Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fun with Pinocchio around the web

Time to wrap up our month-long look at Pinocchio with some little bits of fun from around the web:

Let's start with this Youtube pianist who has proclaimed himself King of the Keyboard, performing a nice, jazzy piano cover of Give a Little Whistle:

Next up, Disney royalty appearing in a television relic, The Julie Andrews Hour. Here, an adorable young Julie appears as Pinocchio opposite Donald O'Connor as Gepetto doing a little song and dance:

Follow this link to see an adorable cartoon Pinocchio by artist Jerrod Maruyama (and you might want to check out Jerrod's site in general - several Disney characters appear in his delightful portfolio.

Speaking of adorable, here's a YouTube video of a baby unwittingly playing the role of a marionette while "I've Got No Strings" plays in the background. Pretty funny:

Here's another piece of art, this time an fanciful steampunk reimaginging of a robo-Pinocchio and mad-scientist Gepetto by Fabricio Moraes. Very cool:

You can read all about the creation of this piece and see more art from the process on this page.

A few years ago, I decided to dress up as Pinocchio supporting-character Lampwick. I thought it would be fun if the costume slowly changed throughout the night from a fully human Lampy to one that's on his way to transforming into a donkey. Here's several pictures:

And finally, here's Darren Criss performing Pinocchio and Disney's theme song, "When You Wish Upon a Star":

Monday, March 28, 2011

Character Spotlight: Figaro

Pinocchio is full of endearing characters - the innocent puppet boy himself, the beautiful and benevolent Blue Fairy, the goofy and loving Gepetto, and on and on. One character - Jiminy Cricket - even went on to become one of Disney's chief mascots (perhaps behind only Tinkerbell and Mickey Mouse himself in order of Company spokes-toons). But there is another Pinocchio character that had a career beyond his appearance in this film (most of it long ago, but recently slightly returning): Figaro the Cat.

First, though, let's look at Figaro in Pinocchio itself. Figaro isn't really part of the main plot, nor does he have any kind of subplot or storyline himself. He's just there to provide comic relief, and he fulfills this function superbly, effectively stealing the few scenes that he's in. He's an adorable fuzzball one moment, cranky and petulant the next. He's a bit like certain kinds of candy: switching quickly from sweet to sour, but always delicious.

Watch both of those flavors in full effect in this scene from Pinocchio, as Figaro is ready to drift off to sleep and keeps getting interrupted by Gepetto:

Figaro is barely anthropomorphized - anyone who's ever lived with a cat will recognize the Figaro shares a lot with his real-life counterparts: the way he wiggles his rear before pouncing, the way he raises a paw to swipe at dangling objects, his general attitude. You don't need to watch any DVD extras or read a making-of book to know the Disney animators studied the movements of real cats when animating Figaro: you can clearly see that in the results. Aside from being given more traditional cartoon eyes and more human facial expressions, Figaro is very much a cat.

Figaro was such an endearing presence onscreen that audiences wanted more of him - and they got it as the little black and white cat went on to appear in several cartoon shorts. Continuity with the movie (and even with the other shorts themselves) was thrown out the window. Sometimes, Figaro (along with his Pinocchio co-star Cleo) belonged to human owners, as in this 1943 short where the little cat takes the starring role and is thwarted in his attempts to eat his co-star by a woman who calls herself Aunt Delilah:

Maybe Aunt Delilah eventually got sick of Figaro's attempts to eat Cleo, kept the fish and kicked out the cat. Because in his next appearance, he's no-longer living with the fish and the woman, but belongs to Minnie Mouse herself, and has to play second fiddle to Pluto (or the indignity!) in 1944's First Aiders:

Figaro still belonged to Minnie, but returned to the starring role in his next short,1946's Bath Day. Apparently nobody told Minnie Mouse that cats are pretty good about bathing themselves (side note: one alley cat that appears in this looks a lot like Pinocchio's other cat, Gideon, at times):

Figaro got top billing in just one more short, 1947's Figaro and Frankie, this time taking on a role perhaps a bit too much like Loony Tune's Sylvester, attempting to eat Minnie's newest pet, a little yellow canary named Frankie. Frankie totally starts it, though. Also, I'm noticing a recurring device in which poor Figaro is forced to kiss his enemy at the end of most of these cartoons: first Cleo, then Pluto, now Frankie!

After that, it was back to playing second banana to Pluto in two more shorts, first coming closest to his Pinocchio routes in Cat Nap Pluto in which Pluto is exhausted from staying out all night, and Figaro keeps trying to wake him to play. In addition to returning to more of that sweet and sour mix, it also features some great real-cat inspired animation. The 1940s and Figaro's career in animated shorts both ended with 1949's Pluto's Sweater. Still living with Minnie, Figaro here has a pretty small part, taunting Pluto for a silly sweater he's made to wear before eventually getting his comeuppance.

