Brief Thoughts on New Disney Live-Action Releases

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Ernest Rister, Oct 13, 2004.

  1. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    I've been scooping up Walt-era live action films, and haven't seen these titles discussed much around here, so here's some brief thoughts...

    THE ONE AND ONLY, GENUINE, ORIGINAL FAMILY BAND

    I had never seen this film until two weeks ago, and I'm kicking myself for missing out all these years. The last live-action musical to be approved by Walt Disney, the film features some of the best Sherman Bros. tunes I've ever heard. The screenplay has wit and, yes, real dramatic weight, as a rural family of musicians is plunged head first into partisan politics during the election of 1888 between Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland. The Grandfather (Walter Brennan, excellent) supports Cleveland, his son (Buddy Ebsen, every bit as excellent) supports Harrison. They don't let their politics interfere with their music -- until Ebsen's daughter (the shining Lesley Ann Warren) falls head over heels for a political activist (John Davidson) who talks Ebsen and several other Harrison supporters into moving the family to Dakota to help boost the territory's chances of becoming a state. Brennan travels with them, but cannot resist antagonizing his political rivals or speaking his views, which ultimately threatens to tear the family apart. There is a tense, quiet scene in a barn between Ebsen and Brennan that is a showcase for their respective dramatic skills -- with both men fighting back their tears as they say things to each other that they never imagined they would or could ever say. The third act climax takes place in a town hall as the election results roll in, and the film's conclusion is staged with not one, not two, but five musical sequences ("West of the Wide Missouri", "Let's Put It Over With Grover" (reprise), "Oh, Benjamin Harrison", "'Bout Time" (reprise), "Original Family Band (Finale)"). Film fans should pay particular attention to the "West of the Wide Missouri" sequence, not for its fantastic choreogrpahy, costumes, or music -- this sequence marks the feature film debut of Goldie Hawn, who would one day go on to have children with another Family Band co-star, Kurt Russell.

    The DVD is a mixed bag. The image is a noisy, non-anamorphic full frame release, and judging by the poor quality of the image, I'd wager this transfer was originally struck in the 90's for the laserdisc market (though I don't recall a Region 1 laserdisc ever being released -- perhaps overseas?). A film of this caliber deserved much better. The audio, not surprisingly, is Dolby Digital Mono.

    Oddly enough, the Mouse House appears to have spent at least a little effort on this title, as evidenced by some truly wonderful bonus features. The first is a featurette on the making of the film, with scores of recent interviews including Robert B. Sherman, John Davidson, and Lesley Ann Warren. The film is placed in context with The Happiest Millionaire, and fans of that film will be hard pressed to not see Family Band as something of a follow-up. Robert Sherman speaks about how Walt liked The Happiest Millionaire a great deal, and approved the songs for Family Band in demo form, but did not live to hear them recorded by an orchestra. Some wonderful behind the scenes vignettes are related, from Kurt Russell hating the dance training because he felt he was bad at it, to the casting of Goldie Hawn, to the admission of John Davidson that he was deeply smitten with Lesley Ann Warren but thought he was out of her league.

    The second bonus feature is an engaing feature commentary track (! yes you heard right !) with Ms. Warren as she bubbles enthusiastically with memories on the making of this film, memories of Walt, memories of the studio in transition, memories of her fellow cast members...its a treasure.

    Great film, good bonus features, weak video and audio. I paid $13.99 for the title at Fry's, and at that price, fans of the Sherman Bros. and Walt's live-action films should snap this up without reservation.

    THIRD MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN

    This is a true buried treasure. Walt Disney became enamored of Switzerland in his travels (devoting one of his Oscar-winning series of travelogues, "People and Places", to the country) and he immediately saw the story potential in the tale of the first men to climb the Citadel -- visitors to Disneyland know this mountain by another name...the Matterhorn. Thousands of park visitors experience the Matterhorn ride ever single day, having no clue that the ride was based on a live-action Disney movie...Third Man on the Mountain.

