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After my little rant about the omission of director Robert Stevenson from "Saving Mr. Banks," I figured I had better go and actually watch the film to make sure I wasn't making a mountain out of a molehill. I think my point still stands, with a couple of caveats. Yes, the movie is limited to examining the two weeks of pre-production on "Mary Poppins" in 1961 that Stevenson had nothing to do with. And yes, plenty of other creatives who were vital to the film ended up on the cutting room floor, including writer Bill Walsh. Yet the events of "Saving Mr. Banks" as they played out were largely invented and very skewed. Walt Disney did greet P.L. Travers upon her arrival to California, and then promptly left town, so it still rankles that his presence looms so large in the film and he's been handed such an outsized share of the credit for the success of "Mary Poppins."

If you put all that aside and buy into the fictionalized version of events, though, how was the movie? Not bad. It's an entertaining watch, particularly if you're a fan of the 1964 "Mary Poppins" film, which I am. Emma Thompson plays the uptight, combatative P.L. Travers, author of the "Mary Poppins" books, who has been cajoled by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for over two decades to sell him the rights to make a "Poppins" film. Financial necessity forces her to board a plane to sunny Southern California, to work on a film treatment with writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman). As Travers battles for creative control, we also learn the origins of "Mary Poppins" through flashbacks to her troubled childhood in Australia, when she was a little girl named Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) with a loving, but unstable alcoholic father (Colin Farrell).

The film starts out well enough, with Emma Thompson's performance a major highlight. P.L. Travers is a career curmudgeon, who hates cartoons and musicals, rolls her eyes at whimsy and sentiment, and makes impossible demands that change from one day to the next. Nobody likes her, with the exception of her cheerful driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti), and she doesn't care. However, thanks to Thompson she isn't unlikeable. The scenes that take place at the studio, where we get to see some of the painful adaptation process for "Mary Poppins," is easily the best stuff in the film. This is also the material that is truest to history, since there are audio recordings of many of the initial story meetings with Travers and the "Mr. Banks" crew had one of the people who was actually in the room, Richard Sherman, to consult with.

Things get iffier with the portrayal of Walt Disney. Tom Hanks turns in a nice performance, but he's not playing Walt Disney as he was, but very much the corporate image of Walt Disney that he projected to the world, with a couple of minor faults like enjoying alcohol and the occasional cigarette. We get a few glimpses of the shrewd businessman who built the Disney empire, but you have to look pretty hard beneath the charming veneer of Uncle Walt. What's worse is the totally invented notion that the "Mary Poppins" film somehow purged Travers of some of her childhood demons, that Disney magic and Walt's insight into her psyche, rather than money, triumphed over her cynicism. This is the kind of sugarcoating that Disney detractors have always despised, and I couldn't help feeling pretty frustrated on Travers' behalf.

The film is well-made and well-executed, a feel-good bit of corporate self-gilding that most audiences should eat right up. If I had known less about the production history of "Mary Poppins" and Walt Disney, I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more. The only really problematic stuff is the flashback sequences, which are commendably darker and tackle heavier subject matter than the usual Disney film, but they take up too much time and are rarely well connected to the events taking place in 1961. I wasn't surprised to learn that "Saving Mr. Banks" originally devoted far more attention to Travers' personal life and history, and the dealings with Disney were only added much later.

So all in all, I have very mixed feelings about the film. Thompson's performance is definitely worth the watch, and Disney fans should be happy to get a chance to see "Mary Poppins" concept sketches from the archives and the Sherman brothers working out the compositions for those iconic songs. But making-of films about famous films rarely manage to impress me, because there's too much of a tendency to glamorize real-life events, and this is just the latest example. The filmmaking process is fascinating enough without having to graft these tired old redemption plots into the works. I'm glad I saw "Saving Mr. Banks," but I wouldn't watch it again.

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There are so many expectations that have been heaped on the latest Disney CGI feature, "Frozen," that I feel obligated to start out this review by addressing some of them. Yes, the marketing campaign featuring Olaf the Snowman was terribly misleading, and "Frozen" is really much darker and more interesting than the slapstick-filled trailers made it look. Yes, it is a musical in the grand tradition of Disney musicals.

Unlike "Tangled," which was light on song numbers, "Frozen" boasts nine on its soundtrack, and for the first half hour more is sung than spoken. No, the movie is not a "Tangled" clone, though the designs are similar and it's clearly intended for the same audience. And finally, no, "Frozen" is not as good as the A+ Cinemascore and big box office returns would seem to indicate. It is very good as animated features go, and worth seeing, but expectations need some tempering.

So what is "Frozen" all about? A few elements from the Hans Christian Anderson classic, "The Snow Queen," are incorporated into a largely original, modern-minded fairy tale about two royal sisters. Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) are born princesses of the Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle. As children they are very close, but Elsa has magical abilities to summon ice and snow that get away from her one day, and cause a terrible accident, harming her little sister.

For everyone's safety, and particularly Anna's, Elsa shuts herself away from the world, and tries to control and suppress her powers. Anna is puzzled and hurt by the rejection, but Elsa maintains the distance between them, even after their parents tragically perish. However, another accident on Elsa's coronation day causes disaster for the kingdom and prompts Elsa to flee into the wilderness. Anna goes after her, with the help of a mountaineer named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and a snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad) that Elsa inadvertently brings to life with her magic.

At first glance, "Frozen" looks like a very typical Disney fairy-tale adaptation. You have the Broadway musical story structure, the goofy sidekicks, the bickering love birds, and not one, but two doe-eyed Disney heroines who sing about their feelings. However, "Frozen" actually subverts parts of the Disney formula, particularly some of the more troubling old conventions about love and romance. There are villains, but very different from the kind we typically see in Disney films. It's not clear at first whether Elsa is meant to be bad or good, as she's made to be extremely sympathetic, and when she acts like a villain, we understand why. She gets the film's showstopper, "Let it Go," a thrilling self-affirmation anthem that Idina Menzel knocks out of the park.

Moreover, while "Frozen" does have a lot of romance in it, the most important relationship is really between Elsa and Anna. Their sisterly bond is given far more attention and development than anything else in the film, and handled with considerably more thoughtfulness than the similar mother-daughter dynamics of last year's "Brave." Also, the treatment of Elsa's magic, referred to repeatedly as a "curse" has shades of the Beast's condition in "Beauty and the Beast." There are some very complex emotions and motivations in play that might go over the heads of the smallest members of the audience.

So luckily there's Olaf the Snowman, who is not nearly as precious or as cloying as he looked in the previews. Instead, he's a good reminder of why movies like this have comic relief, because that's exactly what he brings to the story, When things get too dark or grim, there's sincere, sweet-natured, dim-witted Olaf to jump into the fray and lighten the mood for a few minutes here, or ten seconds there. He and Sven the reindeer are extremely well deployed, mostly staying on the sidelines but pitching in when appropriate. Olaf in particular is a great character, a subtle manifestation of Elsa's softer side.

Given all the things that "Frozen" does right, it feels stingy to point out that the movie is far from perfect. The music is hit-or-miss, an acceptable approximation of the work of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman on the earlier Disney musicals, but not at the same level. The three acts that are all very well plotted and well written, but tonally might as well be three different movies. Elsa, despite being the most interesting character by far, gets an abbreviated arc that doesn't really deal with the impact of her transformation. And then there's Anna, perfectly likeable, but also clearly Rapunzel-lite.

The film was made on a very short timeline, and I expect a lot of these problems could have been ironed out if the filmmakers had a little more breathing room. At the same time, what they managed to accomplish in that span is astonishing. The visuals are a clear step up from "Tangled," full of gorgeous snow and ice effects, and still retaining that ineffable Disney atmosphere. The heroes are an unusually well-rounded bunch, with Kristoff and Anna's princely suitor Hans (Santino Fontana) making for a nice departure from the usual Disney love interests.

I'm glad to see Disney Animation's fortunes on the rise again. "Frozen" makes for a strong addition to their library, more promising than fulfilling ultimately, but definitely another big step in the right direction.
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I had to see this thing for myself. Back in January, "Escape From Tomorrow" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and attracted a huge amount of attention. You may remember it as the notorious guerrilla Disneyland film where director Randy Moore and his actors surreptitiously filmed large sections of the feature film in and around the Walt Disney World theme parks in Orlando, Florida. Disney being notoriously protective of their IP, was expected to bury it in litigation, ensuring it would never reach general audiences. And yet here we are, nine months later, and the film has been given a very limited theatrical release and has been made available online.

First things first. The movie is terrible. It depicts the nightmarish final day of the White family's trip to the Disney theme parks. In the opening scene, father Jim (Roy Abrahamsohn) is fired over the phone. He doesn't tell his wife, Emily (Elena Schuber), trying not to spoil the day for their two young children, Elliott (Jack Dalton) and Sarah (Katelynn Rodriguez). However Jim becomes increasingly frustrated with his family and disillusioned with the theme park experience. He gets sinister visions. A pair of teenage French girls (Annet Mahendru and Danielle Safady) keep distracting him. He flirts with a fellow parent (Alison Lees-Taylor). As the day goes on, things keep getting stranger.

The acting is marginal at best, the dialogue is clunky, and the plot is nearly incomprehensible. Moore's idea of satire is to juxtapose the Disney branding with adult lewdness, creepy horror movie imagery, and art school surrealism. At least, I think he's trying to do satire. When the story really goes off the deep end in the last half, and Jim apparently wanders into a paranoid science-fiction conspiracy, the movie becomes a series of nutty B-movie hijinks, each weirder and more unpleasant than the last. Some of the black-and-white cinematography is pretty good, the special effects are occasionally impressive, and the kids are cute, but the whole project is so confused and convoluted and ultimately amateurish, it's difficult to take seriously.

