Tales of Folly (July 24, 2010)

At Comic-Con International in San Diego, Patton Oswalt moderated a panel for Tron Legacy, which featured much of the cast and director of the upcoming Walt Disney Pictures film. Eight minutes from the film was screened to the audience and a new trailer was released to the greater public. But at the tail end of the panel, it was announced to almost unanimous shock and surprise that Guillermo Del Toro, the well-known director of the Hellboy films and Pan's Labyrinth would help create a new Haunted Mansion film. (It's not entirely known if he will direct.) Del Toro has a great passion for The Haunted Mansion attraction and was quite emphatic about his attempts to make this movie true to the spirit of the attraction, much to the utter delight of Disney fans. This was evident in his announcement that the Hatbox Ghost would play a prominent role in the film. Del Toro had been previously attached to The Hobbit but left the production due to the chaotic mess at MGM Studios.

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Other announcements hot off the press out of San Diego are some official word on long-standing rumors regarding Marvel's The Avengers film. That film, arriving in 2012, will team up many legendary Marvel characters who will by then have had their own spotlight films (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor) along with popular secondary characters that they hope to then spin-off. Joss Whedon, the popular creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly and a critically-acclaimed writer on Astonishing X-Men, outed himself as the official director of the film. And today word came down that Mark Ruffalo was finishing up 11th hour negotiations to take on the mantle of the Hulk, previously played by Ed Norton (with whom Marvel had a notorious falling out last week). Whedon also confirmed that Jeremy Renner (the Oscar-nominated lead in 2009's Best Picture The Hurt Locker) will play Hawkeye, the popular archer and rare un-powered Avenger. Marvel Studios is expected to have most of the cast on hand at their panel tonight.

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Disney officially announced a September 10th opening for Via Napoli, the new restaurant at Epcot's Italy pavilion. Via Napoli will be a table service restaurant only, with one menu for both lunch and dinner. Menu and prices were also unveiled and are certainly on the high-end. Apparently Disney has never actually seen how much pizza costs in Naples.

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It was recently revealed that Pixar's Brad Bird and screenwriter Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) were brought in to help contribute to Tron Legacy re-shoots. This is not an entirely rare process, but got a lot of press because of Disney's profile and Pixar's magical touch. It was then revealed this week that Pixar's brain-trust had also been brought in to help with the new Muppets movie in development. No word on whether this means we'll be reduced to tears watching a poignant sequence with Beaker.

Communicore 07.24.10

It was a big week of Disney announcements, observations, retrospectives and blogospherical musings. Here were some highlights, in no particular order:

Main Street Gazette took an introspective, sentimental look at Walt Disney World memories. Needless to say, many like myself share Ryan's feelings. You should be reading this blog everyday.

Jungle is "101" goes poolside at the Polynesian Resort, accompanied with some great photos and a nice nostalgic vibe that I absolutely share with author Mike. The last few trips prevented me from stopping at our family favorite resort but this time around, I will be making a visit.

The Disney Chick tries to figure out why The Sorcerer's Apprentice tanked at the box office last weekend. In my opinion, her post-mortem renders the mystery solved!

Progress City, U.S.A. takes a break from the Herb Ryman Centennial celebration to look at what's possibly on the horizon for Walt Disney's Animation Studios.

Imagineering Disney has some amazing photos of the Progress City model then and now along with a story about an attempt to restore the model.

The Disney Food Blog has been a great resource for planning my first Food & Wine Festival trip this October. You should be reading AJ's up-to-the-minute updates on the festival. In the meantime, I also enjoyed the blog's look at a favorite quick eatery in Disneyland: Bengal Barbecue.


A Tale of Toys, Tears and Growing Up

The beauty and wonder of film has always been its ability to form an emotional connection with its audience. Whether it's through the hatred we feel for despicable villains, the excitement we feel watching silver screen heroes, or even the love we feel for an on-screen beauty. Certainly the strongest emotion the cinema has ever invoked is crying. We cheer at an amazing action sequence, gasp at a dramatic moment, and laugh at a wacky situation. But these are all emotions we feel frequently throughout any given day. However, we don't often cry. So when a film makes us shed a tear, it's touching a precious nerve.

