Disneyland Prep – Movie Nights: The Documentaries

One of our “counting down to Disneyland” traditions has always been movie nights. We’ve done different things throughout the years. One year, we decided to theme our movies by lands. Tarzan, Swiss Family Robinson, and  Indiana Jones for Adventureland, Star Wars for Tomorrowland, a number of animated movies for Fantasyland…. you get the idea. We’ve even attempted to watch movies in chronological order, starting with Snow White and working up. Many times, the only criteria needed is whether the movie is Disney or at least in a Disney vein. Lately, (and my wife has been thankfully been going along with it) I’ve been in documentary mode.

One thing to know about me and my taste in movies: I’m an escapist. I don’t look for realism in my movies; I look to be entertained. There’s enough real in the world, and I’d rather have two hours of good storytelling than two hours of depressing realism followed by another two hours of deep thought.

With that being said, it’s amazing what good storytelling and entertainment Disney documentaries provide. They are among my favorite movies – not just documentaries. This week, we’ve watched two such docs – “Frank & Ollie” and “Waking Sleeping Beauty.” What great movies to bookend each other.

 

 

“Frank and Ollie” chronicles the journey of two lifelong friends who happened to be animators at the Disney studios – Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Walt’s “Nine Old Men.” Aside from being great guys and storytellers, the two were geniuses in the animation field. To watch them describe their work, through drawing and facial expressions, you can’t help but feel in awe of the animation process: the nuances of the characters, the humanizing of non humans – it’s truly amazing. The examples given, from Baloo agonizing over telling Mowgli it’s time to go back to the man village in “The Jungle Book”, to Archimedes the owl laughing hysterically at the idea of man someday mastering flight in “The Sword in the Stone,” really make me want to play closer attention to these little sequences of animation.

Guess it’s true what was said in Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles:”

 

 

Of course, the other focus of the movie – the friendship of the two – is truly touching. These two neighbors had different interests, different ways of doing things, but there was a genuine connection between the two. Knowing this movie was made toward the end of their long and amazing lives makes the final (wordless) few minutes incredibly poignant – Frank playing a tune on the piano while Ollie rides his trains (both their lifelong passions outside of animation) – it’s just about perfect. As were their animations.

 

 

If you’ve followed my Facebook page, I’ve made it no secret that not only is “Waking Sleeping Beauty” my favorite Disney movie, but it’s at the top of my list of all time favorites. Not bad for a film that wasn’t even made by Disney (only distributed)!

WSB follows the story of Disney animation through the turbulent years of 1984-1994. These were the years that saw “The Black Cauldron” get beat out at the box office by “The Care Bears Movie,” that saw the animators get evicted from their own building, that saw a drastic overhaul of the Walt Disney studios. But this was also the era that brought us “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and so much more. The story is told through the eyes of the animators – their successes and their failures. Ideas that worked and many that didn’t. Masterfully narrated by Don Hahn, and filled with interviews from those that were closest to the situation, including those involved in upper level power struggles (including Michael Eisner, Roy Disney and Jeffery Katzenberg) – this movie is master storytelling at its best.

Besides being informative and many times funny, the movie is a bit of a tear jerker as well. The filmmakers deftly chronicle the late Howard Ashman’s role in the resurgence of animation. Without him, one would question whether The Little Mermaid would have ever stayed afloat. Many of us knew of Howard as the other half of a songwriting team with Alan Menken; very few of us saw his creative process with the animators, the voice actors and the musicians. By the time the segment covering his passing arrives in the film, we really feel as though we’ve lost an amazing influence.

I’ve linked a bonus feature from the DVD on Howard here, but it’s nothing compared to the segment in the movie:

After I posted on Facebook, my friend and reader of the blog, Debi shared this with me:

“Feeling grateful again to my friend Craig, who turned me on to Don Hahn’s documentary, WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY. I bet I can do an RTI enrichment class based on this movie. Just watched the “Part of Your World” recording piece. Fabulous. The piece about losing Howard Ashman is very powerful and kids will lean from and relate to that story in an important way.”

I couldn’t agree more, Debi. This movie means that much to me, too.

This post has gotten rather long winded, but I do feel it has given you, dear readers, an insight to the mind of this DisNerd. And I’ll be going to Disneyland soon, thinking of these stories as I ride rides and see shows that they have influenced – can’t wait to share that with you as well!