And yet, in terms of sheer conceptual daring, "Escape From Tomorrow" has a lot of impact. Simply having the film take place in the real Disney World adds a lot of and atmosphere and tension that a recreation couldn't hope to match. That's the real line for the "Buzz Lightyear" ride that Jim and Elliott wait in endlessly. That's really "It's a Small World" where Jim and Emily have a brief spat, even though the iconic theme song has been replaced by a generic jingle for legal reasons. The Disney parks, hotels, shuttles, merchandise, and characters are everywhere, inescapable, and you do get a sense of the company's famous insidiousness, though the ham-handed family drama at the forefront is much too blunt to capitalize on much of it.

I can see why Disney didn't feel compelled to quash the film, because it's so clearly the kind of curiosity that will only appeal to a very select audience. It's not good enough to attract the attention of mainstream viewers, though it may be bad enough to qualify as a cult film in a few years. More importantly, even without the big disclaimer at the beginning about Disney corporate not having anything to do with the film, no one in a million years would mistake "Escape From Tomorrow" for a Disney product. It's a bleak, antagonistic, unhappy piece of work from its opening frames, and presents a version of the Disney World experience that is totally antithetical to everything Disney promotes itself as being.

So they've opted to ignore the movie and not give it any attention to capitalize on, which most viewers can feel comfortable doing as well. "Escape From Tomorrow" is daring, but it's not particularly well conceived or well made. I expect that some Disney enthusiasts will get a kick out of it, for some of the unintended campiness and black humor, or just seeing familiar Disneyana through a different, subversive lens. For instance, I loved one scene that takes place during the flying simulator "Soarin'" ride, where Jim sees scantily clad women on the giant screen instead of picturesque landscapes. It's meant to be disturbing, yet another sign that Jim is losing his mind, but I found it hysterical.

Having grown up near the Disney empire in Southern California, I can definitely appreciate the impulse to take some artistic potshots at the Mouse. However, I wish the movie had been made by someone a little more creative with better writing chops. Throwing David Lynchian dream logic into the works didn't accomplish much, and made it feel like the ending was made up at the last minute. And bits of business like equating the Disney princesses with sex workers are positively old hat.

"Escape From Tomorrow" is ultimately a novelty item, and like all novelties, wears thin pretty quick.
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And here's where I'm kind of a hypocrite, because I'm about to engage in some shameless rumor dissection. A few weeks ago, a blog called Blue Sky Disney posted a schedule of Disney Animation's slate of future projects, all the way up through 2018. It looks like this:

Frozen (2013)
Big Hero 6 (2014)
Zootopia (2016)
Giants (2016)
Moana (TBA, likely 2018)
Untitled Dean Wellin Animated Feature (TBA, likely 2018)

The dates are correct, as Disney staked them out officially earlier in the year, but the titles have only been confirmed up through "Zootopia," which was revealed to be a anthropomorphized animal buddy-cop comedy at the latest D23 convention. Beyond that, it's all speculation, but there have been enough corroborating reports from other sources that point to this information most likely being legit. For instance, here's a recent report from Bleeding Cool with more details on "Giants," which is a new spin on "Jack and the Beanstalk." And this interview with director Ron Clements seems to confirm "Moana," a Polynesian themed tale. Lots can change between now and 2016, of course, but I think there's enough information here to write up some thoughts on what's going on at the Mouse House.

One of the first things I noticed about the new slate is that it's a little light on female lead characters. Oh sure, "Zootopia" will split the billing between a female rabbit and a male fox, and there are sure to be girlfriends for Jack in "Giants" and the young superhero in "Big Hero 6," but Disney's traditionally gotten into trouble when they try courting the young male audience too aggressively. Some have pointed out that the slate has been a little too princess-heavy recently between "The Princess and the Frog," "Tangled," "Enchanted," PIXAR's "Brave" and now "Frozen," but it's a little worrying not to see anything even being discussed.

I was hoping that Disney would have a little more faith in their princess movies after "Tangled," but less than three months away from the release date of "Frozen," we have yet to get a good look at the main characters, the story, or anything else in the film aside from the comic relief. A Japanese trailer is floating around that offers much more substance in only a few seconds, and irony of ironies, the film is retaining the "The Snow Queen" title in Japan. Still the film got made, after a decades in development, and I'm looking forward to it.

Second thing I noticed is that Disney is globetrotting again, setting some of its future movies in very culturally distinct locales. "Big Hero 6" is based on an obscure Marvel Comics property, and will be set in a fictional Asian-themed city. It will star a young hero named Hiro Hamada, who has created his own robot partner. This has anime homage written all over it, which could be a lot of fun, but there's also the danger of uncomfortable Asian stereotypes running amok. But then, Dreamworks did it right with the "Kung Fu Panda" movies, so I have some faith that Disney will too.

I'm also very curious about "Moana," the latest from Disney veterans John Musker and Ron Clements which will be their debut in CGI. Because I am a film nerd, I know that it shares a name with the obscure 1926 South Seas ethnographic documentary, "Moana," made by Robert Flaherty as his follow-up to "Nanook of the North." And I know that Moana was the name of the lead male character, whose story was a coming-of-age romance. That doesn't mean that Disney's "Moana" will necessarily center around a male hero. "Moana" means "deep water" or "ocean" in Samoan.

"Giants" was apparently pushed back because of Bryan Singer's "Jack the Giant Slayer," but that film was such a bust on every level, I don't think it should affect the Disney version at all. Besides, if the latest reports about the direction of "Giants" are correct, the two movies will have almost nothing in common. By 2016 I doubt anyone will remember "Jack." "Zootopia" strikes me as having a very modern sensibility, and is the kind of project I'd expect to see at Dreamworks or one of the smaller CGI animation outfits. When Disney tries to get hip with their animated films, they tend to end up with movies like "Chicken Little." Still, it's too early to say anything yet.

Finally, the slate is interesting for what's not on it. There are no sequels at this time, in spite of the success of "Wreck-it-Ralph" spawning so much discussion about what could happen in the next installment. This is in stark contrast to PIXAR, which has embraced the concept of franchising many of its past hits. And there is no sign of previously buzzed-about projects like "King of the Elves," based on a Philip K. Dick story, or the rumored Mickey Mouse feature. Instead, new Mickey Mouse shorts have been in circulation, and one is expected to play with "Frozen" in November.

Happy watching.
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A couple of minor spoilers for "Iron Man 3" ahead.

It was announced a few days ago that Robert Downey Jr. had signed on to reprise the role of Iron Man in the upcoming "Avengers 2" and "Avengers 3." There was no mention of an "Iron Man 4," though that doesn't rule out the possibility that deals for more sequels may happen later. I know that the ending of "Iron Man 3" looked pretty definitive, and if I had my way it would be the last "Iron Man" movie for a long time, but we are talking about a film that has so far made $1.2 billion dollars in ticket sales alone. Disney and Marvel will be make as many more "Iron Man" movies as they can get away with.

But what if Downey doesn't sign on for any more "Iron Man" installments? Well, right now what this new deal means practically, is that Downey is going still to be Tony Stark through at least 2018, when "Avengers 3" is most likely to hit the big screen. My guess is that "Avengers 3" may be Downey's last appearance as the cinematic Iron Man, even if there is an "Iron Man 4." I don't know if Joss Whedon is going to still be involved at that point, but I expect that we're going to see him permanently retired in some manner (I doubt Disney would allow him to be killed off in traditional Whedon fashion) that sends him off with a bang. At that point Downey will be 53 years old - not too old for another few rounds as a superhero, but old enough that Disney and Marvel should be seriously entertaining the notion of rebooting "Iron Man." There was a five year gap between the two "Spider-Man" movie franchises, and assuming that window keeps shrinking, I don't think it's unlikely that we'll get a new actor playing Tony Stark as early as 2022, four years after "Avengers 3" and fourteen years after the first "Iron Man" movie.

The more important question for audiences is whether this is a good thing. Do we want more Iron Man? And is "Avengers 2," "Avengers 3," and a possible fourth and even fifth "Iron Man" movie how we want him? Well, looking at the four appearances of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark onscreen so far (not counting cameos), I have serious doubts. If you treat the existing "Iron Man" trilogy as a finished series, it's pretty mediocre. Great first film, lackluster second film, and an okay third film. Both the second and third film offer some character development, where Tony has to pull himself out of existential funks, but he doesn't make any major advances, and the status quo is unchanged until the very, very end of "Iron Man 3," where the ending isn't convincing. We already know Tony's going to be back for another "Avengers." Also, the sequels have been relentlessly safe, avoiding the hard partying reprobate Tony we were first introduced to, and staying far, far away from the comic book version who battled alcoholism and other personal demons. It's no secret that Shane Black wanted to adapt the "Demon in a Bottle" arc, but Disney nixed the idea as too dark and kid-unfriendly.

I'm not saying that we need "Iron Man" to get R-rated, but it's been depressing to see a character with so much potential wasted in so many disposable, lukewarm adventures. If we get an "Iron Man 4" and "Iron Man 5," it's only going to get worse, the way that the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies have. I'd actually prefer seeing an "Iron Man" prequel without the superhero elements, because we would actually be able to see more of the major milestones in his life - Tony meeting Pepper, Tony becoming friends with Rhodey, and maybe even Tony having to deal with the aftermath of his father's early demise. These are the kinds of things that I can't help feeling that the "Iron Man" films should have made time to explore by now, but they haven't. "Iron Man 2" was a particularly egregious example of the franchise treading water and shamelessly taking advantage of the audience's goodwill.

I find I'm more interested in the next "Thor" and "Captain America" movies. "Thor: The Dark World" is at least getting a good villain in Loki, and Thor's long-distance relationship with Jane Foster will be a focal point. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" moves storylines with Black Widow and Bucky Barnes forward, and we should see more of Cap's fish-out-of-water experiences living in the modern day world. I can buy that these superheroes still have a lot of major battles ahead of them that could support big films. I'm sure an "Iron Man 4" could drum up some dire new threat for Tony Stark to tackle, but by nixing most of his usual personality flaws It feels like all of his biggest challenges have already been met. He got the girl. He's faced the demons of his past multiple times. The bad boy was tamed, though mostly offscreen. He's become a better person and has his happy ending.

