Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Time Magazine review of "...Dragon"

There is a good review of the Dreamworks release How To Train Your Dragon in the April 5th issue (which also breaks down the recent health care reform act). The reviewer, Richard Corliss, gives it a very positive review, going so far as to say that with this movie, Dreamworks gets to a level at times that is usually Pixar's territory, with a more serious and more ambitious work than most of their other animated features.

I don't know if I agree with that, after seeing UP! and RATATOUILLE and even WALL*E. There is deeper storytelling going on in any of them, I believe, than I saw with this movie. But I do accept that it is a cut above some of the other Dreamworks features, if not in the simple entertainment aspect, then in the depth of story area.

One interesting contrast between Pixar and Dreamworks that I never really picked up on (though others almost certainly have) is the observation that most of the Pixar films are "buddy" stories while most of the Dreamworks pictures are "workplace comedies about groups", and that these preferred plots "reflect their means of creation. Pixar writer-directors, working in a San Francisco suburb far from the seat of industry power, get lots of staff support but prsue their visions more or less on their own. DreamWorks movies, made mostly in the Hollywood suburb of Glendale, are team efforts." DreamWorks productions, says Corliss, aspire to entertain, not to create high art.

This movie is a little different, in that it really is not an ensemble, group comedy, but rather a movie about a boy and his dog, er, ah...dragon. Corliss points out that the creators, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, also created the Lilo and Stitch film for Disney back in 2002, and with it a tale with similarities to ...Dragon, both being "kid-and-feral-pet" stories with a strong interspecies friendship. And the backgrounds and landscapes of this Nordic world (where Vikings talk with Mike Myers-like Scots accent) are also a cut above the usual DreamWorks scenery.

Corliss concludes by mentioning that with respect to this movie, "in its loftier moments, it might almost be called Pixarian." And while there is nothing in this movie to rival that opening sequence from UP!, I can sort of see where he's coming from


Monday, March 29, 2010

Training Dragons...

I wasn't sure what to expect of the Dreamworks release How To Train Your Dragon (in 3D), but I got something better than I hoped. When I saw the previews I wasn't expecting a whole bunch, but I suppose I should have raised my expections. This is Dreamworks, after all, not one of the other creators of animated fare not named Disney.

I don't know why I doubt Dreamworks. Like Pixar, they seem to produce winners every time out. I'm not putting them at the same level as Pixar, but they are definitely a cut above the other studios. (For example, they showed two previews of animated films coming out later this year, can't recall the titles, maybe one was called Despicable Me, and the other was about guardian owls. Both looked pretty lame to me. Neither looked like it would hold a candle to either of these studios' releases, and that's from the previews, which supposedly show highlights that make you want to go see the picture.) Dreamworks' films always seem to work both for my kids and for me.

How To Train Your Dragon tells the tale of a young Viking boy named Hiccup, who just doesn't seem to fit in. He's a little too intellectual for Viking activities, most of which involve saving the village from marauding dragons. Whenever Hiccup gets involved, things seem to go wrong.

Hiccup has developed something he thinks will help - a sort of "cannon" that shoots out a weapon that can tangle the dragon and bring it down. He sneaks out, uses it on the dragon called a "Night Fury", one that is particularly devastating and has never really been seen. Hiccup doesn't exactly see it, but he sees something - and he fires his cannon at it, and hits it.

But then things go wrong and no one believes that he's hit a dragon. So he searches for it by himself, and finally finds it, and it IS a Night Fury. It's all tangled up in the thing Hiccup fired at it, and it seems resigned to its fate of being killed by Hiccup. But the boy can't do it. Instead he cuts the dragon loose.

And instead of killing Hiccup, the dragon tries to fly away. But he's injured, and can't fly. Hiccup figures out why, fixes it, and then trains the dragon. He learns about the dragons, and realizes that everything they know about the beasts is wrong!

Meanwhile, he's trying to win the girl (Astrid, voiced by America Ferrera), who is the toughest of the Vikings in training. And he's trying to impress his father, Stoick the Vast, who also happens to be the leader of their colony.

