Cinderella - Featured

The New Old: The Wonderful World of Disney

Cinderella (Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, 1950) – Okay. Fine. I know that Cinderella came out officially on Disney Diamond edition Blu-ray back at the beginning of October, but the truth is that I was quite truthfully blanking on what I could actually say about such an iconic film that hasn’t already been said before. For Disney animation, it’s quite possibly the most recognizable leap at the time in terms of what was technologically capable of being done. It’s often lauded for being the best film that Disney has ever put out. Period. The pressure that comes with something so iconic and to think of something new and exciting to say was crushing. I put it off for weeks and weeks before just bringing it into this post about some of the best Disney offerings on Blu-ray and DVD this holiday season.

And I still have nothing really new. It’s still a solid princess story that remains the shining example of the Disney Princess sub-genre. It looks wonderful, and even the supporting characters are better written than films twice the length and packing prestige beyond things categorized as family films. And I guess, to some degree, I didn’t want to talk about that. Mostly because I just can’t be objective about Cinderella in any way, shape, or form because I just have such warm memories of it. When people start talking about how Disney and their animation department in particular have been able to tap into truer human emotions than many of their live action counterparts.

Cinderella was my mother’s favourite movie. It was the only film that ever made her feel good or happy. When she bought a VHS copy of it when I was a kid, she wore the tape out, not me. I think I watched it with her only twice. Even when I was in high school she was still watching that movie once every couple of months. When I was younger I never thought to ask what her fascination with the movie was and why she gravitated towards it. I liked movies at the time, but I never bothered to think about why other people liked them.

She told me about how she related to the title character. She came from a broken family full of step-siblings that always treated her like dirt. Her father was never around (and when he was it wasn’t pretty) and her mother was too aloof to care what the kids did. My mother was always the one who was stuck inside all the time cleaning up after everyone’s mess. The movie came out theatrically in her town when she was 9, and it was the first film she ever saw. She saw it with her family, all of whom pretty much hated it. It was an opinion that only made her love the film more.

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I don’t think she ever fully told me about all the sordid details of her family life even when I asked. But when we talked about Cinderella it was a definite bonding experience. She told me it always gave her hope, from when she was a child and through her adult life. She never said she took the Prince Charming thing seriously, but she said it made her feel free to have an imagination and to think of things outside her own problems when things got really bad. Which they apparently did. Frequently.

A huge part of that might be that shortly before she passed away in 2001 I tracked down a beaten up VHS copy of the film (which wasn’t on DVD yet at the time) and brought it to the hospital where she was receiving cancer treatment. It was one of the last times she was ever well enough to actually hang out and do something with me. She remembered the words to all of the songs. It was literally the last time I saw her smile that year, and that’s not an exaggeration of the word literally. When it was over she turned to me and thanked me. She said it still holds up. I never once believed otherwise.

As soon as I finished watching it for this column over a month ago, her words from that day just came back into my head and I just suddenly got way too emotional to write about it. So, yeah, I like Cinderella, but I can freely admit it’s one of the few movies I could never be critical about. So I ended up not even bothering. Even as a film critic there are still some things I just can’t bring myself to think about too heavily. This was one of the films that made me choose what I wanted to do in life, but for the life of me I just can’t articulate why without crying about it.

Getting back to professionalism, the Blu-ray transfer and 7.1 sound mix on this release are incredible even by Disney standards. Most of the special features here come from the 2005 DVD, but they still total to two hours of pretty great stuff about the production. There are also three brand new featurettes, but the only one really worth checking out here is the one about the creation of the Fairy Godmother character. The one where fashion designer Christian Louboutin looks at shoes, not so much. There’s a neat audio section of radio broadcasts of random and excised songs from the film. On an unrelated note, there’s also the Tangled Ever After short that played before the theatrical 3D re-release of Beauty and the Beast last year, and it’s pretty hilarious on its own. It’s a great package for a great film. (Andrew Parker)

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The Great Mouse Detective (Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, David Michner, John Musker, 1986) – Once again, I know this one came out back in October, as well, but it suffered somewhat needelessly from the same hang-ups I had with Cinderella because it was the first film I ever remembered seeing with my mom in a theatre. (I’m told the first film I ever saw in theatres was Snow White, but I really don’t remember that since I think I was three when that happened.) Thankfully, I can be a little more critical about this brief, fun, and loose take on Sherlock Holmes that’s still way better than either of those Robert Downey Jr. movies and that TV show that’s currently airing in the US. (That British one is aces, though.)

Made just prior to Disney becoming a major player once again in animation with The Little Mermaid (which would be directed by two of the directors on this project that would then go on to do Aladdin) and just after risking a whole lot for modest returns on the dark and brooding The Black Cauldron, Mouse Detective doesn’t aim very high and it only has one musical number to speak of, but in terms of getting the gist of Arthur Conan Doyle’s eccentric crime solver, this adaptation of Eve Titus’ Basil of Baker Street gets the gist and mannerisms down quite nicely.