    The film tells the story of Rudy Mat, the son of a famous guide, Josef Mat, who died while leading a team trying to conquer the Citadel (Matterhorn). Josef gave his life to save and protect those under his watch. The team was saved, Josef died. Years later, his son (James MacArthur, Swiss Family Robinson) works as a dishwasher, yearning to finish his father's dream, and climb the Citadel and raise his father's shirt on the peak as a tribute.

    The film, quite simply, is the Karate Kid of mountain climbing movies. Rudy struggles against the elements, his surviving parent and guardians, and the derision of the townspeople, but the most compelling conflict is Rudy's adolescent need to prove himself a man. Rudy deeply wants to live up to his father's reputation, and climbing the Citadel becomes a metaphor for Rudy's interior struggle to achieve manhood.

    All of this is played out in period location sets in the actual Swiss Alps. Shots that could not be achieved on location were accomplished by the genius matte artist, Peter Ellenshaw. True, modern eyes can spot the matte effects, but modern eyes will also bulge at the tremendous real-life climbing footage that makes up the bulk of the action scenes. By the end of this film, the drama is so persuasive, you are lost in the reality of the film, and you no longer notice any matte f/x.

    This is a film to be treasured. The treatment on DVD leaves much to be desired. First off, the image has been confirmed to be the exact same transfer used for the laserdisc release in the late 90's. This is a full frame transfer of a print that is not in the best shape. True, the longer the film runs, the less you notice such things, but if you're an A/V nut, your first reaction to the image will be negative. Second, the audio is in 5.1, but the surround effects are limited only to support of the soundtrack, and these are very faint even then. Amazingly enough, you may achieve better surround support by listening to the disc through your surround amp's Mono mode.

    No bonus features are included. Once again, I paid $13.99 at Fry's. The movie is great - the day I purchased it, I watched it twice in the same day - but sadly, the disc is among the weakest released by the Disney company. This terrific film deserves better.

    COMING NEXT:

    GREYFRIAR'S BOBBY
    HOT LEAD AND COLD FEET (anamorphic widescreen)
    THE UGLY DACHSUND (anamorphic widescreen)
    THE THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA (anamorphic widescreen)
    DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE
    THE GNOME MOBILE
    CHARLIE THE LONESOME COUGAR
    MIRACLE OF THE WHITE STALLIONS
     
  2. Reagan

    Reagan Supporting Actor

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    About Third Man's terrible DVD picture...

    I console myself with the knowledge that my purchase helps finance a better transfer of the film in the future. Definitely not the way it should be...

    -Reagan
     
  3. MatthewA

    MatthewA Lead Actor

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    Family Band was indeed on laserdisc...way back in 1984. Early Disney videos had some truly poor transfers; a yellowish tinge to many of them (I recall some yellowing on the original LD of Bedknobs & Broomsticks, and many of the short cartoons). I still have the original VHS of this title (purchased directly from the studio in 1991 when I asked about original white clamshell titles where Mickey takes up half the box. I also got Pete's Dragon and Davy Crockett & The River Pirates, but then after those three they stopped).

    I never watch movies twice in the same day.
     
  4. MatthewA

    MatthewA Lead Actor

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    Disney DVDs (as well as MGM and Columbia, for that matter) remind me of an old Edward Lear verse:

    There was a little girl who had a little curl
    Right in the middle of her forehead.
    When she was good, she was very, very good,
    But when she was bad, she was horrid.

    Also, by 1986 transfer quality had improved on many of the Disney titles, but that's true for home video in general by that time.
     
  5. Joe Caps

    Joe Caps Screenwriter

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    Family Band was one of those early horrid Disney laserdiscs. the transfer on the dvd first showed up in the late 90s on the Disney channel and is a massic improvement and I have no problems with this disc picture or sound.
    In the commentary track, one of the Shermans mentioned that Disney restored the film and he never saw it look as good as it does on the dvd!
    Third Man is the same transfer as the laser. I thought both the laser and the dvd looked pretty good except forthe credits. The 5.1 sound is no such thing - it's a lie - they took the mono track and occasionally spread it out. Too bad they didn't take the stereo music tracks for Third Man AND Family Band and mix them into the film for a true stereo mix!!
     
