Tag Archive | Walt Disney Studios

Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

‘Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images

Of all the animated features that were released during my youth, Beauty and the Beast is one of those that is at the top, when it comes to animated features that made me consider pursuing a career in animation.

I was enthralled by Glen Keane’s designs for the Beast, the wonderful songs and lyrics of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and a story that delivered on a satisfyingly emotional level, that I hadn’t yet encountered in animated films at that time.

Of course, when it comes to turning animated features into live-action movies, I approached the studio’s recent take on Beauty and the Beast with some trepidation. I had been intrigued by what Kenneth Branagh brought to Cinderella in 2015, but felt little need to see Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book adaptation last year.

Of course, being the glutton for punishment that I am, I bought the ticket, and decided to ride the ride, to see what a live-action version of this “tale as old as time” had in store for audiences.

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In the small provincial town of Villeneuve, resides Belle (Emma Watson), and her artistically-inclined father, Maurice (Kevin Kline). Of those living in the village, Belle is seen as an anomaly amongst the townspeople, though entrances a former army captain named Gaston (Luke Evans), who wishes to make her his wife.

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The Beast (Dan Stevens)

One day on a trip, Maurice stumbles upon a snow-shrouded castle, and plucks a rose for his daughter, enraging the castle’s Beastly owner (Dan Stevens). Belle willingly trades her life for her father’s, and soon meets the castle’s enchanted servants (played by Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson, and many more), who hope she can break the spell they are under.

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From the early word and trailer imagery, Disney made few attempts to hide that they were attempting to translate the 1991 film (and some of it’s successful Broadway stage adaptation) to the big-screen.

The live-action film doesn’t stray far from it’s roots, and like any adaptation these days, attempts to fill in the blanks, and embellish the story we know so well.

Did you ever wonder just where Belle and Maurice came from? How about what led the Beast to be such a pompous jerk in the first place? We get those answers here, as well as some vague motivations surrounding the Enchantress who cursed the Beast and his servants.

Composer Alan Menken returns to the world he helped create, but has brought on Tim Rice (whom he worked with on Aladdin), to make a few alterations to the film’s music. Some lines are changed from previous works, and a few songs add in bits from the original demo tracks of the animated feature (which were co-written by Menken’s former collaborator, the late Howard Ashman). The Beast even get his own solo (much like in the Broadway production), but none of the newer musical pieces seemed to enthrall me. We even get Celine Dion back, singing a song at the end, that feels more like an afterthought.

When it comes to behind-the-scenes names, Director Bill Condon should be familiar to many when it comes to musicals-on-film. He wrote the adapted screenplay for Chicago, and directed the film adaptation of Dreamgirls back in 2006.

One would assume his pedigree with adapted musicals would be a slam-dunk for this production. Unfortunately, BatB seems to suffer from some ‘speed issues’ when it comes to holding it all together.

I haven’t seen enough of Condon’s filmography to pass proper judgement, but with this film, he really seems to step on the gas-pedal, when the film has to shift into it’s musical numbers, or require a lot of visual effects. Some of the numbers fly by so fast, I was struggling to figure out where my eye was supposed to be focused on (this was most problematic during the Be Our Guest number, which felt like he was trying to ape Baz Luhrmann’s manic Moulin Rouge numbers).

It isn’t until the halfway mark, that the film seems to finally catch it’s breath. In those moments, Condon shows that when he slows down, he can really get to work on making us focus on the characters and their development.

Deep down, I feel that if the film had been more like 2015’s Cinderella, and been less of an adaptation of the animated feature, it would have been more palatable, and stronger in it’s emotional resonance.

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Belle (Emma Watson)

The ‘palette’ of the film, seems to derive itself from 19th century French landscapes. I will admit during the early bits in the village, as we see the landscape surrounding it, I found myself making note of the soft color palette of the backgrounds, almost as if the filmmakers were attempting to make it look like the characters had stepped into a painting.

The film also attempts to pay some small homages to it’s roots. The village is named after the original author of the tale, and, Maurice attempts to bring Belle a rose from the Beast’s garden, which was part of the original story.

However, much  like the story here, the characters can be rather give-and-take as well.

Sadly, Emma Watson did not enthrall me with her singing voice, but she can deliver in certain moments when it comes to emotions. There is an added character point, that Belle is a forward-thinking young woman in the eyes of her rather mundane village, but it just feels like an afterthought as the story goes on.

Dan Stevens as the Beast, has the task of working through motion-capture, that works ‘most’ of the time. The live-action Beast is a bit like the early concept of a ‘man with a beast head,’ rather than the more animalistic creation of master animator Glen Keane. The concept works some of the time, but mostly in the quieter moments.

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Gaston (Luke Evans), and LeFou (Josh Gad)

Luke Evans’ take on Gaston is different from the muscle-bound lothario we all know. A war veteran who seems to satiate his lust for war by hunting, this take on the character is a bit less hunky, and more mental in several of his decisions…though not by much.

