Studio Ghibli Fest 2017

“Castle in the Sky”

This month’s entry for GKIDS’ Studio Ghibli Fest 2017 was Hayao Miyazaki’s 1986 action-adventure pic Castle in the Sky (which is also sometimes referred to as Laputa: Castle in the Sky). I was able to see the English sub version this week at my local Cinemark.

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(© Studio Ghibli)

In the film, a young orphan girl named Sheeta is in possession of a magic crystal that other people aggressively want, namely the mysterious Colonel Muska and a family of pirates led by their mother, the relentless Captain Dola. Sheeta falls (literally) into the life of orphan boy Pazu, who happens to know about a floating city in the sky–a mysterious place that his now-deceased father was able to photograph before he died. Turns out that Muska and the pirates are looking for the floating city, too, and that Sheeta’s magic crystal is the key to finding it.

The adventure that follows is so fun, so inventive, and so delightful, I was pretty much in movie heaven for the entire screening. And after it was over, I couldn’t believe that it’s taken me all these years to see this wonderful film.

The film’s soundtrack by Studio Ghibli regular Joe Hisaishi is also a major highlight. Here’s a sample.

My friend Rachel Wagner invited me to be a part of her Studio Ghibli Fest 2017 podcast series and our initial reactions to Castle in the Sky are here.

Major thanks to GKIDS and Fathom Events for screening this delightful film. Can’t wait for next month’s entry in the Studio Ghibli Fest 2017, Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

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Blu-ray Review

“The Lion King”

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ perennial favorite The Lion King (1994) is back on Blu-ray (and DVD and Digital HD), this time as “The Circle of Life Edition” under the “Walt Disney Signature Collection” moniker. The film is currently available for download on your favorite Digital HD platforms and the new Blu-ray version gets released this Tuesday, August 29.

(© Disney)

Chances are excellent that, if you’re a Disney fan, you already own a copy of The Lion King on DVD, Blu-ray, or VHS. The Lion King is the fifth Disney animated motion picture title to join the “Walt Disney Signature Collection” established in 2016 (previous titles are Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio, and Bambi). While it’s unclear to me why this new collection even exists (other than to possibly provide a new simplified “halo” brand for Disney’s home entertainment offerings and/or to generate more revenue), having a pristine Blu-ray copy of these beloved films along with the opportunity to have Digital HD copies of them (if you’re into building up your digital film collection like I am) is always a good idea. But is this new “Walt Disney Signature Collection”/”The Circle of Life Edition” (whatever that means) worth your time and money?

The film’s digital transfer is gorgeous (which I also thought of the 2011 Blu-ray release). It was a pleasure to watch this beautifully animated film again. Included on the Blu-ray is a brand new sing-along version that displays fancy subtitles during all of the film’s songs. I watched some of this version as well and the subtitles are done in a colorful and fun way which should be very appealing to young readers. Probably the more compelling reason to get this new version is to have your own digital copy of the film (again, if you’re into that).

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(© Disney)

The new special features are a mixed bag. My favorites were the “Inside the Story Room” segments where co-directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff reunite and introduce some fascinating video footage of the film’s storyboard presentations from 1993 when the film was in production. Some of these I had seen before and some I had not, but I enjoyed them all. I also liked “Nathan and Matthew: The Extended Lion King Conversation” where Matthew Broderick (voice of adult Simba) and Nathan Lane (voice of Timon) meet up with former Disney Animation chief Thomas Schumacher and talk about the making of the film. My only complaint is that the segment was too short.

Other special features (which may vary by retailer) include a dance and paint performance piece by artist David Garibaldi and a team of modern dancers called “Visualizing a Villain”; video footage of some of the film’s vocal talent recording their dialogue for the film superimposed on top of the final animated clips called “The Recording Sessions”; and an audio commentary track with producer Don Hahn and co-directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. Other specifications for the release are at the bottom of this post.

The timing of this re-release is confusing to me, since the “reimagined live-action” (aka photo-realistic CGI) remake of the film directed by Jon Favreau is currently in production isn’t scheduled to be released until 2019 and there’s no other promotional thing to tie it to (even the Broadway musical is still going strong–it’s now the third-longest running musical in Broadway history behind The Phantom of the Opera and Chicago; Cats comes in fourth). It will also be interesting going forward to see what Disney does with all of their home entertainment releases with the recent announcement of their own exclusive streaming service to begin in 2019.

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“Remember who you are.” (© Disney)

Still, I’m happy to have both a beautiful Blu-ray and new Digital HD copy of this beloved film which I hope that my friends, family, and I will be able to enjoy for years to come. So, if Digital HD is your thing or you just need a new version of the film, the “Walt Disney Signature Collection” version of The Lion King is a winner. (And I still don’t have a clue what “The Circle of Life Edition” means other than it’s just a name for this 2017 release.)