  6. MatthewA

    MatthewA Lead Actor

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    The original disc of Bedknobs & Broomsticks was one of the first two laserdiscs my family bought (the other was Milo & Otis :b). The opening credits were time-compressed, the Buena Vista logo (and custom fanfare) was missing, and the picture was pretty bad. This disc (which I assume was one of the first Disney LDs) stayed in print for ages, even though remastered VHS tapes had been made before the longer version came out. The original white clamshell line was pretty bad in terms of picture quality; plus, 3:2 pulldown had not been invented yet.

    Joe, you're right. Since the Vault Disney line began this practice of pumping mono into 5.1 channels has started, as before then they actually went back looking for the stereo (or mono) music tracks (the music on the longer version of Bedknobs is true stereo, but this was done back in 1996 I guess).

    Even with some mono films released on DVD before 2002, such as Pinocchio, Dumbo, and The Sword in the Stone, I noticed they used mono music tracks to loop into the left and right channels (knock out the center speaker to test this).

    The Vault Disney discs have the "sound lab" feature, which takes a scene with separate dialogue, SFX, and music elements and puts them each on a separate track, which seems to suggest the presence of still-extant music tracks (but in the case of Swiss Family Robinson, which I falsely assumed was stereo when it was released, only a music-and-effects track).

    But, Joe, what kind of TV do you have? What make and model?

    Eisner will be out in 2006, maybe in the era of Disney Blu-Ray (you know they're going to call it that) we can get something better.

    Now isolated musical score tracks would be fine and dandy, as would true 5.1 surround sound, or even comprehensive soundtrack CDs, but the United Federation of Musicians seems to have a disagreement with the studios and record companies over post-1960 films, thus complete soundtracks are too much of a hassle for films from that era whose music tracks still exist.

    Family Band, BTW, was supposed to be a DiscoVision laserdisc, but none of the feature films in the studio's deal saw the light of day from that company, only cartoon compilations from the anthology series.
     
  7. Joe Caps

    Joe Caps Screenwriter

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    It's sad, because stereo music tracks exist for many of these films. Would love to have Summer Magic, DarbyO Gill and In search of the Castaways in true stereo.
    Anyway, have a 35" Mitsubishi TV that was tweaked for optimum resulotion, overscan and color fidelity. It is, of course, not anamorphic - can't afford that yet.
     
  8. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    Greyfriars Bobby

    THE MOVIE

    Geryfriars Bobby is a surprisingly serious and mature film given the subject matter. If you were to read on a website that a new Disney film was being released about a dog who refused to leave the grave of his previous master, you would probably assume that the film would have a maudlin, saccharine bent, and was a film aimed at small children. If the film had been made today, you'd probably be right. But Greyfriars Bobby was produced in the Walt era by Walt himself, and directed by Don Chaffey, who guided the acclaimed Three Lives of Thomasina. This is not Boomer Goes to Scotland. This is a film that throws some hard punches.

    Like Thomasina, Greyfriars Bobby features authentic Scottish accents, rich period language, strong acting, unusually stark and adult subject matter for a Disney film, and a healthy shot of redemptive hope in the last minutes.

    The film begins on the Scottish Moors in the 1860's, as an elderly shepherd named "Old Jock" tends to his sheep along with his aide, the "wee" Skye Terrier named Bobby. Old Jock and Bobby toil away and then return to the farm, and we learn that Jock is being "let go". The dog is taken from him and given to the family that owns the farm, and then Jock climbs into a wagon for ride into Edinburgh.