 

The Disney Olympic Team – Final Entrants

As the Olympics come to a close, I thought I’d throw just a few more Disney athletes into the mix. I know this is in no way a comprehensive list, and if anyone would like to add to it, feel free! Without further adieu, here are my choices for Disney characters and their Olympic events:

First off, in the category of high jumps, I give you that spring-tailed master of bounce!

Continue reading

How to Play to DisNerds

My wife and I, along with other people we know, are fans of ABC’s new show, “Once Upon a Time.” Aside from just being plain intriguing with its warped fairy tale characters and alter egos, it’s a product of Disney synergy at its finest. The Dwarves are named after their Disney counterparts, Snow White has been known to hum “With a Smile and a Song,” and Belle looks awfully familiar in her gold dress. Then there’s the case of the “antique” in one of the cases of Mr. Gold’s antique shop:

That push button Mickey phone must be a pretty magical antique – why else would he have it locked up?

Watching the show to see what special touches like that may be thrown in next is definitely a highlight for me. Of course, being on ABC, a Disney owned company, the show writers can throw Disney-esque references in there and get away with it.

Of course there are other references out there, not necessarily in a television show, not necessarily linked directly to Disney, but references that, being a geek for all things Disney, I eat right up.

For example, foods that remind me of Disney catch my eye, and sometimes taste buds as well. I can’t resist the scent of churros. While not a Disney specific product, boy do they ever remind me of a certain theme park in Anaheim. Taking a bite, for a few brief moments I can almost see myself standing by the churro cart at the end of Main Street, USA, and I think the people that sell churros outside of the parks know this. I’m a sucker for cinnamon, sugar and Disney.

If I need Orange Juice, what kind do I enjoy the most?

Oh Donald, I’m so glad you can be a part of my balanced breakfast!

Then there are those products that aren’t aimed at Disney fans at all; nonetheless, they hit the mark. A few years back, Avon sold a cologne for men called “RPM.” It was described as a fresh, citrus, and slightly woodsy smell. So naturally, what did it remind me  of? Soarin’ Over California. Of course, I bought it because I’m a sucker for scents of Disney. I once spent an hour at a nickel poker machine at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas just because the fountain I was sitting next to reminded me of the smell of the water in Pirates of the Caribbean. I’m convinced a former Imagineer designed that fountain just to ensnare DisNerds like me.

Apparently it doesn’t take much to get my attention with a mention, tie-in or even scent that brings about a Disney feeling or memory. The latest product to come my way and evoke those feelings?

Look, they even have a Skyway!

There are so many other examples I can’t even think of at the moment, but sometimes even I look at myself and think, “How crazy am I to let myself be so influenced by Disney?” Yet, tis the life I lead… the life of a DisNerd.

And for some odd reason, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a perfumist out there trying to concoct “Eau de Pirate Water.”

Remember: The Bad Guys Never Win

This past weekend, my wife and I took our daughter to see “Disney on Ice: 100 Years of Magic.” Having taken her the previous year to see to see a different incarnation, we assumed she would be thrilled to be going again. Instead, her response?

“I think I have plans that day.”

Upon further prying and questioning, her reasoning for not wanting to go was revealed: Villains. Fortunately for us, this particular show was bad guy lite. Just a handful to worry about: Gaston (brutish, but not scary), Huns (a threat to China, but not to us), and…Monstro the whale. Ahh, Monstro, you devilish whale, you. My little girl, who used to be inseparable from her plush Pinocchio, wants nothing to do with you. No movie, no ride at Disneyland, no Disney on Ice… not even Storybook Land. Casey Jr. is  okay, but riding a tranquil boat through Monstro’s mouth is out of the question.

Such a frightening ride.

Of course, she’s not the only person out there to be frightened by Disney.

My father told me of going to Disneyland when he was five years old. He was bound and determined to ride Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride all by himself; no parents, no siblings, he was a big kid. He could to it. Therefore, his parents let him. How did you like that ride, dad? “Scared the HELL out of me.”

My mom loved to tell the story of taking my sister to the movies when she was a toddler to see Snow White. Everything was fine until the Queen transformed herself into the witch. The theater fell into silence as the old hag crept through the dungeon. You could hear a pin drop. You could hear a cute little two or three year old say “Oh sh–….”