Too bad Marvel and Disney aren't going to be able to leave well enough alone.
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I had very low expectations for "Oz, the Great and Powerful," the recent Disney prequel to "The Wizard of Oz," that reveals how the Wonderful Wizard first came to the Land of Oz. That's probably why I had a fairly positive experience with it. I consider myself a big Oz fan, who has a lot of history with the franchise and its various spinoffs, including "Wicked." "Oz, the Great and Powerful" is exactly what the marketing makes it look like: a big, shiny fantasy spectacle with far more style than substance. It doesn't do a very good job of keeping in the spirit of the original Oz films and books, but if you're just looking for some good family entertainment, it works perfectly well as goofy, whiz-bang fun.

We first meet Oscar Diggs (James Franco) as a Kansas carnival magician, who styles himself as Oz, the Great and Powerful. He's a con-man, a womanizer, and a cheat, but yearns to be a great man. Fate steers him into a hot air balloon that gets sucked into a tornado, sending Oscar to the Land of Oz. There, people mistake him for a Wizard, who has been prophesied will save Oz from destruction. He meets new friends, including a talking winged monkey, Finley (Zach Braff), a porcelain China Girl (Joey King), and three beautiful witches named Evanora (Rachel Weisz), Theodora (Mila Kunis), and Glinda (Michelle Williams). The question of whether these witches are bad or good is central to the story, and as you might have already guessed, one of them turns out to be the famous Wicked Witch of the West.

The plot is a mess, and though all the actors involved are competent, it's hard to escape the feeling that several of them have been terribly miscast. James Franco, for instance, does not deliver a bad performance by any means, but it doesn't quite fit the bigger, larger-than-life feel of the rest of the movie. Similarly, this version of the Wicked Witch only works if you keep in mind that this is a younger, not yet fully-formed Wicked Witch, and thus very different from Margaret Hamilton's take on her. I expect for many Oz fans, this portrayal is going to clash terribly with their childhood memories of the character. Because of the different kind of story being told here, and because Disney had to take pains to avoid evoking MGM's "Oz" too closely, there's also a much more generic feel to the fantasy land.

At the same time, the execution of the spectacle is so well done, it makes up for a lot of these flaws. Disney couldn't take anything directly from "The Wizard of Oz," but it does pay homage to it through many, many references, large and small. The most obvious is that all the Kansas scenes are shot in sepia tones, and use the old 4:3 aspect ratio. It isn't until Oscar arrives in Oz that the film changes to color, and the picture transitions to full widescreen. The visuals are designed to reminded viewers of the saturated Technicolor look that gave those first Munchkinland scenes so much impact. It's a treat to watch Oscar explore the gorgeous Oz landscape, including a fantastically vibrant Emerald City. The CGI effects work is especially good, creating two major characters, Finley and the China Girl, who are convincing as any of the human beings onscreen.

The hand of director Sam Raimis is only apparent in the odd frame, since this is such an obviously Disney-controlled product. However, you do get some of his twisted sense of humor here and there, most notably in the tornado sequence. His visual style, with the long tracking shots and horror movie angles, is also apparent if you're paying attention. This helps to keep "Oz, the Great and Powerful" from looking too much of a piece with similar films like Tim Burton's "Alice and Wonderland." There are constantly interesting things to look at. Even if the story wasn't holding my interest, I wasn't bored for an instant. And after the recent blitz of summer action films that hurtled along at breakneck speeds, it was nice to have several sequences in "Oz" where you could really sit back and take in all the gorgeous graphics at a more leisurely pace.

There are a lot of things I wanted from a new Oz movie, and "Oz, the Great and Powerful" didn't give me as many as I was hoping for. However, it does make me feel very positive about the future of Oz on film. Clearly Disney put a lot of effort into making this one look good. If they put half as much effort into the story and characters for the next one – and it's looking good that we'll get a next one – it could really be something special.
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The Merida makeover kerfuffle has mostly blown over, but I wanted to put in my two cents, not just on this particular controversy, but the existence of the Disney Princess brand in general. During my last trip to the Disneyland theme park, it was hard to escape the princesses. Everywhere you looked, there were little girls dressed up as Merida from "Brave," Rapunzel from "Tangled," Tiana from "The Princess and the Frog," and a smattering of Belles and Ariels and Jasmines. I caught a glimpse of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique near Sleeping Beauty's Castle, a salon where girls could be transformed into their favorite princess for the day. (Contrary to a recent episode of "The Big Bang Theory," grown ups aren't allowed to wander the park in costume, for fear of confusing the kids).

The cynical part of me thought that all the little girls in their color-coded princess gowns were awfully generic looking. Sure, they were obviously having fun and they looked adorable, but it reinforced for me that the bulk of this whole Disney Princess branding business is tied to selling traditionally gender-coded merchandise for girls like dresses and accessories and dolls. And the shinier and sparklier, the better, which is why Princess Merida was redesigned with a fancier gown, better groomed hair, and it looks like she's wearing eye make-up. If you look at the other princess characters, you'll notice that they've all been redesigned like this to an extent. However, Merida's makeover is especially jarring because it's so contrary to her character. PIXAR did a great job of creating a princess who valued her individuality over tradition, and was more interested in adventuring than being cooped up at home, learning to be a proper lady. In one scene, she rips her way out of the constraining, pretty dress that her mother has stuffed her into, in order to win an archery tournament.

I don't have any issues with the individual Disney Princesses as role models. I think this generation's Merida and Tiana and Rapunzel are great examples of well-rounded, interesting animated heroines. Even the older, more traditional princesses like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella have their good points. However, the Disney Princess branding insists on presenting all of them as these slightly differentiated variations on a very generic, ideal princess type, where the emphasis is all on looks and clothes. It's notable that the more action-oriented heroines who are part of the Princess brand, Mulan and Pocahontas, don't appear nearly as often as their more passive contemporary, Princess Jasmine. If you like Merida because she broke a lot of the rules, it's very strange to see her being shoehorned back into the role of the pretty princess character who is being used to sell more dresses and dolls. Fortunately, there's plenty of "Brave" merchandise that features the more recognizable Merida, with her messy hair, bow and arrows, and plainer clothes - even action figures and some toy weapons! However, they don't appear under the Disney Princess label.

Was making Merida a Disney Princess a mistake? Adding Merida to the lineup might have been viewed as a positive decision if you see it as an attempt to shake up the princess image a bit, and try to broaden what being a Disney princess means. However, when Disney started right off by giving Merida a glittery redesign to make her fit in with the other princesses, it was apparent that this wasn't the case at all. No, Merida became the eleventh official Disney princess because she's popular, she appeals to the same audience, and she makes for good crossover synergy with the PIXAR brands. And it's no wonder that the decision ended up becoming a perfect flashpoint for all the criticisms that have been levied against the Disney Princess brand in the last few years - chiefly that it promotes problematic gender roles and perpetuates all the regressive, shallow, antiquated ideas associated with princesshood. Concerned parents can try to keep their girls away from the princess merchandise, but the brand is so pervasive, that it can be difficult.

For the record, Belle was always my favorite Disney heroine, but not because of the pretty yellow dress. I liked her because she was a bookworm and a social oddball. Also, "Beauty and the Beast" coming out when I was still in the target audience for animated kids' film probably had a lot to do with it. The Disney Princess brand wasn't around in my day, and I wonder if that would have made any difference. It wasn't until the year 2000 that Disney started treating their princesses as a collective entity, and created this incredibly lucrative brand that now moves everything from bedding and toys to consumer electronics. So the Disney Princesses are not going away any time soon, but surely there's room to improve the message a bit. They have this wonderful set of characters that they aren't really using to their full potential. I'd love to see Disney make some adjustments to help the princesses be a little less Barbie and little more Dora the Explorer or American Girl.

After all, there's no reason you can't put an emphasis on good role models and good stories, and still hawk plenty of pastel-colored merchandise at the same time.
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I grew up in Southern California, so I've been to Disneyland many times, but it's been about a decade since the last trip, and I'd never set foot in the California Adventure park. So when the opportunity came up during my latest vacation, I figured it was about time I took the plunge. And why am I writing about it in my media blog? Well, for one thing it's Disney, and the theme parks are almost impossible to separate from the media empire that they've built up over the years. All the recent properties Disney has acquired were visible the parks this week - lots of "Star Wars" merchandise, "Iron Man" suits in the Tomorrowland Innoventions exhibit, and the Muppets 3D show tucked away in a corner of California Adventure. But besides that, a theme park attraction is something of a pinnacle for a media brand, a sign that you've a big enough draw to justify being associated with an expensive real-world experience. Or as "Community" put it, you want to be the show that gets twelve seasons and a theme park.

Specifically, I want to talk about the presence of "Cars," the PIXAR franchise that kids love, but adults generally rank near the bottom of their lists of favorite PIXAR movies. It's "Cars," not "The Incredibles," and not "Toy Story," that has an entire themed land in the California Adventure park, as big as Toontown in Disneyland. It's a recreation of Radiator Springs, the little town from the 2006 "Cars" movie, comprised of a long street with themed restaurants and shops on either side, finally dead-ending at the Radiator Springs Racers, the most popular ride in the park, with the longest wait times. There are also two smaller rides, Mater's Junkyard Jamboree and Luigi's Flying Tires. The whole place is beautifully designed. The entrance to Luigi's Flying Tires looks like Luigi's tire shop from the movie, complete with the Leaning Tower of Tires out front. The Cozy Cone Motel, with its giant traffic cones, contains a series of snack stands, where you buy items served in commemorative traffic cone-shaped containers. Fillmore's organic fuel stop is now a beverage stand. Ramone's Body Shop sells clothing and merchandise. Flo's V8 Diner, of course, is a working diner.