That undignified end was the last time Figaro appeared onscreen for 50 years, until retuning in 1999 as Minnie's pet cat in the television series, Mickey Mouse Works. I'll admit I wasn't even aware of this series before researching this post, and... it doesn't look like I was missing much. You can see Figaro not doing very much in this cartoon from the series about Daisy imposing on Minnie's hospitality. That same year, he popped up briefly in Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas. In recent years, he's shown up yet again as Minnie's pet in the preschool-aimed show Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. He shows up very briefly at the end of this clip. It's possible Figaro has more substantial appearances in the show other times, but I can't bring myself to watch anymore of it to find out. Knock yourself out if you want to go looking.

So while it's still been a very long time since Figaro's really been given the spotlight, he has had more of a life outside of this original feature appearance than most Disney characters. And who knows, he could still get another starring role someday. By my count he hasn't used up all nine of his lives quite yet.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sources and Origins: Carlo Collodi's "The Adventures of Pinocchio"

"The Adventures of Pinocchio" by Carlo Collodi is an incredibly imaginative, utterly bizarre, and fast-paced piece of fiction.

The story originally appeared in serialized form in Italian Newspapers, starting in 1881, and was collected in book form in 1883. The serialization accounts for the story's rapid pace and non-stop action: every episode (or chapter) had to contain enough story to entertain on its own, though no single chapter stands as an individual story.

There are a multitude of differences in the details of Collodi's novel of the Disney animated feature (and I'll list a few of the more surprising, funny, or noteworthy ones in a bit), but the biggest difference between the two has to be the characterization of the little puppet boy himself.

Sure, Disney's Pinocchio is pretty naive and has a tendency to make choices based on short-term gratification rather than morality - those are trait's he has in common with Collodi's original, but there is also always a sweetness about him: he loves Gepetto, he wants to be good, he just gets tripped up along the way.

The novel's Pinocchio, on the other hand, spends much of the novel as a mean-spirited, cocky, spiteful monster. He's constantly, willfully choosing to do the wrong thing. He's nasty to almost everyone he encounters, whether they wish to help or harm him. After getting kicked around a lot because of these poor choices, he begins to form a little more of a moral center, but for much of the novel he's an extremely unlikable character. As a result, when he's punished or imperiled (and this is a lot of the time), the reader is likely to either indifferent or even glad, rather than fearful for his well being.

Disney's version is a big improvement, in my opinion. Not only does it make Pinocchio himself a character you don't mind watching for a whole movie, but I think it makes the morals a little stronger too. Collodi's Pinocchio is a nasty little brat, so it's no surprise that his poor decisions get him in trouble. The Disney version shows that even kids who are basically good and want to do the right thing can be tricked off of the right path if they're not careful.
Some of the interesting differences in the novel:
  • Crickets: There's no Jiminy Cricket. There is, however, a character called the Talking Cricket. He meets Pinocchio very early on and gives him some good advice. In response, Pinocchio throws a mallet at him and kills him. Seriously. The Talking Cricket does make a thee more brief appearances in the novel: once as a ghost, then as part of a magically-summoned group of creature doctors, and then inexplicably alive again in the closing chapter.
  • Blue Hair/Blue Fairy: The character than inspired the Blue Fairy is, first, a little girl with blue hair who wants to be Pinocchio's sister. Then she's a fairy with blue hair who volunteers to be his mother. Later, she appears as a goat with a blue mane.
  • Death: At one point, Pinocchio is caught and hung by the fox and the cat. He dies. Collodi actually intended that to be the end of his tale, but public outcry from fans got him to return to the story and bring the puppet boy back to life. The serialized format really came in handy there.
  • Funland/Pleasure Island/Donkeys: This sequence of the novel was adapted the most closely by the Disney movie, but there are still some major differences. Pinocchio's classmate Lampwick lures the puppet away from school with promise of a place called Funland where little boys are free to misbehave and never study. After spending several months there, both boys contract Jackass Fever and completely transform into donkeys. Yes, Pinocchio too goes the full donkey. The man who runs Funland then sells them to separate owners.
  • Pinocchio ends up as a performing donkey in the circus until he breaks a leg. He's then sold to a man who intends to drown him and use his hide to make a drum. Donkey Pinocchio is plunged into the water where - no kidding - he is attacked by fish who eat away all his donkey flesh, revealing the wooden puppet body still underneath. It's really disturbing.
  • Talking Puppet? Not a huge deal. No one seems particularly alarmed or surprised to meet an independently walking and talking puppet boy throughout the novel. In fact, unlike in the Disney movie, he's far from unique. When Pinocchio falls in with a puppet show, somewhat similar to Stromboli's in the movie, ALL of the puppets are thinking, feeling creatures as alive as he is.
  • A last look. One of the things I really like about the Collodi novel that I wish had been more incorporated into the Disney film is the inclusion in the closing chapter of many of the characters Pinocchio had encountered throughout his journey. It's in this chapter that we learn the Talking Cricket is alive (though we don't learn how). We see poor Lampwick again - still a donkey - just before he dies from having been worked to death. The villainous Fox and Cat (obviously the inspiration of J. Worthington "Honest John" Foulfellow and Gideon), are now broke, homeless, and sickly from living as thieves and tricksters. Several other characters - including a fun little slug - get a final appearance too.
  • When Pinocchio becomes a (SPOILER ALERT) real boy at the end of the story, he doesn't transform from a puppet into a boy, he wakes up in a new real boy body. The puppet body still exists, but is now a lifeless husk. Kind of creepy.
NOTE: Illustrations on this post by original Pinocchio artist Enrico Mazzanti.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Haunted Mansion's new queue Part II: Grave errors