As for me? Well, aside from the fact that, as stated in a previous post, I refused to ride Space Mountain due to lack of seat belts, not much phased me. Really. Unless, of course, you count the real mice that hide in the bushes of the Matterhorn, then I may be guilty of freaking out just a touch. But I digress.

After much cajoling, we finally got out daughter to the arena, sat in our seats, and generally speaking, everything was fine until the second half began with…. Pinocchio and a giant ice skating whale. At this point our little girl, tears rolling down her face, was screaming, “I COMMAND YOU TO GET ME OUT OF HERE!!!! I COMMAND IT!!!!” Instead of acquiescing to said commands, my wife and I held her hands, covered her eyes and ears and acted as human shields until the segment was over. Once it was over, she watched the rest of the show with rapt attention. On our way home, she said from the back seat, “I’m so glad we got to go to Disney on Ice today.” Then, looking in the program, said, “That silly Monstro didn’t even look like Monstro!” She had forgotten her fears (at least temporarily) and managed to have a good time and can’t wait for the chance to go again.

And that’s part of the magic of Disney – no matter how scary, how harsh things may get, good triumphs over evil, and we walk away happy, remembering for the most part, the good stuff. To this day, my dad still rides Mr. Toad, my sister still loves Snow White, and I ride Space Mountain without seat belts.

But I will still move to the other side of the line if I see a mouse in the bushes….

A Thank You Note

Lately, I’ve been looking back, trying to figure out where exactly all of this DisNerdia “clicked” into place for me. I’d been a relative fan of it all my life, loving it as a kid, trying to be “cool” in junior high and not let that love show around the other kids in class. I remember seeing The Little Mermaid shortly after it was released on video, and thinking to myself, “This isn’t bad – for a kid and girl movie.” So what brought me out – what made me truly embrace the nerd within when it came to all things Disney?

Was it a movie?

Was it music?

Was it a person?

As it turns out, it was all of the above, combined into one experience, dating back to my sophmore year of high school. And I wonder if the person involved in this ever realized his actions and words had such a profound effect.

Brian and I were both involved in performing arts in high school, having been in a few shows together and in the same choir class. We knew each other, but in all honesty, that was about it. Then, there was a movie poster that changed everything:

Walt Disney’s Fantasia was going to be released into movie theaters for a limited 50th anniversary run. Last time I had seen Fantasia I was about 8, and, aside from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I remembered little from it. Yet I did want to see it again. Brian put sign ups in the choir room so we could go as a group, and I signed up. As it turned out, not too many people signed up, and it was in question whether the outing would happen. Being 15 years old at the time and having no transportation, I was prepared to not be able to go, but Brian offered me a ride to the other side of town to go see it. I must admit, I felt a little out of place on that car trip, not really knowing anyone all that much on our way across town, feeling a bit like a charity case being taken along for the ride. But it would all be worth it.

Seeing something as innovative and mind blowing as so many of the sequences were on a big screen blew me away. The idea of classical music providing the backdrop for some pretty stunning images (it still amazes me how well early hand-drawn animation has held up over the years) left me pretty speechless. I fell in love with the movie, the accompanying music, and really rekindled my appreciation for the Walt Disney Company as a whole.

The final segment, “Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria,” still amazes me with its contrasts of good and evil, chaos and peace.

In Brian, I found someone who shared this appreciation, someone I could talk about the newest releases and soundtracks to, as well as discuss company history and love of theme parks with. Beyond the realm of Disney, this actually helped me realize it was okay to like things some might consider “kids’ stuff.” It was okay to be my own person, with likes and dislikes apart from others. Brian and I kept contact through the years, even turning up (unbeknownst to each other) to the same group interview for The Disney Store. (For the record, we both ended up with part time jobs there!) We have since remained in touch and continue to be friends, one of our common bonds among many being our appreciation for Disney. It’s been nothing short of amazing to see our daughters have so many interests for things such as Disney movies, music and fields such as Imagineering!

This post stands as my thank you letter. To Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski for envisioning Fantasia. To the Walt Disney Company for giving it a 50th anniversary theatrical release. And to Brian, for taking pity on a 15 year old kid and giving him a ride to the theater to see said movie. That small act of kindness meant more than you know in my life.