It's a story of compassion, of brains winning out over brawn, and of looking beyond the surface, and it works. The 3D animation was very well done, and gave the movie an extra punch that it may lack in traditional 2D animation. But the storytelling is strong enough to carry this picture. It doesn't rank up there with UP! or WALL*E, or The Princess and the Frog , but it works on the levels it is supposed to work on, and is a worthy addition to a catalog that includes fine animated movies like Shrek, Madagascar, and Over The Hedge. I don't know how much input Jeffrey Katzenberg has into these film projects, but it makes you wonder what Disney animation would have been like if he had been permitted to stick around there.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Two New Blogs (for me)

I have listed two new blogs over there to the left, under "Internet Spots". I also moved a couple of infrequently updated blogs to that space, from the "Blogs I Follow" list.

The new blogs are Disney Daddy and Destination Disney. I found them both to be well written with interesting content.

Check them out if you're so inclined.


That's Expensive!

After reading the book by Marc Eliot, I pulled out my copy of Michael Barrier's The Animated Man and was scanning some of the strike information it contained. It is very similar to the material described in Eliot's book, with the major difference being the way Barrier viewed Disney's motivation in the whole thing. Barrier interviews a lot of people (as does Eliot), and describes events similarly.

But what drew me (as is usually the case) was the chapters on the planning and building of Disneyland. As I read through the chapter devoted to the initial impetus and planning of that park, I was again struck by the cost of that place. Not that it was that expensive in today's dollars - if someone told you that you could build that park for 17 million dollars, you'd probably start lining up investors and bankers. Of course, 17 million wasn't chump change in the 1950's. Without doing the math, it's probably in the billions today.

So here was Walt, pretty much on his own, and he's spending hundreds of thousands out of his pocket to fund the planning, the concept art, the model work, and some basic "research" into building and/or buying the attractions, and he hasn't spent a dime on construction. The initial estimates were around 5 million, but I don't know if that includes the purchase of the land. The project clocked in at something around 17 million by opening day. With Walt's attitude of "accept nothing but perfection" in the construction, it was bound to go up.

So here is me, sitting in my fantasy world and thinking of some day trying to spearhead development of some sort of theme park. I can't draw the concept art (not really, anyway...not to the level of quality and detail that's needed) and I don't have contacts in industry or in banking who could help back it. Not to mention that I don't have the equivalent of hundreds of thousands to pump into it. Just another reminder of how unrealistic this pipe dream is.

And it is also a testament to Walt Disney and his vision and drive that he COULD get the thing built, on a deadline and with no real plan (unless you count Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens) for how to do it or what to put where.


Monday, March 22, 2010

Debunking Eliot: Snopes on Disney's illegitimaticy

I just thought it would be good to post this while fresh.

Here is a link to an article at where they debunk the flimsy Eliot assertion that Walt was possibly born either in Spain, or that his mother was a recently emigrated Spanish woman. Eliot jumps through a bunch of hoops on this one, but my initial impression that the allegation was fanciful seems to be born out by this article.

Read it over if you are interested...

To summarize: Walt Disney was almost certainly born in Chicago on December 5, 1901, just as was always suggested by the official record, to Elias Disney and Flora Call Disney. There was some confusion about the birth certificate, since there doesn't appear to be one, and some confusion about the record of birth, which shows that "Walter Disney" was born on December 30, 1891. It seems likely that this record refers to Walt's older brother Ray who WAS born on that day. Probably the Disneys had decided on one name and changed their mind, christening the baby "Raymond" instead.

The stuff about the illegitimate birth is just too convoluted to get into...but the article does a good job of summing up the allegation and the refutation...


Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince commentary

I finished this biography of Walt Disney, by Marc Eliot, a few minutes ago. Eliot wrote a biography of Bruce Springsteen called Down Thunder Road among other books. This book was written in 1993, when Michael Eisner was at the helm of a very strong Disney Company. I wanted to comment on the book before I go and read anything else about it from other sources.