My rating of The Lion King film: 5 out of 5 stars

My rating of “The Circle of Life Edition” Blu-ray special features: 3 out of 5 stars

And speaking of “The Circle of Life,” here are are a couple of covers of that great song for your listening pleasure. First up is a rendition the Mormon Tabernacle Choir along with YouTube star Alex Boyé  recorded at a concert last month (I sing bass with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and performing this song was a real treat for this Disney nerd).

I promise you that I don’t keep up on boy bands, but it really does seem like 98 Degrees hasn’t been doing much for years. (The last I even remember seeing Nick Lachey was in his MTV Newlyweds days with his now ex-wife Jessica Simpson.) However, 98 Degrees’ newly recorded cover of “The Circle of Life” is also a fun one.

Specifications (Movie Only)

Product Offerings

Blu-ray Combo Pack (Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy); Digital HD/SD; DVD

Feature Run Time

Approximately 89 minutes

Rating

G by the Motion Picture Association of America

Aspect Ratio

Blu-ray/1080p High Definition/DVD – 1.78:1

Audio

Blu-ray – DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 (English); Dolby Digital 5.1 (Spanish and French)

DVD – Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Spanish, and French)

Subtitles

English ESL, English SDH, French, and Spanish

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Disney Movie of the Month

“The Happiest Millionaire”

I recently re-watched Disney’s 1967 live-action musical The Happiest Millionaire. This was the last live-action film that Walt Disney worked directly on before his untimely death in 1966.

Original theatrical release poster (© Disney)

The film is based on a non-musical stage play of the same title by Kyle Crichton, which in turn was based on the book My Philadelphia Father by Cordelia (“Cordy”) Drexel Biddle and Kyle Crichton.

Trying to capitalize on the “roadshow” (three-hour event-style movies with reserved seating) movie musical mania sweeping across the U.S.A. (think The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady), the Disney Studios heads put together an impressive creative team and cast for the project. Directed by Norman Tokar, and with songs by Richard and Robert Sherman (the soundtrack is available on Apple Music), the film had an all-star cast, including Fred MacMurray in the title role, Greer Garson, Tommy Steele, Gladys Cooper, and Geraldine Page, along with newcomers Leslie Ann Warren and John Davidson.

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Walt Disney on the set with the cast of THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE (© Disney)

The story is focused on Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (played by the always great Fred MacMurray), a highly eccentric millionaire living in Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century, along with his wife (played by the luminous Greer Garson in her final big screen role), and their three children–two boys (who are only in one scene of the film) and daughter Cordelia/”Cordy” (played by Leslie Ann Warren in her first film role; this character wrote the book upon which the film is based). When Cordy goes off to finishing school and falls in love with the Angie Duke (played by John Davidson in his first film role, too), who is also a child of wealthy parents, the romance sends both mega-rich families into a mega-competitive tail spin and the young lovers into a state of confusion. It’s up to the Biddle’s family butler John Lawless (played by Tommy Steele) to help bring the young lovers and their families back together. (For an excellent, entertaining, and thorough recap of the entire plot, please visit the blog of my movie buddy Ibraheem.)

Although it was the last movie to bear the personal imprint of Walt Disney himself, sadly, I find the film to be quite a snooze-fest (particularly given its 170-minute run time) and really not one of the studio’s best. Film historian and critic Leonard Maltin in his fantastic book The Disney Films (Disney Editions, 2000), said this about the film’s plot:

“The film has a few lulls, although if one examined it objectively to prune out the extraneous matter, two-thirds of the film might go down the drain.”

John the butler (Tommy Steele) wrangling one of the family’s alligators in THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE (© Disney)

One of the challenges of the film for me is that it unsuccessfully and unsatisfyingly straddles the fine line between realism and whimsy. The role of the butler John Lawless illustrates this point. Leonard Maltin said:

“Most reviewers agree that Tommy Steele as John Lawless was one of the film’s saving graces, but he too throws things off balance, for his singing and dancing music-hall style, and comic antics with the alligators make it more difficult to understand whether this is supposed to be realistic or whimsical. The film, as a result, fails in both departments.”

Leslie Ann Warren and John Davidson falling in love in THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE (© Disney)

What I did love about the film are its gorgeous sets and costumes and just seeing these wonderful actors on screen. Set designers Emil Kuri and Frank R. McKelvy and costume designer Bill Thomas really did outstanding work on this production. Some art used in the creation of the film, along with some components of the set, have ended up in Disneyland park over the years (check out this interview with Leslie Ann Warren on the official Disney Parks Blog). And, really, when is it not a pleasure to watch a movie with Fred MacMurray or Greer Garson in it?

