New Maleficent Trailer

I was not excited to hear that there would be a movie featuring Maleficent following the release of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.  While I enjoyed Burton’s artistry, I thought the story was weak and screenwriter Linda Woolverton had been tapped to write the script for the new picture with a first time director known only for his contributions to special effects.  To be fair, I already had a bias.  I dislike stories that attempt to tell a well known tale from a reverse angle.  Sometimes it’s interesting to see the tragedy of where someone goes wrong.  Harvey Dent is one example, Anakin Skywalker, is another, or virtually anyone from the series Heroes, depending on what part of which season.

At worst it would be a telling the villains side of the story, a gimmick that I never enjoyed.  Villains with worthwhile stories often have thim incorporated into the traditional narrative.  providing a counter argument for a melodrama is not something I am really interested in.  At best however, it could be something like the ironic and witty Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.  The addition of Paul Dini as a writer, certainly provides a glimmer of hope.  He has done great work with DC and Marvel.  His episodes of Batman the Animated Series are among my favorites.  his involvement could mean a very worthwhile story after all, especially considering his penchant for writing female villains.

While I appreciate his involvement there is one thing I always expected from Maleficent, given the visuals of Burton’s Wonderland, and the breathtaking imagery of Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful.  Surely, the appearance and feel of this new look at the world of Sleeping Beauty– already rich with unique visual appeal in Disney’s original animated version– would be moody and evocative and striking in it’s depiction of such fantastic scenery.  I expected this until I saw the teaser trailer, which seems to be the least inspired of Disney’s recent live action fairy tale adventures.  It also features Aurora (presumably) far more than is suitable in my opinion.  While it sheds little light on how these two characters will fit together in the narrative, the teaser shows much of the world the movie is set in and my initial interpretation is generic fantasy: light on personal artistic flair and heavy on the well worn territory of other fantasies like Snow White and the Huntsman and Jack the Giant Slayer.  The only exception being that possibly due to incomplete rendering, certain animated elements look very fake and will hopefully be made to fit in more with the rest of the picture.  On a positive note, I did dig the Disney title in the beginning of the trailer.  I will continue to keep an open mind as the release date draws near, but so far I don’t like what I see.

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Review: Mickey’s Christmas Carol (Blu-ray)

Mickey’s Christmas Carol is soon to be available as a 30th anniversary Disney Blu_ray and it is so much fun.  I adore the song that plays during the credits.  To me, it is a perfect representation of Christmas that takes me back to my childhood, when I watched this beloved adaptation of Dickens’ classic.  It is short, and therefore lacks the depth of the original story that is more adequately explored in other great versions, but it cuts to the heart of it in a way that is light entertainment fun for kids and just scary enough to be exciting, without any real danger of true fright.  I really enjoy the repurposing of classic characters, casting Jiminy as the ghost of Christmas Present, Mr. Toad as Fezziwig and so on.  That treatment of Disney’s repertoire of characters is what intrigued me most about Tale Spin, a Disney Afternoon series that breathed new life into the cast of A Jungle Book.  It gives Mickey’s Christmas Carol a familial glow that is sweet and funny and bound to be an instant tradition for the family.

The quick boil down of the well known story is the cheap, miserly Mr. Scrooge– mean, but not without humor– reluctantly grants Bob Cratchit (Mickey Mouse) half a day off for Christmas.  That Night, he is spooked by the ghost of his old partner Jacob Marley (Goofy) who warns him that three spirits will visit him before morning.  Scrooge is woken up by Jiminy Cricket who takes him to witness a Christmas party from his past, and the day he turned his back on love for his own greed.  He is next woken up by the Giant from Mickey and the Beanstalk who shows him Bob Cratchit’s family and suggests that the sickly child Tiny Tim will soon be gone.  Scrooge is hardly able to grasp the weight of this when he sees the weasels from The Wind and the Willows digging a grave that the Ghost of Christmas Future (Pete) reveals is his, before pushing him down screaming into a flaming pit.  Scrooge wakes up with a change of heart and makes Bob his partner.

It’s a brief, but fun romp with a bonus features line up of classic cartoons starring Donald, Goofy, Pluto, Chip and Dale, plus, a new Mickey cartoon starring Harold, the abominable snowman, that is in some inexplicable way reminiscent of a Phineas and Ferb type show.  The whole thing is great fun that runs just under an hour.  you can pre-order here for the holidays.