I'm probably somewhat biased - I have previously read Pat Williams' How To Be Like Walt and both Barrier's and Gabler's biographies of Disney, and have come to really admire Walt Disney from their depictions of him. In his acknowledgements Eliot talks about other bios of Walt, like Bob Thomas's book, the Leonard Moseley book, and Diane Disney Miller's bio of her father, and how alike they are to each other. They are all "authorized" in the sense that permission was granted to freely use the company archives, and that this permission seemed to come with strings attached...that is, that the studio gets input into the content and the presentation of the information. He further states that when he sought access to the Disney Archives, he was eventually turned down, and that a PR representative told him (off the record) that he didn't need the archives - "no one had ever been given any information by the studio it didn't want them to have", which explained the similarities between the other Disney biographies.

Part of the point of all this is that the author seems to have gone into the writing of this book with a pre-existing determination to discover "dark secrets" about the life of Walt Disney. Indeed, as he writes about certain events in the life of Disney, he seems determined to interpret them or present them in the most sinister light possible. Some are things that I can't imagine how he might know other than someone (who also probably didn't "know") repeating stories that had been told - things like peaks into Walt's personal life and intimacies with his wife. Some seem to be pure speculation on the part of the author, especially those items relating to his and Lillian's relationship. Some are well known stories, cast in a different light, through the filter of possible anti-Semitism, anti-Communism, his FBI connections, and his perceived cheapness and unwillingness to share credit.

All of these things might have been true of Walt Disney, but there is a matter of degrees in any of them. Having read the other, even more comprehensive biographies of Barrier and Gabler, I can (and have) see the different lights that many of these things can be cast in, by Disney employees and colleagues, by friends and enemies alike.

Some of the more interesting details in the book are some pretty detailed descriptions of the mechanisms that Disney went through to get his first theme park financed. I also felt that this book went into more depth in reporting the events surrounding the strike in 1941, with solid sources and detail that backed up a lot of what was alleged about both the actions of strikers like Art Babbitt and Dave Hilberman, and Disney management, personified by Walt Disney and his brother, and also including Gunther Lessing and Willie Bioff, than the other biographies I read.

Some of the more fanciful speculations include those about Walt's heritage, possibly being born illegitimately to a Spanish maid, with convolutions that are as crazy as some of the JFK assassination speculations, and the insinuation that perhaps Walt had an affair with Dolores Del Rio (and others, though no names are mentioned). The author also insinuates a less than normal relationship between Walt and his adopted daughter Sharon.

Some of this book was very interesting reading. Some struck me as not much more than the type of writing one might find in the Weekly World News or the Enquirer. Some struck me as irresponsible speculation. In the end, I didn't admire Walt Disney any less, or feel I learned anything earth-shattering about him.

So now I'll go off and read some other comments on this book and see what sort of reaction others have had to it.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Stuff I got today...

Today started off with a quick trip to the library. I wasn't really looking for anything in particular, but came across a bio of Walt Disney called Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince by Marc Eliot.

I've heard of this book, read stuff about it in various forums and discussions, and have heard it is a hatchet job, poorly written and with an agenda to paint Walt in the worst possible light. If that's true, I doubt I'll finish the book. But I think it's always good to get other perspectives. For example, I have a friend, works as a market researcher for a big company, who, when I mentioned that I had been reading a lot on Disney (both the man and the company), commented that Walt was a Nazi and a real jerk. That goes against everything I've read about him in Barrier and Gabler and other sources. I suspect a lot of that comes from a book like this. So, I'm going to see what this other side is.

My other purchase was the Blu-ray edition of The Princess And The Frog. It is only my second Blu-ray disc purchase since getting one at the beginning of the year. My wife didn't get to see it in the theater, so maybe we can make a family thing out of it and all watch together.

Now it's off to do something besides write blog entries...


