Thursday, July 28, 2011

Disney Dreamboat: Disney Heroes by David Kawena

I was in the midst of narrowing down who I wanted the next Disney Dreamboat to be when I remembered a series of artworks that I had seen a while back. They depicted the men of Disney in a very captivating visual style that straddled the line between realism and cartoon. I also remembered being very impressed by the genuine artistry involved and how darned hot he made the already yummy Disney dudes look.

The artist's name is David Kawena. Sound familiar? He gave himself the pen name (or should it be brush name?) in honor of Nani's boyfriend in Lilo & Stitch. Since that is my favorite Disney movie, he's already scored mad props from me.

He does an amazing job taking 2D animated characters and re-imagining them as fully dimensional, flesh and blood men. It is especially impressive when the characters are from movies where the art was highly stylized, like in Hercules or The Emperor's New Groove. He changes the look of them so that they seem believably human, but retains enough of the style of the film that they are recognizable as their characters. He also throws in a pinch of exaggeration, a la Tom of Finland, to keep things interesting.

Hercules (you mean Hunk-ules!) was the first Disney hero that he tackled, appropriately enough. I've always thought Herc was pretty dreamy, but he had such a distinct and cartoonish look that it's fascinating to see it translated to a real person.

I must admit that I never though Kuzco was all that fetching. I stand corrected. No touchy, indeed.

His Kronk is a bit of a stretch. I'm not so much a fan of using devil Kronk, since that's not really how he is seen for most of the movie, but whatever tickles your pickle. Once again, I'm amazed at the way he translates the essence of the 2D characters into 3D forms.

His work has tended to focus on more recent Disney movies. Most have depicted characters from The Little Mermaid on. He gives us a dashing Prince Eric, who is often cited as the dreamiest of Disney princes. I think it has something to do with the dark hair, blue eyes and those dimples.

He has ventured into older movies only twice so far. His Prince Phillip from Sleeping Beauty looks rather generic, but I must say that so did the original, so the blame doesn't rest on Kawena's shoulders for that one. Truthfully, many of the early Disney princes are rather interchangeable. He did, however do a fascinating depiction of Peter Pan. He aged him a bit so that you don't feel dirty looking at him and really captured the spirit of the character in an original way.

He also did a great job with David from Lilo & Stitch. Chris Sanders has a really distinct style that is on full display in the movie. Everything on the characters' bodies is widened and spread out. No one looks exactly like what a person would look like, but somehow the characters look more real at the same time. They are not super-skinny, wide-eyed and cleanly rendered, so they have a more imperfect, comforting feel to them. It's part of what makes the movie so affecting. Kawena's David still has the wide-set eyes and wide nose and the thickness of the characters in the film, but on a more human scale. Alooooohaaa!

He has been making new entries in the series fairly regularly, including the two newest Disney princes. Both were pretty scrumptious in their cartoon form and Kawena has certainly done right by them. I also like the fact that he has started to incorporate additional elements from the film into the portraits so that it's not just a character against a flat background, such as the pond and flowers with Naveen from The Princess and the Frog.

Tangled is a breed all it's own in the Disney pantheon. The look is still very much influenced by the style of Glen Keane, who is responsible for Ariel among other characters, and the look of classic Disney 2D animation. At the same time, it uses new technology to give the art in the film a more dimensional look. I love the movie because it was able to combine the best of both worlds. It has the spirit and artfulness of the old style using the technology and tools that are now available to the artists.

It's very interesting what he has done with Flynn Ryder. Since Flynn was already a 3D character, I was curious what Kawena would do to flesh him out. He has also done some live action characters from movies like Enchanted, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Chronicles of Narnia, but they fell a bit flat for me since it had the feel of more traditional celebrity portraiture only showing a bit more skin. But since Flynn very much has the look of an animated character, as opposed to creepy motion capture Polar Express digital animation (shudder), it made for a very cool piece of artwork. Once again, I enjoy the touches like the pan and lanterns that are part of the work.

Now, before you assume that Kawena is a one trick pony, here is some other art from his website that is equally fantastic without being quite so naughty. I'm a huge Giselle fan. She is underrated and should be an official Disney princess in my estimation. Part of what I love about her, and the animated portions of Enchanted in general, is the influence of the Art Nouveau style, which is the period with my favorite artistic style. I love the flowing lines, intricacy and elegance of it. He really tapped into this for his portrait of Giselle.

Apparently, he also has animation training. From the quality of his artwork, it seems that he could easily work for the Mouse himself. His Tiana is as good as a lot of the inspirational and promotional artwork that I've seen anywhere for The Princess and the Frog

I love this piece that he did inspired by Lilo & Stitch. He has spoken about how much he loves the film and how moving it was for him. You can tell from the spirit of the art that he really put his heart into it. He really captures the feel of the movie, both in the artistic style and the emotion.

His website, David Kawena on Deviant Art, has a lot more of his artwork, both Disney related and not. It is well worth checking out. It is leaps and bounds beyond most Disney fan art. If you commit to really exploring, he takes the time to discuss each of the pieces individually, giving you insight into his influences and process. He also seems to be very responsive to his fans, really trying to have a dialogue about his work. It's a very rewarding site to spend a spell with. 