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Greer Garson and Fred MacMurray in THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE (© Disney)

I really hate to be negative, particularly about a Disney movie, for crying out loud. While imperfect, The Happiest Millionaire definitely has some things to like. Leonard Maltin says it best:

The Happiest Millionaire is no classic. It is, however, a lively and largely entertaining film. When one considers the ratio of good to bad films in Disney’s career, one misfire isn’t such a disgrace.”

My rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

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Blu-ray Review

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is now available for your viewing pleasure on your Digital HD platform of choice, Blu-ray, DVD, and, for the first time for a Marvel Studios film, in 4K Ultra HD. I saw the film in theaters this summer and loved watching it again, this time on Blu-ray Disc.

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(© Marvel Studios)

In this sequel to the original 2014 film, Peter Quill/Star-Lord (played by Christ Pratt), Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana), Drax (played by Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) have some serious issues to deal with. Rocket has ticked off a group of high-powered (and gold plated) meanies known as “The Sovereign.” Dueling sisters Gamora and Nebula (played by Karen Gillan) are at it again. Yondu (played by Michael Rooker) and his team of Ravagers are back in the mix. And Peter Quill meets his long-lost father from outer space, Ego (played by Kurt Russell), along with his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who are about to make all of the Guardians’ lives, well, rather interesting.

The film is both a sci-fi/comic book extravaganza and a surprisingly touching character study that furthers the relationships between all of the Guardians characters. The CG-special effects are terrific and continue in the tradition of outstanding visual effects work in Marvel Studios’ films. The performances are also great, particularly Michael Rooker. Hats off to writer and director James Gunn for bringing the whole thing to life and for delivering an irreverent, entertaining, and satisfying sequel.

The special features on the Blu-ray are all fun (and may vary by retailer). This music video of one of the songs used in the film’s end credits is also a hoot.

The Blu-ray includes the film’s original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and looked great. The Blu-ray’s DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 audio mix was also terrific (and made me jealous of those watching it at home on a 4K TV since the 4K Ultra HD disc contains a Dolby Atmos audio mix; specifications are listed at the bottom of this post).

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 definitely earns its MPAA PG-13 rating for “sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive content.”

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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(© Marvel Studios)

As an added bonus, the good folks at Marvel Studios sent over some cool concept art from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

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(© Marvel Studios)

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(© Marvel Studios)

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(© Marvel Studios)

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(© Marvel Studios)

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(© Marvel Studios)

Specifications (Movie Only)

Product Offerings

Digital – 4K UHD with HDR (HDR-10 or Dolby Vision), HD, SD

Physical – Cinematic Universe 4K UHD Combo Pack (4K UHD with HDR, Blu-ray, Digital Copy), Blu-ray Combo Pack (Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy), DVD and Exclusive Blu-ray 3D Combo Pack

On Demand – Available August 22, 2017; check with your local providers

Feature Run Time

Approx. 136 minutes

Rating

PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America

Aspect Ratio

2:39.1

Audio

4K Ultra HD (with Blu-ray) – Dolby Atmos (English); Dolby Digital Plus 7.1 (English, Spanish); Dolby Digital 5.1 (French); Descriptive Audio 2.0 (English)

4K Ultra HD (Digital HD) – Dolby Atmos (English; platform dependent); Dolby Digital 5.1 (English); Descriptive Audio 2.0 (English)

Blu-ray – DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 (English); Descriptive Audio 2.0 (English); Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish)

DVD – Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish); Descriptive Audio 2.0 (English)

Subtitles

4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray – English SDH, French, Spanish

(© Marvel Studios)

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Classic Cinema

Farewell to The Great Movie Ride

Another attraction is biting the dust at Disney’s Hollywood Studios park at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The Great Movie Ride presented by TCM closed permanently yesterday. It’s making way for a new attraction called Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railcar.

The Great Movie Ride made me really happy. It’s a merger of two of my favorite things–a Disney theme park attraction and classic movies. Plus, it was housed inside the Disney theme park version of the world famous Chinese Theater (which still exists today on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, California, and is still one of the best places in the country to see a movie; in the context of this park, the Chinese Theater served as its symbolic castle).

I was able to score a ticket to a special farewell event for the attraction sponsored by the TCM Backlot and D23 fan clubs held on Saturday, August 12, 2017, one day before the attraction’s closure. They took us into the Disney’s Hollywood Studios park early in the morning before the park’s regular opening, gave us a walking tour of the entire attraction, and then gave us one final ride.

While this attraction was a bit long in the tooth, so to speak, it was grand, it was ambitious, it was one-of-a-kind, and it was all about the love of classic Hollywood movies. Needless to say, I loved the ride and will miss it.

Here are some photos from the farewell event I attended (all photos taken by yours truly).

Our group was taken into the park at 7:00 a.m.–two hours before park opening

 

The Chinese Theatre — Disney World style

 

The ride’s marquee

 

The ride’s poster

 

Getting some instructions and some historical context before entering the ride

 

We’re going in

 

In the queue room with the great film genre intros by Robert Osborne, long-time host of Turner Classic Movies

 

The queue room

 

Load room

 

Walking through the attraction!