One of the highlights of the film regarding comedy, is Josh Gad as LeFou. Every other word out of his mouth just made me and the audience chuckle, and unlike his animated counterpart, he’s given a bit of character growth. I have a feeling many will find Gad just as entertaining here, as he was as Olaf in Frozen.

When it comes to the enchanted objects of the castle, I was hoping they would enthrall me as much as their animated counterparts did, but that was not the case here.

There are no cartoonish features, or large white eyes to draw one’s attention. Instead, the designers try to take an object’s parts and decoration, and make them into faces (or in the case of Lumiere, just make a miniature man holding candles, with another atop his head!). This may look good in close-ups or when a character is being still, but once they start moving around, I found it maddening, trying to keep track of where an eye or a nose is!

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Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), and Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci)

A prime example, is Maestro Cadenza, who has been turned into a harpsichord (and played by Stanley Tucci). His keys and music stand are meant to stand in for his mouth and facial features, but I found myself struggling to figure out where his eyes were, let alone his nose and moustache when the camera focused on him ‘talking.’

There is a sliver of an attempt to give the enchanted objects a bit more characterization, but many of the group scenes feel rather poorly staged, and some that involve dozens of other CG-created objects moving about, feel too busy with motion, for us to figure on where to focus our attention.

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Almost 25 years ago, at a swap meet in San Diego, CA, I picked up a book that would change my life forever: The Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Beauty and the Beast.

The book has been a part of my life since then, and has been in the hands of (and signed by!) several persons associated with the animated Beauty and the Beast.

At the end of the book, the final pages tell how the next generation of Disney animators (in 1991), screened the film for their predecessors (several of whom had worked with Walt Disney himself). After the screening, instead of high praise, word was the new generation was met with: “Eh, it’s kind of like what we did.”

That line was in my head tonight. As the film went on, a number of names I had memorized from that making-of book, popped into my head. Looking at some scenes, I was thinking things like, “Glen Keane did that better,” or “Nik Ranieri made that characterization read so much clearer!”

The film definitely doesn’t skimp on the effort, but it sadly feels like another adapted production, that could have been much more solid, had it not been tied so closely to it’s animated counterpart.

The film seems to try and fly by moreso with it’s visuals and putting Emma Watson front-and-center, when what it needed more of in my opinion, was a story that could be just as emotionally involving today, as the animated feature was to me and millions of others, once upon a time.

Final Grade: B-

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Book Review: Star and Marco’s Guide to Mastering Every Dimension

When I was younger,the way in which books were connected to visual media, was definitely different.

Some shows like The Care BearsTransformers, and even Sesame Street, would often have books released, that would feature original story ideas, or stories taken from a television series, and condensed down into book form.

However, in this day-and-age, many companies in the entertainment business, have advanced well beyond this simplicity, and we’ve seen print media tie-ins, take on a whole new life of their own.

Want to know more about the story behind the latest Transformers movie? There’s probably a prequel comic mini-series, to explain where some of the new characters came from.

Just how did The First Order and The Resistance come to be the new Empire and Rebellion of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? There’s several hardcover novels to fill in those blanks.

Of course, there are also other methods of reaching out to the viewers of a series, via the printed page.

DisneyXD’s series Gravity Falls, is one such example. The last couple years have seen book tie-ins for Falls, including a ‘choose your own adventure’ storybook, and a real-world representation of the show’s third journal, that Dipper Pines carried around with him through both seasons of the show!

When it comes to the DisneyXD series Star vs the Forces of Evil, we’ve had some of the episodes collected into Cinestory comic books, and seen the expansion of the show, through the currently-running, 8-part original comic series, by Joe Books.

Though in regards to a tie-in that aims to have some fun with it’s fans, that seems to be what has been created, with Star and Marco’s Guide to Mastering Every Dimension.

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The book is structured in a scrapbook-style format, with Star Butterfly being the main commentator, along with some additional  information from her best friends Marco Diaz, and Flying Princess Pony Head.

The concept is that one day, out of sheer boredom, the three decide to put together the book, to chronicle a number of things in regards to the show’s multiverse, as well as what Star has learned while living on Earth.

Each character uses their own pen for writing, with their own specific ink color (though how Pony Head can write so well without hands, is left to our imagination!).

I will admit that in some later chapters of the book, I got a little confused, when Star Butterfly would take over writing but use rainbow-colored inks, which made me wonder if maybe Marco was contributing to the items. Maybe this was the writers trying to make the book as wacky and wild as the show, but I can’t say for certain.

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Example of Star Butterfly, Marco Diaz, and Princess Pony Head’s writing within the book.

For those who are fans of the show, you’ll find plenty of additional information about certain dimensions, and…the last names and distinctions of several characters. This to me, is where most of the fun in the book lies, as a few doors are thrown open with this additional information.

We also get our trio of writers, interviewing their friends (and friend-enemies?), to get their advice on a few things, as well as some commentary on how they feel about some people they know.