    Jock is sick, old, and broke, but he will take no charity from his former employer. There is a hint of contempt and prideful resentment in Jock's demeanour as he travels to town with his former employer. Jock will not accept any pity or charity - but as soon as his former employer is out of sight, Jock is revealed as a man in a sudden state of abrupt fear and shock. What now?

    Soon, we find him stumbling in quiet, grief-stricken desperation through the seedy streets of the city - and in the hands of Chaffey these are seedy streets, indeed. No punches are pulled here - we watch an old man being thrown into the garbage by a society who no longer has use for him.

    Meanwhile, his dog Bobby escapes from the farm (don't start rolling your eyes, there is no happy ending here), and Bobby tracks the wagon to Edinburgh. The old man had a habit of attending a local pub, owned by the generous but lonely Mr. Traill (Laurence Naismith, The Three Lives of Thomasina, Third Man on the Mountain, Jason and the Argonauts), and so the dog waits there. His efforts are not in vain, for Mr. Traill finds Bobby, suspects something bad has happened to the Old Shepherd, and Bobby leads him to the wrecked wagon in which the old man is resting.

    Mr. Traill feeds Old Jock, and then leaves to find a doctor for him, as it is obvious the old man is dying. The Old Shepherd refuses to be seen by a doctor, and he storms out into the rain, finding himself delirious in a squalid section of town. He finally reaches a broken down hovel masquerading as a boarding house, and he spends some of his remaining coins on a private room in this crowded tenament where the homeless litter the floors.

    In his last hours, he removes his sole possession -- a bible that he cannot read. The scene is heartbreaking. How many souls have come to the end of their lives in a depressing room, with nothing to show for their lives but a few trinkets and a few memories, and the immediate love of a small animal?

    Dawn finds Bobby nuzzling the non-responsive hand of the Shepherd, and these moments and those thaty immediately follow are terribly affecting. We mourn along with Bobby, and some of us might even be outraged how such a thing could have been allowed to happen.

    The 1st act of the movie building to this and the resulting funeral - and Bobby's refusal to leave the grave - is handled with great maturity and taste. This is as far removed from The Shaggy Dog as Ordinary People is removed from Freak Friday. Very stark, serious stuff.

    The 2nd act of the film deals with Bobby's life in the village. By day, he is fed by Mr. Traill. By night, he lives in the "kirkyard", a cemetary for notable people. It turns out that Old Jock had enough money on him to warrant a burial beyond the pauper's grave, and so the old man is given a resting place with respect. Every night, Bobby returns to the grave and protects it, in a moving display of loyalty.

    No dogs are allowed into the Kirkyard, though - and the stern groundskeeper (Donald Crisp, in one of his last roles) is hostile to the thought of a dog running wild in his cemetery. His attitude changes, however, due to a personal dislike of Mr. Traill. After Bobby proves himself by being a first-rate ratter, and the groundskeeper's wife warms to Bobby, the groundskeeper decides to allow Bobby to stay in the cemetary to spite Mr. Traill, who longs to call Bobby his own.

    The subplots in the second act deal with the impoverished children in the town. The town is as lacking in resources for these children as they were for old Jock, and Mr. Traill is forever giving the children random jobs and handing out pennies and shillings as charity masked as reward. In perhaps the strongest and most penetrating moment of the film, six hungry children bring Bobby to Mr. Traill because he has placed a reward on the dog -- to steal him away from the groundskeeper. The children sit and watch as Traill gives Bobby a bowl of rich, chicken stew. One of the children comments on how he has never tasted chicken. Another wonders out loud how Traill can give away a bowl of chicken stew to a dog...and the unspoken implication is clear. Traill is humbled to realize he is more generous to a dog than he is to human children. Soon, he has cleared a place in his kitchen for the children, and he gives them the best meal of their young lives. One of the children, we learn, has been seriously hobbled and is in need of medical care for his legs. Traill decides to take an interest in him.