Review: Monsters University 3D

postermuWhen I think of Pixar, I think of some of the finest storytelling to ever grace a movie screen.  I think of the studio not as an animation studio, but as a movie studio that happens to practice animation.  The distinction for me is that the focus is more about the writing first, and as it turns out, these fantastic yarns are best illustrated by the abundant talents of the finest visual artists in the field wielding the best of the best of the best technology.

Pixar has always pushed the envelope in one way or another.  They have always dared to captivate adult audiences as well as children, arguably sometimes favoring the former.  They have pushed the boundaries of how much story a film can contain, how many subplots can be shuffled in between, and how fleshed out and human a character can be, even winning you over by the end after being so unlikeable.

The films of Pixar carry with them a high level of expectations to even the most aloof moviegoer and even ardent fans such as myself are quick to criticize when we feel that threshold has not been met.  Even with such a fearless, focused and dedicated staff of artists an element can sometimes go missing.  Cars 2 was a tremendous experiment in pushing the genre, making it more “spy movie” than “kids movie”, but it did not reach it’s potential to capture the many different settings in a way that would bring as much intrigue to the look of the film as there was in it’s plot.  Brave was the studio’s first foray into folklore, a decidedly more predictable and therefore less interesting form of storytelling without making some key break-throughs and turning points near the end of the script.  Wall-e For all of it’s visual glory and attempt at heart could not really seduce an audience into empathy and really just became an unintentional environmental tale.

If these films had more heart and dimension in their characters, more exciting and daring turns and more ambiance they would easily be among my favorites.  Monsters University is one that has the complete package.  It’s fun, it’s exciting, and while it’s stars already had one hit Pixar film, Monsters University stands alone as a great feature.

The movie is about Mike and Sully’s college days, before they became friends.  First off, I want to address how perfectly college life was depicted while remaining kid friendly.  You won’t see John Belushi chugging a bottle of Jack, but the parties and the cliques, the classroom lectures… well, it’s fun when you don’t have to do it.  The campus is amazing and the rendering really shows off some terrific lighting effects, giving it a very romantic visual appeal.  Don’t think it’s just about frat houses and old buildings, though.  Monsters University is an adventure that takes you to the unexpected.  Dean Hardscrabble is appropriately terrifying, and– true to Pixar tradition– defies the standard good guy bad guy dichotomy, appealing to the notion that however distasteful a character is, there is always potential to go the other way (and vice versa), just like real life people (go figure).

The heart of the story is Mike.  As a wide eyed kid on a field trip, he becomes enamored with the idea of becoming a scarer and devotes his life to that end, working exceptionally hard and finally enrolling in the school of scaring at MU.  Here is where Mike meets all kinds of challenges due to his disadvantage of not being Scary.  At one point he tells Sully he’s worked harder than anyone to get there to which Sully replies “That’s because you don’t belong here.”  Sully, a natural Beast, rides on his fathers name and fails to learn anything.  Of course these two have to work together and when they do, it’s tremendous.  Aside from that the supporting cast of characters are some of the finest and most enjoyable to watch.

Lots of hard work and long computer hours were put into the creation of this monster of a movie, think about all the fur and textures and the massive number of on screen characters at one time.  Think about the hues in the sky and the streetlights, the reflections and the shadows, all working together to create the perfect mood for each scene.  Monsters University didn’t make me cry, but it has it’s touching moments. It is unique, original, entertaining, provocative, cutting edge, state of the art… In short:  It’s a Pixar film.

Review: Oz The Great and Powerful

gi poster ozLast night, I had the immense pleasure of full immersion into the merry old land of Oz the way it’s never been seen before.  Revealed by the vision of the great and powerful Sam Raimi and his master tinkers, from opening curtains it was clear that this was going to be a dazzling display that succeeds in recapturing the magic of the moment original audiences must have felt when first watching The Wizard of Oz in 1939.  Nothing beats the fun and anticipation of a wll crafted title sequence to get you started on your journey, especially when your companion on that journey is Danny Elfman, who has and still does do some of his very best work with Raimi (Darkman, A Simple Plan, Spiderman).  The score is immediately recognizable to any Elfman fan as classic Danny in his prime.  Ad to that the stunning black and white photography and you are locked in for the ride.