Like the title says, we also get to learn more about  various dimensions, including just where Star’s ex-boyfriend Tom, and Pony Head reside. Personally, I had hoped maybe we’d get some more dimensions than most of what we’ve seen, but at least we get an identification for a few dimensions that had no names in the television series.

Also of note, is additional information on Pony Head’s family tree (she is one of 13 sisters!), as well as more information about The Grandma Room, glimpsed briefly in the Season 2 segment, Into the Wand. There’s definitely some revelations to be had, but probably not enough to totally blow the doors off our curiosity (minor spoiler: we’re still no closer to knowing more about Queen Eclipsa!).

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One of several tapestries shown in the guide, that gives information on past Queens of Mewni.

One section I was really eager to get through, was one that delved into some pages of Star’s magic instruction book, with notes by Glossaryck of Terms.

Unfortunately, my hopes to finally understand the ancient language we’ve seen in the book, failed to yield anything concrete.

However, we get a small understanding regarding spells, how some can be altered, and how Star comes up with several of the ones she recites in the series.

I will admit that when it comes to the writing, I found the style of characterization for Pony Head, to be a bit too contrasted from her Season 2 role.

Sure, she’s been somewhat abrasive in Season 2, but it feels like the writers of the show toned her down (we’ve even seen that Marco after awhile, is better able to put up with her!). The writers try to create some back-and-forth banter with Pony Head claiming she is Star’s ‘bestie,’ but it just feel a little ‘flat’ to me.

There are also some activity pages, including a cut-out diagram to design your own pair of dimensional scissors, and a page to draw what dimension the reader wold like to visit.

A tri-fold poster is also included in the back of the book. One side of it has the opening character shot from the second season’s intro, AND, if you flip it over, you get a map of the Kingdom of Mewni!

And, for those with wicked culinary skills, there is a recipe for how to make “Marco’s Super Awesome Nachos!” I’m not much good in the kitchen, but I have considered trying to follow Marco’s recipe and see if I can pull this off.

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A portion of the map of the Kingdom of Mewni, that is contained in the book!

This book was originally set to be released in early January, but was pushed back by two months.

Going over it’s contents, I could see why it happened. Several chapters actually acknowledge some episodes and storylines, that hadn’t been released yet (maybe the ‘Starbomb’ of episodes in February, was a way to get them all out before the book release?). Plus, I believe the writers have included a few small tidbits, about what happened after the conclusion of Season 2 (sorry folks, no spoilers!).

What I’ve really enjoyed about some of the expanded universe material for Star vs the Forces of Evil, is that almost all original,  ancillary story materials, has had involvement by people who have also worked on the show! I really like that kind of dynamic, and it makes me pretty sure that those working on these materials, have a good idea of the show’s continuity, as well as how certain things are to be portrayed.

It should also be noted, that a few of the listed persons who worked on this book, also had illustration duties on the Svtfoe comic series that is currently out!

Overall, Star and Marco’s Guide to Mastering Every Dimension, is a fun book that has been made by the show’s crew, for the fans, as well as any who are weird or crazy enough to pick it up, and want to find out more a bout this show! Definitely recommended reading material for all fans of the series.

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Movie Review: Rogue One – A Star Wars Story

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

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Those were some of the first words, that introduced millions of people to George Lucas’ Star Wars universe. While they offered a small backstory as to this ongoing war raging across the galaxy, there were some over the years who wondered, if they could be expanded upon.

That’s what The Walt Disney Company and Lucasfilm Ltd have done with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Set between the events of Episodes III & IV, we follow that small group of “rebel spies,” and find out how they got those secret plans, into the hands of Princess Leia Organa.

The team consists of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and Bohdi Rook (Riz Ahmed).

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Jyn Erso (Felicia Day) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), walk through the Rebellion’s secret base.

Jyn and Cassian are our main leads in this story, with both having had their fair share of troubles, thanks to the machinations of the Empire. However, it largely feels like we’re supposed to care about them, because they’re the main characters. Most of the time, it feels like they’re simply the driving force in the story, to propel us from one location, to another.

When it comes to director Gareth Edwards, I will admit that I am not a huge fan of his work. Having seen his films Monsters and Godzilla (2014), I can’t help but feel he likes to focus more on the atmosphere and supporting characters, that revolve around his main ones.

Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang’s tag-team of Chirrut and Baze, was a bit of yin-yang characterization that held my attention when they were on-screen. While Chirrut seems to be strongly willing to believe in the power of the Force, Baze relies on his wits and weaponry.

Two other characters that I think will also stick in most people’s minds, are pilot Bodhi Rook, and K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid.

Bodhi is almost like our ‘Finn’ of the piece, and it seemed whenever he was on-screen, I was very much enamored with what he was doing. It feels like out of all the supporting characters, he gets the most development.

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K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) takes the controls.

Much like BB-8, K-2SO proves to be another entertaining droid for people to smile about. The filmmakers manage to find the sweet-spot between making him both informative and humorous, and it was one of the droid’s first lines, that made many in the audience give some of their first applause of the evening.