Kawena now has a poll up on the site asking which guy they would like him to portray next in the series. I voted for Roger from 101 Dalmations, since his most interesting and eye-opening pieces have been based on the least realistically rendered characters. Plus, come on. Roger is a total cutie. Plus he can play piano. And guys who play piano are automatically hot. 

The Deviant Art website has a whole subsection devoted to Disney fan art that I have just started to scratch the surface of. Some of it is really fantastic, some of it not so much. If I find anything that is really unmissable, I'll be sure to share it with y'all.

What do you think? Is Kawena a little too far out or is he right on point with his shekshy renditions of Disney heroes? Which would you want to see him give a makeover next? Who is your own personal Disney Dreamboat?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Orange You Glad

In case you didn't know, I heart pin trading. It's one of my favorite parts of going to Disney Parks. I usually stock a lanyard up with traders before I go, trade them throughout the trip and emerge with a unique souvenir. It's par for the course to go to Downtown Disney when I arrive in Orlando and have a looksee at the the new pins in Disney's Pin Traders.
Must be hard for him to find Mickey ears that fit.

When Tom and I went this past February, they were displaying a new set of hidden Mickey pins featuring a weird little orange and green dude that I was completely unfamiliar with. I thought he was cute and he piqued my curiosity, but I was too preoccupied trying to get a complete collection of Country Bear Jamboree pins to worry about collecting him.

Since then, I have done my research like a good boy and now I know that the little dude was the Orange Bird, who is a character created by Disney especially for the Florida Citrus Commission in 1970 to live in the Sunshine Tree Terrace, which the Enchanted Tiki Room would, coincidentally, empty into, and encourage people to, as M'Lynn would say, "Drink your juice, Shelby." He was a meet and greet character and was merchandised heavily throughout Florida, so I'm surprised that I'd never really seen him, considering that I was born and raised there. He was featured pretty prominently in the park until 1986, when the FCC and Disney parted ways, and faded a bit until folks in Japan embraced the cute little bugger and sparked a resurgence of Orange Bird related merch.

Meeting his public at the Sunshine Tree Terrace.
All of this is well and good, but I'm leaving out one major fact about this adorable little guy. He was inextricably linked to one Ms. Anita Bryant. Ring a bell? She's a pretty atrocious human being whose legacy is her organization Save Our Children, which in the late 70's succeeded in repealing a Florida ordinance banning anti-gay discrimination and convincing the legislature to pass a law barring gays and lesbians from adopting. She claimed that homosexuality was "immoral", "against God's wishes", and that "since homosexuals cannot reproduce, they must recruit and freshen their ranks." Charming, huh? The ex-pageant queen was famously rewarded for her efforts with a fruit pie in the face.

I was first made aware of Ms. Bryant in high school through the (life-changing, so you should read them now if you haven't already) Tales of the City books, which take place in San Francisco during the 70's and have a gay character, Mouse, who hails from Florida and is deeply affected by Ms. Bryant's disgusting shenanigans. Why is the character called Mouse? You get three guesses and the first two don't count.

I like her better when her hips wiggle.
So how does this harpy have anything to do with adorable orange friend? She was, at the time, also the spokesperson for the FCC, who had commissioned Disney to create him. After her crusade against the gays, there was a huge uproar and orange juice boycott, so it should come as no surprise that Ms. Bryant was dropped as the voice who implored you to "Serve it generously!" But not before she appeared in print ads and commercials with our orange friend and recorded a 45rpm record featuring his story and song, which was distributed free of charge to WDW guests. This is how it came to be that such a cutie pie was saddled with such awful, negative associations in many people's minds, including this gay boy's. I was even born and bred in Florida and fell right out of the very Sunshine Tree that Ms. Bryant was warbling beneath.

Since Orange Bird is becoming more ubiquitous in the parks, his round face calling out to be re-examined and better understood, I decided to try to gain some more perspective on what the little guy was all about. First I watched one of the Orange Bird commercials featuring Ms. Bryant, her children, Billy and Barbara Bryant (oh, the alliteration!) and Orange Bird, who is apparently kept in a fancy box in the kid's room.

It's kind of amazing how different the pacing for commercials in the 70's was, huh? That was downright epic compared to the twenty second, jump-cutting ads of today. They told the whole story of a sunny morning at home with the Bryants. Not a very exciting story, but nonetheless. There's nothing offensive about the clip. Ms. Bryant is terribly sunny, flirting with creepiness in a way only former beauty queens can manage. She's excited about how thrifty and delicious OJ is, just as she was paid to be. The Orange Bird is charmingly animated flying about and looks genuinely ecstatic to escape Stepford at the end and think orange thoughts in his orange tree home, unfettered by the oppressive Ms. Bryant and her perky bouffant.

She follows him out into the citrus groves for another commercial. Her hair is longer, but no less pert, and she introduces Orange Bird to the audience, mentioning his home at Walt Disney World. He really is adorable flitting around, thinking orange.

It was after seeing these that I stumbled upon a gold mine. Some genius had the wherewithal to make a YouTube video which taking the recording of the Orange Bird story and songs 45 and matching it to illustrations from the accompanying book. It lasts about twenty minutes and is totes worth the time. That's shorter than that episode of Friends that you've seen a hundred times and just as funny, but not as good as that episode of The Golden Girls that you've seen a thousand times. Nevertheless, the clip is quite well put together. I especially appreciate the subtle hip swinging they added to Ms. Bryant for the title song.