So, dear readers, do you have anyone to thank for your love of Disney? Parents, friends, teachers, relatives…even Walt himself? Take the opportunity to do so, whether by blog post, a note, or a salute to the “Partners” statue in Disneyland as you walk by.

And then…. feel free to pass that love on.

Remembering Frank Wells

Frank Wells, 1932-1994

On this day in 1994, Disney lost a true legend. Frank Wells, former President and COO of the Walt Disney Company, was tragically killed in a helicopter accident in Nevada at the young age of 62.

When “The Lion King” opened in theaters many saw a dedication in the credits that read: “In Remembrance Of Frank Wells – President of the Walt Disney Company 1984-1994.” I remember seeing those words, and knowing of the man, but not knowing the impact Mr. Wells truly had on the company.

Wells was one of the driving forces in the turn around of the Disney Company in the 1980s. According to his Disney Legends profile:

“During his 10-year-tenure, Disney enjoyed unprecedented growth and revitalization with annual revenues up from $1.5 billion to $8.5 billion. Disney stocks increased a whopping 1,500 percent, while its theme parks and resorts revenues tripled. Disney Consumer Products revenues rose 13-fold, while its filmed entertainment revenues jumped 15-fold. Frank helped make Disney one of the most successful film studios in the world.”

I would personally argue that the Eisner era enjoyed its greatest successes while Wells was in tenure for the company. He seemed to be the “Roy” to Michael’s “Walt.” For more on what Frank meant to the company, I highly recommend the fantastic documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty.”

Frank Wells was also quite an adventurer. In 1983, he set out to climb the highest mountain on each of the world’s seven continents within a single year – a feat never before accomplished at that time. He scaled six, but was forced to turn back near the top of Mount Everest. His mountaineering exploits were chronicled in his book,”Seven Summits,” co-authored by Dick Bass and Rick Ridgeway and published in 1986. His love of mountain climbing was paid tribute in the Matterhorn at Disneyland.

The “Lost” Expedition

I still salute – rather quickly – every time my bobsled passes by. Thank you, Frank. Your contributions to Disney helped to rejuvenate the company and bring magic to a new generation of fans.

A DisNerd At An Early Age

 

It’s not like I live at Disneyland. As a matter of fact, I live out of state and make it there about four times a year. To some, that’s too much, but not to me, my wife, or my daughter. It’s just that Disneyland has always been a part of me. In my blood, so to speak. My father started going to Disneyland with his family in 1956. My mother will volunteer the fact that I was conceived on a trip to Disneyland, a fact that just kind of freaks me out and for that reason, will not be discussed from here on out.

With my sister and Mickey, circa 1977

 

When I was younger, Disneyland was a favorite vacation destination for me. I can’t remember too much about those trips; I was a little too young. I do know that one of my family’s favorite photographs come from me being pushed in a stroller by Dale the chipmunk, screaming my cute little Mickey ears off. There are many other pictures of me at the park, but no real memories come of those.

The few things I do remember are little in the grand scheme of things. I remember my mom and dad making me and my sister lay down for a nap on a bench while my mom had iced tea and my dad had a vanilla milkshake, of which I got to have a sip of. A little thing, right? But here I am, 40 years old, and nothing tastes better to me than a vanilla milkshake from the happiest place on earth. (On a side note, on a trip there in 2006, I discovered the Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor no longer sold shakes. I almost cried.)

I remember waking up on the floor of the hotel room, being told I had just rolled off in the middle of the night. (Just rolled off? I was sharing a bed with my older sister at the time, and I still suspect foul play.)

I remember riding my first roller coaster, The Matterhorn, with my dad. And it scared the living daylights out of me. He tried to get me to go on Space Mountain with him. He said I’d like it because it had cool pictures of the solar system as we were walking out. He almost had me sold on it as I was a pretty big astronomy buff, until I asked one more important question. “Does it have seat belts?” I asked him. No, he told me, just safety bars. “Then I’m not riding. Not until they have seat belts.” I have since softened my stance on rides without seat belts, though I still won’t get into a car without one.

Perhaps the memory that stayed with me most, however, is that we went as a family. My parents divorced soon after our last family trip to Disneyland, and I wouldn’t get to go again for quite a few years. Nonetheless, when I think of my family being happy together, I think of our trips to Disneyland. I still think of family every time I go there, hoping my daughter will have similar memories and feelings.

And I think Uncle Walt would be happy.