Despite not caring much for the "Cars" movies, I thought Cars Land was a blast. There was so much work put into the place, from the mountain ranges created using forced perspective, to the talking "Cars" characters rolling down the street with a gaggle of handlers in tow, to the tons of little details incorporated into every single structure and visible item for sale. In line for the Luigi ride, where you ride around in little bumper-hover-crafts shaped like tires, I noticed that the hedges were shaped like tires, the stanchions for the lines were topped by little silver tires, and even the fencing around the greenery looked like tire treads. When I came back in the evening, many of the buildings were lit up with colorful neon signage. I found the Radiator Springs that existed in Cars Land far more engaging than the one that appeared in the movie, where many of the little businesses only registered as cute cartoon automotive gags and were quickly forgotten. Walking around the physical version, I was constantly struck by how cleverly executed the place was, and I couldn't stop looking at everything.

I'm sure that Disney's Imagineers could have made a similarly impressive locale for "Finding Nemo" or "Monsters Inc." There was also a smaller "Bug's Life" area at the park, aimed at smaller children, that had some nice touches. However, I can see how "Cars" had more potential for a variety of reasons. The movie was tied to a major outdoor location, Radiator Springs, that would be easier to recreate. Car racing was a major component of the plot, an activity that was easier to build rides around. "Cars" is also very conceptually and visually distinctive. Lots of other franchises have done insects and fish and toys and monsters before, but it's hard to think of another one involving automobiles. And then of course, I'm sure Disney was swayed by the fact that "Cars" merchandise has always done extremely well. It's almost certainly the reason why "Cars" got its sequel and a new spinoff film, "Planes," that opens later this summer. And it's why "Cars" headliner Lightning McQueen is all over the advertisements and identification banners and signs for California Adventure.

On the flip side, you really had to keep your eyes open to find any sign of "Ratatouille" or "WALL-E" at the parks. I was especially disappointed that "The Incredibles" barely had any presence at all. Now that Disney has all those Marvel superheroes to play with, I guess PIXAR's superhero family is on the outs. That's a shame, since I can think of a lot that Disney could do with the property. Remember Syndrome's secret lair? And Edna Mode's workshop? Guess I need to go buy more "Incredibles" action figures if I ever want to see them at the Disney parks.
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Since there's a nice lull in the "Star Wars" rumor mill for the moment, I thought I'd take the chance to put down a few notes on what I'd like to see out of the new "Star Wars" movies. Most of these are very general, aspirational thoughts, really applicable to a lot of different franchises, but I get the sense that the "Star Wars" filmmakers and the fandom could both stand to be reminded of some of the basics, considering how nuts the rumor mill has been lately. So what do I really want out of new "Star Wars" movies?

Story vs. Mythology – One of the reasons I'm glad that J.J. Abrams is working on the new "Star Wars" films is that he blew up the planet Vulcan. He ignored decades of "Star Trek" canon and just blew it up, because it served the needs of the story that he wanted to tell. Despite most of the recent "Star Wars" rumors being about whether the older actors from the original series will return or not, I'm not too interested in seeing Han Solo and Princess Leia back on the big screen unless Abrams and writer Michael Ardnt figure out a way to use them right, for the purposes of telling me a new "Star Wars" story. Remember that in the prequels, we had the two beloved droids, R2-D2 and C3PO, running around as comic relief, and I can barely remember what they actually did in those movies. There were altogether too many call-backs and references in the prequels, and the new "Star Wars" trilogy would benefit from toning those elements down. Sure, there should be some "Star Wars" mythology in the mix in order to keep the series' continuity, but the story has to come first.

Character vs. Effects – This is a harder one, because the "Star Wars" movies are known for pushing the envelope on special effects, and its' the spectacle that is the biggest selling point of the franchise. The new movies are bound to introduce new alien races and robots and space vehicles and so on. However, it's very easy for the effects to become overwhelming. If the writing's not in place to sufficiently ground these elements, they become weightless and empty. This has been particularly true of all the CGI characters, who don't have a fraction of the charm that the old puppets and rubber mask aliens did. Now clearly, you can give a CGI character heart and soul, as Gollum and the PIXAR movies have made clear, but Lucasfilm seemed more interested in making their characters looked good as opposed to making good characters, and I hope they don't continue to make that mistake. Also, one of the things that made the original "Star Wars" so distinctive was that it was a more rough-and-tumble universe, where Tatooine was a backwater planetary system and the Millennium Falcon was a hunk of junk. Things shouldn't be looking so pretty anyway.

Old vs. New – This one ties into the "Story vs. Mythology" point. One thing that I can't fault the prequels for was choosing to appeal to a new generation of kids instead of the existing fanbase of "Star Wars" geeks. "Star Wars" was always kid-oriented, based off whiz-bang adventure serials of the 50s the way "Indiana Jones" was. Now that we're thirty years removed from the original films, this point is more important than ever. The new "Star Wars" films have to be made to appeal to modern kids or else the franchise itself just isn't going to last. Of course I'm hoping for a little nostalgia too, but I hope that Abrams and company keep some distance from the fans who want the new trilogy to be more like the old trilogy, lest they end up going too far in that direction. I'm very happy about the apparent involvement of Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote "The Empire Strikes Back," but there's nothing wrong with applying new cinematic developments to the "Star Wars" films as long as they do it right.

The Light vs. The Dark Side of the Force – Finally, one modern trend I hope the new movie avoids is getting too dark. Sure, "Star Wars" has its tragic saga of a divided family and an intergalactic war at its center, but it was never a bleak or cynical story the way that so many are now. Watching franchises like "Terminator" and "Batman" and the James Bond movies get grittier and colder and more merciless over time has been disheartening. At the same time, new franchises like "Transformers" are getting slicker and meaner than ever. I hope that "Star Wars" can hold on to a little idealism and a little magic when it returns to the silver screen.

Mostly, I hope the new movies will give me a reason to be a "Star Wars" fan again.
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Yesterday Disney announced that they are pursuing development of a live action "Beauty and the Beast," to go along with "Alice in Wonderland," "Mirror, Mirror," and the upcoming "Maleficent" and "Cinderella." The fairy tale trend may be on its last legs in the rest of Hollywood, but Disney being Disney, they've found some success with it. The huge opening for "Oz the Great and Powerful" shows that the classics can still be lucrative if handled properly. So it shouldn't be a surprise that Disney has been going through its back catalog of animated properties looking for more children's stories to reinvent, and not just to keep feeding the storylines on "Once Upon a Time."

So what's next in the pipeline? There are some interesting possibilities. Disney already went through a similar phase in the 90s that netted us live action "The Jungle Book" and "101 Dalmatians" movies. I think "Tangled" and "The Princess and the Frog" are probably too recent, and most of the ones with animal stars like "The Rescuers," "Dumbo," and "Lady and the Tramp" would be too difficult to translate. I've made a list of some possible remaining candidates below.

"Pinocchio" - Remember that cheery "Geppetto" TV movie musical that Disney made back in 2000 with Drew Carey and Julia Louis-Dreyfus? How about the Italian version with Roberto Benigni? No? We're seriously overdue for a new version of "Pinocchio," one that takes the character back to his darker roots. Guillermo Del Toro and the Jim Henson company were working on a stop-motion version which seems to be in limbo at the moment. If that one doesn't pan out, Disney might want to consider going the live action route and seeing if they can find a good angle on reinterpreting what is arguably the best animated film they ever made.

"The Little Mermaid" - There are a lot of technical challenges that would come with this one, which is why "The Little Mermaid" hasn't been adapted as often as most of the other stories on this list. Movies involving water tend to get very expensive in a hurry. However, considering how far CGI has advanced, I think a new live action adaptation is very possible and has lots of potential. Think about how gorgeous those ocean scenes were in "Life of Pi." Also, keep in mind that Disney already produced a perfectly charming mermaid movie back in the 80s with only old fashioned special effects - Ron Howard's "Splash."

"Aladdin" - The biggest problem with doing a live action "Aladdin" is Disney's own discouraging failure at adapting the similarly themed "Prince of Persia" franchise a few years ago. Add likely issues with cultural appropriation, Orientalism, and stereotyping on top of that, and "Aladdin" starts to look like a potential minefield. However, the "Arabian Nights" stories have remained very popular, and everyone knows the "Aladdin" story. If Disney can get a big headliner to play the Genie of the Lamp, and make some genuine attempts at cultural sensitivity, I think the magic carpets and caves of wonder should do the rest.

"The Sword in the Stone" - There have been quite a few attempts at tackling the King Arthur legends recently, but I'm surprised that nobody has thought to take another shot at adapting "The Sword in the Stone," the first volume of T.H. White's "The Once and Future King." Disney made a fun, if significantly edited animated version in 1963, with young Arthur being tutored by a scatterbrained Merlin. With its lighter comedic tone, lots of transformations, talking animals, and the iconic magicians' duel, the original may not have been meant for children, but it's got all the earmarks of good material for a family flick.

"Peter Pan" - Disney has been getting a lot of mileage out of its "Tinkerbell" series, and there are plans for a live action version in the works. If that goes well, it could lead into a new adaptation of "Peter Pan." It's been a decade since the last major adaptation, P.J. Hogan's sorely underseen 2003 version, so I think we're due for another one. There are several "Peter Pan" related projects in various stages of development around Hollywood right now, including a darker revisionist one and an origin story for Peter and the Lost Boys. I can't think of any reason why Disney shouldn't look into revisiting Neverland too.

"The Black Cauldron" - By far the most obscure feature on this list, but I figure that now that Disney's managed to revitalize the Oz franchise, maybe they'll think about trying the Prydain Chronicles again too. Lloyd Alexander's five-book fantasy series was the source material for the disastrous 1985 animated feature. It was too dark and scary for that era, much like the "Return to Oz" movie that came out the same year. However, the darker sword and sorcery storyline and the zombies might work better now, especially in a live-action film that won't be mistaken as being a typical Disney cartoon, and just for kids.
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I went back and forth about whether or not to write these posts this year, but I figured that they do have some value, the same way that my "Least Anticipated" lists do. I like going back at the end of the year and seeing what met expectations and what didn't. And it's always good to take a good, hard look at where my movie-watching priorities are, and what's going into the decision making process when picking and choosing among new titles. The big question I suppose you're asking right now is, why wait until the beginning of March? Why didn't you write these lists two months ago when everyone else did? Well, because January and February are crap for new releases. Sure, I'll probably rent "Warm Bodies" and "Side Effects," but these aren't priorities. Also, the full year's release schedule still isn't close to being finalized - there was another round of date swapping just yesterday, but now everything through the summer is pretty much set, and it's after Sundance, so at least we've got a better picture of what's coming down the pipe.