Oz the Great and Powerful is every inch made for a Real 3D experience and delivers the most colossal spectacular any team of Hollywood magicians can offer.  It’s no wonder that the ever-changing scenery and many elaborate sets are to be drunken in slowly as the epic adventure of a carnival con man drags him the yellow brick road toward possible redemption.  Aside from the stunning spectacle of magnificent scenery and Sam Raimi’s keen vision and incomparable sense of balance between fresh innovation and familiarity with the classic, the big seller for this film is James francos impeccable depiction of Oz.  Franco does for the character what RDJ does for Tony Stark and what Johnny Depp did for Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean; only he handles the character with such finesse and discipline that he creates a more three-dimensional character than anyone is likely to have seen on the silver screen.  The complexity of the man has so obviously been thoroughly explored by Raimi and Franco that he becomes such a flesh and blood human it seems astounding that he could ever be a wizard.  Franco’s depiction of Oz is such that he ceases, as an actor, to be a medium to the character, and fully becomes him in a way that every look and every utterance comes from the heart and soul of Oz himself.

The amazing story of the redemption of Oz (both the land and the man) starts out in Kansas, where we find our trickster little more than a petty thief with some theatrical flair and a weakness for the ladies.  The black and white photography is some of the crispest most beautiful I have ever seen and Raimi’s first action sequence of the film is harrowing, desperate, comical and brilliant, as is the predictable, but no less illuminating first glorious glimpse of the land of Oz in full color, mirroring of course the moment of Dorothy’s arrival 73 years ago.  As a stranger in a strange land,  Oz struggles with the opportunity to start fresh and the irresistible urge to take advantage, especially when the chips are down, but before he is even fully aware of his predicament, the choices he makes upon his arrival begin to seal his destiny and shape the people he meets.

It’s an epic journey full of great humor and powerful imagery that marks a monumental technical and artistic achievement.  Danny Elfman’s score is so perfectly in tune with the production and a must have, especially for fans of his work on Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Peter Deming, Director of Photography, gets to play with every trick in his trunk and creates a seamless and believable atmosphere where fantasy knows no bounds.

The rest of the cast is terrific, but my favorite supporting performances come from Oz’s primary companions, played by Joey King and Zach Braff.  These characters lit up the screen and really played a part in Oz’s transformation as opposed to simply adding comic relief.

Oz the great and Powerful in Real 3D will envelope you in a world unlike any other, so real and so imaginary it is a sensation that is unique to cinema alone and yet only the highest of aims and the loftiest of dreams can harness it.  It provides sufficient enjoyment of these gifts yet never treads away from the story.  So you can ease on down the road with little urgency, but no less compulsion to move forward.  This is a great piece of art that introduces one of the greatest characters in cinema history to one of cinema’s oldest and most timeless worlds.

Blu-ray Review: Prep & Landing: Totally Tinsel Collection

Last year I reviewed Prep and Landing as it made its DVD and Blu-ray debut.  It was an incredible featurette that originally aired as a special on ABC.  I loved the show and was impressed with how detailed and thorough it was.  But it was essentially a short film at the price of a feature, which might give one pause.  Enter Prep and Landing Naughty Vs. Nice.  It’s a whole new adventure, just as good as the first one and they are now included in one Christmas package: the Totally Tinsel Collection.  Also included are short shorts Tiny’s Big Adventure, a so so bonus feature and Secret Santa, a fun Mission: Impossible style short that is every inch as good as the features.

Prep and Landing is a division of the North Pole operations that makes sure each house is prepped and secure before Santa’s arrival on Christmas Eve.  Wayne (Dave Foley) is finally up for a promotion when he is suddenly passed over by santa and teamed up with a rookie.  The imbittered elf must learn to rise above his pettiness and rediscover the magic of Christmas, before he ruins it for others.  In the next film, Naughty VS Nice, a new division is introduced and with it, a terrorist threat from a child who intends to be removed from the naughty list.  Wayne teams up with a field expert from the naughty division and old conflicts arise that must be resolved in order for christmas to be saved.  My favorite reindeer, Thrasher, also returns for a cameo in this one.

In addition to the two fine specials a fun reel of North Pole  commercials is included.  This is a set sure to become a holiday tradition.  Here’s hoping they keep ’em coming.

Movie Review: Wreck-It Ralph

Every once in a while, a movie comes out that is not only incredibly enjoyable to watch, but you have to think how fun it must have been to make.  That’s the way it was when I saw Wreck-It Ralph, the newest Disney film which really feels more like a Pixar production.  Directed by Rich Moore (Futurama, The Simpsons), Wreck-it Ralph is exemplary of what great Disney storytelling is all about.  The eye candy dazzles as this epic adventure sweeps you into the secret worlds of arcade video games on a misguided bad guy’s quest for glory that ultimately brings out the hero within.