Monday, March 15, 2010

My Very Own "Best Of..." List

You know, I want to write. And I want to write something Disney related. That's the purpose of this blog, I guess - to give me a place to ramble and meander on about whatever strikes my fancy, Disney-wise.

Trouble is, I often can't think of anything to write about. I'm not a big critic of Disney as a whole, of their films, of their parks, or of any one park in particular. I'm not an expert on any one aspect of Disney. I don't have a large storehouse of Disney photos. I don't have an angle, like some blogs do, where they are discussing some particular minutae (albeit interesting miutae) about the parks or the films or whatever.

So today, I was sitting here over lunch, thinking about a subject to write on, looking at the topics covered by other Disney blogs. I noticed that on Reimagineering, there was an entry (after a LONG break with no posts) criticizing TOY STORY MIDWAY MANIA, the popular ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios and at Disney's California Adventure. I thought about that - I don't have much bad to say about that ride. In fact, it might just make my top 10 rides at Disney World.

And there it was: Today's post! My personal Top Ten list of rides at WDW. Just like what's-er-name on the Disney resort TV station! So here goes:

  • 10. Rock'n'Roller Coaster, DHS

  • 9. Tower Of Terror, DHS

  • 8. Toy Story Mania, DHS

  • 7. Space Mountain, Magic Kingdom

  • 6. Kilamanjaro Safaris, DAK

  • 5. Splash Mountain, Magic Kingdom

  • 4. Pirates of the Caribbean, Magic Kingdom

  • 3. Haunted Mansion, Magic Kingdom

  • 2. Soarin', Epcot

  • 1. Expedition Everest

  • It was actually pretty hard to sort these out, because sometimes I might prefer Haunted Mansion or Pirates to the thrills of Expedition Everest. Soarin', Haunted Mansion, Pirates, Kilamanjaro Safaris, Toy Story Midway Mania, and Splash Mountain are all things we enjoy as a family. The others are thrill rides that my wife won't go on, so I and my two boys have to enjoy them by ourselves.

    Expedition Everest is a great ride, in my opinion, with a great queue that makes waiting quite bearable. Also, it's new, so it has that going for it. That doesn't diminish the classics, but it does say a lot for EE that it makes the top of my personal list.

    Maybe later I'll try to do a "dining" list.


    Saturday, March 13, 2010

    Maybe it WAS Disney...

    A few posts back I wrote something called "Shoulda Been Disney". In it I referred to both the 101 Dalmations musical, and the recent movie called THE LIGHTNING THIEF. I suggested that perhaps they were both missed opportunities for the Disney company, especially THE LIGHTNING THIEF.

    Then, as my son was reading one of the books (they have all but the latest, and the one he was looking at was called The Demigod Files), I noticed that the book was published by...

    Disney Hyperion Books! So they DID know about this! They published the books! (Not that I'm seriously questioning whether Disney was aware of the series, just whether they were aware of the potential of the series for entertaining young boys.)

    I'm aware that Disney has had opportunities in the past to take on certain franchises and has taken a pass on them. Eisner had his "singles and doubles" theory, where he'd rather have several modestly profitable films at moderate cost, much less risky than taking a swing at a big budget film or franchise and missing. Then he turned around and did just that with several properties. (Almost anything that Jerry Bruckheimer did for Disney fits this category.)

    Disney had their shot at the Lord Of The Rings franchise, and decided it was too expensive and too risky. It went on to become one of the more profitable and more critically-acclaimed series of films to date, and instead, Disney scrambled to find an answer, coming up with the Narnia films. Sorry, but even if they have some of the same elements and a built in fan base, they just didn't stand a chance of being what LOTR became. I don't know if Disney ever had a shot at the Harry Potter franchise, but if they did and passed, that has obviously become a mistake, too.

    I for one think that these Percy Jackson and the Olympians books would have made for an excellent addition to Disney properties, even in possible future theme park development. And while I don't know the story behind the film rights of these books, it's apparent that they had them in their hands early on.

    The Kingdom Keepers won't be the same. They might eventually make for a good movie or tv series, but they won't have the same strength among that 5-14 age demographic for boys.