I'm going to split these up into two posts, one for the big mainstream blockbusters, and one for the more highbrow pictures. Ten entries apiece. Here we go!

"Iron Man 3" and "Star Trek Into Darkness" - So much of my anticipation for these two sequels is pure hype and I know it. "Iron Man 2" was a disappointment, and there's no guarantee that "Iron Man 3" won't be more of the same. However, Shane Black is directing this time and he's got an awfully good track record, going all the way back to "Lethal Weapon." As for the new "Star Trek," there is the distinct possibility that the baddie that Benedict Cumberbatch is playing is actually Khan. Do I really need any other reason to be excited?

"Man of Steel" - I'm rooting for DC to finally get a Superman reboot right. They've got a lot of factors on their side, but a lot of others against them too. Their biggest liability is director Zack Snyder, whose films have been on a definite downward trajectory as of late. However, the cast looks solid, Christopher Nolan is heavily involved, and the trailers suggest that the filmmakers have a good angle on the origin story. The performance of "Man of Steel" is going to decide the fate of "Justice League," so this is a big one, one way or another.

"This is the End" and "The World's End" - The idea of spoofing the apocalypse appeals to me a lot after so many years of self-serious doom and gloom disaster epics. This year we're getting them in two different flavors. First, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, James Franco, and their cohorts will be playing themselves getting into celebrity-cameo-studded hijinks during the end times in Los Angeles. Then in the fall, Edgar Wright will reteam with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for "The World's End," described as a pub crawl that coincides with a global apocalypse.

"Pacific Rim" - Guillermo Del Toro's back! And he's brought what looks an awful lot like a Japanese kaiju monster movie with him, involving giant mecha suits. Visions of "Godzilla" and "Neon Genesis Evangelion" are dancing through my head after that teaser trailer. There are a lot of potentially interesting science fiction coming out this year, and I'm hoping that this one in particular will do well enough to raise some interest in other thematically related projects. And that it'll give Del Toro enough clout to finally make the projects he actually wants to make.

"Elysium" - Neill Blomkamp's follow-up to "District 9" will star Matt Damon and Jodie Foster in a science-fiction story we don't know very many details about, and hopefully it will stay that way. The preview images that have been released so far suggest another gritty, dystopian world and more pointed social commentary, but beyond that it's hard to say. I've also skimmed a plot synopsis that makes it sound a bit like "Battle Angel Alita," and if that turns out to be true then James Cameron has only himself to blame for dragging his feet on that project.

"Ender's Game" - Another possible disaster in the making. The novel is one of those science-fiction holy cows that was on every nerd's wish list to be turned into a feature film for several decades, and the potential for dashed hopes and major disappointment is considerable. There's already been some griping about how the child soldiers, lead by Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld, have been aged up significantly to lessen the shock of the combat. However, "Ender's Game" tells one hell of a story, and maybe - just maybe - they'll actually get it right.

"Frozen" - It's not shaping up to be a very good year for animated films, and the current slate is mostly dominated by spinoffs and sequels (I'm looking at you, PIXAR). The one feature I'm interested in is "Frozen," Disney's "Snow Queen" project that has been in development for decades. They're going to be following the template of "Tangled" and from what I've seen of the marketing materials so far, "Frozen" is going to be a major departure from the original fairy tale. That doesn't mean it can't still be a lot of fun, though, if all those changes work out.

"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" - Oh yes. I may not have been thrilled with how "An Unexpected Journey" turned out, but I have been waiting to see the dragon Smaug on the big screen for as long as I can remember, as least as far back as when the original "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy was in production and Peter Jackson first teased the possibility of doing a "Hobbit" movie. Also, most of the big action set pieces of "The Hobbit" will take place in "Desolation," which hopefully means less of the padding and the call-backs that made "Journey" such a slog.
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As if we didn't have enough Disney-related rumors going around, yesterday a Colombian radio personality claimed that PIXAR was going ahead with a fourth "Toy Story" movie, to be released in 2015, and had already gotten Tom Hanks and other stars to agree to reprise their roles. None of the usual media news sources backed them up, and frankly anybody who was remotely familiar with PIXAR recognized right away that this was probably not reliable information. There is an untitled PIXAR movie on the slate for November of 2015, and Tom Hanks has claimed that "Toy Story 4" is in development, but there have been just as many denials that PIXAR is going forward with another sequel. Now, it's not too unlikely that PIXAR is considering giving Woody and his friends another movie. A Halloween special featuring the characters is in the works, and several shorts have produced. I caught the one with Rex and the bath toys at a Disney store over the weekend. However, nothing is remotely official yet.

Of course, that didn't stop bloggers and smaller sites from spreading the rumor around, and getting the internet worked up into a frenzy. The discussion went from questioning the news sources to talking about potential ideas for a new sequel to complaining about how PIXAR had jumped the shark by indulging in this kind of sequelitis very quickly. By the time the inevitable denial articles came around from sites like IGN and Ain’t it Cool News, the "Toy Story 4" rumors had already been digested and debated and absorbed like it was a real piece of news. The same thing happened with the rumor that Harrison Ford was returning as Han Solo to the "Star Wars" franchise a few days ago. That one came from a more reputable source, a Fox News Latino correspondent, and was reported by many legitimate news outlets, but ultimately there was no concrete evidence that any of it was true, just like the rumors about the possible "Star Wars" spinoffs about Yoda and Boba Fett and the young Han Solo that were running wild last week.

Entertainment news runs by different rules than regular news. It's a gossip-based economy, where there are almost no bad consequences for making up completely false claims and spreading around bad information. Being first to break this kind of news is much more important than getting the details right. The studios allow them to proliferate because they're fairly harmless. Rumors can even help gauge the public's reaction to certain ideas and possibilities, which is why some suggested that the new "Toy Story 4" rumors might have been planted on purpose, to see how people would react. If this happened with hard news, there would be scandals and backlash and recriminations. Rumors related to the business side of Hollywood are treated much more carefully, because there are hard consequences to getting that kind of information wrong. However, conjecture about projects in development, or who might be attached to play which role, rarely has so much impact, so there's more permissiveness.

I find this attitude a real a pain in the neck, personally. Sure, sometimes the rumors are fun on a slow news day, but they can also be such distracting, annoying, and kind of disheartening. I'm not going to put down anyone for getting excited over a possible "Toy Story 4," but this was such a bad rumor to begin with. A news item from Colombia based on the word of unnamed sources? Why would anyone believe this for a second? Why would countless bloggers and websites pass this around without waiting for any kind of confirmation? Is there any degree of skepticism at all in this process? Geographically I don't live too far from the PIXAR studios in Emeryville. I could know somebody who knows somebody who's working on the development of this new sequel. I could make up just about anything I want, let it loose on Twitter, and cause a media storm of similar proportions. I could say Brad Bird has been working on "The Incredibles 2" all this time, alongside "Tomorrowland," and offer no proof at all, and someone out there would believe me.

Let's just be clear that the preceding paragraph is a total hypothetical, before some data-scraper program gets too excited. Okay?

Sigh. I don't mean to get all worked up, but the rumor mill can be really frustrating sometimes. I particularly dislike that it tends to drown out smaller, but more concrete media news items that I find much more interesting. On the animation front, Dreamworks' "Peabody and Mr. Sherman" recently got pushed back to 2014, and "Me and My Shadow" was pulled from their slate, preceding a potential round of layoffs. And we just got a new batch of promotional material for "Ender's Game" - you know, that movie that Harrison Ford is actually appearing in this November. It's nothing as big or exciting as the recent rumors, but at least these stories are actually real.
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When J.J. Abrams was announced as the director of the next "Star Wars," there was a nice sense of relief. Finally the fanboys could stop speculating and we would get a break from some of the wilder "Star Wars" rumors that were circulating. But this week, Harry Knowles went and started up the rumors about a possible Yoda spin-off movie. We've known for a while that Disney was considering more stand-alone "Star Wars" films apart from the upcoming trilogy, but the newest round of conjecture got Disney CEO Bob Iger to confirm that there was active development going on, and that writers Lawrence Kasdan and Simon Kinberg were working on them. Today there were more rumors that stand-alone movies about Boba Fett and the young Han Solo were in the works, according to Entertainment Weekly.

Meanwhile, over at Marvel, their cinematic universe is expanding at a furious rate. The post-"Avengers" "Phase Two" films are all pretty much locked. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America are getting their new sequels, and "Guardians of the Galaxy" just landed a leading man. These will lead up to "Avengers 2" in 2015. Most of the current speculation and rumor mongering has been about "Phase Three," which currently has only one confirmed project: Edgar Wright's long-awaited "Ant-Man." "Doctor Strange" is a major candidate to get his own movie after that. This week, there's been a lot of buzz about the possibility of a new "Hulk" movie, possibly an adaptation of the beloved comics storyline "Planet Hulk." There's already a furious debate going on in various corners of the internet about potential directors.

Since the success of "The Avengers" and the conclusion of "Harry Potter," planning out these massive, multi-film series years and years in advance has become the new normal. Nobody's worried about that first 2015 "Star Wars" film being a flop, or the potential failure of an "Avengers 2," which might shutter all the follow-up films, because those properties are so well insulated by their brands. Barring monumental catastrophes, we're going to have at least eleven connected Marvel films by the time we're done with Phase Two in 2015, and potentially many, many more if Marvel can manage the tricky transitions to new characters and the inevitable replacement of aging actors. And if the "Star Wars" prequels have taught us anything, it's that fans will show up to any "Star Wars" movie, hoping it will live up to the originals, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. That should get Disney through at least three new "Star Wars" films, even if they turn out to be terrible. However, J.J. Abrams is not in the habit of making terrible films, so I think it's safe to push that number up to four or five.

