter asks if he’d recommend Splash Mountain to the other park guests, does Ernest finally find his voice:
“I’d recommend Splash Mountain to anyone. Things like Splash Mountain keep you young…that and, blood transfusions, organ transplants, cosmetic surgery…I feel great.”
And with Ernest’s seal of approval, the ride officially opens.
Back in Splash Mountain News Central, Ralph Story concludes his news report, claiming that “Ernest P Worrell will certainly be written into the history of Disneyland, because he’s one for the books.”
The credits then roll, but not before we get a small bit with Ernest telling Vern how he is throwing a party after his victory over Splash Mountain. He also makes mention that he invited the guys from Walt Disney Imagineering over to his place, but they claimed they were busy.
Originally airing on The Disney Channel on July 7, 1989, Ernest Goes to Splash Mountain was almost like a members-only early look into up-and-coming attractions, for those lucky enough to have this new cable channel. The ride’s official opening would be on July 17, 1989, also the 34th Anniversary of the opening of Disneyland.
I will admit this special helped raise awareness for the new attraction, and several of my family and I went on it that very summer. I still recall the 2-hour wait time to get on the ride, and by the time we got on, the heat from the afternoon sun made us eager to ride. The ride definitely threw down the gauntlet to other theme parks, as almost 8 years later, Universal Studios Hollywood would try to outdo Splash Mountain with their bigger and more expensive, Jurassic Park The Ride.
One of my favorite moments in the special is when Ernest is on his way to the top of the flume drop. He’s leaning back calmly going, ‘Wish I’d brought a book.’ I always wanted to do that if I had a log to myself, but when that moment came in the Summer of 2010, the log seating had been re-designed, and one could not recline like Ernest had once did.
There are also some humorous little easter eggs. In one scene as Ernest is saying his lines, one can see Brer Rabbit in the background, almost miming along to the words. I don’t know if this was the result of the character-actor just getting tired of standing around or what, but it is one of the few funny moments. As well, one gets to see the often-never-seen costumes for Brer Fox and Brer Bear.
In my younger days, Ernest was pretty funny, but when one gets a little older, some of Varney’s humor at times get a little too cornball.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the last time Ernest would make a trip to Disneyland. The following year, he returned for a television special celebrating the park’s 35th Anniversary. Over the next decade, Varney would soon find himself ingrained further into the legacy of The Walt Disney Company.
In 1995, he was part of the world’s first computer-generated feature film, Toy Story, playing the role of the loyal Slinky Dog (a role he’d also reprise in 1999 for the sequel). And, in 2001, he voiced Cookie in the animated feature Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
Though throughout the 1990’s, Varney’s role as Ernest became less mainstream, and soon, further “Ernest Goes To” adventures became relegated to the growing direct-to-video marketplace.
His role as Cookie in Atlantis would be one of his last roles, as Varney passed away from lung cancer, a year before the films release. A dedication was added to the end of Atlantis for him as well.
In the last few years, it was mentioned that Ernest could possibly make a return, albeit in the form of another person donning the persona and clothing. Of course to many of us, the only Ernest that matters or makes a difference, will always be Jim Varney: the man who saved Christmas, conquered Splash Mountain, and defeated a band of evil trolls. Not many people could put those claims on their tombstones.
Retro Recaps is where we will look back at old television episodes from the past, and analyze their story, content, and much more.
Throughout the years, there have been many variations of the famous Grimm’s Fairy Tale, Hansel & Gretel. By now, almost all of us know the tale: A wicked mother does not like the young charges in her care, and has them sent off into the woods to die. However, the two children come across a candy house, but are soon imprisoned by a witch who lives there, with plans to devour the two.
I’ve seen numerous adaptations over the years, but one that had not surfaced until recently, was a variation made by Tim Burton.
Produced on a budget of $116,000, and sporting an All-Asian cast, Burton’s live-action effort was made between his stop-motion short Vincent, and his live-action short, Frankenweenie, in 1984. It only premiered once, way back on Halloween 1983, on the newly-formed Disney Channel…and then was never heard from again…until recently.
The short starts by showing us numerous toys and playthings, each one with large round eyes, and intriguing features. We soon see these are the playthings made by Hansel and Gretel’s father. The two children eagerly watch the toys, when their stepmother angrily scolds them for lazing about, and their father for doing nothing productive except making toys.