Also on hand as a new face in the Empire’s cadre of suited figures, is Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). This (previously unseen) mastermind behind the Death Star’s construction, almost seems written in, to give us a taste of how credit and bureaucracy, often don’t see eye-to-eye.

The Force Awakens last year, definitely touched off plenty of similarities to the films we remembered from our past. Rogue One does some of the same, but moreso feels like a less-pandering  extension of those worlds we were first introduced to. We get plenty of new set-pieces, and some familiar ones, expanding on our past knowledge. Plus, for those of you that are die-hard fans of George Lucas, it appears that there’s a subtle reference to another of his early works.

Of course, the time-frame of the film, also gives us a chance for a few cameos. These can often bounce around from good, to bad (though I will admit there were a couple that made my face light up like a Christmas tree!).

Composer Michael Giacchino fills our ears with a score that sounds like a ‘distant cousin’ to the works of John Williams. While a few familiar musical strains are heard, he is able to walk into the universe, and add his own inspired touch to a number of scenes.

Some of the battle sequences, also feel like they are a bit ‘scattershot’ in the way they are put together. While I like a good action sequence in a Star Wars film as much as the next person, it felt like they carry on too long in certain places. This almost made me pine for the tighter editing of battle scenes in some past films. Say what you will about the prequels, but it felt like even the act of juggling multiple scenes at the end of The Phantom Menace was handled better.

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Work is almost complete on the Death Star.

That isn’t to say Rogue One is a bad film. I walked into it just like I did Episode VII last year, asking only that it entertain me, and it did just that.

Like any film that attempts to rewrite something we’re already familiar with, there are certain elements that are embellished and expanded upon. Given the way the series’ fandom functions, it will be entertaining to see if some of the ret-conned items, end up becoming as ‘scandalous’ as some of the items that Lucas wrote about in the prequels.

The film proves that Star Wars can build an expanded universe on film, and should probably give plenty out there hope, for additional Star Wars Stories in the coming years.

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Final Grade: B+ (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” is the first attempt to expand the film universe of the world’s most famous space saga beyond it’s typical ‘episodes,’ and succeeds in being an entertaining prequel to the events of “A New Hope.” While our main cast of characters doesn’t prove as overall satisfying as the ragtag band of rogues in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” there’s still enough here that should please “Star Wars” fans, both old and new.)

Movie Review: Moana (with short: Inner Workings)

 

(Rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements)

 

Earlier this year, Walt Disney Feature Animation surprised many of us, with its Spring release of Zootopia. The story and visuals, showed that the company’s animation division was continuing to “keep moving forward,” honoring the studio’s artistic legacy.

This year is also the first since 2002, that the studio has released two animated features from its Feature Animation division in the same year.

My anticipation for the fall release of Moana was high, given its main directors are John Musker, and Ron Clements. The two have directed over 7 animated features together over the last 30 years, including The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. And now, 7 years after The Princess and the Frog, they have returned, with Moana.

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On the island of Motunui, resides Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of the village Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), and his wife Sina (Nicole Scherzinger). Though her parents try to make her see that their island has plenty to offer, the young girl can’t help but wonder what lies beyond it’s familiar shores.

As Moana grows up, hardships begin to affect the island’s people , and she decides to make a daring attempt to save them. Leaving home, she sets out to find the ancient demigod named Maui, who may be their only hope.

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From the very start, Moana quickly reminded me of several other Disney animated films, but soon began to head down its own path.

Though many media and marketing materials claim Moana to be a Princess, she’s simply just the daughter of the island’s chief, and as such, certain royal titles are never brought up (well, only in a few jokes in the film). Not actually having a ‘title,’ actually helped make Moana more of an ordinary girl to me, though one who has a secret or two that makes her a little…extraordinary.

Moana has a spunkiness about her that may remind some of Rapunzel, or Anna (from Frozen). Of course, where she shines most, is in her determination as she takes on a journey that most would probably caution against.

We do get a bit of animosity between her and her father, Chief Tui, who keeps trying to keep his daughter focused on leading the islanders. Tui also shows a stubborness to break free of the old ways, which leads to a small bit of friction with his daughter.

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Gramma Tala (Rachel House) has a few words with Moana (Auli’i Cravalho)

The film may also be one of the first, in which we really see less of a connection with the lead’s parents, and moreso with a grandparent. Moana seems to get along well with Gramma Tala (Rachel House), who for being considered the village’s ‘crazy lady,’ still has a few life lessons to instill, and a few secrets to be told (to those who will listen).

Of course, one of the biggest selling points for the film, has been Dwayne Johnson (aka ‘The Rock’), playing the demigod, Maui. The way he’s portrayed, Maui comes across almost like a former rockstar, with a bit of an ego problem.

A small staff of hand-drawn animators also inject some humor into Maui, as they bring several of his many tattoos to life (with one acting almost like Maui’s conscience at times).

And then, there’s the music.

Broadway sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda has teamed up with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, to produce a a soundtrack that manages to keep one foot in the Polynesian world, and the other foot amid the likes of Broadway musicians Howard Ashman, and Alan Menken.