And now the fan speculation is free to get weirder and wilder than it ever has before. For years, "Star Wars" fans have idolized the bounty hunter Boba Fett, a minor villain in the original trilogy. Now there's a pretty distinct possibility that the powers-that-be are considering giving him his own spin-off movie. Who could be next? Mace Windu? Jabba the Hut? Admiral Ackbar? And if the fairly obscure Marvel superhero Ant-Man can have his own feature, why not Luke Cage? Or Wasp? Or the Power Pack? The ideas that would have been dismissed as wild fantasizing a few years ago have all suddenly become much more plausible. It's really tempting to want to join in the fun and think about the possibilities of more daring storylines and crazy cross-overs. Why not Avengers vs. X-men? Or if Warners really gets desperate a few years down the line, why not Avengers vs. Justice League? You could do a whole trilogy on that one alone.

However, I'm trying my best not to get carried away. Even though it looks like the sky's the limit right now for these franchises, the risks are still considerable. For Marvel, the longer the series goes on, the more difficult it is for newcomers to find an entry point, and tackling the less popular, more fringe characters means the later films may grow increasingly niche. Also, with two Marvel films being released each year for the next three years, I worry that we're going to hit a saturation point eventually. With "Star Wars," it's even harder to predict what's going to happen. The earliest we'll see the next film is 2015, and how well it does is going to determine how risky the other films are going to get. It's not easy to get these big action franchises off the ground, and Disney has stumbled multiple times trying to launch new ones - most recently with "John Carter" - and ended up buying its way into "Star Wars" and the Marvel Universe.

There's no question that Disney has the ambition, but living up to those ambitions is another matter entirely. Right now, I'm more interested with what's going on with the films already pretty far along in the pipeline. Is swapping out Kenneth Branagh and Joe Johnston for the much less experienced Alan Taylor and the Russo brothers as directors going to hurt the next Thor and Captain America films? And how on earth are they going to pull off something as mad as "Guardians of the Galaxy"? As for "Star Wars," J.J. Abrams should do a competent job, though the idea of cross-contamination with the "Star Trek" universe is a concern. Take heed from one of the rare fans who enjoys both equally - these are universes you do not want colliding. And then there's Abrams' penchant for trying to do everything. The latest is that he's apparently been talking to Valve about a possible "Half-Life" or "Portal" movie on top of everything else.

Yeah, these franchises are going to be crazy enough enough without all the speculation. Hang on tight everybody.
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It's amazing the sort of things you can find on the internet these days. So many media rarities and obscurities have found their way to Youtube and filesharing programs, sometimes it seems like everything makes its way out there eventually. However, there's one title that hasn't appeared yet, though I've been keeping an eye out for it. This is "Mickey Mouse in Vietnam," the famous underground anti-war short produced back in 1968. In the 90 second, black-and-white short, Mickey joins the army, gets shipped off to Vietnam, and is then immediately shot and dies. The End.

Now there are far more extreme, outrageous, and obscure pieces that have emerged from the ether, but this short presents a special case because of its subject matter. Disney is, after all, notorious for its protection of its intellectual property, often going to absurd lengths to enforce copyright and trademark restrictions, and Mickey is the company's most recognizable mascot. The company has literally gone and rewritten U.S. copyright law in order to keep the earliest Mickey Mouse shorts out of the public domain. A short like "Mickey Mouse in Vietnam" is clearly in the realm of parody, but what chance could the creators have had in court against Disney's armies of lawyers?

However, Disney is synonymous in the American culture with a particular brand of family-friendly consumerism that just demands commenting on. Its brand is so potent, so universally recognized, that the spoofs and the parodies are inevitable. And in the internet age it's harder and harder to police all the amateur videos and fanart mash-ups and memes. The number of content creators has shot up with the prevalence of cheaper filmmaking technology, and guerrilla filmmaking has become a feasible option for enterprising young directors working on a budget. And this brings us, inevitably to the point of this post, which is the improbable existence of "Escape From Tomorrow," a new unauthorized Disney-themed project perhaps destined to become the next "Mickey Mouse in Vietnam."

It seems like everyone on the internet is in an uproar over this movie. "Escape From Tomorrow," which screened at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, is the brainchild of first time filmmaker Randy Moore, who filmed it entirely on location at Walt Disney World in Florida without Disney's permission. This includes shots of characters, rides, and plenty of other Disneyana that seem certain to create legal hurdles for any would-be distributors. Then there's the very family-unfriendly plot, which concerns a father on vacation with his family, who learns that he has been fired from his job, becomes obsessed with two teenage French girls he meets in the park, and then experiences what has been described as a David Lynch-ian descent into madness with Disney iconography.

Most of the chatter so far has been about the extraordinary lengths Moore went to in order to create the film, but everyone's waiting to see how Disney is going to react. They have a variety of options. They could ask for an injunction to keep the film from being shown while they ready lawsuits for a long list of offenses. They could acquire the rights to the film themselves to keep the movie from being shown to the public. However, I'm not so sure that in this day and age they can keep "Escape From Tomorrow" from getting out eventually. When a film has this much attention, burying it becomes much more difficult. Disney may want to take the path of least resistance and demand a cut of the profits instead of pitting themselves against its release. A big fight is just going to raise the film's profile and add to the growing buzz.

On the other hand, the Disney brand could take a hit from simply being associated with the film. The biggest problem I see here is the subject matter of "Escaping Tomorrow," which shows a man at Disneyland engaging in very un-Disney behavior. I don't think that there's any likelihood of anyone being confused that Disney would have produced a movie like this themselves, but it still might leave a bad impression on potential them park-goers. The Disneyland experience is supposed to be about good wholesome family fun, and Disney has spent untold millions over the years promoting that image. "Escaping Tomorrow" amounts to an anti-commercial, suddenly associating "It's a Small World" with creepy stalking behavior and bad parenting.

And the last thing Disney wants is to encourage more of these guerrilla filmmakers running around on their property, potentially upsetting their paying guests. If Randy Moore sets a precedent with "Escaping Tomorrow," who knows what the next would-be auteur is going to try to achieve? Disney must be worried about how Moore managed to create an entire feature film under their noses using a few tiny cameras and a very discreet cast and crew. Then again, who doesn't bring cameras to Disney World?

I don't see how Disney can afford not to act, which means it's going to be a long while before you or I can see "Escape From Tomorrow" for ourselves – at least through legal means. The final wrinkle to consider here is that if "Escape" were an underground film, simply let loose on the internet, billed as somebody's avant garde home videos, this would be a very different situation. The fact that Randy Moore submitted it to Sundance as a legitimate film with real commercial prospects, suggests he was ready for a fight.

And oh what a fight it will be.

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It's been a few weeks since the announcement that Disney had bought out George Lucas and was looking to revive the "Star Wars" franchise. Everyone has had a chance to weigh in, indulge in speculation, and now we're finally getting down to some cold, hard, reality checks. It's been a wild ride already, and from the developments so far, it's pretty clear what the existing fans want: nostalgia, and a fresh chance to forget about the prequels. There have been several headlines about old cast members of the original "Star Wars" trilogy being hounded about participating in the new movies. Most have voiced cautious interest, without promising anything of course.

The more film-literate have been more interested in the behind-the-scenes talent. It came out pretty early that Michael Arndt, writer of "Toy Story 3," "Little Miss Sunshine," and the next installment of the "Hunger Games," has been working on a story treatment for the next "Star Wars" trilogy since before the Lucasfilm deal was announced. Now the discussion is all about potential directors. There have been dozens of articles, professional and fan-penned, weighing the relative merits of everyone's favorites. And then the bigger names started publicly saying no to the directing job, before any offer was even made. Steven Spielberg said no. Quentin Tarantino said no. Zach Snyder said no. J.J. Abrams said no. Joss Whedon will be directing "Avengers 2," slated to come out in 2015 around the same time as "Episode VII," so he's out of contention. There was a persistent rumor that Brad Bird's secretive science-fiction feature, long in development, was actually the next "Star Wars" movie. That theory was shot down too. And just yesterday, Colin Trevorrow of "Safety Not Guaranteed," who had been hinting that he'd been attached to a major franchise, clarified that the franchise was not "Star Wars." These protestations may be misdirection, but probably not.

So who's left? The speculation has turned to directors like Jon Favreau of "Iron Man" and "Cowboys & Aliens," Matthew Vaughn of "Kick Ass" and "X-men: First Class," and Disney regulars Gore Verbinski and Joe Johnston. These are all very solid, respectable directors, but they're also clearly not the superstars that the fans had initially been daydreaming about. There are a couple of fans still holding out for the possibility of Christopher Nolan or Alfonso Cuaron or another bigger name, but they're not likely to go for the job, simply because Disney has a tight schedule to keep and a very corporate production process that probably won't allow for the kind of artistic freedom that these directors would want. Instead, the key word here to remember is franchise. Disney wants a certain kind of easy-to-market, easy-to-digest blockbuster, and it's going to go with someone who has a good track record of making those kinds of films. So, we'll probably end up with someone who helmed a few "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies or a Marvel film as opposed to a real auteur.

Further reigning in expectations have been the latest round of casting rumors. Now that we have Mark Hamill and the old guard safely squared away, there's been some early speculation about younger actors who might be involved in the new "Star Wars" movie. With the last "Twilight" film finished, somebody asked Robert Pattinson if he'd be interested in appearing in "Star Wars," and he said yes. Of course he said yes. No young actor in their right mind wouldn't say yes to a film as hotly anticipated as "Episode VII." The "Star Wars" fanboys reacted about as well as you'd expect to this. Then again, "Star Wars" fans should remember that the original trilogy was stacked with unknowns, while the prequels boasted Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman, and Ewan McGregor. We all know how that turned out.