The basic story centers on our friend, Orange Bird, who cannot make any sounds, but thinks beautiful thoughts. When he concentrates very hard, his sunny thoughts appear above his head in a cloud of orange smoke. He loves his beautiful orange tree home, but is lonely, and so he ventures out into the world to find friends. He comes across a group of birds in the picnic park who mock and reject him for being silent. He can't sing like they do and can only muster an orange musical note in orange smoke above his head. Next, he goes to the city, where he narrowly escapes being eaten by a cat. He mistakes a stoplight for a birdhouse and is crestfallen when the kindred "orange bird" in the center roost disappears when the light turns red.

Isn't he just too precious for words?
He returns to the country, where he happens upon a family picnicking. The children and mother are charmed by him, but the father is suspicious and will not allow Orange Bird be their pet, despite thinking "I love you" in a puff above his head. "It's three against one," thinks the Orange Bird. "Isn't this a democracy?" (Bold political thinking by Orange Bird. If only it were that simple.) Though disappointed, the Orange Bird flies ahead of the family, keeping an eye on the road, when he sees a washed out bridge in their path. Knowing that he had to do something or the family was in real danger, Orange Bird concentrates harder than ever before and thinks a big orange stop sign. The father stops the car just in time and the family is saved.

The family emerges from the car to find their little orange friend and thank him. The daughter says she always knew he was a friend, despite what her father thought and says that "when you meet somebody new, you should stop, look and listen and most times he'll turn out to be a friend." The father admits that he's "jumped to too many conclusions in [his] life and many times [he's] been wrong." Then, the Orange Bird is invited to join the family and be their friend forever. And they all lived happily ever after, but not before one final ballad about his magical orange tree home, no doubt included to keep the FCC happy.

It's pronounced "or-eenge", thank you very much.
It's all actually quite charming and completely weird. Personal feelings aside, I can't say I care much for Ms. Bryant's performance. First and foremost, you'd think that the orange juice spokesperson would be required to be able to say the word "orange" correctly. Former Miss Oklahoma's odd accent means that we are, in fact, listening to the story of the "little Or-eenge Bird" in the "or-eenge tree" thinking "or-eenge thoughts". Ugh. In the words of a fed up toddler in tiara, you're drivin' me nuts!

I'm not a fan of her voice in general, which is rather flat and tinny, though I know recording technology didn't help her out in that regard. I think she would benefit from a healthy dose of auto-tune. Cue the Orange Bird dance remix. Her performance as narrator is fine. Nothing exciting. Not horrifyingly bad, but certainly not good. She did not miss her calling as a children's storyteller. I shudder at the thought of poor Billy and Barbara's nightly bedtime story with mom ("And the moral of the story is- if you meet a man who loves Judy Garland and dresses well, avoid him at all costs. He just wants to recruit you so he can get his toaster. Sweet dreams!").

The songs, it should be noted, are Sherman Brothers creations and are rather good if not outstanding. Second tier Sherman, to be sure, save that spritely title tune. The Orange Bird song is bright and sunny, appropriately enough, bouncing along and incorporating some clever wordplay, such as "his little beak can't even peep a squeak", while laying out the premise of Orange Bird as mute feathered friend who thinks in puffs of smoke.  I love the gentle slide up at the final world in the line, "Won't you think of something sunny just for me-ee?" It no doubt makes the FCC happy by incorporating the word "orange" in as much as humanly possible and including the Sunshine Tree that was so much a part of their campaign.

He's even a dancer!
What really hit me in the gut when hearing the whole story was that it can easily be read as an allegory. There are so many parallels between what happens to Orange Bird and the experience of a young gay man. He is voiceless, which is how many closeted young people feel. He lives in his thoughts, trying to stay positive and hopeful about his chances of finding love and others like him despite the world making him feel that he won't. He longs to reach out and make a connection with others. He escapes home looking for like-minded folk to accept him, but is shunned for being different and attacked for seeming vulnerable. He longs to be part of a family and is rejected by a paternal figure. He is looked upon as odd and not taken seriously because he communicates differently. These are all common threads in the stories of many gays youths.

It even has my name on it!
What I have come to genuinely love about Orange Bird is the persistent optimism he displays in the face of severe obstacles. Despite being rejected, physically threatened, and outcast, Orange Bird never loses faith and always believes that he will find love. In the end, happily, he does find the love of a family. I'd like to think that if there were a sequel, he would find another Orange Bird to makes his nest with. It is a story of hope overcoming hardship and love overcoming fear. I would love to see his It Gets Better video. Orange Bird is the kind of hero that my little seven year old gay self could have used in the 80's, but I guess we missed the record giveaway at WDW.

That's right, Orange Bird.
Kill 'em with kindness.
The irony that Anita Bryant was being so horribly small minded, spewing hatred and fear mongering, while at the same time narrating a story about understanding and accepting others who are different from you, is blindingly apparent. She herself should heed the sage theory about people-you've-yet-to-meet espoused by the young girl in the story. Stop, look and listen. Most times they'll turn out to be a friend. Kids say the darndest things, huh?