Tracks like We Know the Way, give us a taste of the culture the film hails from, while Maui’s song You’re Welcome, almost sounds like a combination of the songs Friend Like Me, and Gaston.

For me, one of the most enjoyable songs, is sung by Jermaine Clement, who sounds like he’s channeling David Bowie, and Ursula from The Little Mermaid (trust me, it works!).

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Maui (Dwayne Johnson) encounters Mowana (Auli’i Cravalho)

And as we’ve come to expect, the talented artisans at the studios in Burbank, craft a world so believable, you’ll want to get your feet wet on the shores of Montunui, or explore more of the eerie Realm of Monsters. The film also manages to do for water, what Frozen did for ice. One can only imagine how many sleepless nights were had, to make the ocean waters appear as believable (and unbelievable!) as they do.

One of the biggest hurdles I had while watching the film, was that some of the action sequences felt like a massive blur of color and motion. One scene I was really looking forward to, sadly seemed to barely give me much of a chance to really get a handle on what was going on.

There’s also a few modern-day references that didn’t work for me (and for most of the audience, judging by the silence), but overall, Moana proved to be one of the first Walt Disney Feature Animation releases since Wreck-it-Ralph, that seemed to really engage me on an emotional level. I feel that if it could entrance me as well as it did, it will surely do the same for you.

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Animated Short Review: Inner Workings (Rated G)

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Lungs, heart, and stomach start off a brand new day.

After Zootopia was released earlier this year without an animated short in front of it, I was afraid that Disney had abandoned the idea completely. Fortunately, Inner Workings proves that the tradition is still alive.

Taking its cue from textbooks that diagram the inner parts of the human body, the short functions almost like Inside Out, except with internal organs. The two main ones, are a man’s brain, and his heart. One wants to be sensible, while the other wants to be more spontaneous.

Director Leonardo Matsuda has some fun with the concept, giving identities to the organs, let alone exaggerating the world around our main character. The world outside of the man’s workplace, is full of curves, while he and his co-workers, are in a confined ‘square space.’

It’s a fun concept that Matsuda plays with, though I couldn’t help but feel that the short Paperman from a few years ago, really did a more entertaining job with its message of ‘follow your heart.’ Then again, maybe the short could just be telling us introverts, that sometimes, it can be okay to break out of our shells, and throw caution to the wind.

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Final Grade for “Moana”: B+ (Final Thoughts: This “Princess” film that isn’t, proves to be a pleasant and entertaining surprise. Moana’s journey leads her on a tale of self-discovery, in which the past and present collide, as she looks towards the future. Dwayne Johnson as Maui, adds some fun with his supporting role, and the music helps bring something new to the studio’s filmography. Some jokes don’t work so well, and a few action scenes come off as muddled, but the emotional resonance of the film helps keep it on course.)

Final Grade for “Inner Workings”: B (Final Thoughts: This animated short from the “Walt Disney Studios” shows that the studio is willing to experiment with new shorts and ideas. However, even with some wonderfully stylized characters and settings, the story feels rather average, as it attempts to encourage us to try something new.)

Movie Musings: Remembering ‘Chicken Little,’ 10 Years Later

In 1985, The Walt Disney Studios were poised to usher in a new era of filmmaking. The studio was pushing the next generation of Disney animators into more grown-up territory,, with the PG-rated feature film, The Black Cauldron, based on the second of five books in the Chronicles of Prydain series, by Lloyd Alexander.

However, instead of attracting an older crowd that was into the likes of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, the film crashed and burned upon release. To add insult to injury, the studios’ first PG-rated animated feature, was beaten at the 1985 box-office, by a G-rated animated feature: The Care Bears Movie!

Fortunately, the studio’s fortunes soon turned around after Cauldron. The Great Mouse Detective was released in 1986 to favorable reviews, and has been considered by some, to be the start of the studio’s animation Renaissance, that went on for almost 15 years.

Of course, the good times couldn’t last for long.

As animated features became more lucrative and successful than even during Walt Disney’s time, much of the studio’s upper management began to throw in their own ideas. Pretty soon, it wasn’t so much the people working in Feature Animation that were calling the shots, but men-in-suits…men-in-suits who had never animated a character, or tried to storyboard an emotional scene. All they had on their side, were fancy degrees, and facts and figures on how to run a business.

Pricey animated films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet fizzled at the box-office, and attention began to turn to other studios that were raking in the cash.

Box-office grosses from the likes of Dreamworks’ Shrek and Blue Sky Studios’ Ice Age films, were in the eyes of “the suits” in Burbank, California…and that meant some changes were in store for the studio.

And so, it was soon declared by the higher-ups, that hand-drawn (aka “2-D”) animation…was dead! According to them, the public was tired of 2-D, and 3-D was the future…and the company had to ‘modernize.’

And so, studios the company owned in Paris, France, and Orlando, Florida, were shut down. After completion on films like Brother Bear and Home on the Range, a large number of hand-drawn animators were shown the door…with a select few kept on board, that could then turn their skills to the computer-generated frontier.