On Wednesday, we talked about how the Haunted Mansion has always been presented. The micro-version again: approach creepy house, experience apprehension, threats of danger, and then relief! A logical flow of emotional storytelling.

This week, Walt Disney World's Haunted Mansion began testing big changes to the queue, set for official opening later this month. The new queue is strongly focused on the Disney company's latest favorite buzzword: interactivity.

My friend Ricky Brigante over at Inside the Magic has been leading the way in thoroughly documenting these new additions. Check out his many pictures and videos.

Before I dive in to my complaints, though, there are a couple of details about the update that I like. The old queue passed a modest family plot featuring headstones that paid homage to the designers of the Haunted Mansion. "Grandpa Marc" refers to Marc Davis, the artist responsible for most of the Mansion's character design and gags; "Master Gracey" is Yale Gracey, creator of the Mansion's masterful illusions; "Frances Xavier" is X. Atencio, writer of the attraction's wonderfully wordy script; and so on. The new queue adds several more tributes to the Mansion's planners, including original conceptualist Ken Anderson, maestro of the weird Rolly Crump, and even voice talents Paul Frees (your ghost host) and Thurl Ravenscroft (lead singer of "Grim Grinning Ghosts."

Excellent. Well done, and executed in the spirit and style of the originals. High marks for this.

The three specific headstones mentioned above from the old queue are all back too, but they have strangely been placed right along fencing between rows of the line. The way they're placed now, there's no way to pretend that these headstones actually mark the place where a body is buried! They've become little more than decorative fence posts. I'm glad they weren't thrown away, but the new placement is mind-bogglingly illogical.

Uh... was Grandpa Marc three inches tall?

Now to the interactive additions:

One very prominent feature is a crypt, apparently housing the spirit of the Haunted Mansion organist. On one end, a stone marker in the shape of an organ. On the sides, stone relief images of several musical instruments. A refrain of "Grim Grinning Ghosts" plays endlessly and when guests touch an image of one of the instruments, that sound joins in. By itself, it's a nifty toy, but all that whimsical noise* really ruins the quiet, creepy ambiance outside of the mansion.

The organist's incredibly multi-colored tomb.

Nearby, another huge crypt houses the remains of the a character previously known as the sea captain (seen in painting inside the mansion), now officially named Captain Culpepper Clyne (aside: Captain Culpepper, for me, will forever make me think of Spencer Tracey in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). Water leaks from spots in the crypt and you can occasionally hear the captain singing sea shanties or gurgling within. Bubbles even float out from the tomb when he gurgles. Some Haunted Mansion fans justify this choice by talking about how many whimsical, cartoonish elements are found within the Haunted Mansion itself - even the old queue headstones had humor in their epitaphs. Accepting this kind of whimsical humor in the queue profoundly misunderstands how Davis and his contemporaries used comedy in the initial creation of the mansion.

Yes, there was humor from the get-go, but the all jokes present in the old queue and throughout the first two thirds of the attraction had a darker, more threatening edge to them. The stretching portraits are a perfect example of images that are both comical and disturbing at the same time. Anything that suggested the spirits were content or even joyful in death (like the sea captain's silly singing and bubbles do now) were reserved for the last third of the ride - the part where you're meant to feel relief from the tension that had been building.

Even worse than the leaky crypt is another tomb - that of Prudence Pock - a poetess buried in the new queue. Guests can peer inside her bookshelf-shaped tomb and see a book with words magically appearing on the page. Never mind that tombs with windows and items within don't sound like any kind of tomb I've ever seen before, the terrible part is that you can hear Prudence's cheerful voice asking passersby to help her find the last words for the poems she writes. The voice is sweet, gentle, playful. It sends a clear message to anyone waiting to enter the Haunted Mansion: Don't worry! The ghosts inside are all playful spooks! We're all lots of fun and won't harm you at all!

