Archive for December, 2009

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The Magic is Back

December 27, 2009

A few years ago, the powers that be at Disney made an announcement that made my heart sank.  They were going to shift their animation focus away from the traditional hand drawn animation that made them great, and spearheaded the renaissance that had begun in 1989 in favor of CG animation almost exclusively.  If you want to point the finger of blame, point it at Michael Eisner.  He was practically destroying the company when he dropped that bombshell.

Then something happned.  Eisner was out, and Robert Iger was in.  Not only that, John Lasseter, the head of Pixar (the gold standard of CG animation in my opinion) was named head of feature animation.  Lasseter strongly believed in Walt’s story telling principles, and even better, announced that 2 D hand drawn animation waasn’t going anywhere, and we would soon see THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, as proof.

Well, it’s out in the theaters now, and if you haven’t seen it yet, what on earth are you waiting for?  This is Disney doing what it soes best!  The animation is stunningly beautiful From the scenic sets, to the human characters, to the bayou critters-nothing gets short-changed.  The story has been moved from a mythical country to right here in the good old USA (New Orleans to be precise), during the jazz era.  It’s also been fleshed out to provide good messagesabout the need to work for your dreams, not just sit around wishing, the importance of family (both the title characters grow up in two parent homes, and the frog/prince is in the States as part of an exercise in tough love-how often do we see THAT?), and doing for your friends is more noble that being born into priveledge.   The bayou characters help provide some of the biggest laughs.  There’s Louis, a jazz loving gator who despite his size, is deathly afraid of hunters.  Then there’s Ray, a Cajun firefly who has courage and enthusiasm that measure 10,000 times his size.  Without giving away too much, one of these loveable characters will make the ultimate sacrifice to help Tiana and Naveen-it’s a beautiful moment , though in the end.

Now, what’s a Disney animated movie without a villain?  In this film, we have Dr. Facilier, known as “The Shadow Man”-and for good reason.  His voodoo alllows him to use his own shadow, and demonic minion shadows to do his bidding.  It is Facilier who transforms Naveen, and Naveen willl stay af rog, while his butler takes on Naveen’s form. as long as Naveen’s blood remains in Facilier’s talisman.  Let me take a moment to say something here.  Some parents out there won’t take their kids to this movie because they are afraid Facilier is too scary.  People, a villain is SUPPOSED to be scary-DUH!  This movie would be very BORING if we had no villain, and the prince had been a frog from the get go.  There would have been no drama, no neat effects animation, and no great song for the villain (I’ll get to the music in a second).  Without a mean scary villain like Facilier, this movie would have all the drama and intelligence of Britney Spears’ perfume commercial.  Parents, you can’t ALWAYS protect your child from scary movie elements, and you shouldn’t try to.  It’s good to be scared once in a while.  Even SESAME STREET’s golden era (before Elmo’s takeover) had deliberately frightening segments.  And our generation, at least this member, turned out OK.

I promised I’d talk about the music.  Randy Newman has penned some of his best songs since CATS DOM’T DANCE.  Every song captures one element of the New Orleans sound.   With the exception of Ray’s romantic ballad, I can’t think of a song where my foot didn’t start tapping, and I actually found myself singing quietly to myself-and I hadn’t even heard these songs before tonight.  That’s just amazing in my book.  I am seriously considering buying the CD.  Guess you could say that this is the best musical I have seen this year.

In closing, I can’t encourage you enough to see this wonderful movie.  If you have to wait for the DVD, that’s understandable, given the times we live in.  But do find a way to see it.  In the words of the bayou, “It’s goooooood,  I gar-on-tee!”

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Of Exploding Pianos and Clockwork Roadrunners

December 19, 2009

I got to thinking last night about my all time favorite gags from the world of Warner Brothers cartoons.  It dawned on me that there are two favorites of mine from two different eras.

The first is the “Endearing Charms” gag.  This one slays me every time.  for the uninitiated, here’s how it works.  The villain wires a piano (or in at least one case a xylophone) with enough explosives to destroy an ocean liner.  The explosives, however, will only detonate when the intended victim (usually Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner) plays the last notes in the opening bars of that old standard “Those Endearing Young Charms”.  I don’t know WHY Carl Stalling or Chuck Jones, or whoever it was decided on this song, but it is a genius move by any standard.