Not enough praise can be given to this insightful and very funny film.  The world and its main characters are so entertaining and deliciously constructed that you can’t help but anticipate what is coming next.  Full of references to well known video games of the past and present and some clever new ideas folded into the mix, a potentially confusing concept is ingeniuosly laid out in a simple believable way as Wreck-it Ralph, voiced by John C. Reilly, leaves his own game and travels into others.  Each game has it’s own rules, as does the common space between them that the characters share–Game Central Station– and of course there is the way these games interact with the gamers in ther arcade;  But with all the jokes and the learn-as-you-go game rules, at its heart is a tremendous exploration of what truly makes a hero.  Most likely to be considered a sort of next generation Toy Story, Wreck it Ralph is not unlike Up in it’s epic marvels and storytelling prowess.

Sarah Silverman is perfectly cast as ragamuffin racer Vanellope.  Vanellope is a glitch in Sugar Rush, a Candyland inspired Racing game.  She adds some further grey to Ralph’s complex issues of right verses wrong.  King Candy is another delightfully performed character, voiced by Alan Tudyk.  The heroes, Calhoun (Jane Lynch) and Fix-it Felix (Jack McBrayer) are relegated to the minor character role as they search for Ralph and discover an unseen threat.  Though, they never break from their profile character traits there is just enough of their storyline to pull out a whopping finally.

The story begins with a quick explanation of the Donkey Kong like arcade game Fix-it Felix Jr. from Ralph’s point of view.  Tired of being the outcast, he hears a distressed character from another game complaining about all he has to go through for a medal.  Ralph takes his place in the game with disastrous results and winds up losing the medal in the Sugar Rush game.  Vanellope– the outcast of her game– only wants to race, but the king forbids it.  Ralph teams up with her in order to get back the medal, but soon discovers that fame and glory don’t make a hero.

I have to say, this is the best new film to come out of Disney Animation Studios in a while.  Smart and emotionally deep, the film boasts vivid worlds, terrific character designs, and all the laughter and tears that Disney is so well-known and appreciated for.  Wreck-It Ralph is worth a big screen 3D experience and I can’t wait until it hits the Bluray stands.  Oh, and the Oscar goes to…

Blu-ray Review: The Rescuers and the Rescuers Down Under

Buy The Rescuers: 35th Anniversary Edition double feature Blu-ray/DVD combo

The Rescuers Down Under has the distinguished honor of being the first ever sequel from Walt Disney Animation Studios and it even had a much deserved theatrical release.   It also had the difficult task of following the smash hit The Little Mermaid which marked an amazing come back for the studio.  Mice in animation have always been popular but The Rescuers is a uniquely Disney franchise filled with adventure and fun characters.  From a bayou diamond hunt against Madame Medusa to tracking a poacher in Australia, The Rescue Aid Society sends their best mice, Bernard and Bianca to save children in peril and meet lots of fun and interesting characters on the way.  From the inventive and classic artistry of The Rescuers to the Stunning layouts and CGI enhancements of The Rescuers Down Under, the two films boast the state of the art technology and top-notch storytelling that Disney has always been known for.

Featuring the voice talents of Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, the stories follow two brave mice dedicated to helping children in need– one, a young orphan named Penny abducted by a wicked pawn shop owner in search of a diamond, the other an animal rescuer named Cody,  kidnapped by a poacher who is hunting an extremely rare golden eagle–  The two award-winning films are packaged together as one of Disney’s recent release of Blu-ray double features and include a True Life Adventure titled “Water Birds”, a sing-along video of the Oscar nominated song “Someone’s Waiting For You”, and the classic cartoon “Three Blind Mouseketeers”, plus a great behind the scenes look at the animation of The Rescuers Down Under.

Blu-ray Review: People Like Us


Buy People Like Us.

Elizabeth Banks was in a movie with Captain Kirk and Catwoman!  People Like Us is a lovely little coming of age story about a man whose  career is crashing down on him just as he finds out about the death of his estranged father.  His reluctant return home stirs up more than just bad memories when he is handed a satchel of cash from his father with instructions to take it to a young boy who turns out to be the son of a sister he never knew he had.

It’s a nice light drama with a good cast of characters, most memorably and wonderfully complimented by Michelle Pfeiffer as the newly widowed mother.  The scenic and personal story about two people coming to terms with living in their father’s shadow in the wake of the consequences of his decisions sets a tone as a movie similar to The Kids Are Alright, though thematically it is very different.  For those who know the film’s locations intimately it has a very keen sense of reality which is rare for movies set in Hollywood.  It resonates in a way that Alexander Payne’s films have, adding a richness to the story without drawing attention away from the film’s plot.