A window into Prudence Pock's chatty tomb.

Sure, that turns out to be the case, but it's also meant to be a surprise! That's the twist in the Mansion that we only learn we pass through the ballroom - and moreso - the graveyard finale! All this playful, comical, reassuring nonsense in the queue stops the tension from building right when it's supposed to start!

Not only does this demonstrate that the modern day Imagineers who designed this don't understand the emotional flow of the Haunted Mansion, it shows they don't understand the logic of it either.

Yes, the Haunted Mansion is chock-full of ghosts. 999 of them to be exact. As we enter the house, they react to our presence, stretching one room, bending doorways, making unintelligible moaning sounds. Aside from our Ghost Host, that's all they can really do until we reach Madame Leota's séance room.

Leota then performs an elaborate incantation, calling the ghosts out to visit. It's only after this magical summoning is performed that we can see and understand the residents of the Haunted mansion. It's only then that we learn they're just silly spook and grim grinning ghosts.

This is the basic plot of the Mansion! It's very, very simple: You enter an eerie mansion, the building behaves strangely, Madame Leota's magic allows the ghosts to appear and communicate and you learn they're all fun spirits.

Not just a pretty face, Madame Leota has a real purpose in the attraction.

The ghosts cannot communicate with you before Madame Leota performs her spell. They sure as hell cannot chat with you politely or sing sea shanties for you in the broad daylight of the line for the ride!

Once again, the Haunted Mansion was a masterpiece created by true artists at the absolute height of their creative and artistic powers. It's hubris for modern Imagineers to believe they can improve on the works of Marc Davis, Rolly Crump, Ken Anderson, X. Atencio, and the rest. Beyond technological improvements to enhance the appearance or sound of what is already there, please stop monkeying with the Haunted Mansion. You're painted a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

The Sea Captain may be singing shanties in his grave, but Marc Davis is rolling in his**.

The way things were.

* I can say one other nice thing about the new Haunted Mansion queue. It is (at least for the time being) optional. Before getting to it, there is a fork in the line and guests can either choose to enter it or stick to the old path. Here's hoping it stays that way (and that the unwelcome noises of the interactive queue can't be heard from the old one).

** Well, he would be
if he had one anyway.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Live Action Films: Darby O'Gill and the Little People

St. Patrick's Day is a holiday whose celebrations are predominantly focused around the very adult activity of drinking a lot of alcoholic beverages. Still, there are
aspects of the holiday that appeal to kids too - the threat of pinches if you're caught without any green clothing and, of course, the holiday's chief mascots: the bonnie wee leprechauns. I'm surprised that, unlike other major holidays, a movie or television special has never arisen as being traditional kid-viewing for St. Patrick's Day, especially since a perfect candidate already exists in Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

Darby O'Gill (Albert Sharpe) is the cheerful caretaker of a wealthy landowner's estate in a small village in the Irish countryside and has it pretty good. He gets to live in the estate's fine gatehouse with his beloved daughter Katie (Janet Munro), apparently doesn't work very much, and spends most of his time down at the pub drinking and winning the admiration of his neighbors by telling tales of his encounters with leprechauns. His favorite story involves the time he captured Brian Connors (Jimmy O'Dea), the king of the leprechauns, and how he nearly won three wishes from the wee monarch before the wily scamp tricked him and escaped.

Unfortunately, that comfy life begins to unravel when Darby's employer, sensing the old fellow is getting a bit too elderly to perform his duties, decides to replace him with a strapping young lad named Michael McBride (played by a pre-Bond Sean Connery, looking at times remarkably like a kinder Gaston from Beauty and the Beast). Darby will be forced to retire, meaning his income will be halved, and he and Katie will have to move out of the nice gatehouse into a crappy shed.

Distraught, Darby comes up with a desperate plan: hunt down the king of the leprechauns and win from him the three wishes he'd lost before. After an accidental (and musical) excursion into the Leprechaun kingdom itself, Darby eventually succeeds in his goal of capturing King Brian. O'Gill is smart enough to know that one has to be very careful with wishes though, and decides not to spend his all at once. The remainder of the movie involves Darby and King Brian matching wits as O'Gill tries to keep the leprechaun captive long enough to figure out how to spend his wishes to find the best measure of happiness for himself and, more importantly, Katie.

Darby O'Gill and the Little People is a charming tale full of the good-natured fun and enjoyable corn you'd expect from a live-action Disney comedy from 1959. In its closing scenes, though, the movie smartly mixes in a few drams of both horror and pathos to keep the whole affair from being so light that it becomes inconsequential. As Darby himself smartly observes while pondering his final wish, "Human beings need bitter with the sweet. When I was a lad knee high with a sod of turf, my gradfather Podge, God be good to him, he told me there was only one man in the town who was happy altogether: the village idiot." Darby and King Brian's final exchange contains a clever twist on their first encounter, and provides the perfect
ending to their battle of wits and wills.
Alan Sharpe as the endearing Darby O'Gill.