To those of us in-the-know, the hand-drawn legacy went out with a whimper, when the animated feature Home on the Range came out in the Spring of 2004…with a measly $13 million opening weekend, and quickly sank from sight.

Of course, the executives at The Mouse House were already on board their own ship, charting a course to big-time profits. We’ll just slap the Disney name on a 3D animated feature, and the cash will flow in, must have been the first thing on their minds.

But where to begin? Animating humans in the computer would not be easy, so why not go with animals? And, how about a familiar story that everyone knows…or at least, they think they know.

And so, the fable of Chicken Little was modernized, and would become the studios’ first step into playing the 21st century game that Dreamworks, and Blue Sky Studios, and PIXAR were already involved in.

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As the story begins, Chicken Little throws his hometown of Pokey Oaks into a panic, when he claims a piece of the sky “shaped like a stop-sign,” hit him on the head. His father, Buck Cluck, assumes it to be an acorn, and Chicken Little is ridiculed and ostracized by the town following the events.

His best friends Runt of the Litter, Abbey “Ugly Duckling” Mallard, and Fish Out of Water, still believe in him, but Chicken Little finds himself trying to prove himself to the rest of the town, as well as win back the lost respect of his father…until, the sky falls, again!

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Once upon a time, Disney was the leader of animated features. 95% of the Hollywood studios, when making an animated film, would never make a move outside-the-box, but just look at what Disney had done, and try to copy them. Prince and Princess stories? we can do that. A sidekick that cracks pop-culture shtick? check. A musical? double-check!

But when it came to Chicken Little, it was clearly obvious that the leader, had now become a (desperate) follower, thanks to management and executive oversight.

Watching the film, one can’t help but get a huge Shrek vibe from the entire thing: a story you think you know…but with a twist!

The biggest problem with the film I feel, is that it’s missing a heart. The entire thing is strung together on pop-culture references, and oftentimes, is a pretty mean-spirited production.

Every other character just seems to serve a small purpose, and it feels that meaningful character development, has been replaced by making everyone loud and obnoxious.

It’s true that we can find sympathy in a downtrodden character (like Dumbo), but the slings and arrows just never seem to let up for Chicken Little. It’s not just a select few, but the entire town that pretty much blames him after a year’s time, even to the point that a movie was made over the incident. In a way, Pokey Oaks almost feels like an entire town of bullies.

Chicken Little’s misfit friends serve to try and give him a cushion against what’s happening, but it never really feels like they ever move beyond being one-note. Runt freaks out so many times, I think you could make a drinking game out of it. Abbey keeps trying to be the logical friend most of the time, but it feels that once her purpose is done 3/4 of the way through the film, she just becomes as two-dimensional as Trinity in the Matrix sequels. There’s also Fish Out of Water, who just seems to be the weird kid that tags along, but oftentimes, seems to be off in his own little world.

Also hard to find much sympathy towards, is Buck Cluck, Chicken Little’s father. Disney goes back to the well with the widowed-parent cliche, but even so, Buck becomes a father-figure that makes you more upset that he is willing throw his son under the bus regarding the town’s ire. It also doesn’t help his character that in the aftermath of the sky-falling incident, he also seems to shun his own son, and be unwilling to listen to half of what he says most of the time.

The film tries to be snappy and quick, which is one of director Mark Dindal’s trademarks. The director of Cats Don’t Dance and The Emperor’s New Groove, Dindal was able to make entertaining and even likable characters out of such irascible characters like Darla Dimples, and Emperor Kuzco. However, in Chicken Little, there’s little charm to be found.

The film also utilizes a number of popular songs, to the point where during an alien invasion (yes, and you thought Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was the first film to be ruined by aliens), R.E.M.’s song End of the World as We Know It plays…as if some executive thought, “hey, this song played in Independence Day, that’s pop-cultural! This will get lots of laughs!”

Even the amount of pop-culture references made me cease laughing pretty quickly. Whether it be Runt of the Litter singing to showtunes constantly, or the animals watching Raiders of the Lost Ark in their local theater (yes, animated characters watching a live-action Harrison Ford film. That image above is not Photoshopped). I like to think pop-culture overload began around 1992, when everyone became entranced with Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin. After that, it seemed every film had them built into the story in some way. When used sparingly it can work fine, but when it never lets up, it grates on you (If any of you saw the dub of the Magic Roundabout animated feature into the Americanized Doogal, you witnessed something that out-pop-cultured even Chicken Little!).

The advertising campaign also toyed with its audience, tending to rely on mis-direction. The advertising was erratic, loud, and oftentimes, just seemed to rely on ‘cool-and-hip’ animation. They even touted such background characters as Morcupine Porcupine, who in the film, only garnered less than a minute of screentime.

The posters made for the advertising campaign, also showed little creativity, with bad puns galore. Most notable, is this image of Chicken Little sitting in an egg-chair, and wearing shades much like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in the Men in Black II poster. At least in the MIB films, we saw the egg-chairs referenced in the poster, but in this case, noone in the film sits in a cracked egg, or wears a suit like this.

