Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Cory's Disney in Review 2013

If one wishes to, it's easy to look on the past year of Disney's performance with a growing sense of disappointment. One almost begins to approach each new press release about what is being mangled, removed, or forced upon us with a sense of impending dread. What are the highlights though? The stuff that keeps me coming back to the Mouse? The best things Disney has produced this year? Here are my votes for the Fab Five of 2013:
  1. Mickey Mouse. Hands down, the frenetic new Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts produced by Paul Rudish are the best thing Disney has produced all year. I eagerly await each new one that pops up online (and find a way around the exclusive American regional coding to watch them). Mickey sheds the "aw shucks" banality of a harmless corporate icon and rediscovers the inner s**t-disturbing smart-ass he was in the black-and-white era, but with a wonderful vintage-moderne aesthetic sensibility and great slapstick humour. It's so good to see Disney taking risks with the Mouse and having them pay off so well.

  2. Disney Dreams! Technically, this evening show at Disneyland Paris debuted last year. However, the version we saw was new for 2013, featuring two new segments with The Lion King and Brave, so I'm counting it anyways. I'm sentimentally attached to it because it was immediately after watching it that I proposed to Ashley. More objectively though, it is my second favourite Disney show after Fantasmic. Like Fantasmic, it perfectly captures the essence of a Disney park as a place to leave behind the real world and enter the Neverland where Disney films come to life. In this show, projection effects and fireworks set us on an adventure to track Peter Pan's shadow through a montage of classic musical numbers like "Be Our Guest" and "Friend Like Me" as we try to restore the pixie dust to the Second Star to the Right. Pure magic! 

  3. Mystic Manor. Since having a Haunted Mansion would be grossly inappropriate in China, Hong Kong Disneyland got this instead, and in the process made Disney fans in North America froth with envy. An imaginative attraction with great effects, gags and characters, Mystic Manor is the sort of fresh and original ride that recalls the glory days of WED Enterprises. The only problem is that it's all the way in Hong Kong. Mystic Manor would fit so perfectly in Animal Kingdom or Adventureland. Instead we're stuck with "Soarin' over Pandora." Even find a way to shoehorn it into California Adventure, I don't care! Just bring it over here!  

  4. The Lone Ranger. Unfairly maligned in ways I can't even figure out, The Lone Ranger was, for me, the surprise cinematic hit of the year. I suspect it's lack of success had something to do with the fact that you need to have a working understanding of both the history of Western settlement and the Western film genre to fully appreciate what it was trying to do, which is hard to find when audiences just want to see things punching other things really hard. Funny, intelligent and thought-provoking, with some great action scenes and fantastic pay-offs, I must agree with Quentin Tarantino that The Lone Ranger was one of the best films of 2013. 

  5. It's a Small World: The Animated Series. It's a Small World, the ride, is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned of Disney attractions, even as it is one of the most beloved. Looking at it as a massive piece of kinetic artwork that you float through rather than standing in front of in a gallery, I like it quite a lot. Perfectly fitting its theme. Disney Interactive has teamed with Rosetta Stone to produce an online animated series that is delightful, stylish, and educational. Rather than work directly from Mary Blair's art, the series' look derives more from Joey Chou's illustrations for the Small World book and iPhone app, which does lend the new franchise a nicely coherent brand. With additional music by Richard Sherman, co-writer of the original song, it's just really neat to watch.

Anything to add? Anything you felt we missed? What were your highlights of the past year in Disney? 

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Lie back, rest, and if you'd like a little something to watch, here is a clip from one of my favourite Disney movies, Melody Time...

And if you don't celebrate the holidays... Boy, it sure is cold out!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Lone Ranger and Deconstructing the American Myth

The Lone Ranger is being released to Disney Blu-Ray and DVD in a mere five days, so we thought it would be worth revisiting one of the most unfairly maligned - and misunderstood - films of the year. It was also my favourite of the year, and one of Quentin Tarantino's top 10, and if we agree then you know it's a great movie!

Despite poor critical reviews, Disney's The Lone Ranger was unexpectedly one of the most intelligent and adventuresome films of 2013. The histrionics of professional critics was almost in direct inverse proportion to how intelligent and adventuresome. Gilbert Cruz of The Vulture decreed that it "Represents Everything That's Wrong With Hollywood Blockbusters," San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle called it "the biggest stinker of 2013" and Lou Lumenick of the New York Post audaciously declared it "the worst [Western] — and then some." Such immoderate complaints are pure nonsense: The Lone Ranger is nowhere near the worst movie of the year or the worst Western ever made. It's not even the worst Disney movie of the year, nor the worst version of the Lone Ranger ever made. Mark Hughes of Forbes was right to decry the media as "flop-hungry," overwhelmed by the sheer momentum of their own self-important negativity.

A great irony of critics complaining that The Lone Ranger  was  big, dumb and banal - a complaint better befitting most other summer flicks, including critical darlings like Pacific Rim -  is that it actually outsmarted them. It is a common habit of ignorance to think that something is stupid because one does not understand it, and I suspect that habit came into play with The Lone Ranger. Some complaints were simply frivolous, like how it was a comedy or that it was "overlong" (sorry, at only six minutes longer that the first Pirates of the Caribbean, I didn't notice), but I can at least sympathize a little bit with the fact that maximizing one's experience with the film requires a functional knowledge of historical American Western settlement and the American Western as a genre.