If you track down a copy of Darby O'Gill today, it's Connery's face you'll see most prominantly featured on the packaging. That makes sense, of course, since he went on to become a huge celebrity a few years later, but don't let that fool you. Darby O'Gill is very much the central character of this story, and much of the sucess of the film rests on Sharpe's performance. Fortunately, the old codger is strong enough to carry the load. With his Irish eyes always smiling, Sharpe delivers and enormously charismatic performance. The audience cares about what happens largely because we like Darby O'Gill, and that's the result of Sharpe's winning smile at least as much as it is due to the script or direction or any other factor.

Jimmy O'Dea's King Brian in trouble.

Munro is lovely and likable as Katie. Connery isn't asked to do much more than be handsome and charming, which of course he's more than capable of handling. O'Dea is delightful as King Brian. Certainly he's a bit silly and over-the-top at times, but that seems only fitting for a leprechaun in a fairy tale story. He and Sharpe display remarkable chemistry and timing despite the fact that they were never really even looking at one another due to the demands of the special effects.

Most of those special effects hold up astonishlingly well for a movie made in 1959. I was scratching my head through most of the film, wondering how the blue screen effect of making the leprechauns appear tiny was so seamlessly achieved, when I knew movies made decades later didn't acomplish this nearly as well. Fortunately, the DVD extras provided the answer: there was no use of blue screen: instead, forced perspective was used whenever Darby and one of the leprechauns appeared together.

A lot of work went into making this casual chat look real.

This means Sharpe was positioned close to the camera while O'Dea (and the other Leprechaun actors) were positioned many feet farhter away. Sets were built for each of them to appropriate scale and carefully lined up in such a way that they'd look like a solid piece to the camera (and viewer). The actors were given fixed points offscreen to aim their eyes toward so they'd appear to be looking at one another. This all required painstaking planning and careful execution by director Robert Stevenson and effects master Peter Ellenshaw and it is to their credit that even to modern eyes, the many shots of Darby and King Brian together all still look utterly convincing.

For whom does the banshee cry?

Chroma key effects involving a wailing, floating bansee and another ethereal visitor (no spoilers about that here) haven't aged quite as well. They're not outright embrarassments, but they do look a little old-fashioned and slightly silly now.

Darby isn't a perfect movie. It's a little slow at times. Villain Pony Sugrue is pretty unmotivated in his antagonism. With only two songs, it seems like a halfhearted attempt at being a musical. Certain elements seem strangely unexplained (particuarly Darby's horse being a Pooka - did I miss the story behind that?). All in all, though, it's many charms outweigh the negatives. If you're looking to start a new St. Patrick's Day tradition besides (or in addition to) drinking too much green beer, you could do a lot worse than Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

I give it 7 out of 10 mice:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

No hoax: first pictures of the (animated) Loch Ness Monster

Now that Disney owns Pixar, it looks like they're adopting the smaller (but lately more successful) company's wonderful habits: making animated shorts that play in front of their animated features.

Of course, Disney used to do this itself, but has long since dropped the habit. I'm happy to hear the upcoming Winnie the Pooh feature will be preceeded by an animated short, The Ballad of Nessie. The first few images from Nessie were released this week. Let's take a look!

Well, I'm in love already. Not only are we set in Scotland, home of my ancestors, but we have some plaid highlands in the background, very reminiscent of the Scotland scene in the "it's a small world" attraction.

Here's Nessie bathing in what I presume is not actually Loch Ness (unless maybe this is about Loch Ness becoming much larger than a puddle).

A close up of Nessie and a little (rubber?) duck wearing a Scottish tam. OK, Disney. I wasn't super-excited about going to see Winnie the Pooh, but you've sure got my money with Nessie. Please continue the trend!

AND it features music by Up's Oscar-winning composer Michael Giaccino! It's hard to imagine this won't be great.

The Haunted Mansion's new queue Part I: the way things were

The Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World unveiled a drastically reimagined queue this week. I am not happy about it.

I'll start with a little confession: despite my experience as an honorary Jungle Cruise skipper and despite being the webskipper of, my favorite Disney attraction is and has always been The Haunted Mansion (a concession to my confession: if I were to actually work at a Disney park, I'd still rather be a skipper, though).