I think that it is time to completely pull Orange Bird out of the shadow that Ms. Bryant has cast and embrace him. All the reticence I had regarding the character at first has been wiped away and I now look on him as a gay icon of sorts. At the very least, he is certainly a role model for anyone who has felt crushed by the weight of being different, gay or straight. He reminds us that is up to us to triumph in spite of other's prejudices and think sunny, orange thoughts.

You can bet that next time I'm at WDW, an Orange Bird t-shirt is at the top of my list of purchases to make and I will make sure to explore the area that was formerly the Sunshine Tree Terrace a bit for remnants of his stay there. Also, I'm excited to say, there are rumors that Orange Bird will be incorporated somehow into the Enchanted Tiki Room when it reopens in Walt Disney World. The attraction was shut down after catching on fire and the rather unpopular (especially with me) "Under New Management" theming is being replaced by something akin to the original show.

I would love it if this idea comes to fruition. It would be awesome to have a place to visit my new orange hero and think my own "I love you", even if it's not in a cloud of orange smoke.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Odd Disney World: President Jonathan T. President?

It must have been crowded in that room
when this portrait was done, huh?
As Katy Perry might say if she cared to discuss her connection to audio animatronic Presidential figures, I've had a very hot and cold relationship with the Hall of Presidents attraction in the Magic Kingdom.

First, a smidge of history on the attraction. Walt had originally planned to have the show, then known as "One Nation Under God", at Disneyland on the unbuilt Liberty Street in the unbuilt Edison Square section of the park that was to be adjacent to Main Street U.S.A. They realized that the scope of what he wanted to do was beyond what they could do with the new audio animatronic technology and instead created the successful Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln attraction.

When Walt Disney World was built, a new land was created for the Magic Kingdom in Florida called Liberty Square. Imagineers figured that locals wouldn't be interested in visiting New Orleans Square when the real thing was a few highways west. The new land was the perfect place to finally realize Walt's vision, housing audio animatronic figures of all of the Presidents within a show.

I figure it's pretty much a given that before you hit about eighteen years old, the last thing in the world you want to do while at a Disney park is to sit in a dark theater for a robotic history lesson. You avoid that mess like the plague. Dude, come on! Splash Mountain is mere feet away! The Haunted Mansion is right across Liberty Square! You have to wait forever to get in if the visit isn't well timed and the show feels deadly long to a youngun. That's certainly how it felt to me.

Um. Mr. Lincoln? Can you put your clothes
back on? I'm terrified. Please and thanks.
As I grew, I took issue with the attraction for a much different reason. From 2001-2008, George W. Bush had taken up residence in the Hall. Now, this is no fault of Disney's. And they did a fine job of representing him without making an overly political statement in either direction. But my skin crawled. It was very hard to watch a man who I did not have a terribly high opinion of most things I stand for talk about liberty and justice when I was a second class citizen in my own country. Plus, Maya Angelou was no longer the narrator. Apparently, the caged bird sings because she's trying to tell you she wants to get the heck away from GWB. Not that I can blame her.

Towards the end of W.'s run I saw the show one last time. The lobby was packed with Confederate flag wearing good ole boys and we all know that those are not my favorite people in the world. I wasn't always as zen about dealing them then as I have subsequently become. During the show, before I knew what had hit me, I just started crying. Hearing the eloquent and heartening words of Abraham Lincoln juxtaposed against the deeds of the man who stood beside him was a bit too much to take. Mama was sitting one one side of me with Dad, my sister Kelly on the other and I remember thinking that even if my government didn't love and accept me, my family did and I should count myself as lucky.

Ah. Much better. Thank you, sir.
The first time that I saw the new incarnation with Barack Obama, I felt a lot of relief. The GWB years were a dark cloud that shrouded most of my twenties in a feeling of hopelessness. I had become much more politically aware as a result of the 2008 election. Since this isn't a political blog, suffice it to say that  there are things I love about Obama and other things not so much. I think he's done an admirable job under less than optimal circumstances.

As far as the Hall is concerned, I can now relax and enjoy the experience (now narrated by Morgan Freeman, which is fully rad) without wanting to scratch my skin off, though I'm sure Michele Bachmann would disagree. Such is the state of our union and the fact that we can sit in the same room, watch the same presentation and be guaranteed our right to feel and express two completely different sentiments is a huge part of what makes it great. I warn you, however, that if I ever find myself in the same Hall of Presidents show as Michele Bachmann, I'm not sure that I could stop myself from pouncing on her like a panther and screaming "Marriage pledge, my rump! You evil hag!" So please hold me back. I don't want to get thrown out of the park.

The show building was designed to resemble
Philadelphia's Independence Hall.
In a way, it feels odd to have something so highly political in the center of what is the ultimate escape from the real world. No matter how even-handed Disney is in their treatment of the subject of politics, it is going to stir up deep and personal stuff for someone on some side of the fence about something. We're talking everything from the current red state/blue state divide, to slavery, to religion, to war. We're talking capital I Issues.