We're going to be swimming in "Star Wars" rumors for a long time. Having been through this game once already with the prequel trilogy, I think the older fans are being more cautious, but there's still a tendency to let expectations run a little crazy at this stage. So it's gratifying to see the brakes being applied so early. This means that we’re not going to end up with another "Phantom Menace" level disappointment. That’s not to say that Disney doesn’t run the risk of bungling the films, but at least we’ll be able to see it coming this time. No, the new "Star Wars" films are not going to be everything we want them to be. There will be people involved we don't like, and they won't be as good as they could have been if someone else had been in charge.

However, I'm sure they're also going to learn from George Lucas’s mistakes with the prequels, not to mention Disney's own mistakes trying to launch their last few action franchises, and give us something big and shiny and entertaining to see in 2015. And that's certainly still worth anticipating.
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You can never tell which pieces of pop culture are going to last and which just going to fade away. I’m at that age where I’m starting to see the twenty-somethings a few years younger than me getting nostalgic for media that I was aware of when I was younger, but too old to have much interest in, like the "Power Rangers" and "Pokemon." And then there’s the inexplicable fuss over the 90s ABC sitcom "Boy Meets World."

Everyone I knew as a kid watched ABC’s Friday night block of family shows, home to "Full House," "Family Matters," and "Step by Step." "Boy Meets World," chronicling the growing pains of a boy named Cory Matthews (Ben Savage), premiered in 1993 and ran for seven seasons until the TGIF block went kaput. I remember liking the first season when Cory was in junior high. The years with Cory in high school got sillier and more pandering to younger audiences. Finally, the last two seasons with Cory in college got so ridiculous, that I stopped watching with any regularity. I hold "Boy Meets World" in about as much esteem as I hold "Full House" and "Family Matters," which is to say that I’m not embarrassed to have watched them when I was a kid, but I remember them frequently being terrible enough that I’m sure they’d be unbearable to sit through now as an adult.

"Boy Meets World" sticks in my mind because I remember being fascinated with how it deteriorated over the years. There was a major format change between the first and second seasons that eliminated major cast members and made the show less about the Matthews family and more kid-centric, focusing on Cory and his best friend Shawn (Rider Strong). Further cast changes were frequent, adding and subtracting siblings, teachers, friends, bullies, and love interests. The regular characters’ personalities also changed drastically. Cory started out as a mischievous kid and ended up as an insufferable goody two-shoes. His older brother Eric (Will Friedle) seemed to lose IQ points with every subsequent season, until he was a complete dolt who was only around for comic relief in the last season. Shawn went from being slightly rougher-edged than Cory to someone with an unstable home life from the wrong side of the tracks, though there was some backpedaling later on.

So I found it very strange that younger viewers currently in their teens and early twenties consider "Boy Meets World" a childhood favorite, even though they should have only been around for the tail end of its original run. And they love it enough that Disney recently announced that they were in the early stages of developing a new spinoff/sequel series, tentatively titled "Girl Meets World," to follow the adventures of Cory’s preteen daughter. Ben Savage and Danielle Fishel, who played Cory’s girlfriend-turned-fiancee-turned spouse Topanga, are being courted to return to their old roles. The last I heard of "Boy Meets World," the show was in a ratings decline after the TGIF block went through some serious pruning in 1997. I wasn’t alone in not liking the college episodes, and I was pretty sure that after the last episode where Cory and Topanga tied the knot, that would be the last I’d ever see of them.

But I had forgotten about cable. Once "Boy Meets World" finished its first run on ABC, the off-network syndication of the earlier seasons on terrestrial networks stopped at about the same time. However, the first six seasons were picked up to run on the Disney Channel from 2000 until 2007, also popping up on ABC Family, where the reruns are still airing in an early morning timeslot. "Boy Meets World" is one of the only TGIF shows that Disney and ABC own outright, and it fit both the Disney Channel and ABC Family audiences, so they kept it on the schedule. Thus, "Boy Meets World" ended up outlasting just about all of its sitcom contemporaries like "Sabrina the Teenaged Witch." More importantly, it managed to attract an entirely new generation of kid viewers, long after its original run had finished.

I always wondered how some mediocre shows like "Gilligan’s Island" and "The Beverly Hillbillies" always stuck around in reruns for so long while so many of the better ones never made it through more than a year or two in syndication. Looks like who’s holding the rights and what they choose to do with them has a lot of impact on where your favorite shows ultimately end up in reruns and for what duration. And the audience matters. Even though I don’t think much of "Boy Meets World," it makes sense as something that Disney viewers would latch on to, and the potential spinoff would fit right into the ABC Family lineup of slightly retro family sitcoms.
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Huge news out of Hollywood today, something I don't think anybody saw coming. The Walt Disney Company is acquiring Lucasfilm Ltd for $4 billion, roughly the same amount they spent to acquire Marvel and its properties three years ago. The deal will include the rights to the "Star Wars" franchise, and Disney has wasted no time in announcing that they will be producing a new "Star Wars" trilogy, the first installment projected for release in 2015.

A couple of preliminary thoughts here. George Lucas has long been pointed to as an example of a filmmaking maverick. After the success of the original "Star Wars," he set up shop in Northern California, shunning the Hollywood establishment for decades. Though the "Star Wars" films were distributed through 20th Century Fox, he retained almost total control over his productions, including the all-important merchandising rights that made him a fortune from "Star Wars" toys and other products. He founded one of the most famous effects houses, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), which is still a huge player in the effects industry, and recently resurrected its own animation division and made the Oscar-winning "Rango." ILM, along with gaming company LucasArts, and Skywalker Sound will be part of the acquisition. Lucas turning over his companies to one of the largest entertainment corporations in the world can be seen to represent a further consolidation of filmmaking resources, a trend that some may find troubling.

This falls right in line with Disney's recent strategy of acquiring major brands, including Marvel, PIXAR, and the Jim Henson Company. And I suppose it makes the most sense for Lucasfilm to have been sold to Disney over any of the other Hollywood behemoths, considering its existing ties to Disney and PIXAR. PIXAR originated as a Lucasfilm division before being spun out into a separate company, and Disney and Lucasfilm have partnered together before for "Star Tours" and "Captain EO" at the Disney theme parks. But after holding out for so long, why would George Lucas decide to sell now? Does this means he's quitting the film business? Maybe he's just saying goodbye to heading the corporate empire and going back to the little experimental films he made back at the beginning of his career. Maybe he got tired of starships and aliens, and figured Disney was in the best position to look out for the "Star Wars" franchise. Or maybe the money was just too good to pass up. We'll never know.

The new "Star Wars" trilogy in the works is a big announcement, one that I find myself inexplicably happy about even though we know absolutely nothing about it right now. I disliked the prequels, but I I still think the "Star Wars" universe has a lot of potential with the right talent involved. And after a twelve year break since "Revenge of the Sith," I think I'm ready for someone to take another shot. I liked the Extended Universe novels when I was in high school, but part of me is hoping for a really radical reinvention that will put some significant distance between the new "Star Wars" films and the older ones. I wouldn't even be opposed to a reboot at this point. However, the major caveat is that George Lucas may still be involved with the new movies creatively, and the greater the extent of his participation, the less interested I'll be.

I have to wonder how this is going to affect the current plans in place for the franchise that we already know about. Are we still getting more 3D conversions of the first six "Star Wars" films? What about that "Star Wars" universe live action television show? Are Marvel universe cross-overs a possibility now? I guess "Clone Wars" is moving to the Disney Channel if it continues. Also, is there a possibility of Disney doing anything with some of the other Lucasfilm properties like "Willow" and "Monkey Island"? Of course the other big Lucasfilm franchise is "Indiana Jones," but Paramount still has a piece of that one, which will probably complicate matters. Also, I don't think the fanboys have quite gotten over "Crystal Skull" yet. It may take a few more years.

And what about the existing films? I think Fox still controls the distribution rights for now, but if Disney is at the helm, does this mean an end to all the special and upgraded editions that have swapped out the old practical effects with CGI? Will we finally be getting decent releases of the original, unaltered films? Disney is pretty notorious about home media releases itself, with the Disney Vault and all. They've also edited some of their own films for content over the years, but never as drastically as George Lucas did.

So many questions and so many possibilities.

But first, to find the inevitable commemorative mash-up fanart. Vader Mickeys, here we come!
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Disney's XD network has premiered the first episode of its striking new "TRON Uprising" cartoon online, leading many to wonder about Disney's plans for a third "TRON" movie. It's been about a year and a half since "TRON Legacy," the heavily hyped-up return to the TRON universe, which didn't make as big a splash as the company would have liked, but did drum up a decent profit. Compared to some of Disney's other attempts to start a new action franchise, such as "Prince of Persia" and "John Carter," the numbers for "TRON Legacy" look pretty good in retrospect.

There has been a lot of hinting about sequel possibilities for a while now. "TRON Legacy" set up several possibilities for a sequel, including updates on a few characters like RAM and YORI, who didn't actually appear in the movie. A completed draft of a new script by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who wrote "Legacy," apparently exists, though we don't know much about it. Bruce Boxleitner, who plays the character of TRON himself, has suggested in interviews that a new "TRON" film is only waiting for director Jospeh Kosinski to finish with "Oblivion" for Universal. However, the longer the wait, the more momentum is lost for the potential franchise.

However, right now it's tough to get anything greenlit at Disney. The studio is going through some pretty severe managerial troubles, notably the recent ousting of Walt Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross over the poor performance of "John Carter." Last summer, there was the long and torturous process of getting the Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp "Lone Ranger" off the ground, which was only achieved after some significant cost-cutting. Only proven franchise pictures like the "Pirates" sequels and Marvel superhero are guaranteed Disney's attention right now. After the massive opening weekend for "The Avengers," Disney CEO Bob Iger was quick to confirm that an "Avengers 2" was in development.