By now you've heard the tales of tears shed during Toy Story 3. Typically, the media seems to be missing the point in their throwaway analysis of the hows and whys of these teardrops. What the film achieved, and what Pixar seems to achieve with every film, is that wondrous emotional connection with its audience. The reason why people like me got choked up during multiples sequences in the third act of the film is because I care about the characters. I cared about the them halfway through the first film; at this point, I feel like I own these toys too. The sad reality is that Hollywood just doesn't get how to make that connection anymore. This isn't about certain sequences tugging at the heart strings, it's about our investment in the total story. This is what removes our disbelief from the equation and connects us with these characters' every exploits.

Ironically, much of the plot of Toy Story 3 is about emotional attachment or the dwindling lack thereof. Andy is heading off to college and has long given up on playing with his toys, who just want to have that emotional attachment of a child playing with them again. The characters brave their new world all in an effort to either connect back to Andy or to find a happy new connection. Along the way thought they also learn about their own connections with each other.

The film largely takes place at Sunnyside Daycare, where the toys end up in an unfortunate mix-up. Andy decides to take Woody with him to college with the rest of the gang headed for the attic. However, the toys first end up in the garbage and then at the new daycare center. At first Sunnyside presents the ultimate nirvana for the gang as they will always be played with and never outgrown. But soon enough they learn that the center is prison. Woody frustratingly leaves to return to Andy's college-bound box but eventually returns to help rescue his friends. In his travels, Woody meets Bonnie, one of the more well-behaved, imaginative Sunnyside kids and her loyal, if not quirky toys. The third act of the film is a tour de force of prison-escape drama and edge-of-your-seat suspense before settling into a poignant homecoming.

The core gang returns, with courageous sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) and brave space ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) at the lead again. (They wisely don't overdo the buddy-film theme that the first two films largely centered around, as it would have undermined the importance of the other characters.) Though the leads have always been an essential part of the success, with Allen and Hanks both delivering top notch vocal performances, I've always felt the appeal of the Toy Story films was how well those supporting characters were fleshed out. Jesse the cowgirl (Joan Cusack) and Bullseye the ever-loyal steed have become an essential part of the gang since the second film. Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Rex (Wallace Shawn) and Slinky Dog (Blake Clark, doing an almost indistinguishable replacement performance for the late Jim Varney) have amazing chemistry, especially when you take into consideration that their voice work is typically not recorded simultaneously. (Mrs. Potato Head, Barbie, and the Squeeze Toy Aliens round out the toy refugees.) As expected, the voice work of all the actors contributes greatly to the personality of the characters and strengthens the movie's emotional core.

Excellent new characters are introduced as well, led by Lots-O-Huggin' Bear, expertly voiced by Ned Beatty, who transitions from grandfatherly to dastardly so smoothly. He's joined by Ken, the comedic highlight of the movie. Michael Keaton oozes fun voicing Ken, who seems to have spent just a little too much time in his "Dream House." Ken gets the movie's biggest laughs as he manically dashes from smooth-talking fashionista to poker-playing menace with Keaton's trademark aplomb. Bonnie's toys make an all-too-brief appearance and convincingly convey a familiar yet slightly askew charm, meant to mirror that of younger Andy's relationship with his own toys. Timothy Dalton hams it up as Mr. Pricklepants, a Shakespearean stuffed-hedgehog in a hysterical role that if it had been extended longer could have stolen a lot of Ken's thunder.