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In the end, Chicken Little’s final US box-office grosses tallied up to $135 million, just a little shy of its $150 million production budget.

Even so, the studio was still planning to go forward with other, hip-and-edgy films. The next feature film A Day in The Life of Wilbur Robinson, was re-branded with the more hip title of Meet the Robinsons, and Chris Sanders (creator of Lilo & Stitch), was working on a production dubbed American Dog. There was even word that the company’s CEO Michael Eisner, wanted to take the earlier hand-drawn features made by the studio, and redo them, in CGI!

That all changed, once Disney kicked Eisner out, and Bob Iger became the company’s new CEO. Iger’s first order of business was to end the stalemate between Disney and PIXAR, and orchestrated a $7.4 billion acquisition deal, keeping the Emeryville studio on board.

PIXAR’s top brass John Lasseter, and Ed Catmull, soon came to take prominent positions within Feature Animation (a place Lasseter had worked for and been released from in the early 80’s), and began to clean house.

A number of projects were re-worked or scrapped (Robinsons was overhauled, and American Dog became Bolt, at which point Sanders left Disney for Dreamworks). The direct-to-video productions were scrapped, which also meant the end of sequels like Dumbo 2, and even a Chicken Little 2.

To this day, I still feel Chicken Little was the equivalent to The Black Cauldron: something that upper-management said would be good for the company, but had too many hands in the pot, to even make it boil to a proper conclusion. It just reeks of desperation, trying to be all things for all audiences, but its attempts to get your attention, just feel lackluster.

I can’t fully fault some of the animation done on the show, though. They tried their darnedest to get some squash-and-stretch into what would normally be rigid computer models…though there are a few times one can tell they may get a little carried away, trying to figure out how everything works. in one scene, Abbey Mallard’s face and mannerisms almost seem to move a little too much, to the point I thought I might get motion sickness.

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Of course, from this film, began the climb back to prominence. John Lasseter and Ed Catmull had some say in the upcoming Meet the Robinsons, and the story changes I feel, helped steer that film back into the realms of emotional storytelling, that I and many others had longed for.

From there, they continued climbing the ladder, their efforts continuing to improve from film-to-film. And though Lasseter did renege on the ‘2-D is dead’ campaign, the studio only put out two hand-drawn features: The Princess and the Frog, and 2011’s Winnie the Pooh. Sadly, while both had some good storytelling, they were at the mercy of bad titling (according to the analysis on Frog’s lower box-office take), or being put up against bigger films (seriously, what executive said “let’s release Winnie the Pooh on the same weekend as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2?”).

In the last 5 years, the studio has had a number of big successes, with Tangled, Frozen, and Big Hero 6. Next year, they’ll return to a world of anthropomorphic animals, with Zootopia, a buddy-cop movie in a world where animals of all shapes and sizes exist. I’m actually excited to see what they come up with character and concept-wise for the film, and hope it will continue to be a crowd-pleaser for audiences.

Movie Review: Cinderella ( with animated short, Frozen Fever )

When one says the words “Fairy Tales,” the name Walt Disney springs readily to mind for millions of people. Several generations have been touched by the animated adaptations of popular fairy tales from his studio, that have resulted in millions of merchandised items, let alone billions of dollars in retail sales.

2015 marks the first official foray of The Walt Disney Studios retelling fairy tales in live-action, with Cinderella hitting the big-screen. Of note, is that this isn’t some low-key film. With the likes of Kenneth Branagh directing, and Cate Blanchett playing Lady Tremaine, it didn’t seem like they were going to low-ball this film like some studios would.

The film begins by showing a happy life for young Ella (Eloise Webb), whose world is soon beset by tragedy, after her mother becomes ill. In her final moments, Ella’s mother (played by Hayley Atwell) tells her daughter to “have courage, and be kind,” which young Ella takes to heart.

Some time later, Ella (Lily James) is happy for her father (Ben Chaplin) when he remarries,  introducing the widowed Lady Tremaine and her two daughters into their house. However, when Ella’s father dies on one of his business trips, the family is soon beset by poverty.

Ella (Lily James) and Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett)

Ella (Lily James) and Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett)

It doesn’t take long before Tremaine and her daughters slowly begin to take advantage of Ella’s kind nature, quietly turning her into their housemaid. When one stepsister notes some ash and soot on her face, she mockingly calls Ella “Cinderella,” and the others soon call her nothing but this.

This film had been under my radar even since I first heard about it a few years ago. A few clips in the previews had me rolling my eyes, but once I saw the film, I was surprised how emotionally it hit me at times. It also helped that it seemed a tad more serious than what a standard PG-rated film could bring to the table (The PG rating is to films these days, what the G rating was back in my day).

I will admit, I didn’t know what to expect from a Branagh-directed Fairy Tale…but then again, he did impress me with what he was able to do with Thor back in 2011. Branagh definitely brings a sense of class to this tale, shooting it almost like he was directing a Shakespearean drama (which isn’t a bad thing). That ability to treat the material seriously definitely helps (at times).