I walk into the Magic Kingdom to leave those kinds of things behind, and yet I think I am drawn to the Hall of Presidents because it is, at the core, showing America at its best. What our country is capable of when you get past the pettiness and the puffery. It reminds me that we are the country that created an incredible man like Abraham Lincoln, whose still powerful words in the show never fail to get me all misty-eyed. It reminds me to stay hopeful because we have a capacity for greatness yet to be fulfilled.

We just got real deep there, huh? Well, I actually brought up the Hall of Presidents because I have stumbled on one of the greatest pieces of absurdist Disney humor I have ever seen. It's a slow burner. Be patient. Listen carefully. I started off confused, started to get it, started to chuckle and, by the end, I was laughing till I snorted. When I watched it a second time, I laughed even harder. Boys and girls, I present to you The Hall of Inaccurate Presidents! Do not use it to study for Friday's social studies test, please.

I died! President Jimmy Goose! President Unknown! President Sweeney Patch! This video is absolutely priceless. It tickled me so much, I knew I had to share it with you.

While we're out it, I came across this video, which looks like it was taped off of America's Funniest Home Videos, showing what happens when the audio animatronics don't get the break that they are guaranteed by their union.

Sorry, y'all. He was done. They work those poor robots like dogs and Abe just couldn't take it any more. And scene. I've also heard tell from Imagineers that there have been times when the fingers were not working correctly on Lincoln and resulted in a rather rude Abey Baby.

What is your take on the Hall of Presidents? Does it bore you or make you proud? Or is it just a good excuse to spend an extended period of time out of the Florida heat and in a darkened, air-conditioned theater? And, most importantly, did you vote for President Roy Wizard?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Disney Summer Movies 2011: Silly Old Bear

The headwear might be questionable on a runway,
but Pooh and friends pull it off admirably.
So, it finally arrived. One of the two summer movies that I have been waiting months to see. I know that almost everyone else was lining up, packing theaters to go and see the new Harry Potter movie. I never jumped on that train. I have yet to read any of the books and I quickly lost interest in the movies, though I've no doubt that both series are quite good. I assume that one day I will catch up with my sister and consume them all, but not before she takes me to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which looks pretty awesome. She is not much of a reader but devoured all of the books and loves the movies. If she's that head over heels about them, then they must be worth checking out.

I must say that whenever something becomes the thing that everyone watches/listens to/reads/does I usually avoid it like the plague. I'm usually either on the tipping point of a phenomenon or I wait for all of the hullabaloo to die down before I finally join the fray. So, until I join the rest of humanity in Pottermania, I will share my experience with the other other new release of the weekend, which I have been anticipating with pure, unadulterated glee. Winnie the Pooh.

Let me start off by saying that the movie did not have a huge opening. It fell short of projected box office numbers, landing at number 6 for the week (one spot behind the weeks old eyeball assault otherwise known as Cars 2), despite pretty amazing reviews. Winnie the Pooh is actually one of the best-reviewed movies of the year so far, and deservedly so. Though the film may have a different audience than the Potter film, I still feel like it has gotten quite drowned out in all of the media clutter surrounding what has become the film with the biggest opening weekend of all time. A small, proudly quiet and charming little film couldn't really get a word in edgewise. I hope that the audiences find it.

Can you spot the Backson in this poster?
This is one of the loveliest animated movies I have seen in a very long time. Watching Winnie the Pooh is as close to you can get to feeling like you're being hugged by a movie. To prepare for the new film, I watched the classic  The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh from 1977, which was actually a compilation of three short films from the 60's and 70's which were woven together into one feature length picture. It is small and handcrafted. It is full of the kind of charm and warmth that has now been replaced in children's films by bodily functions and pop culture references and the new film follows suit.

This kind of movie is what Disney does so well. The strength is in the workmanship. The characters, so beautifully rendered, honor the original designs. They do not try to reinvent the characters. They brought in top drawer talent to animate this movie- folks like Andreas Deja, Mark Henn and Eric Goldberg- and it shows. The animation is imaginative, subtle and gorgeous. Nothing about this movie feels like a rush job or straight to video cash cow. They are helped immensely by a wonderful and energetic voice cast, who ably fill the big shoes left for them.

Where it really shines is in the storytelling. In it's slight running time, which is barely over an hour, it effectively tells several different Pooh tales, but the result is seamless in a way even the original wasn't since this was conceived as a whole piece. The stories overlap and are all told bit by bit simultaneously and it gives the movie a less choppy feel. The best part is that, once again, they have not strayed from the simplicity and beauty of what makes Pooh so special. Pooh does not have an alter ego who wants to be a pop star, nobody passes gas for a quick laugh, and there are no interpolations of top 40 hits. Rather, Pooh wants honey, they get real laughs from Owl sneezing (...or did he?), and Zooey Deschanel reinterprets the classic "Winnie the Pooh" song gently.

Speaking of Zooey Deschanel, she was a perfect fit for this movie. Her voice is quirky but inviting. She sings the title song, adds vocal touches to the other original songs and sings an adorable song that she wrote for the closing credits.

The rest of the original songs, by Robert Lopez, who wrote both Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez do justice to the gentle wordplay of the brilliant Sherman Brothers songs from the original while managing to find their own sound.