Living beneath the floorboards of the famed Sherlock is Basil, and equally eccentric rodent who teams up with a Watson type and a young tyke to investigate the kidnapping of a beloved toymaker by the evil Professor Ratigan. The story moves incredibly fast, clocking in at just a hair over seventy minutes, but it’s a winning story for the younger set. Also, in the villainous role is Vincent Price in one of his final roles. His sneering charm goes a long way to create a menacing, but campy presence that the film needs. He also gets to sing that one song mentioned earlier.

It’s a shame that the Blu-ray for this one is a little disappointing, though. The special features here are all ported over from the DVD release, and the picture and sound seem largely taken from there, as well. There’s also only a two very brief featurettes – one on the making of the film and the other a look at other famous detectives. But on the bright side, you can also sing along with Vincent Price if you don’t feel like watching the movie again, but the film’s almost too fun not to watch from start to finish. (Andrew Parker)

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Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003) – When Finding Nemo came out the Pixar crew of geniuses had already been responsible for two Toy Story movies, A Bug’s Life, and Monsters Inc., but this tale of lost fish was the beginning of the company’s golden age. Flush with success, the key creative forces (and outsider genius Brad Bird) were allowed to have total freedom over personal projects, which led to a series of Oscar winning box office busters like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up. Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo was the first film to come out of this run. It was instantly iconic, became somewhat of a pop culture staple, and until Toy Story 3 was easily the most financially successful Pixar project. Watching it now almost ten years later the film plays like a classic, combining primal emotions and gentle comedy that appeals to all ages with what remains some of the most beautiful CGI animation ever slapped across the big screen. It’s a magical experience for actual children and immature movie-dumb “adults” like myself to get swept up and lost in, and one that plays just as well on the 30th viewing as the first.

The story is as simple as it gets (like all great Pixar jams). It’s about an overprotective father trying to find a lost son. Granted that overprotective father is a fish in the ocean and the son is trapped in a dentist’s aquarium, but the central drama is the same. Pixar lucked out with the 11th hour recasting of Albert Brooks as the father, whose neurotic humor and career long commitment to deadpan realism is ideal for the character. He’s as strong here as he’s ever been, clearly slipping in his own lines and delivering his best performance of the 2000s. The rest of the voice cast is just as well cast with Ellen DeGeneres providing one of her least irritating big screen turns, Willem Dafoe playing a hilariously gnarled semi-villain, and Pixar standbys like Brad Garrett, Steven Root, and John Ratzenberger filling out the cast to perfection. As writer/director Andrew Stanton nimbly jumps between two competing father/son plotlines, ably mixes comedy with drama, and pulls all the disparate elements together in the end with a satisfying emotional wallop. It’s the kind of film that plays so smoothly that it’s difficult to pick up on all of the pitfalls Stanton avoids. The movie is already a classic for a reason people. This is the brand pitch-perfect children’s storytelling that Disney built their name on and it’s easy to see why the house of mouse was so anxious to swallow up the company after the string of Pixar masterpieces that kicked off with Nemo.

One thing that’s impossible to slip past any viewer is the remarkable beauty of the animation. The Pixar team really took their artistry to the next level on Finding Nemo, with gorgeous Ocean designs so vivid and detailed that they are almost photo-real, but with a delicate cartoon sheen. The remarkable visuals have never been more evident than they are on this Blu-ray, where the colors and creatures that pop off the screen and really push any HDTV to the limits. The 3D option is better than most conversions since Pixar likes to rework their 3D transfers from scratch and the endless ocean vistas filled with floating creatures really work in 3D, even if it wasn’t designed with ‘gottcha’ moments in mind. 2D is probably still the best way to appreciate this beauty of a film, but at least the 3D version isn’t a needless tag on.

The Blu-ray also comes packed with some fantastic new features, including an insightful and entertaining roundtable with the primary Pixar collaborators looking back on the film ten years later, an enhanced audio/visual Cine-Explore commentary featuring early concept art (much like Stanton’s fantastic Wall-E visual commentary), new and intriguing interviews with Stanton showing his original opening and flashback structure, and best of all a fifteen minute look at Disneyland’s Pixar ride that re-invented a closed down submarine classic. It’s a fantastic collection of nostalgic special features and completists should be pleased to hear that the set also boasts the exhaustive collection of special features from the original 2-disc DVD set. If you’re a fan of Finding Nemo (aka if you have a pulse and/or a child), it’s hard to imagine that any question you have about the film’s production isn’t answered somewhere in here. Sure, I would have liked a full Albert Brooks commentary as well, but that’s just because I’m greedy and like that comedian more than I should.  Simply put, this disc is a must own for Pixar fanatics, providing a beautiful HD upgrade for a modern masterpiece and filling the disc with more bells and whistles than should have been expected. Buy it now damn it, you really have no reason not to. (Phil Brown)

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Up (2009, Pete Doctor) –  The debate of what is the pinnacle of the Pixar/Disney canon is one that’s never ending.  If you subtract either of the Cars films, anything they’ve ever released is pretty damn sure to be golden, to the levels of being an animated classic.  Those kinds of standards are unheard of and flat out impossible to match, but in 2009 the bar got raised even higher than it already was with Up.