I don't feel like I'm exaggerating in the slightest when I say the Haunted Mansion is a genuine work of art - a masterpiece of its genre. The world of paintings has the Mona Lisa, the stage has its "Hamlet," cinema has Citizen Kane, and theme parks have The Haunted Mansion. The difference is that no one ever goes back and tries to alter paintings, plays, or (with a few weirdo exceptions - I'm looking at you, George Lucas) movies. Theme park attractions - and especially Disney park attractions - are prone to be revisited, refurbished, and updated. Walt Disney himself was in favor of this, wanting the attractions to be kept fresh and therefore always interesting to repeat visitors.

Despite my admitted traditionalist streak, I know this isn't always a bad thing. Many attractions have been improved or kept vital through updates. My beloved Jungle Cruise started out as a fact-based, educational adventure before being reimagined into the yuk-fest it is today - and thank goodness for that! The Haunted Mansion itself has received updates and alterations in the past that I've applauded (greaat sound and lighting improvements were added in 2007). Even the queue received the addition of a somewhat lively headstone for Madame Leota a few years back - one that occasionally opens its eyes and looks around before falling still again, and I love it. Take a look:

These new additions, though, are a disaster.

Here, in a nutshell, has what it's always been like to experience The Haunted Mansion: You approach an imposing, foreboding-looking mansion. To one side is a sparse family plot dotted with several headstones, most of which have strange, darkly humorous epitaphs inscribed on them. First time visitors have no idea what to expect within - obviously something at least someone sinister. Something howls in the distance - a dog? A wolf? The wind? Finally, the doors open and you're ushered inside. A disembodied voice welcomes you and explains that you have entered a haunted mansion. You will be made to tour the building before you are released. The ghost host tells you that you will not be harmed, but something about the tone of his voice fails to entirely assure you that he's telling the whole truth.

You travel through several rooms of the house and begin to see signs of the home's haunted nature - books that slide around a bookshelf on their own, doors that seem to bulge impossibly as being pushed by something on the other side. Strange moans and wails fill the halls. Something (or things) are trying to get at you, and despite the ghost host's promises, it's hard not to find the whole affair a little creepy.

Then you meet Madame Leota - a talking head inside a crystal ball. She's muttering an incantation that the ghost host tells you will make the heretofore unseen spirits visible. After that, you see the mansion's residents - first from a distance - partying away in a grand ballroom below, and finally pretty close by in the graveyard outside the house. That's when you really see that they're not sinister spirits at all, but happily singing, drinking, and partying ghosts enjoying one another's company in the afterlife.

The WDW graveyard as it appeared during the attraction's first 39 1/2 years.

The even shorter version - creepy house, feelings of dread, threats of danger, and then relief!

While not overtly telling a story, it's a perfect experience that follow the emotional flow and pace of a traditional three-act story.

The new queue manages to ruin all of those things - the tone, the flow, the build-up - all before you even step foot within the mansion's walls! Come back Friday for part II to hear me explain and complain (tomorrow we'll have a special St. Patrick's Day review).

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

From the Movies to the Parks: Pinocchio

Let's say you're trying to decide between a vacation at California's Disneyland or Walt Disney World in Florida. If, in this hypothetical scenario you're a big fan of Pinocchio, the choice is easy. There's a lot more of the little wooden puppet at...

Pinocchio's Daring Journey opened along with a drastically refurbished Fantasyland in 1983 and fits right in with the classic movie-based dark rides that had long populated this area of the park. It condenses the film's story into a delightful three-minute ride.

Adjacent to the attraction is an eatery that's based on the same movie. Stop in to The Village Haus for a counter service meal in a building based on Gepetto's cozy home. Enjoy your (ITALIAN!) pizza among lovely woodcarvings.

The least frightening ride... with the most frightening entrance.

To enter the land of miniature houses that is Storybook Land Canal Boats, Disneyland guests ride a boat into the gaping maw of Pinocchio's Monstro the whale. Once there, they can see Pinocchio's village among the tiny settings. Pinocchio (looking kind of plump) also shows up in the Pleasure Island Italian section of it's a small world.

Pinocchio in Fantasmic!

There's even a Pinocchio segment in Fantasmic, the nighttime spectacular seen on the Rivers of America.

Does not have the Pinocchio attraction nor a Storybook Canal Boats. Pinocchio doesn't appear in it's a small world there, and its version of Fantasmic does not include the Pinocchio segment.

It does still have a Village Haus restaurant in Fantasyland, though. So there's that.

Disneyland Paris has it's own version of Pinocchio's Daring Journey (called Les Voyages de Pinocchio and the Storybook Land Canal Boats.

Tokyo also has Pinocchio's Daring Journey, and the little guy also shows up in Hong Kong's version of it's a small world.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mo-cap mistake, Mars, misses mark

The Disney release Mars Needs Moms opened over the weekend and bombed hard, opening in 5th place and bringing in only 6.8 million.