    Wednesday, March 10, 2010

    UTOPIA by Lincoln Child

    Here's an interesting book - written by one of the creators of the Pendergast novels, Lincoln Child tells a thrilling story centered in the ultimate theme park, known as Utopia. For the most part, this is a caper novel, about a group of "terrorists" who threaten to kill and maim theme park visitors if they are not given the keys to the advanced holographic technologies that make the park so unique. And it was a good read, one which I tackled a couple years ago, and skimmed yesterday.

    But I didn't want to post about it here on Disney Fan Ramblings in order to simply review the book. Though I did not note any direct comparisons by the author to Disney theme parks, I thought the parallels were obvious in many places.

    Not the least of which is the driving force for Utopia. We are introduced early in the book to a hologram of Eric Nightingale, the "visionary" behind the creation of Utopia. Nightingale started out as a professional magician and creator of two cartoon series based on his old magic act, and used his "star power" to bring together a group of "corporations and venture capitalists" to form the "Utopia Holding Company". At the time of the book, Nightingale has been dead for more than a year, having been killed in a plane crash six months before his park opened.

    The hologram addresses an assembly of scientists there to work on things at the park, in a sort of oriention presentation, and tells them that what he wants to provide at Utopia is a "fully immersive experience - a utopian experience which educates while it delights..." That sounds familiar, doesn't it? The words could be coming out of Walt's mouth. He goes on to say that he wants to achieve this goal without the used of "gimmicky rides or cheap amusement park thrills." That, in turn, sounds like the criticism I read so often on blogs critical of Disney today. To create this immersion, the park relies on advanced robotics - far beyond anything used in Disney - and breakthrough technology in holographics and video.

    A map at the beginning of the book shows four part to the park, each accessible from a "corridor" called the "Nexus". The future world is called "Callisto" and is a space port. Another world is "Camelot", with dragons and castles. A third world is "Boardwalk", a "turn of the century seaside amusement park" while the fourth is called "Gaslight", a Jack-the-Ripper era English town. Expansion is planned to include a fifth world based on Atlantis.

    The park is located in Nevada, a short drive from Las Vegas. As such, the place also incorporates casinos into its entertainment offerings (something it's mentioned that Eric Nightingale would have never approved of). It is also served by a monorail which brings visitors from Vegas to the park in the desert. Another detail mentioned in the book is that what seems to be the "ground" of the park is actually the fourth floor of the structure, built into a canyon. The entire park is covered by a dome.

    I was struck by the number of times a main character observes, either in thought or aloud, that the park had become something that would cause Eric Nightingale to turn over in his grave. For example, main character Andrew Warne observes, as his daughter gushes about how awesome the place it, "The place is just...All these rides, all these shops. It's so commercial. Nightingale would turn in his grave." This brings Warne, who knew Nightingale personally (Warne is the inventor of the Metanet, the AI programming that makes sure the robotics work and "learn") to reflect upon Nightingale's vision.

    He wanted to create virtual worlds complete in every detail; past worlds, future worlds, that would instruct visitors as they entertained. Worlds that relied on immersiveness, not rides, to delight guests. A themed system, Nightingale had called it, that would use the latest advances in digital media, holograms, robotics, to weave its magic. And he'd wanted Warne to design the robotics substructure.

    In another part of the book, Warne is bemoaning the decision to take his Metanet off line, the equivalent of killing it, with the park's sole robotics scientist, Teresa Bonifacio, and they are talking about how holographics have replaced robotics as the main thrust of the park's technology. Teresa says,

    Nightingale was a visionary. He saw Utopia as more than a New Age theme park with fancy gadgets. He meant it as a crucible for new technology.

    Again, doesn't this description sound a lot like someone talking about the Walt Disney who dreamed about EPCOT in Florida?

    Well, I don't want to get too deep into the plot of the book, which is, by the way, a page turner. But I thought that the ideas about the future of theme park development and the maps (alas, I don't have images of them) at the beginning of the book make for interesting reading for anyone interested in imagineering and theme park design.