The Lone Ranger, drafted by the same creative team as Pirates of the Caribbean, pokes at the corniness of the original radio and television versions while genuinely attempting to reach out to the tastes of modern audiences. In doing so, it can become corny in its own right, with a wink and a nod, proving that it isn't poking at the original Ranger in a mean way. On the contrary, knowledge of the original is required to understand the film's subtexts. Our story opens in a carnival in San Francisco in 1933, the same year that The Lone Ranger debuted on radio. A young boy, clad in Hollywood cowboy style complete with Lone Ranger mask, enters a Wild West show, out of which pours the music of celebrity singing cowboy Gene Autry. The carnival barker promises that the exhibit will take visitors back to "the thrilling days of yesteryear" - a quote from the radio show's opening - though inside are mostly static displays of buffalo and grizzly bears. One display, however, features a living "Noble Savage"... An aged and decrepit Tonto, who proceeds to tell the boy the true story of the Lone Ranger.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

The Lone Ranger Animated Series

Of all the versions of the Lone Ranger ever committed to media, my favourite is not the Disney movie, nor the original radio show, nor the iconic television series. It is the off-the-wall animated series that ran for 26 episodes from 1966 to 1969 on CBS.

The radio show ended its astonishing run of nearly 3,000 episodes in 1956, and the television show with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels likewise came to an end a year later. During the intervening decade, a new TV Western arrived - The Wild, Wild West - which transfused the old genre with the sensibilities of the "Spy-Fi" shows that were becoming a rage in the Sixties. Following in the footsteps of James Bond and The Avengers (the real, British ones), James West and Artemus Gordon launched their mission for the US Secret Service in 1965. A new Lone Ranger animated series was quickly placed in production that pitted our masked hero against monsters and mad scientists.

Each episode was divided into three segments: two tandem adventures and one solo Tonto story. These adventures were, for the most part, utterly, enjoyably daft, which is why I love it so much. My favourite is a story called "The Monster of Scavenger Crossing" in which the Lone Ranger and Tonto investigate a series of riverboat sinkings along the Mississippi. The guilty party turns out to be a salty pirate with a peg leg and a hook who is scuttling them with his own version of the Nautilus. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find clips online, including that one.

I have gathered a pair of clips here to give you a taste of the Lone Ranger's most bizarre adventures. As you watch, also make note of the show's visual style. Though not the best quality animation by any means, the style is fantastically graphic and texturally rich.

The series introduction and The Ghost Riders episode.

The Cult of the Black Widow.

Monday, 9 December 2013

'Tis the Season for Giving

Amidst the seasonal flurry of  presents and spending and bills and Black Fridays and Boxing Days and things of that sort, don't forget to put a little money aside for those who could really use it. Right now, there are a couple of Disney-based campaigns that could use donations.

First up, and ending tomorrow, is the Small Worlds of Walt Storybook Land Restoration campaign. An original 1957 section of Storybook Land, removed during the 1981 recreation of the attraction, has landed in the possession of the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society and Carolwood Foundation. This society, if you don't already know, is dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of Walt Disney's railroading legacy and is best known for operating Walt's Barn, "the only free Disney attraction in the world" on the grounds of the Los Angeles Live Steamers in Griffith Park. Through funds raised online, they hope to restore this section of the old French village under Cinderella's Castle with a protective cart that can be shown during their open houses. Visit their blog for more details and contribute what you can to preserve a piece of Disneyland history!

Concept art for the wagon to house "The Small Worlds of Walt."

It's very probable that you've already heard of this next campaign by now: the Walt Disney Birthplace Preservation Project. Despite the pervasiveness of the Disney company's media empire, precious few historic sites connected to Walt Disney himself still remain. The old farm in Marceline, Missouri, is gone, as is the Disney Bros. first studio in Kansas City and the original Hyperion Studios in Los Angeles. Even in Disneyland itself, corporate heads are fond of saying that "Disneyland is not a museum" when yet another piece originally placed by Walt and his first Imagineers is removed, paved over, blocked off, or replaced by some recent IP acquisition. Only pieces here and there remain, like Walt's Barn or what has been enshrined in the Walt Disney Family Museum. Astonishingly, the very home that Walt Disney was born in still exists! Time has taken its toll, and the current owners are looking for donations to restore the house to its 1901 appearance and build a small museum to celebrate the life of the man who came into life there. The campaign lasts until the end of the month, so you have something you can use that Christmas money on!

Concept art for the fully restored Walt Disney Birthplace.

Allow me to make one last appeal. Remember that while it is important to preserve the heritage of great artistic works and the people who created them, there are still many in the world who go without even the most basic of amenities. As you are helping these other causes, do not forget those in other parts of the world and in our own backyards who desperately need a hand up. One of my favourite charities is Canadian Lutheran World Relief. This humanitarian aid organization's expenses are largely paid for by the Lutheran churches of Canada, making it one of the most efficiently run charities in the world. Through their Gifts from the Heart program, a $20 fuel-efficient stove or a $50 training program for teachers or a $75 pair of goats can turn the life of a family in the poorest parts of the world around, saving lives and granting self-sufficiency, self-determination, and economic prosperity. Please find it in your heart this year to give to this or another deserving charity in your area.    

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Original Origin of the Lone Ranger

The incomparable website Kiddie Records Weekly has provided a download of the 1951 Decca Records album The Adventures of the Lone Ranger. This album includes several key episodes of the original Lone Ranger radio show that ran from 1933 to 1956, through which one can hear how closely Disney hewed to the Lone Ranger's origin but diverted considerably from Silver's. Click on the album cover below to check it out...