Disney, please take this as a message that you should leave hip, ugly, loud, and crass to the other studios and go back to what made you the (one time) leader in animation: timelessness, artistry, music, and heart.

And stop with these motion-capture semi-animated monstrosities. So far this combination of animation and actor has only served to dilute the skills of both artists. Motion capture is a tool that has certain uses in live-action fantasies, but making a whole movie that way doesn't make sense to me. I've never seen a motion-captured face that has half the life of a Pixar character.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Prophets and puppets get swallowed by whales

As I was watching Pinocchio again to prepare to write about it for The Disney Revue, I got to thinking about the Monstro sequence and wondering what connection it might have to the story of Jonah in the Bible. After all, it seemed unlikely that modern storytellers would write a sequence involving someone being swallowed whole and surviving for a time in the belly of a whale without at least knowing we'd wonder about what parallels they'd intended with Jonah.

But I'm no Biblical scholar. All I really knew about the story of Jonah was that he was some guy in the bible who (like Gepetto) was swallowed by a whale, survived for a time inside, and eventually escaped.

So I sought out the story. Here's the micro/Cliff's notes version: Jonah was a Jewish prophet whom God asked to go to the city of Nineveh and tell the people there to straighten up their act. Fearing the reaction of his people if he did, and fearing the retribution of God if he didn't, Jonah chose to run away, leaving Israel by ship. Soon, a huge tempest came, threatening to kill everyone on board. Jonah explains this is happening because of him and urges the crew to throw him overboard to save themselves, which they eventually do.
Unfortunately, once he was tossed into the sea, Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish. Fortunately, that fish is not big on chewing. Jonah finally repents for his sins and for shirking his duties and is forgiven by God who forces the fish to barf him back out onto land. Jonah then fulfills his duty and things end up great.

But what does this have to do with Pinocchio? Why did poor Gepetto get swallowed by the whale? I couldn't think of any sins Gepetto needed to repent or duties that he had shirked. Aside from whale-swallowing incidents, the pair seemed to have nothing in common.

Then it hit me: Gepetto isn't analogous to Jonah - Pinocchio is! Like Jonah, Pinocchio shirks his responsibilities. Instructed to go to school and learn to be intelligent, honest, and good, he instead runs away - first to join Stromboli's puppet show, and then again to Pleasure Island. After his hardships, Pinocchio learns Gepetto has been looking for him and has been swallowed by Monstro. Like Jonah, he sees that his selfish choices are causing danger and hardship for others, and like Jonah he chooses to be tossed into the sea.

Once there, he too is swallowed by a massive fish, and what does he do once he's inside? Like Jonah, he faces his creator (in this case, Gepetto), admits his sins, and asks for (and is granted) forgiveness.

The only thing that would make the whole thing neater was if Jonah had a talking cricket along for company.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Way down in New Orleans... Square

To celebrate Mardi Gras, here are some pictures from around Disneyland's New Orleans Square that I took last year:

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Chronological Canon: Pinocchio

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a smash hit. The first animated feature in the world was a critical and financial success for Disney, and the world wanted more. It would've been easy to feed all that demand something similar to Snow White - another romantic princess story, perhaps, or even a direct sequel - b ut Uncle Walt wasn't interested in repeating himself or playing it safe. Instead, he decided to follow up the simple romantic tale of a princess with an episodic and bizarre boy's adventure story: Pinocchio.

Having changed the worlds of animation, cinema, and musical storytelling with Snow White, it would be easy to believe the Disney animators might hit the fabled sophomore slump with their second outing, but Pinocchio doesn't just live up to its legendary predecessor, it exceeds it.

That step-up in quality is apparent almost immediately too, as the movie opens with Jiminy Cricket (through the voice of Cliff Edwards) crooning the song that would go on to become the Disney national anthem: "When You Wish Upon a Star." That's the stand-out in a group of songs (music by Leigh Harline and lyrics by Ned Washington) in which every one is a winner - from the infectious seduction of "Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee," to the catchy swing of "Give a Little Whistle," to the sweet simplicity of "Little Wooden Head." Following up on the songs-as-storytelling notion they'd pioneered with Snow White, the songs in Pinocchio are even more integrated into the story - and twice as memorable.

I noticed during my latest viewing that Pinocchio is full of songs in its first half, and almost entirely devoid of them in the second (save for a brief reprise of "High-Diddle-Dee-Dee"). Intellectually, I started to think of that as a negative, but the truth is it really doesn't feel that way. It's totally right that the innocent beginning of the story is full of musical fun, but as the story gets darker and Pinocchio begins to mature, there's no time for such musical breaks. The weird, lopsided use of song actually makes complete sense.