    As the story flashes forward, we see the child has earned a new pair of crutches, and we learn that he has been admitted into a renowned local school. The chldren consider Bobby their mascot. Bobby visits the groundskeeper at night, Mr. Traill in the morning, and the children all day. All seems right in the world...

    ...until a new ordinance is passed to try to deal with wild animals in the slums. Any unlicensed animal will be considered wild, and put to sleep. Bobby has no license, because he has no owner. A stern constable is goaded on by the groundskeeper who is still feuding with Traill -- and soon the generous Mr. Trail is ordered into court to pay the license fees for a dog that he does not own.

    Trouble is -- no one owns Bobby. Not Traill, not the groundskeeper, not the children of Edinburgh.

    I won't give away the ultimate ending, but it is well-handled and staged with surprising taste and acted with real conviction. The film includes a sort of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" moment, but there is no giant swell of music and no dramatic low angle shots and simple hallmark card statements. One gets the sense that the real event (the story is based on a true story) probably happened much in the same way.

    By the way, as I mentioned, the story is based on a real event. Here is a picture of the actual statue erected for Edinburgh' Greyfriars Bobby...it couldn't have happened to a nicer dog.

    [​IMG]

    TRIVIA:

    "This well-loved statue commemorates a Skye terrier called Bobby who belonged to a man called John Gray. When he died he was buried in the Greyfriar's Kirk graveyard where the inconsolable Bobby refused to leave his grave. Each time he was driven away he would return, until people took pity on him and began to feed him. Attempts to persuade him to find shelter in bad weather were in vain. He would only leave the grave to find food. His vigil lasted fourteen years until he died in 1872, still at his master's side."
    --http://www.sunnyside-studio.com/gallery_page.asp?gallery=Day%20in%20Edinburgh&pagename=4

    "You can visit [this] statue of Bobby on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh, which is near to the graveyard where old Jock is buried."
    --imdb.com

    THE DVD

    VIDEO

    Another fullscreen edition of a classic Disney live-action feature, although the IP used for this seems to be in much better shape than Third Man on the Mountain. You'll see the occasional positive and negative density artifacts, most noticeably during the opening credits, but these lessen after the 1st reel. The look of the DVD is a tad soft, though not as alarmingly soft as Family Band. In fact, aside from the general softness of the image and the occasional print artifacts (a subtle scratch runs through the center of the first shot - something I didn't see until I watched the title again it on a 53" screen), this is a good effort from Disney considering we're talking about such an obscure film from their library.

    AUDIO

    No surprise here - this is a Dolby Digital Mono recreation of a soundtrack that is 43 years old. The standard comments apply -- Good work overall, solid track with little to no hiss. Drawbacks are a flat high-end, limited depth, and a certain genericism to the vocal recording.

    EXTRAS

    Nada. Zip. Zilch.

    Oh, wait -- there's "FBI WARNING" and "NEW DISNEY LIVE ACTION MOVIES TRAILER" and "MENU SCREEN". The disc is one of those completely silver discs with the title art sort of "layered" into the silver.

    FINAL THOUGHTS

    The film, ultimately, is a comment on human comnpassion -- from the shocking treatment given to the shepeherd Old Jock, who is thrown out like an old set of batteries., to Mr. Traill, who realizes he is more kind to dogs than children, to the Groundskeeper, who realizes has been too inflexible and buries the hatchet with Mr. Traill in a nicely underplayed scene. In the end, the dog becomes a sort of legend and a hero -- one leaves the film a bit unsure, though...surely the dog helped raise awareness for the impoverished children and the poor state of local resources for the elderly? If not, one could view the end of the film with the same suspicion given to Mr. Traill as he pours out a bowl of chiken stew for a dog...you do this for a dog, but in the 1st act of the film, we saw scores of human "Bobbys" sleeping in hallways of a slum. Maybe that's the true point of the movie, as evidenced by the reconciliation between Traill and the Groundskeeper. If we can love a dog, can't we show some respect and affection for each other?

    NEXT: HOT LEAD AND COLD FEET
     

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