I know what you're asking. What differentiates this film from the old one? Why not just pull out the DVD and save myself ten bucks? It's simple. A different set of imaginative minds used what came before as guidelines for successful continuation rather than a blueprint for success or limitations on creative interpretation. They took ideas from the original and expanded them, such as the interplay between the characters and the text. The new film takes the concept of Pooh and his friends interacting with the text on the pages of the book that they are in from the earlier film to the next level, making it an even more playful part of the new film. This is a companion piece that will sit proudly on the shelf side by side with its predecessor.

No good can come from this, Piglet.
A fantastic sequence, which really shows the synthesis of artistry, voice work, storytelling, and music is the Backson song. It is surely akin to the heffalumps and woozles, but done in a new and exciting way. Keeping it fresh but not trampling on what's come before. The sequence is easy to find online. Just go to youtube and search "winnie the pooh backson" and enjoy. By the way, you've got to stick around until the very end of the movie after the credits. You'll thank me later.

I went with Tom and my roommate Katie on the morning after it came out. It was a lovely Saturday and we arrived early. As it got closer to showtime, the theater began to fill with a good number of little ones with their big ones in tow. I would say most of them were no older than five or six. I heard at least two sets of parents talk about how it was their children's first time at the movies. I couldn't help but think what a wonderful experience it was for them. What a great first movie and memory made to go with it.

All of the children sat rapt. They weren't restless or bored. The humor was not too complicated or over their heads. They were loving it, laughing unabashedly. The length was enough that it was special but not so long that their attention wandered. This was Winnie the Pooh's target audience and they were eating it up. It was a perfect way to experience the movie. Surrounded by little nuggets with wide open hearts and minds.

And it made me realize what the movie does so well. It was a great equalizer. It was not talking down to the kids or winking at the adults. It was treating us all the same. The kids appreciated the same things in the same way that I was appreciating them. It allowed me to relish what is childlike and simple within myself and challenges the little ones to begin to grasp concepts like teamwork and acceptance without obvious morality. At the same time, the kids were allowed to be kids and the same lessons were reinforced within me as an adult.

The trailer really gets it right. The movie is effective and we love these characters so much because they are all parts of our basic selves.

I love that they called this film just plain Winnie the Pooh. No bells or whistles. It tell you exactly what you are going to get in no uncertain terms and delivers it in a artistically rich, enjoyable, humorous, uncomplicated and powerful way. I hope that families start to take advantage of the opportunity to take their little ones to see a wonderful movie that they can all genuinely enjoy together. And I hope adults who care about the state of animation support efforts to keep traditional methods alive when they are rendered so beautifully. And I hope anyone who wants to feel the joy of being a kid again for one rapturous hour gets off their duff and goes to see Winnie the Pooh.

Last but not least, There is a fantastic short that comes before the picture based on the Loch Ness Monster, "The Ballad of Nessie". The styling is very 1950's Disney cartoon short with bold colors and patterns, a la Mary Blair, and in the same visual style as Home on the Range, which is an underrated gem. It's very visually striking, tipping it's hat to the past, once again. It finds a very imaginative way to show you that's OK to cry. Sometimes it's even good for you. I loved the short and love the idea of Disney films pairing shorts with features again and hope that they keep it up.

I went to the New York Public Library a few days ago. I had known for a while that the original toys that A.A. Milne based the Pooh stories on lived there, but hadn't made the effort to go visit them. As I entered the room they are in and saw them peeking out at me from behind a glass encasement, I am shocked at how emotional I got. These characters have been with me since I was a child, they have been with my Mama since she was a child, and they will play a part of my own children's lives. Milne and Disney were both responsible for the creation of this grand, beautiful mythology that touches us in a wonderfully powerful way. I felt grateful to share a few moments with these guys who started it all and I'm glad to know that Disney is doing right by them.

Has anybody else made it out to the Hundred Acre Wood yet? Did you fall under its spell the way that I did?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Alt Disney World: Brandi Carlile

These three are even sexier with guitars in their hands,
believe it or not.
I have been a huge fan of Brandi Carlile for a few years now. I saw her do a gig in a small club supporting her first major label album, Brandi Carlile, back in 2005. She writes with the Hanseroth twins, who are the tall, talented, bald, handsome devils who play at all of her gigs with her. The show was intimate, acoustic, and one of the most stunning live sets I've ever seen. Just Brandi, the twins and an hour of the most exciting live performance I had seen in forever. I knew then and there that I was witnessing something special.

They did songs from the first album and covered "Hallelujah", which is a bold move. Usually when someone performs that song all you do is think about how you wish you were listening to Jeff Buckley sing it. When Brandi sang it, all I thought about was how grateful I was to be there, in that moment, watching an incredibly talented artist on the ascent.

Brandi is not only an amazing singer, but also a stellar songwriter, writing or co-writing every song on the disc. Her musical style has it roots in classic rock, blues, folk and country, blending them all into a chunky stew of sound that is all her own. Also, she has been out of the closet since she started her career, focusing press more on her music and making her personal life a non-issue, but admitting that she hopes to be an out gay role model for the next generation as the Indigo Girls and Elton John were to her. And me for that matter. She is just a year younger than I am and has been influenced by a lot of the same musicians and role models as me over the years.