The characters too, are an embarrassment of riches. Jiminy Cricket (the real star of the movie, in my humble opinion) is thoroughly delightful. Whoever's idea it was to take a minor, preachy character from Carlo Collodi's source novel and translate him into the heart of this film, it was a stroke of genius. Jiminy is the classic little guy with more moxie than stature. He's as much our guide through the story as he is Pinocchio's, and his presence makes the whole strange assortment gel.

Pinocchio himself is pretty adorable - a loveable kid who means well, but whose naiveté and tendency to get distracted keep getting him into trouble. Honest John is a fantastic foil - charismatic and malice mixed in a perfectly roguish package. Gepetto is both goofily endearing and eminently pitiable (especially in the movie's opening - desperate to give fatherly affection and sharing what he can with his cat, his fish, and his lifeless puppet). And if you don't love Figaro, well, I'm not sure you're capable of love.

Even characters whose appearances are relatively brief - like puppet master Stromboli and bad-boy Lampwick - make a big impression.Speaking of those last two, it's also to Pinocchio's credit that, for all its warmth and good-natured charm, the movie (like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) does not shy away from genuine darkness. In fact, for my money, Lampwick's big scene on Pleasure Island is among the most frightening scenes to appear in mainstream, family entertainment.

Let's look at it: we start with Pinocchio and Lampwick enjoying cigars, what appears to be beer, and pool in a Pleasure Island billiards joint. Pinocchio is enamored with Lampwick's swagger, but to Jiminy (and the audience), he's an obnoxious blowhard. We don't like Lampy very much, yet what comes next is still deeply disturbing. Slowly, piece by piece, he begins to transform into a donkey. He's literally becoming the jackass we see him to be. But the transformation doesn't only reflect his true nature - it also reveals more of it. When he realizes what's happening, the braggadocio and affectations of adulthood all instantly disappear, and Lampwick is reduced to a frightened child desperately crying for his mother. As he loses his hands (oh that shot of his shaking hands becoming hooves!) and finally loses even his voice, he throws himself into a mindless, terrified tantrum, smashing up the inside of the pool hall with his new mule legs. This brash young kid who had been so annoying moments before is suddenly an object of horrified pity - that's powerful storytelling.

Equally powerful (or nearly anyway), but with the opposite emotion, is the reunion of Pinocchio and Gepetto. Down at the bottom of the ocean, swallowed by the terrifying Monstro, the pair couldn't be in more dire straits, yet they're elated upon seeing each other once again. Gepetto's instant and complete forgiveness of Pinocchio is a beautiful expression of fatherly love, and proves the impetus for the pair's salvation, and Pinocchio's ultimate transformation into a real boy.

I'm sure if I looked really hard for faults, I could come up with something. I'm sure I could say Pinocchio isn't a nearly perfect movie, but I think by now you would know that I was lying, whether you could see my nose or not.

I'm giving Pinocchio a perfect score of 10 out of 10 mice.

There's lots more content related to this movie coming during the rest of this month - a comparison between the movie and the Carlo Collodi novel, a look at how the story's connection to the Biblical tale of Jonah, a character spotlight on a member of the supporting cast who went on to have a career outside of the movie (hint: no, I don't mean Jiminy), and more!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Next stop, Paradise Falls

National Geographic knows that "adventure is out there!" and have built a replica of Carl and Ellie Fredrickson's house from Up... complete with balloons... and it really flies!

For some reason, there is no info about this on National Geographic's site, but you can read about it an see more pictures on Gizmondo

Friday, March 4, 2011

Pinocchio trivia answer

Congratulations to Disney Revue reader Caroline who correctly answered yesterday's trivia question, remembering Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland as the two other titles sitting on the shelf at the start of Pinocchio.

See? She was right.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Pinocchio trivia question

Before we get to our Pinocchio review, a Trivia question for you!

TRIVIA QUESTION: In the opening scene of Pinocchio, we see Jiminey Cricket singing "When You Wish Upon a Star" on a bookshelf before opening a copy of Pinocchio to start the story. What two other titles are legible on other books on the shelf, both to be later adapted into Disney animated features?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Big BUZZ on new Disney attraction to become a movie!

Big news today about an upcoming Disney film. But I think I'll direct you over to my Jungle Cruise site for the details (which is a hint about the subject, but wait until you learn about the cast!

Your favorite Disney couples

Our poll about your favorite Disney couples closed at the end of February, and the votes were all over the place. Of the 13 options, only Snow White and her nameless prince didn't earn a single vote. There was a three way tie for first place, between Disney's premiere couple: Mickey and Minnie, a recent favorite: Tiana and Naveen, and a surprising dark horse candidacy: Bernard and Bianca from The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under.

I was glad to see so much diversity in the voting, means you guys are fans of the whole catalog and not just the biggest names. Vote now in our new Pinocchio-centric poll!