Chris Pine plays the prodigal son Sam,  a swindler in a fast paced world of sales that’s about to leave him behind.  He’s been running all his life and tries to avoid returning home when he gets the news of his father’s death.  His father, a respected yet under rated music producer leaves instructions that lead him to Frankie (Elizabeth Banks)his sister from a secret relationship with another woman.   Afraid to reveal his identity, he befriends her and his nephew and gets in so deep he runs out of excuses to keep running.  His better half, performed  by Olivia Wilde, is an exceptional character with limited screen time, but significant bearing.

The film is co-written and directed by sci-fi giant, writer and producer Alex Kurtzman and it’s some of his truest, most relatable work.  As a Dreamworks/Disney release the Blu-ray presents a format similar to The Help with its emphasis on language selection.  It also boasts two separate audio commentaries.  One between Alex and co-writer Jody Lambert and another between him and the cast.  It’s also got improvisational outtakes from Chris Pine’s favorite taco stand, deleted scenes, additional scene commentary with Michelle Pfeiffer, and an expository featurette about creating the film.  Of course the DVD is also included.

Movie Review: Frankenweenie 3D

Frankenweenie, the Tim Burton short film in which a young imaginative boy raises his dog from the dead, is enjoying a gorgeous reincarnation as a feature-length stop motion film that showcases Tim’s signature art design and stark, stunning black and white photography.  It’s his greatest treat for the eyes since his splendid take on Sweeney Todd.

If you are familiar with the original Frankenstein inspired short, this is not simply a stretched out version of the original.  It may feel at times as though it is thinning out story wise, but there are plenty of great characters and extra movie monster chaos to aid the narrative, plus it’s just so nice to look at.

I’m happy that they made a conscious choice to move away from the original while maintaining the key, most memorable factors.  I like that I feel as though I can still watch the original and get something else out of it.  At the same time the trade-off gives an alternate, more fleshed out and fantastic tale using the art form Tim has become so associated with since Nightmare Before Christmas.

Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, and Winona Ryder are a few of the voice talents that empowered this much more populated spin which  includes my favorite new character, Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau).  Also part of the cast are a host of movie monsters a la Burton and quite an assembly of classmates in an Edward Scissorhands type suburban town called New Holland.  The adaptation was written by one of my favorites, John August, who also wrote Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

This is a fun seasonal family film with some freshness tossed in with the well rehearsed bits and 3D to compliment the staging and photography while entertaining the old and new fans alike.  I’d definitely get the coffee table book on it too.

Movie Review: Cinderella, Diamond Edition Blu-Ray

I had the surprising pleasure of watching the new Blu-ray Diamond Edition release of the classic Walt Disney picture Cinderella.  This is one of the best told and most enjoyable of all of Walt’s fairy tale adaptations.  Some of those long loved Disney Classics are so far removed from the direct to DVD sequels they’ve spawned that returning to those childhood favorites is a real treat.  These films truly stand the test of time.

Cinderella has all the charm, humor and beautiful artwork you can expect from Walt Disney, but it’s also one of his best animated features.  I was never too interested in Cinderella,  I remember some of the comedy bits, the suspenseful climax as the mice lug the key up the tower to rescue Cinderella before the Grand Duke leaves, and the songs, but I was more interested in The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book at that age.  Returning to this film as an adult I am really able to appreciate the artistry and the very clean storytelling.

The story of the little girl condemned to a life of servitude to her wicked step mother and two step sisters is filled with wonderful characters, visions, scenes and music that demands respect from an audience that has been exposed to recent cheaper takes on the Disney classics that lack so much of the heart and depth of the originals.  It takes you through a typical day in Cinderella’s life as she trudges through her chores, but when the king announces a ball is to be held as a plan to get the Prince married she must try to find time in her busy schedule to prepare.  Even with the help she receives from her mice friends, the Step sisters ruin her chance to go, but the Fairy Godmother arrives just in time, to give her the magical night that will change her destiny with that memorable song “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo,”.  One of my favorites is Cinderella’s rendition of “Sing Sweet Nightingale” in the bubbles while she washes the floors and the devious cat, Lucifer tracks dust all around her in the mean time.

Among the special features, of which there are many, is a short documentary on the “Real Fairy Godmother”  The woman the character was based on who later became the Fairy Godmother of Burbank, for all of her charity work.  You’ll also be delighted to find the hilarious short “Tangled Ever After” featuring Pascal and Max as the ring bearer and flower– um… lizard.  You’ll also get a sneak peek behind the scenes at the amazing expansion of Fantasyland at Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Disney World.  Let me just say it’s the best use of space since the creation of the park.

 
Buy Cinderella (Two-Disc Diamond Edition Blu-ray/DVD Combo in Blu-ray Packaging) from Amazon.