It’s the comedic adventure that follows 78 year old balloon salesman Carl Fredricksen (voiced by the charmingly grumpy Ed Asner) who finally fulfills his lifelong dream by tying thousands of balloons to his house and flying away to South America and Paradise Falls for the great adventure that he’s always longed for, keeping a promise to his late wife.  However, unbeknownst to him he’s picked up a stowaway on his great adventure that’s a solid 70 years younger than he is: an overly optimistic young Wilderness Explorer named Russell in search for his Assisting the Elderly badge who has never gone all that much farther than his front porch. What starts as a disaster ends up as the adventure of a lifetime as Carl and Russell have an adventure that neither of them will ever forget.

One of the lesser known minds in the Pixar lab, Pete Doctor just might be the most talented man in the place behind John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton.  Having worked on the scripts for Toy Story, Toy Story 2 & Wall-E, his directorial follow up to Monsters Inc. is one of the more inspired and exhilarating cinematic experiences of the last 10 years and maybe even more.  Beginning this story by tracking the life of Carl and his sweetheart Ellie was a masterstroke of storytelling; a rollercoaster of emotion, some of which may have been a little confusing the younger folk watching this film but it ultimately resonated so well with the adult portion of the audience that it borders on brilliance.  Jumping seamlessly through real emotion and  incredible flights of fantasy, it works so well in changing tone while constantly feeling like an epic tale that was inspired from the likes of anything from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to the Studio Ghibli styled  cinescapes of the most remarkable visuals that you can possible imagine.  While a film like Wall-E did have some social and grown-up undertones to it, this was the first film that was focused on the kid that lives inside all of us.

Ed Asner is easily one of the hardest working men in show business at the age of 83 (and is unquestionably a television icon) as he’s settled into a steady stream of voice work since the early nineties.  His Carl walks the line of being a likeable tender guy while never losing any of his curmudgeon charm that is so effect at generating laughs in the film.  Christopher Plummer is just as wonderful playing Asner’s foil and childhood idol that has to confront in order to save Russell and their new friends that include a talking dog and a rare bird that they subsequently met while on this adventure.  Even when you have some brilliantly crafted worlds and landscapes in any animated adventure, you need some quality voice work to bring these characters alive and make it all come together and quite simply; Up has that in spades.

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Granted the movie is only 3 years old, but the colors are incredibly vibrant and popped of the screen with a light and wonderful musical score that keeps the viewer up in the clouds and right beside Carl and Russell in his house. This new 5 disc combo pack set includes the 3D Blu-Ray, 2D BR along with the DVD and Digital Copy.  The special features have a myriad of behind the scenes documentaries detailing the great lengths the entire Pixar team went to in order to make this all come to life along with interactive games, an expanded character back story, some alternate scenes and two short films; one that ran in front of the film during its theatrical run called Partly Cloudy and for the home video release we get a prequel of sorts for Dug the talking dog in Dug’s Special Mission.

Up isn’t just for the younger set, and if you encounter any straggling haters of modern animation you simply pull this off of your shelf proudly and plug it for them, quietly reveling while they don’t say a word getting swept up into the fun. (Dave Voight)

 

The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol (Brian Henson, 1992) – It’s not an animated film, and we can really only get away with talking about it during the holidays, but since Disney owns the rights to Jim Henson’s Muppets it’s time to talk about the Blu-ray release of the first partnership between the “mouse house” and the most widely recognizable frogs, bears, pigs, and whatevers in cinema and television history.

Updating Charles Dickens’ most widely re-told story of a miser learning the true meaning of Christmas, Jim’s son Brian takes over the reigns after his father’s death for the first production without direct input from the Muppet creator. In the role of Scrooge, Michael Caine proves to be a great sport when it comes to treating his co-stars as intellectual and dramatic equals especially when he has to harass a character as iconic as Kermit’s Bob Cratchet. Narration from Gonzo pretending to be Dickens (and Rizzo the Rat constantly poking holes in the plot and continuity) breaks up the sometime self-serious nature of the project, but its still one of the best adaptations of the classic morality tale that the whole family can enjoy.

The 20th anniversary Blu-ray thankfully restores the film to its original widescreen aspect ratio instead of the choppy looking full frame DVD that had been available for several years. It looks and sounds lightyears better, and the special features from the initial DVD release are also included here. Brian Henson’s original and insightful commentary track also gets a neighbouring commentary track from Kermit, Rizzo, and Gonzo riffing on the whole movie. Gonzo and Rizzo also host a lengthy making-of documentary, and Pepe the Prawn begrudgingly interviews Gonzo for a fairly hilarious profile piece. Also, much like what they did with the Blu-ray release of the most recent Muppet film earlier this year, Christmas Carol comes with an intermission feature that will take you to some in-movie entertainment with Christmas carols sung by some of the gang. It’s all silly and good fun, which is exactly what the holidays should be. (Andrew Parker)

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