Longtime Pixar jack-of-all-trades Lee Unkrich gets his first full time directing gig with Toy Story 3. (He previously co-directed Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo, and also did editing on many early Pixar films.) Unkrich does the most with his opportunity as he gets to engage the toys in more epic, kinetic action than the previous two films. (The opening sequence alone takes the action to purposefully ridiculous levels, a beautiful and whimsical segment.) He also mixes that up with smart camera direction and knows when to touch those emotional nerves during key sequences like the garbage incinerator and Bonnie's front yard. He wisely never overplays the hand and doesn't allow the characters to dwell too long forcing poignancy into melodrama. Kudos to Michael Arndt, who wrote Little Miss Sunshine and is new to the Pixar fold, for crafting a screenplay in keeping with Pixar's storytelling legacy. (Unkrich, John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton concocted the story.)

Computer animation has progressed significantly over the years to the point where it's becoming more difficult to distinguish advances made in the medium. Additionally, studios like Pixar have wisely eschewed most efforts towards realistic animation style, instead pursuing the same artist efforts that first put Disney Animation on the map. However, the Toy Story franchise has always leaned more towards realism than say the exaggerated qualities of Up or The Incredibles. In the 11 years since Toy Story 2, the animation technology has improved vastly and here allows the animators to do a wonderful job animating Andy and Bonnie. They thankfully take some stylistic liberties and avoid the Robert Zemeckis school of lifeless animation. Beyond the eyes and facial features, you have to marvel at how well they animated the movements of a 17-year old. Additionally, the animation of Lotso's Plush was as exceptional an achievement as Sully's fur in Monsters Inc., the cheese puff sequence in Toy Story 2, and all the underwater innovations in Finding Nemo.

Pixar still makes the best looking computer-animated films. But the studio has created its legendary run of both critical and box office success because of its stories and scripts. Its why their films have recently (and quite adeptly) wrestled with live-action films for Oscars and Best-of-year lists. Toy Story 3 is going to be doing the same for 2010, too. Admittedly it's been a terrible year for Hollywood (largely its own doing), but Toy Story 3 already stands at the top of the heap. So when you read stories about Hollywood's lack of creativity with remakes and sequelitis, they are certainly not referring to Pixar.

Toy Story 3 succeeded because it didn't take advantage of its audience or go for the easy laugh or cheap thrill. It never let go of the connection its predecessors created and only sought to take the connection to new levels. When the toys each turned to each other when there finally seemed no escape from impending doom, you could feel their emotional kinship for each other. That's the first time I started losing it. I felt their fear even though I knew they had to survive, and I admired their caring for each other. And by the end, when Andy passed the torch to young Bonnie, it was as touching and enjoyable a farewell as one could ask for. No amount of machismo could prevent me from crying at this bittersweet farewell, because Pixar and the Toy Story filmmakers long ago made me care about the characters and their stories. That's why I, too, found it hard to say goodbye.

This post is part of the Disney Blog Carnival. Head over there to see more great Disney-related posts and articles.


An Island of New Discoveries

Disney's Folly satellites captured this image of Discovery Island as it is today.

Disney's Folly once notoriously mused that Disney was going to bring a Lost-themed attraction to the former Discovery Island location. The reason why this faux rumor gained any speed is how good the idea is to bring an intriguing property to that specific location (and I do not take any ownership on the general Lost theming idea as many have suggested this). With the show off the air now, and having polarized many of its remaining fans towards the end, I doubt that Disney would ever come close to developing the island based on a syndication-unfriendly niche show. But that doesn't mean there aren't a multitude of valid, profitable ideas out there to take over both Discovery Island and its land-locked neighbor River Country. Today, I have some more ideas and this time, I’ll state up front that there is no truth to these suggestions!

Pirates of the Caribbean Island

To the consternation of some Disney fans, Pirates of the Caribbean theming has invaded areas other than the actual attraction of the same name. However, there is no denying the reality and logistics of Disney championing their own synergistic franchise, which also happens to cover a very popular genre (pirate lore). The popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has certainly not dwindled and looks to be rejuvenated with next year's On Stranger Tides, the fourth installment of the movie series. That said, why not start shifting many of these concepts away from the Magic Kingdom and into a new, separate land?