The payoff, though is what sells the joke.  Bugs or Road Runner gets the melody right until he hits the critical last note.  Invariably they hit the note to the immediate right , then the immediate left of the trigger.  The villain waits for the hero to try again, with the same result.  Now the villain is getting mad.  When the note is missed AGAIN, the villain is so mad, he forgets what will happen, and plays the melody the right way, with the resulting explosion.  Sometimes the keys fall to the ground and finish the musical phrase.

I love this bit.  Partly because hearing an old song played incorrectly is always funny.  Partly because the hero isn’t trying to miss the trigger note.  But I think it’s mostly because the villain losing his temper, and forgetting his own trap is classic comedy and poetic justice.

While the above bit isn’t unique to one Warner Bros. cartoon, my other favorite bit is unique to one cartoon.  This bit came from the Depatie/Freleng era (after Chuck Jones’s departure) of Road Runner cartoons.  The cartoon in question is HIGHWAY RUNNERY.  In this cartoon, Wile E. Coyote sets what in my mind is the perfect trap.  He places a home made time bomb, complete with alarm clock (important for the payoff) into a phony egg, and places the egg on the nest right in front of Road Runner’s path.  Road Runner comes along, sees the egg on the nest, and its nesting instincts kick in.

Wile E . is thrilled, it’s going PERFECTLY.  Perfectly that is, until the egg rumbles, hatches, and out pops this little wind up baby Road Runner, complete with alarm clock belly, and head on a mainspring.  This wind up Road Runner starts walking towards Wile E (complete with the mechanical machine percussion Jay Ward used to use in the Clyde Crashcup series-must be a sound effects library package, because Treg Brown isn’t listed in the credits for sound effects.  In fact, there is no sound effects credit).  Wile E. can’t believe what he’s seeing, as he maneuvers around his rock hiding place., trying to get away from it, as it seems to be following him  You can guess what happens when the mechanical Road Runner reaches poor Wile E, and he’s foolish enough to reach down to try to pick the thing up.  But that’s not the end of it.  After the first explosion, which lands Wile E. in a crater bigger than himself, the alarm clock (the only surviving part of the explosion) rings normally.  Wile E. takes a rock, and smashes it, causing a SECOND explosion, adding injury to insult.

And that second explosion is one reason why I love this bit.  You almost feel bad for Wile E. that this perfect plan went so badly, when it should have worked perfectly.  But face it, you gotta love that baby wind up Road Runner, and the proud look on the real Road Runner’s face when it hatches.  It’s priceless.

So go ahead and laugh, it’s good for you!  You can watch HIGHWAY RUNNERY online at dailymotion.com.  Put the title into Google search, and you’ll get there a lot faster.

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3 Christmas Songs You Rarely Get to Hear

December 6, 2009

I don’t mind the fact that some radio stations play holiday music 24/7 before Christmas Day.  Sometimes, on the way home from the office, it’s just what I’m in the mood for.  What DOES drive me crazy about this practice, though, is hearing the same song TWICE within 10 minutes…different artist or not.  I feel like Vince Vaughn in FRED CLAUS (which is fast becoming a favorite Christmas movie of mine), who has to keep hearing “Here Comes Santa Claus” while helping the Bg Guy with the Naughty files…it becomes mental torture, and/or cruelty.  So here are three songs the stations could add to their holiday playlists…that is if the media corporations that own these stations can take their lips off Madison Avenue’s ass long enough to pay attention to them.

OLD TOY TRAINS (Roger Miller, 1967).  Let’s start with an absolute beauty.  I am a fan of Roger Miller’s music.  He’s by turns trippy, funny, and poetically stunning.  This song fits the last category.  It’s quite simply a lullaby sung by a father (or mother, if you hear a female vocalist sing this) in which the parent describes quite simply that Santa Claus is on his way to a little boy’s home, and that the boy should get to bed.  The chorus alternates with a simple verse in which the boy is told to just keep his eyes closed and listen for Santa’s sleigh bells.  I really can’t do this gem justice. You have to hear it for yourself.