 

I love TCM

 

The Busby Berkeley girls from FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933; the bubble machine was turned off so people wouldn’t slip on the floor)

 

Gene Kelly in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)

 

Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in MARY POPPINS (1964); this is only one of two Disney movies represented on the ride–not counting the movie montage at the end

 

James Cagney in THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931)

 

The gangster film room

 

Clint Eastwood, from any number of films, probably one of his Spaghetti westerns

 

John Wayne, most likely from RIO BRAVO (1959)

 

The western film room

 

The Nostromo spaceship room from ALIEN (1979)

 

Signourney Weaver from ALIEN (1979)

 

The RAIDER OF THE LOST ARK room

 

Harrison Ford and John Rhys-Davies from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1982)

 

Cheetah and Maureen O’Sullivan from one of their TARZAN movies from the 1930s (Tarzan was a no show)

 

The CASABLANCA scene! My favorite.

 

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in CASABLANCA (1942). “We’ll always have Paris.”

 

Mickey Mouse in FANTASIA (1940). The second and final Disney movie represented in the ride and precursor of things to come (the new Mickey and Minnie Runaway Railcar attraction looks to be a screen-based attraction).

 

THE WIZARD OF OZ room

 

More of THE WIZARD OF OZ room

 

You know what to do

 

And we did

 

Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Judy Garland, and Jack Haley in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

 

The movie montage/finale room (which nearly as fun when it’s turned off)

 

Have I mentioned lately how much I love TCM?

Disney hasn’t wasted any time. Today (August 14, 2017), these new signs were added at the Chinese Theater. (Photos from BlogMickey.com and wdwnt.com; used without permission.)

I’m hoping that with the Chinese Theatre in the background, the existing facade will remain with the new attraction. Time will tell.

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Studio Ghibli Fest 2017

“Kiki’s Delivery Service”

This month’s entry in GKIDS’ Studio Ghibli Fest 2017 was Hayao Miyazaki’s delightful 1989 film Kiki’s Delivery Service. Sadly, I missed seeing it on the big screen on July 24 due to a pesky summer cold so I had to do a Studio Ghibli Fest 2017 “Home Edition” and watch the film on DVD.


The story follows a teenage witch named Kiki and her cat Jiji. In the film’s mythos, when witches turn 13 years old, they leave home for a year, pick a new place to live, and learn to get by on their own. On Kiki’s 13th birthday, she leaves her loving family as planned and ends up picking the beautiful but unfriendly port city of Koriko. Kiki is plagued with adolescent insecurities and must find her way–both in figuring out what to do for a living (shockingly, she starts a delivery service) and in determining how she really feels about herself and her place in the world.

This is another breezy, beautiful fantasy film from Studio Ghibli, not unlike My Neighbor Totoro. However, Kiki’s dilemma about what to think about herself drives home an interesting and important truth. When Kiki doubts herself and feels confused and, dare I say, depressed, she loses her witch powers (which are primarily the ability to fly on a broom and to be able to speak with Jiji the cat). Kiki also has to cope with the challenges of living in a new city and dealing with a whole set of mean teenage girls and a gentleman caller, too. It’s not until, with the help of a kind mentor, she decides to believe in herself and what she is capable of when her powers start to return to her. This can be applied to all of us–the criticality of believing in our uniqueness and in our abilities, regardless of what others think, in order for us to do what we are meant to do.

Again, the trademark Studio Ghibli animation is stunningly beautiful. The music is also provided by Miyazaki favorite Joe Hisaishi and it’s terrific. Because I watched it at home, the DVD I have is the 1998 English dub which was overseen by John Lasseter and released by Walt Disney Home Entertainment. Kirsten Dunst voices Kiki and the late Phil Hartman voices Jiji (there was an “In Memory” title card dedicated to him during the end credits, so this clearly was one of Phil Harman’s final projects before his untimely death). This dub is terrific, although I would have much rather watched the sub version on the big screen.

GKIDS recently announced that they will be releasing new versions of most of the Studio Ghibli catalog in North America beginning this fall, so I am excited to start building up my Studio Ghibli collection, particularly with the original Japanese vocal tracks.

Revisiting Kiki’s Delivery Service was just what the doctor ordered. Here’s the tweet I sent out the night I watched the film.

Make sure to check out my friend Rachel Wagner’s podcast on her YouTube channel about Kiki’s Delivery Service. I hope to be able to join in for her upcoming Studio Ghibli Fest podcast in August which will be all about Castle in the Sky, next month’s Studio Ghibli Fest 2017 screening happening August 27 and 28. See the Fathom Events website for a list of participating theaters and to buy tickets.

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