    Monday, March 8, 2010

    UP! at the Academy Awards

    Though UP! was "up" for several awards last night, including a Best Picture nomination, it came away with two major awards:

    First, it won for Best Animated Film.

    Second, it won for Best Original Score (Michael Giacchino).

    Not bad, in my opinion, for a movie about a guy who floats his house with helium balloons!

    I felt that the opening sequence of UP!, where we follow Carl's and Ellie's lives together, was as powerful a piece of filmmaking as I've come across in recent years.

    Then again, I can't say too much since I didn't see ANY of the other 9 Best Picture nominees.

    Congrats to Pete Docter and to the entire Disney/Pixar staff who was associated with this film!


    Thursday, March 4, 2010

    Kevin Yee's Facebook Question

    Kevin Yee (you all know he is, right?)(that's optimistic, right? That I have readers?) posted an interesting thought provoking question on Facebook. Here it is, quoted directly from his feed:

    Scenario: you are in charge operationally at DHS and must cut costs. Do you cut park summer hours, open rides late, discontinue ESPN or Star Wars weekends? Or suggest your own strategy. Note: pretend you can't "spend more to earn more" for this question.

    Some of the answers were, like, tear down the hat and sell it for scrap metal, and more seriously, cut or limit the number of shows that are effects- and performer-intense.

    My first thought was that they do nothing to reduce value. How to reduce value? Cut hours, open rides late, discontinue special attractions...all the things Kevin Yee mentions in his question itself. Messing with the shows, to me, would decrease value by making it harder to see them and by making the other rides more crowded. I've never been able to get to Fantasmic! as it is now, because at first my kids were too young to stay up that late, then, last time when we tried to go, it was SRO and we didn't feel up to that with young boys.

    Instead, I suggested, they should bump fees and charges up the minimum amount they need to do to create the extra revenue stream. That's much how I operate my own business (the practice of dentistry)- I don't cut out services, I simply charge what I need to charge to maintain my income and pay my expenses. It's a bit different here, I understand - my primary interest is avoiding taxes by having no profit, or even a loss, in my corporation at the end of the year. Disney is responsible to their shareholders, and they need to generate a profit.

    Another thought I had was to create a "boutique park" experience a couple of nights, and price it high. I'm thinking of the Mickey's parties at the Magic Kingdom, and I'm also thinking about the ideas for a "Beastly Kingdom" boutique park at DAK. Maybe call it "Hollywood Nights", and skew it toward adults and older kids. Make the experience a glitzy, red-carpet Hollywood nighttime experience - not the real Hollywood, which to my eye didn't look all that glitzy when we were there a couple years ago - but a Disney, exciting, feast-for-the-eyes Hollywood, with stars (well, look-alikes) strolling the streets and maybe giving impromptu performances, rides open, and maybe some of the feel of The Great Movie Ride out in the streets. Light it up differently than it would be during other nights, make it an extravaganza. Then charge for it. Charge plenty. It doesn't have to be every night. But it could be a great money maker. People would go for it, I bet.

    I really dislike the idea of cutting out stuff from that park experience without lowering prices. If they need to charge a little more, or have some surcharges once you get inside, I'd be better with that than I would be with cutting. Maybe not everyone would agree, but that's how I think. Any thoughts?

    Monday, March 1, 2010

    New Blog (for me, at least)...

    George Taylor at Imaginerding pointed out this blog in his Geek-End Update this week: Disney's Folly. The name sounded interesting, as did the post that was linked to, so I checked it out.

    I didn't read every single entry, but of the ones I did read, it appears to be an opinion blog, a little like what I try to do, but with more depth and better writing, and a broader range of topics. The name comes from the way Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was referred to back in the days when Walt was doing something (one of the many things he did) that no one else had ever done. Jason, the blogger there, writes well and he finds interesting information.

    It will be on my "Blogs I Follow" list from here on out.