Her first album, like all of them, is pretty spectacular. I would be hard pressed to choose a favorite track, but I am quite fond of "Closer to You", which shows her more funky, bouncy, lighthearted side.

Her second album, The Story, got a good bit of attention because it's title track was featured prominently in Grey's Anatomy. The yearning tune is kind of astounding. I have heard this track butchered by many who don't posses the right mix of power, emotion and openness to pull it off. I'm talking to you, American Idol contestants. Leave it alone, ok?

Also on this album is a great hidden track, "Hiding My Heart". It is heartbreakingly lovely.

Just for compare and contrast, and because I heart her, here is a fantastic cover that Adele did as a b-side. Y'all know I'm a huge ole Adele geek, but I must say that I give Brandi the (slight) edge here. She has a certain weathered quality to her voice that adds to the aching quality of the song. But dang, Adele can sing pretty much anything, can't she?

Her third album, Giving Up the Ghost, is more of the same, which is a very good thing. She has a distinct musical voice and is an artist who knows better than to stray too terribly far from it. The music that she makes sounds both old fashioned and fresh, owing to her affinity for time-tested musical styles and her fresh take on them. I have fond memories of the song "Dying Day" because when I saw her perform live on a double bill with the Indigo Girls (my little Lilith Fair loving gay boy heart damn near exploded from the sheer awesomeness of that evening) in Tallahassee, my hometown, she and her band came down to the edge of the stage and did the whole song acoustically- completely sans amplification. The song, and her powerful voice particularly, filled the venue, which was holding probably around 1,000 people. Even though it was unplugged, it was electrifying. You can catch a glimpse of them doing this in a live venue during the video for the song.

Also on this album is a fantastic song called "Dreams". When Disney was doing promotion for Tangled, which was the 50th full length animated feature from the studio, they released this video, using Brandi's song, to both pay tribute the past and build excitement for the new addition to the canon.

When I watched the video, I was a little bit amazed. The first time I saw it, I got rather weepy, which shouldn't be too surprising. As the video swept over me, I was genuinely moved. I watched pieces of my life flash before my eyes and was overwhelmed by the breadth and quality of the Disney animated catalogue. Then, like the Disney dork I admittedly am, I watched again to see how many I could name off the top of my head.

At that point, it started to sink in that part of the reason that the clip is so powerful really is the song. The steady drum that pounds like a heartbeat. The soft, playful beginning that crescendos into an exuberant celebration and then slows itself back down to a sweet denouement. It tells it's own two minute story. The editing is brilliant, matching the clips to the feel of the song beautifully. The repetition of the word "dream" in the song is also key. Dreams have been a Disney staple from "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" all the way through the new Disney Dream cruise ship. Whoever came up with the brilliant idea to pair the emotional power of Brandi Carlile with this Disney retrospective is a flat-out genius.

The tattoo on her arm? AURYN from
The Neverending Story. Hot, huh?
If you enjoy Brandi's music, which you must, since I consider you all friends and no friend of mine doesn't love her, you should check out her new album, Live At Benaroya Hall With the Seattle Symphony. As fantastic as her albums are, Brandi really shines live and this live album really captures a performance beautifully. Plus, she's backed by a symphony, which really makes you feel the scope of the music that she's making. Strings make everything better. It'll knock your socks off, I promise.

It also captures one of my favorite moments from her live show, which is during her performance of "Turpentine" from The Story. She leads the audience in a sing along, which is often nothing short of annoying, but when she gleefully gets a thousand people to sing in three part harmony, it is really one of the most amazing things I've ever experienced at a live show and it's wonderfully captured on this CD. You can tell how much joy Brandi gets from feeding off of an audience's energy.

What do you think of Ms. Carlile? Are you now a convert or have I been preaching to the choir? What other artists have surprised you in a good way when they've popped up in something Disney-related?

Monday, July 11, 2011

In Defense of the Happiest Cruise That Ever Sailed

I'm about to lay some heavy poetry on you. It's very deep. Take a deep breath and dive in when you feel like your mind and heart are open. Here we go...    

it's a world of laughter, a world of tears

it’s a world of hopes, and a world of fears
there’s so much that we share
that it’s time we're aware
it’s a small world after all

it’s a small world after all
it’s a small world after all
it’s a small world after all
it’s a small, small world

there is just one moon and one golden sun
and a smile means friendship to everyone
though the mountains divide
and the oceans are wide
it's a small, small world 

I hope you don't think I was joking. I'm completely serious. If, when you realized that it was the lyrics to "it's a small world", you skimmed through them and skipped to here, then I want you to stop, go back, and actually read the words with care as if you had never read them before. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Note to self and Tom: Baby's room will
be done in Mary Blair style.
What did you think? Didn't expect that, huh? The simplicity of those words makes it very easy to overlook how profound they actually are. 

I, for one, am pretty much tired of how much ridicule this ride gets. I know, I know. I get it. The song is repetitive and gets stuck in your head. It's unwaveringly cheerful. It's uncomplicated. It aims low by being simple enough for children to grasp easily and bright enough to keep their attention. It uses what some consider to be stereotypes to convey cultural differences quickly in a visual way. 