Lily James brings a nice characterization to the role that may charm some, but irritate others. Instead of the animated film’s ‘a dream is a wish your heart makes,’ this film gives Cinderella a deeper resolve to stay true to her parent’s memory. Even in the face of adversity that would cause many anonymous persons to claim they’d put the stepmother and the stepsisters in their place, James’ Ella keeps pushing through. That to me is where the true beauty of her character lies: it’s not in a picture-perfect vision of beauty, but “who” she is, as opposed to “what.”

Cinderella (Lily James) tends to her chores

Ella (Lily James) tends to her chores

Cate Blanchett also does some understated acting in the role of Lady Tremaine. One positive, is that her actions have a little more grounding in the reality of the times. Though she is deplorable in several moments, the story manages to keep her in a grey area that not many retellings would ever consider.

The film does get a little silly when it gets to the animals, the stepsisters, and a few members of the royal staff, but it feels moreso like they are a minor distractions to keep the kids from nodding off. It almost put me in mind of the addition of Flit and Meeko to Pocahontas.  And just like those characters, you won’t find any of Ella’s animal friends talking (except in their own ‘animal speak’).

Probably one great addition, is that the Prince (Richard Madden) is given more time to be a character, though he also has the added urgency of trying to become his own man, as his father the King (Derek Jacobi) wishes him to take the throne soon.

Ella (Lily James) and her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter)

Ella (Lily James) and her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter)

The film even gets its own “Jack Sparrow,” in the form of Helena Bonham Carter’s brief appearance as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. From her scatter-brained demeanor, to her bulging pupils lined with eye-shadow, one can’t help but feel she’s channeling Johnny Depp in a big way here.

Branagh also works once again with composer Patrick Doyle, who brings a wonderful regality and simplicity to the film’s score. He doesn’t recycle the animated film’s music in the overall film, but he does create a nice little theme for Ella, that stayed with me even after leaving the theater.

A couple downsides to the film, were that several moments that should be more emotional, just didn’t quite connect. I can take some syrupy stuff, but I will admit, the opening ‘happy family’ montage did feel like it got a bit too sappy for me. As well, the final third feels like they were rushing to layer in some last-minute story points, let-alone tie up the loose ends that were still dangling. Some may also notice some uneven editing, such as in a rather abrupt ‘smash cut’ near the end of the film’s second act.

Cinderella is definitely not the same as the Disney animated film we’ve almost all known since our youth, and for that, I greatly applaud the filmmaker’s efforts for not giving us a tired rehash. Instead, it’s a grand attempt to make the story a little larger, adding some more layers to a somewhat black-and-white story that generations have known for a long time, only from the animated film.

It’s already been confirmed that the studio will be giving us a live-action Beauty and the Beast adaptation next year. Much like how Iron Man ushered in a new era of superhero films, Cinderella feels like it could be the start of a new chapter in the studio’s live-action division. So far, the only live-action films they’ve made that have met with major success, start with the words, Pirates of the Caribbean.

On a personal note, I think if you enjoy this film, you might also find the story The Ordinary Princess, by MM Kaye, to be quite entertaining. I was surprised how several story points in Cinderella, reminded me of those in that story.

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“…Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the theaters…”

If you weren’t planning to see Cinderella, chances are you will be seeing it if your children or young relations beg to see it, so they can see the animated short Frozen Fever that plays before the start of the film.

Taking place on Anna’s birthday, Elsa wants to make this a great event for her sister, as it is the first birthday the two will have been together for in a long time! And besides, it’s just a birthday party…what could possibly go wrong?

Frozen Fever follows the same type of epilogue storytelling as Tangled Ever After, returning us to a Kingdom where familiar faces abound…let alone little easter eggs for those who can find them.

Fever won’t bring world peace, but I think for many, it will have a few scenes that will delight (and one that I could imagine several theaters breaking out in applause to!).

Luckily for the adults, a certain song does not rear its head, and instead, we get a new one sung by both Anna and Elsa, and written by Robert & Kristen-Anderson Lopez. It almost sounds like they borrowed a little of the melody from their demo piece Life’s Too Short from their work on Frozen, but as it goes along, it becomes its own little thing (and much like Let It Go, I did wonder afterwards, how soon I could buy the single!).

The downside to the short, is that I could easily imagine kids getting restless after it is over, and demanding to their parents that they wanted to see more Frozen instead of Cinderella. As well, there’s a few new additions that are sure to make them want to hit the nearest Disney Store afterwards.

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FINAL GRADE

Cinderella – B (Final thoughts: care and effort was put into making this production something new, but it gets a little muddled at times in its editing, and final act. Some humorous moments may also seem a little hammy)

Frozen Fever – B (Final thoughts: a nice little return to the Kingdom of Arendelle, though some may find fault in that it’s more of a taste than a meal regarding these animated characters)

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)