"TRON," however, is still a risky universe to play in. "Legacy" did not receive great critical notices and only a middling response from audiences. It was clear that the picture had been rushed, that the special effects weren't as good as they could have been, and the script was pretty lacking in some important areas. Moreover, another "TRON" wouldn't come cheap. Sure, the $170 million price tag of "Legacy" looks pretty good next to the $200 million plus that was sunk into "John Carter," but that's still more expensive than "Captain America" or "Thor," or a whole "Muppets" trilogy. It's understandable that Disney is still on the fence.

Besides, I seriously have to question whether another "TRON" with this creative team is something we want. The prospect of "Legacy" was so tantalizing because it promised something exciting and different, but it didn't really deliver. Many fans were hoping for a look at an upgraded, modern-day "TRON" universe. Instead, we just got reinterpreted takes on the same old concepts from 1982, set to a killer Daft Punk soundtrack. There's the sense that the first-time director and the duo of television writers cutting their teeth on their first feature were too experienced for a project this size, but surely they'll do better the next time around, right?

I'm pretty doubtful, honestly. Kitsis and Horowitz really added nothing to the "TRON" universe, and the more I see of their television work, the more I think the next movie should be scripted by someone with stronger action chops and a more ambitious sense of scope. I'm honestly a little mystified that they haven't been replaced by now. Kosinski at least managed to come up with some interesting visuals, but unless he figures out how to do something more with them than what he showed us in "Legacy," maybe it's time to give someone else a shot in the director's chair too. Then again, I'm curious to see what he's going to do with "Oblivion," his sophomore effort.

Like most other fans, I want the "TRON" franchise to continue. I still think it has the potential for greatness, beyond what the original film accomplished, and it could make Disney plenty of box office bank too. However, looking at what another potential sequel has to work with, and who's involved, and the likelihood of more cost-cutting, more accelerated production schedules, and more managerial drama, it's hard to see how the next "TRON" wouldn't fall prey to the same problems that "Legacy" did if it were greenlit tomorrow.

So right now, I'm just going to enjoy the "TRON" cartoon and try not to get too caught up in any of this. If the new movie happens, it might be good and it might not be. If it doesn't maybe there will be other, better opportunities. As the Zen master says, "We'll see."
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My experience with Chinese produced animated films is quite limited. I've seen exactly two features, both screened at the 2004 Anime Expo in Anaheim. One was "Master Q: Incredible Pet Detective," following the comic adventures of the manwha character Old Master Q. The other was "The Butterfly Lovers," a period fable with character designs that looked like they'd been lifted wholesale from "Mulan." Both were pretty awful and derivative, but there was clearly a lot of ambition behind them. In China's never-ending quest for greater cultural relevance, they've long recognized that animation can be an important medium. The most profitable category of American films in the last decade has been its animated children's films, which bring in staggering revenue at the worldwide box office. Anime from neighboring Japan is more of an acquired taste, but viewed and adored by fans from all over the globe. Most importantly, Western and Japanese animation does very well in China, and the Chinese are itching to break into the market themselves. Last year, a massive new animation studio was announced by the Chinese authorities, being built for the explicit purpose of competing with Western toons.

Historically, there have been some influential Chinese animated films, like "Princess Iron Fan" (1941) and "Havoc in Heaven" (1961), from the Wan brothers. Unfortunately the political climate in China made all filmmaking difficult for decades, and animated films have been rarities. This has put Chinese animation far, far behind other countries. There have been some gains in recent years, with reports of interesting films coming out of Hong Kong and Shanghai, but these have been very low profile. So, the latest tactic has been to recruit help from bigger players. The "Kung Fu Panda" movies have been hugely popular in China, and it's no surprise that Dreamworks Animation announced a joint venture with China Media Capital to form Oriental Dreamworks back in February. They'll be producing family friendly live action and animated content geared toward Chinese audiences. Dreamworks Animation had a rough 2011, losing over 40% of its market value after films like "Puss in Boots" flopped, so this is a good opportunity for them. Then on Tuesday, per Deadline, the Walt Disney Company announced it had "entered a partnership with the culture ministry and Chinese internet giant Tencent to develop the country’s animation business." And as a bonus, a new Shanghai Disneyland has just been approved for construction.

This could end up playing out in a couple of ways. Chinese animation hopefuls would do well to remember what happened in South Korea when it opened dozens of animation studios in the 80s and 90s and the United States and Japan farmed out large amounts of labor-intensive animation work to them. Any kid who watched cartoons in that era should remember the prominent lists of Korean names at the end of every episode. It's become a running joke that many popular American cartoons like "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" depend on Korean animators, toiling over endless drawings, often in substandard working conditions. And it's rare that you see Korean talent making any major contributions to the writing, planning, direction, or design of the Western projects they work on. But hasn't all of this helped South Korean produced animation? Not really. Like in China, major South Korean animated projects have been few and far between, and they haven't gained much international attention. However, of the few titles I've seen like 2003's "Oseam" and "Sky Blue," the Koreans have the potential to do much bigger things, and they'rein a better position than the Chinese are on the creative front.

That's the biggest problem I see with Chinese animation. I think they're going to make sure they have far more opportunities to turn out animation that reflects their own sensibilities, and working closely with the major American studios will certainly help them to avoid becoming simply another cheap outsourcing destination. I definitely see the Chinese benefiting on the technological side. However, that's only one part of what makes modern animated cartoons so successful. Originality, creativity and innovation are going to be the biggest stumbling blocks. China may have lots of eager young animators, but the rigidity and the formalism of their learning system, plus the the heavy cultural politics, plus the constant concerns about censorship and staying on message do not add up to a good atmosphere for creating silly, loveable cartoons like "Kung Fu Panda." The Chinese don't need Disney and Dreamworks to help them figure out how to make their CGI look better. They need them to explain the value of absurdity and the business of caricature and that first and foremost a cartoon needs to be entertaining and tell a good story.

I'd love to see them succeed. I really would. Another thriving Asian animation center would be wonderful to have. However, at the same time I don't relish another propaganda-driven arm of the current mainland Chinese film industry, turning out the cookie-cutter morality tales their government likes so much. And frankly, they'd all be a bust commercially. Animated films have to cater to a very tough audience: small children. The kids will pick silly, fun, wild, and crazy over ideologically pure any day. And at the end of the day, even in China, I'm willing to bet the adults will too.
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"The Sweatbox," is a documentary about making an animated film, that was completed roughly around 2001, premiered at a film festival, and had a limited run in exactly two theaters before it all but vanished off the face of the earth for over a decade. Nothing in the documentary is controversial or contentious. It's probably not even going to be particularly interesting except to a certain subset of film historians, animation lovers, and Disney geeks. However, it does capture a certain piece of Disney history the company is not keen on acknowledging: the troubled production of "Kingdom of the Sun."

The back story goes something like this. Back in 1997, Sting was approached about writing songs for a new South-America themed Disney animated musical, to be directed by "The Lion King's" Roger Allers. He agreed to do the project on the condition that his wife, filmmaker Trudie Styler, was allowed to document the process. Disney fans will know that "Kingdom of the Sun" was originally meant to be a sweeping epic patterned off "The Prince and the Pauper," but ultimately it reached theaters six months late, reworked as a zany buddy comedy, and renamed "The Emperor's New Groove." The six songs that Sting wrote were reduced to an abridged opening number and a song over the credits. The missing songs only remain on the film's soundtrack, as they were written for an entirely different movie than the one that was actually released.

Since Trudie Styler was given unprecedented access to the film's production, she wound up having a front row seat to all of the film's behind-the-scenes woes. There were delays in production. Early versions of the film didn't test well. A new director, Mark Dindal was brought onboard who often worked at cross purposes with Roger Allers. Finally, Allers quit and the entire film was drastically overhauled. "The Sweatbox," named after the pressure-filled screening room where the in-progress animated footage was reviewed, was completed shortly after "The Emperor's New Groove" was released in theaters. The documentary, which runs a pretty brief 84 minutes, is actually longer than the completed feature, which is an even briefer 77 minutes. Of course, Disney owned the rights to Styler's film and made sure that it was seen by only very limited audiences. It was never publicized, never released on home video, and never made available to the general public except in heavily edited form.

Until now. A few days ago, someone leaked a workprint of "The Sweatbox" to the internet, where it has been making the rounds on filesharing and video sharing sites. As a Disney fan, I'm ecstatic. I never expected the film to resurface, considering how notoriously uptight Disney is about its public image. It was only in 2010 that a mostly candid documentary about the beginning of the Disney animation Renaissance of the 90s, "Waking Sleeping Beauty" was put together by a few Disney veterans with the company's blessing. That documentary was about Disney's successes. "The Sweatbox," on the other hand, was made during that period when things at Disney Animation were really starting to go wrong. Disney fans disagree about when the Renaissance ended and the downward spiral began, but for me the turning point was the Disney films that were released right around the year 2000: the awful "Dinosaur," the uneven "Fantasia 2000," and "The Emperor's New Groove," which was, ironically, a perfectly good movie. After following the rumors of the film's endless troubles for years, I saw "The Emperor's New Groove" in theaters in December, 2000 to wind down after finals, and loved it.

The biggest irony about "The Sweatbox" is that it isn't the shocking expose that Disney seem to think it is. Rather, it's proof that sometimes the creative process is messy, very talented people can go off track, and making one of these films is not nearly as easy as the company like to pretend it is. Some want to bill "The Sweatbox" as the record of a catastrophe for the studio, but I think actually captured the creation of one of Disney's last successes in traditional animation. Though the original version of "Kingdom of the Sun" went down in flames and "The Emperor's New Groove" was considered a bust at the box office, the movie has actually gone on to be one of the most popular of the late-era animated Disney films. It even got its own direct-to-video sequel and a television spinoff. Hollywood has seen a lot of troubled productions and a lot of filmmaking disasters, and in the end "The Emperor's New Groove" actually came out okay, despite all the drama shown in the documentary. I feel badly for Roger Allers and Sting for all their wasted efforts and disappointments. Really, I do. But in the end, I think I'd much rather have the Tex Avery homage with llamas that Mark Dindal whipped up, instead of that big epic musical extravaganza.


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