As night falls, the mother serves everyone a goop-like substance, berating the father for not making enough money, and the kids for being lazy. While she spoons out a small amount of goop for each of the three, she fills her bowl to the brim, and noisily devours the meal.
The kids quietly make fun of her eating habits, causing her to strike them, before their father intervenes. Angered that he has taken “their side,” she sends the kids to their room in the attic.
After some time, their father climbs the ladder, and performs a little puppet show for them, and gives them cookies. Gretel says how she does not like their stepmother, but the little puppet promises that she will soon be gone.
The next day, the stepmother encourages the kids to go on a walk with her. A little unsure, Hansel takes some small stones, and creates a small trail behind them as they venture into the nearby woods. The stepmother then distracts the kids with a sparkling toy, and disappears from sight.
Later that evening, the father wonders where the children are, but the stepmother offers little help. It is soon after that a knock is heard on the door, and the children appear, and are embraced by their father (as the stepmother feigns joy that they have returned).
The next day, the stepmother gives Hansel a pull-toy shaped like a duck, that she claims was from their father. The kids are led back out on another journey, with Hansel dropping the stones, and pulling the duck behind him. Unseen by Hansel, the duck eats up each pebble he drops.
This time when the Stepmother abandons the kids, the two realize they have no way to get home, and fall asleep in the forest. Overnight, the duck toy turns into a spindly-robot. Upon awakening, the children follow it, and it leads them to a large candy house!
The children begin to eat at the front of the house, with Hansel surprised that the walls contain candy-coated filling. As they continue to eat, the door opens, and out steps a pale old woman with dark glasses, and a candy cane nose. She eagerly invites them in, and allows them to eat some candy chairs and a table.
After they have finished eating, the witch takes them to a room with marshmallow beds…but it doesn’t take long before suddenly, striped hands emerge from the beds, and grab the children, holding them down!
The hands then push Hansel down a chute into the basement. He is soon joined by a talking cookie, called Dandan the Gingerbread Man. Dandan then taunts Hansel to eat him, as well as makes all sorts of bad puns (including a take on Rod Stewart’s If You Think I’m Sexy).
Upstairs, the witch has put Gretel to work making sure the oven is warm enough. Finally, the witch can’t wait any longer, and has Hansel brought up for cooking. However, Gretel whacks the witch with a poker, and the witch begins to fight back with her striped cane. Eventually, Hansel gets free, but not before the witch half-blindedly begins poking her cane all over the house, cause the walls to spew all sorts of candy filling.
Things get dicey when in a fit of craziness, the witch’s cane turns into a pair of nunchuks, before she blindly begins throwing candy objects from her dress, that turn out to be candy-filling bombs (that explode in a spatter of color!).
Quickly, Hansel and Gretel position themselves in front of the oven, and when the witch makes a flying kick at them (yes, you read that right), she flies into the inferno.
The kids quick rush out of the house, and watch it melt into a puddle of candied goo. Once the house has completely melted, a swan-shaped boat rises from the remains. The kids board it, and the candy goo turns into a river, carrying them home.
Their father eagerly greets them, and happily tells that their stepmother is gone. He then proposes that they roast marshmallows and make a spaghetti dinner, only for Hansel to exclaim that they still don’t have any money.
As the family’s eyes turn to the swan head on the boat, its beak opens up, and gold coins pour out, causing the reunited family to cheer for joy at their good fortune.
As one can read from that synopsis above, this is definitely a different take on the Hansel and Gretel story. It’s never really been explained just why the short was then stashed away deep in the Disney Vaults. In the book Burton on Burton, Tim mentioned the following regarding its premier:
“I think it showed one night, Halloween, at 10:30 pm, which for The Disney Channel is like the 4:30 am slot. So, that one didn’t go over too big. But there are little moments in it that I like. It was like one of those scary children’s shows I grew up with.”
In truth, the show comes across almost like a bigger-budgeted, small-town stage production. All the sets are as simple as can be, though the real creative production design is saved for the witch’s house. Instead of the standard gingerbread house, Burton’s use of a cake-like house oozing with filling inside its walls and furniture, is a concept I have never seen attempted before. One can easily imagine the multiple takes needed for these scenes, but it’s a sight that is almost a ‘horror’ sign, in the way the filling seems to almost “bleed” from the soft walls.