The island and sections of the corresponding main land (to the south and southwest of the island) could be themed after Tortuga, the notorious pirate island that lies out of the Royal Navy's jurisdiction in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. This movie setting is largely inspired by many of the scenes in the Pirates ride. Though this raises the issue of having a new attraction that largely plunders its own inspiration, enough could be done to differentiate the two. Much of Tortuga could emulate what Universal Studios is doing with Hogsmeade Village at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Pirate-themed shopping experiences, entertainment and eateries could line Tortuga. The Pirates League could relocate here as well. Also, imagine the street performers in Tortuga! Additionally, Disney could port a replica of the Black Pearl at the island as part of an attraction, walk through or as part of a show. The former River Country could even host that long-rumored Pirates-themed water park.

Discovery Island was previously known as Treasure Island, which had the type of pirate theme that could return to the island.

Marvel Island

The issue of incorporating Marvel characters into Disney parks is precarious on two levels. For one, there are apparently some rights issues with having those characters appear while also taking up shop over at rival Universal Studios. Secondly, it really doesn't make much sense to have Wolverine share the stage with Minnie Mouse. Disney CEO Bob Iger recently stated that Marvel characters do have a future in Disney parks. I don't want to ignore their presence at Universal, but let's take into consideration the probability of Marvel having a presence at Disney World.

Why not send them to the island? This technically puts them in the theme parks, even though the experience is more akin to the water parks. Since Universal actually calls their Marvel section Marvel Super Hero Island, Disney would have to be careful not to be repetitive. They could create a storyline for the entire island experience while also creating separate rides, based on the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Avengers and Spider-Man. Dark rides or motion simulator rides could keep the attraction sizes smaller than a roller coaster. Separating the characters from the theme parks proper would give the experience more excitement. The Hulk loses all believability if he's featured in a parade down Main Street, U.S.A. But if he is running amok amongst his universe's super-powered brethren, than the concept makes sense. And it could be a great place for Dad to take his sons while Mom and the girls hang out in the new Fantasyland visiting all the princesses!

Discovery Island (upper middle) and River Country (southeast of the island) take up a large amount of space inc omparison to the Contemporary Resort (upper left) and part of Fort Wilderness (lower right).

Syndrome's Island

The Incredibles remains one of Pixar's most enduring films and one with everlasting appeal (especially if Brad Bird ever gets around to helming a sequel). It also happens to include a large sequence that takes place on Syndrome's secret island lair. It's the stuff out of old James Bond films, fancied up for the modern generation. And a perfect fit for the old Discovery Island space. The Omnidroid, the island's deadly security system, and Syndrome himself could all work as antagonists in a vast island experience. The film, similar to Harry Potter films, is quite effective at appealing to both the younger, family-oriented audience as well as savvy, mature audiences. Yet despite being one of Pixar’s most universally appealing properties, it remains one of its most poorly represented at the theme parks. If Disney can’t find a smart way to bring the characters to, say, Disney’s Hollywood Studios via a dark ride or rollercoaster, then they shouldn’t overlook the opportunity for an, ahem, incredible island experience.

[Insert New Concept Here] Island

Not everything in Walt Disney World has to be synergized with a film or television property. Disney's best and most groundbreaking attractions were original concepts, such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain and all of Epcot, to name only a few. Even as recently as Expedition Everest and Soarin', the Imagineers have been able to create their own sandbox instead of playing in franchise-established ones. Make no mistake, some of those synergistic opportunities are smart moves, especially when utilizing characters and locations from beloved Disney movies, such as what the Fantasyland expansion is doing with franchises like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.

But Disney should take those restraints off the Imagineers and let them come up with something new, in concept, in execution and in technology. And give them an entire island to get it done! It may be difficult to pitch a concept that lies outside of the theme parks, but there aren't any concrete rules for running a theme park, especially when you're Disney. Pleasure Island and the water parks have proven that there can be a way to make ancillary experiences an essential part of the park hopping experience. If the concept is right, the guests are smart enough to find their way to the new experience.

Stitch Island

Just kidding.

What would you like to see on the old Discovery Island?