I've spent a good chunk of time hearing horror stories of being trapped on the ride and tortured by the music, seeing it parodied, sometimes in clever ways, such as in Shrek and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and sometimes in very mean-spirited ways, and reading a lot of pretentious academics who think that the ride is racist, insensitive and outrageous. And I'm over it. I want to make a case for this much maligned attraction and share why it is one of my absolute favorites.

First and foremost we need to discuss the look of the ride. It's style can be attributed to Mary Blair, who is my favorite Disney artist. I could devote an entire blog to my all-consuming love for her art. She worked on several Disney films- the major three being Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland- making art designed to give inspiration to the animators who would do the actual designs. She brought a sense of adventure with her touches of expressionism, whimsy with her use of color and joy with her artistry. Here are a few of my favorite Mary Blair inspirational art pieces.

Mary Blair's art is what my wildest imagination could look like on it's awesomest day. There is an exhibit in the Disney Gallery in Disneyland this summer devoted to Mary's work. Tom and I will be visiting in September before it closes. I'm already piddling in my shorts just thinking about the prospect of being surrounded by rooms full of her art. 

After she amicably left the Disney studio, Mary did a lot of children's book illustrating and ad work. When Walt was given the opportunity to create "it's a small world" for UNICEF at the World's Fair in New York in 1964, he thought of Mary and her artistic style. She had come to be known for her very distinct style of depicting children. 

Walt felt that Mary would be the perfect artist to give a visual style to the project and he was right. Along with Imagineers including Rolly Crump, Marc Davis and Alice Davis, she created one of the most memorable theme park attractions in the world. 

As an example of its impact, just think of that end scene, where everything is in white. It is pure magic. We've been so saturated with color over the course of our trip that the sudden shift in the color palette is stunning. By keeping everything in the same shades of white, etc., the scene reinforces the unity of all the children just through the use of color, which I mentioned Mary was fantastic with. Though they are each different, they literally wear their similarities on their sleeves as a visual representation of a deeper truth. And white is the perfect choice. It is the color of promise yet to be fulfilled. Mary took the final scene and made the children of the world a blank canvas waiting to be painted on. That is the work of a brilliant artist. 

She came back to do concept work and designs for the attraction and continued to lend her talents to Disney parks, including the amazing murals in the Contemporary in WDW with the famous five-legged goat.

Next time you're on the ride, a fun thing to do is to look for Mary Blair herself on the ride. In both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, a doll that looks like her was added to commemorate her singular contributions to "it's a small world". Try to spot her next time you ride. She looks like this:

Of course the attraction is simple. Of course it is bright and colorful. Of course it boils everything down to the essence. This ride is intended as a gift to the children of the world. As a child, all my mind thought about was how cool all of these other places must be and how much I wanted to learn more. To me, that is accomplishing the noble task that Walt set out to do. 

Let us not forget that we are not exploring the world's socio-political interactions for a doctoral thesis. We are introducing young ones to a representation of other young ones all over the world so that they can see themselves in them. What kid doesn't have a ball pointing out different countries and cultures while in that boat and feeling so proud when they can identify them? At the same time, children are not pandered to. There is enough going on, enough details and surprises, that even now I find new things to charm me. I still have codfish mouth every time.

If the visual design engages you with other cultures, the much-maligned song unifies everything. Originally each country was going to sing its national anthem. When they realized how cacophonous that would end up, Walt brought the Sherman Brothers, who were working on Mary Poppins, in to write a song that could be used throughout. It gives all of the children one single voice, even when they are speaking a different language. 

The song was originally written as a slower, wistful, even sad song. Look at those lyrics again. It's not as peppy as you assume from the cheerful arrangement. Along with the laughter, there are tears. Along with hope, there are fears. It's a plea for unity as much as it is a celebration of it. Through the simplest gesture, like a smile, we can reach across borders, real and imagined, and create a world like the one we are sailing through on the ride. A world of joyousness and togetherness. 

I'm no fool. I am, however, an optimist. Right now,  I live in a country where red states and blue states spar constantly through the representatives they have chosen. Where you can be considered a second class citizen because of who you love, the color of your skin, or the God that guides you. Where there doesn't seem to always be the hope and promise of a brighter tomorrow for the next generation. To me, "it's a small world" is kind of like the golden rule. Things really can be that simple. The golden rule teaches us to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Likewise, "it's a small world" teaches us that no matter how different someone may seem, they are human just like you, and they are deserving of kindness. That to me isn't trite. It's truth. A truth that we need to hear now more than ever. You can make the world that we live in a better place by keep wisdom like that in your back pocket. 

It is time for the backlash to the backlash to begin and for it to be cool to love this ride again. I have no qualms about shouting from the rooftop how much I adore it. When I went to Disneyland for the first time with Tom last year and we got to the area of "it's a small world", I actually wept. It was so beautiful and moving. Mary Blair's influence is all over the whole corner of the park, making it into a mini Mary Blair land. The ride's gorgeous facade and topiaries stood there, inviting me in for five of the loveliest minutes I've ever spent in my life. I sat in that boat, which has been sailing for 45 years, and watched the real children's faces light up as we travelled through a blissful world free of hate and cruelty. I held the hand of the man that I love, got swept up in the magic and gave the dream of a better world for my children permission to stay afloat.