What was most interesting to me, was seeing so many staples of future Burton production design in almost every single scene! As well, the short may be one of the brightest Burton productions there is, with Hansel and Gretel dressed in blue and pink shades. This coloration makes them stand out in the normal world, but when they get to the witch’s house, they seem to blend right in…while the witch’s dark black robes pop out at you, almost as a sign that something is amiss.
The witch’s pointy-hatted attire, and pasty face, immediately put me in mind of the Mayor in Nightmare Before Christmas, and Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Even the rather cloying mannerisms of the witch seemed a little familiar, almost like how Burton and Depp worked to make their Wonka like an off-kilter kids-show host.
Burton’s stylings also seem to work well when things go from charming, to creepy. I’m sure some kids were terrified when those candy-striped hands popped out of the marshmallow beds, and enfolded the two screaming children…not to mention how their bed frames look like teeth with big eyes on the edges.
This short shows one of the first times Burton directed live-action, and one can see that the staging is not particularly strong at times. Then again, that could be where the charm of this bizarre short comes from, in that it feels like something you would have seen on Saturday mornings long ago.
Even the music has an air of simpler times, sounding more like a music box, putting me in mind of the melancholy and calming sounds heard from Mr Roger’s Neighborhood.
Acting-wise, Michael Yama seems to have the more fun role, playing the dual parts of the Stepmother, and the Witch. Most of Burton’s work usually has a character that seems larger-than-life (like Beetlejuice, or the Joker), to play off the more ordinary persons, in this case Hansel, Gretel, and their father. These three are the more soft-spoken, and seem moreso to be there to show that the innocent and simple-minded will triumph over the wicked and mean-spirited.
Of interest is that it’s never said exactly what becomes of the Stepmother. One could assume that maybe she was the Witch, but like a number of plotpoints in the short, it’s never resolved. The story seems to exist in its own realm, wherein while certain things seem modern, others seem old-fashioned (almost like the way Edward Scissorhands, is a film that seems entrenched in old monster movies, 1950’s suburbia, and the modern day).
There are some fun little wordplays that spell caution if you listen, notably when in one scene, the witch mentions how ‘everything’ in her house is edible, along with calling the children “cutlets.”
For this short, writing chores were given to Julie Hickson, who was said to be Tim Burton’s girlfriend at the time. She also served as the writer on his short Frankenweenie, and had a small hand in the treatment for Burton’s first Batman film.
Looking online, there are a few areas that have been fascinated by this lost Burton short. One of the most intriguing things was this post at a blog titled Unpopped , that has pictures from a Japanese Tim Burton Tumbler fansite, that has several black-and-white, behind the scenes pictures of the production. One that shows detail lost due to the video tape copies, is the detail in the floor you can see on the right. Those whorl patterns in the forest floor set are all but lost when one views the video of these scenes.
It should be noted that the posted short online is incomplete. Before it started, Vincent Price appeared in a pre-show, to introduce the story. The only thing I could find in regards to this appearance, was the following picture, with the puppet Hansel and Gretel’s father made, perched over his shoulder:
Prior to the posting of this special on Youtube, the only place one could have seen it, was as part of the Tim Burton exhibition put on at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The exhibit also appeared in Los Angeles in 2013, but as of now, there’s been no word if it’s still out there, touring in the US or other parts of the world. If you do happen across the exhibit, the short can been seen in its entirety, along with the Vincent Price opening. And if anyone knows if the exhibit is coming to the American Midwest anytime soon, please let me know.
During his early days working as a Disney animator, Burton often said that much of what he did creatively seemed odd to the management staff. Some said his less-traditional character stylings on The Black Cauldron would have been amazing to see, and some of his first preliminary work on The Nightmare Before Christmas dates back to that time. Eventually, Burton struck out into the world of live-action filmmaking, and the quiet animator with the quirky drawings has become a name almost everyone knows now. And with this short posted to Youtube, it serves as another little insight into his early creative roots.
“I’ve never been able to predict or think what an audience would like to see. I’ve always felt: how can anybody else want to see it if I don’t want to? And if I want to see it, and nobody else wants to, then at least I get to see it. So, there’s one person who’ll enjoy it” – Tim Burton, from Burton on Burton