Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Shaggy Dog - 1959

The TV boom of the 1950's allowed Walt Disney to successfully enter the TV market with three hit series: Disneyland, The Mickey Mouse Club, and Zorro. The fourth TV series that Walt was considering concerned a teenage boy who would uncontrollably turn into a dog based on a book by Felix Salten, author of Bambi, called The Hound of Florence. And thus, the premise for The Shaggy Dog was born. This film was originally cast with TV in mind. Thus, many of Disney's own TV stars, including Mouseketters Annette Funicello and Roberta Shore were cast, as well as Disney's Hardy Boys' Tommy Kirk and Kevin "Moochie" Corcoran and Spin & Marty's Tim Considine. In the role of the parents, Walt cast TV star Jean Hagen and in his first of many Disney films, screen star Fred MacMurray.

Surprisingly, The Shaggy Dog was the first Disney feature film made entirely in black and white. The Reluctant Dragon featured a black and white opening similar to The Wizard of Oz, but this was the first Disney film without any color. The reason wasn't because it was intended for TV, but rather that many of the special effects would look obvious in color. Director Charles Barton had a primarily TV background and he had previously directed several episodes of Zorro for Disney. Bill Walsh wrote the script, who wrote many of Disney's biggest live action films, including Mary Poppins.

The film opens with a stop motion animated sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Wilby Daniels lands in hot water with his dad when he accidentally shoots a missile through his house. A new family moves into the neighborhood with a sheep dog and Wilby develops a crush on their daughter, Franceska. However, an accident at a museum causes an ancient ring to fall into Wilby's pants and when he discovers the ring, he recites the Latin phrase inscribed on it and turns into the neighbors sheep dog. Wilby heads back to the museum where the professor explains that he will turn into the dog at random and the only way to stop turning into a dog is to perform an act of heroism. While on a double date at a dance, Wilby turns back into the dog and is mistaken for the neighbor's dog. While in their house, he finds out that Franceska's father is a spy. A series of comedic events leads to Wilby as a dog stealing a car and leading a police chase to catch the spies. Wilby ends up saving Franceska's life, which breaks the spell, but she of course thinks that her dog saved her.

The Shaggy Dog was released on March 19th, 1959, and was a huge success. Critics found the premise unique and the humor top notch, albeit a little similar to that of a TV sitcom. But more importantly, audiences couldn't get enough of it. It cost less than $1 million to make, but it grossed $9 million, becoming the second highest grossing picture of the year behind Ben-Hur.

Walt Disney's The Shaggy Dog is one of the most iconic Disney comedies of all time. It sparked a series of formulaic comedies for the studio and even though it was the first, it is still considered one of the best. It went on to inspire a sequel in the 1970's, a made for TV remake in the 1990's and a theatrical remake in the 2000's, but none of them were able to capture the lightning in a bottle. If audiences and critics had any doubts about Walt Disney's mark on live action films, they were finally removed with this film.

The Shaggy Dog is currently available on DVD as a standalone release and bundled with its sequel, The Shaggy D.A. The film is presented in its original black and white widescreen version. The DVD also contains a colorized fullscreen version, a retrospective interview with the cast, a tribute to Fred MacMurray, and an audio commentary. It can also be found in a 4-movie collection where it is paired with The Shaggy D.A., the Tim Allen remake, and The Ugly Dachshund. It is also available on iTunes where it is in widescreen HD, but doesn't include any bonus features.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sleeping Beauty - 1959

For Walt Disney's sixteenth full-length animated feature, he wanted to try something very ambitious. The concept for Sleeping Beauty was that it would look like a moving piece of art. Each frame would be worthy of being displayed in a gallery. Walt also decided to film it in the new Technirama70 widescreen, a format that was both wider and larger than CinemaScope. As a result, all of the paper the animators used had to be bigger as well. Story development on Sleeping Beauty started in 1951, meaning that in total it took 8 years to make. Animation alone took 6 years because of the level of detail in each frame. The art design was done by Eyvind Earle, who made a lot of contributions to the design of Lady and the Tramp.

Walt originally had his team of songwriters create songs for the film, but in the end he decided to use the music from Tchaikovsky's ballet and put words to his pre-existing music. The voice of Aurora was Mary Costa, a young opera singer who went on to have a great opera career. Maleficent was voiced by Eleanor Audley, a great TV actress who was the narrator in Cinderella and the voice of Madame Leota in the classic Disney park attraction, The Haunted Mansion. Verna Felton plays Flora, the good fairy and she also played the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. Barbara Luddy plays Merriwether and she was also the voice of Lady in Lady and the Tramp. All of the sound was recorded in Germany where the best recording equipment was.

Like most Disney fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty begins with the opening of a book. Once upon a time, a princess named Aurora was born and betrothed to a neighboring kingdom's Prince Philip. But the evil fairy, Maleficent, angered by the fact that she wasn't invited to the celebration, places a curse on the baby that before sunset on her sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. Unable to undo her spell, one of the three good fairies makes it so that she will sleep instead of die, but the only way for her to awaken is by true loves kiss. To keep Aurora hidden from Maleficent, the three fairies disguise themselves as peasant women and raise Aurora in the woods. On the eve of her sixteenth birthday, she meets a man in the woods and falls in love with him. When she finds out that she is a betrothed princess, she is upset. And as she is returned to the castle, Maleficent finds her and Aurora pricks her finger. Meanwhile Prince Philip has been captured by Maleficent. The three fairies help him escape and give him a sword and shield so that he can defeat Maleficent, who has placed a forest of thorns around the castle and turned herself into a fire breathing dragon. Good triumphs over evil and Aurora is surprised to awaken to a kiss from the man she met in the woods, who is her betrothed Prince Philip.

Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty premiered on January 29th, 1959. At $6 million, it was the most expensive animated film ever made. Sadly, it earned $5.8 million, less than what it cost to make, meaning Disney lost money on it. Critics were unkind to the film, calling it unimaginative and too similar to previous Disney films. Perhaps in response to the lack of critical praise, audiences didn't flock to see Walt Disney's latest animated feature.
Nowadays, it is hard to see what critics had a problem with in Sleeping Beauty. It is a beautiful film with wonderful characters, romantic music and lots of excitement. Thankfully, time was very kind to the film. It was re-released five times in theaters and each time it gained a new audience that was able to appreciate the grandeur of it. Today, it is one of the Walt Disney Company's most prominent animated classics and is included in their Diamond Edition home video line, which celebrates their fifteen best selling animated films. Sadly, Sleeping Beauty was the end of an era. It was the last time that Disney would pour a lot of money into an animated feature for many years to come. In addition, it was the last film to be hand inked by the legendary ink and paint department. The next animated film, 101 Dalmatians, was the first to use the new Xerox process in which the animator's drawings would be directly scanned onto celluloid, losing the fluid feel that the hand-inked films had.

Today, the legacy of Sleeping Beauty is huge with the Disney company. In 1955, the castle that was the centerpiece of Disneyland was named Sleeping Beauty Castle in honor of the in-development film. Today, Princess Aurora owns real estate at Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland as well. An attraction based on the film will be included in Walt Disney World's Fantasyland expansion at the Magic Kingdom. And thanks to the ever popular Disney Princess franchise, Aurora and other characters from Sleeping Beauty are among the most heavily merchandised Disney characters.

Sleeping Beauty
 is currently available on Blu-Ray as a Diamond Edition. The film has been fully restored and is presented in 2.55:1 widescreen, which is wider than its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio because it shows the full animated image. However, this single disc release only adds new bonus features to promote the film Maleficent. I recommend the previous Blu-ray from 2008, which featured the exact same transfer but had more bonus features. That 2-disc sets contains a making-of documentary in addition to many great bonus features and a CineExplore picture commentary. The Platinum Edition of Sleeping Beauty was put back into the vault on January 31st, 2010.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Tonka - 1958

In the 1950's, Native Americans were commonly featured in films as the enemies of cowboys. Disney was one of the few studios that was sympathetic to indians, often painting them in a positive light. And while civil rights for Native Americans didn't become a political issue until the 1970's, Walt Disney was ahead of his peers with films centered around indians. Tonka is based on the story of Comanche, the single horse to survive the Battle of Little Big Horn, also known as Custer's Last Stand. It was originally conceived as a 5 part episode of Disneyland, but was filmed instead as a single film.

Tonka begins as an indian named White Bull tries to catch a wild horse and fails, losing a rope that he borrowed which gets him into trouble. While searching for his bow and arrow, he finds the horse tangled up in the rope, so he fences him in and keeps him a secret. He names the horse Tonka and trains him in secret. He eventually brings him back to his villiage, where Yellow Bull claims the horse as his own and mistreats Tonka. White Bull decides to free Tonka to prevent him from being abused more. Tonka ends up in the hands of Captain Miles Keogh of the US army, who names him Comanche. As General Custer plans genocide on the indians, the indians develop a plan to defend themselves against the white soldiers. When White Bull finds out that Tonka is with the army, he goes to visit him and is found by Captain Miles, who is kind to him after realizing their common interest in the horse. When the army arrives to surprise the indians, they are surprised to find that the indians were waiting for them. The entire army is killed and many indians died in the battle as well, but White Bull and Tonka survive. Tonka (Comanche) is given a medal for being the only survivor on the army's side and White Bull is put in charge of Tonka.

Walt Disney's Tonka was released on December 25th, 1958. Critics loved it, praising the excellent writing and performances as well as the lush shooting locations. I was unable to find box office records for the film, but it was most likely a success because it was broadcast on TV multiple times before the advent of home video. However, since that time it has faded into obscurity and when most people hear the word "Tonka," they think of the toy truck company.

I first saw Tonka in 2005 when a local video store closed and I purchased many of their Disney VHS tapes. I remember enjoying it, but soon forgot about it. Watching it again, I realized what an amazing movie this is. As an audience, you really feel for Tonka and White Bull, thanks in large part to an excellent performance by Sal Mineo in his only film for Disney. While the film is fictional, it is based on real historic events and the battle at the end is supposedly true to what really happened. Fans of Disney's Zorro might recognize Britt Lomond as General Custer because he played Capitan Monastario on the hit TV series. Tonka has even more in common with Zorro because it was written and directed by Lewis Foster, who wrote and directed many episodes of Zorro.

Tonka was released on DVD in 2009 as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. The disc has no bonus features and the film is presented in fullscreen. While some Disney films of the time were released that way, it is more likely that the film was released in matted widescreen. Therefore, the DVD aspect ratio is most likely not the original theatrical ratio. At any rate, it's nice to have the film available at all, since it was out of print for nearly 20 years. It is also available on iTunes in fullscreen.