HAPPY NEW YEAR (ABBA, 1979-I think!).  ABBA has always been a great group for telling stories in their songs.  In this holiday gem, a woman (par for the course for this group, but who’s complaining?) proposes a toast to her lover as the first day of a new decade begins.  It’s a song of optimism, in which we are encouraged to hold on to our dreams, keep having visions, and stick to them, otherwise, what’s the point of living?  It’s not the usual romance ballad, but rather a wish for all humanity to move forward.  Madison Avenue would probably argue that the reference to 1989 dates the song, and that’s why you don’t hear it.  I say, Madison Avenue is afraid too many people will take the positive message of the song to heart, and it’s game over for them and their stranglehold on our society.

A WINTER’S TALE (David Essex, 1982-again , I think)  This song, written by Tim Rice and Mike Batt, on the other hand, is  a stark contrast to the first two.  This is no romantic ballad, nor cheery, upbeat, jingle.  This is a heart breaking song about a man who has just broken up with the woman of his dreams as the year ends-ouch!  What I admire about the song is that in the second verse, he wishes the woman happiness and love, a painfully noble thing to do…I don’t know if I’d ever have the strength to do that myself.  Then again, I’ve never been lucky enough to even HAVE a romantic involvement with a potential Miss Right.  Seriously, though, I think there are people out there who can relate to the situation, and maybe ease their pain with this song.  At least, that is what I would hope they would do.

So people, if you love these songs like I do, then call your radio stations and HOUND them to get these songs on the air, and don’t take NO for an answer  Nobody wants to go off the deep end like Fred Claus did.

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Stop Motion Broadway

December 1, 2009

My friend, Heather, and I were discussing the classic Rankin Bass holiday specials last week, and the Broadway quality of these classics.  Heather presented a very strong case  for TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS.  I, on the other hand, have to go to bat for THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS.

First of all, the opening/title song is classic Broadway:  The narrator/ female lead (Mrs. C) sings the first verse with a gentle yet suspenseful string lead, which then turns into a big, splashy up tempo chorus.  Meanwhile, the plot and the story is being laid out and we are given the back story, without tedious exposition.

Secondly, we get an “I want” song.  Mrs. C, is more than willing to try her hand at what Santa does, proudly singing, “I could be Santa Claus!”.  We’re now in her corner to help her resolve the impending holiday crisis.  This is mucally followed by, in my opinion, the most beautiful song from Maury and Jules:  “I Believe in Santa Claus”.  I love the message here.  Santa isn’t just about giving toys.  He’s about love, kindness, and generosity.  It’s a brilliantly disguised lesson as to what Christmas is supposed to be about.

Then the mood lightens musically with “It’s Gonna Snow”, a nifty dixieland jazz number, followed by the piece de resistance of specialty songs, “Heat Miser” and “Freeze Meister”.

Granted “Blue Christmas” is not original to the special, but it fits perfectly.  We’re given the kids’ point of view of how much they’re going to miss Santa this year, and Santa realizes just how much he means to the kids, and is the motivator for the happy conclusion, which includes a bookending reprise of teh title song.  “Here Comes Santa Claus” isn’t an original piece, either, but I love the orchestration, and would make this the 11 o’clock production number.

As far as character development, Mrs. C is strong, caring, but no-nonsense.  She’s not intimidated by the Miser brothers comic sibling rivalry.  Jingle and Jangle are great comic reliefe.  I love the bit where Jingle is on the phone saying, “Yes Mrs. Claus, No Mrs. Claus, Right away Mrs. Claus”, only to have Jangle ask “Who was that?”  Then, there’s Iggy’s transformation from doubt to belief to acceptance of Santa, Mrs. C, and the elves is a joy.

Heather and I agree that along with the maestro of Fall River, Maury Laws and Jules Bass deserve to have their music and lyrics heard on a Broadway stage.  Let’s go back to the title song of YEAR.  I have no problems breaking the verses up with reaction dialgue among the various characters.  Or how about expanding “It’s Gonna Snow” into a full out dance number…a square dance/cakewalk hybrid, perhaps.  In the words of Young Frankenstein himself: “It…could…..work!”  Heather suggested Rita Moreno could play Mother Nature as a cameo.  Fine by me, as long as we can give her a song, and let her have fun with the dialogue.

My biggest question, though, is who holds the rights to the Rankin/Bass song library, and would they be willing to let my friend and I do things the way they SHOULD be done?  Too many producers tried to influence SEUSSICAL, and destroyed it.  I refuse to let that happen here.