A Totoro Shirt, My Students, and the Magic of Hayao Miyazaki

“Professor Walsh! Is that… A TOTORO?”

In the six weeks of wearing geeky t-shirts, none of my students had really seemed to find them interesting. Mostly, I was just another adult trying to be like them. Or just being weird. Or, whatever 18-year-olds think of their first semester instructors.

It was a Totoro t-shirt that brought us to a common place. A few students had liked a Whovian shirt here or a Walking Dead shirt there. For the most part, though, they didn’t seem to know the pop culture references.

Until Totoro.

Continue reading A Totoro Shirt, My Students, and the Magic of Hayao Miyazaki

5 Reasons to Love ‘Lava’

Image courtesy of Pixar.

It’s now an expected, and respected, tradition for Pixar to treat viewers to a brand new animated short whenever the studio releases a feature film in theaters. Their latest offering, called “Lava,” is currently playing alongside Inside Out and tells the story of a lonely tropical volcano and his search for someone to love (or “someone to lava,” as the song in the short goes).

This unusual premise was the brainchild of first-time director James Ford Murphy, who previously worked as an animator on many of Pixar’s greatest hits, including Cars, The Incredibles, and Finding Nemo. Combining beautiful visuals, a hummable tune, and an epic love story, it’s a nice companion piece that will stir your emotions long before Joy makes her first appearance in the main attraction.

Here are a few of the things that make this little gem something special.

1. It was inspired by a genuine affection for the Hawaiian islands.

Murphy gave a little presentation about the making of short at the press day for Inside Out a few weeks ago. He explained that he first fell in love with Hawaii while visiting the Big Island on his honeymoon 25 years ago. “Ever since that trip, I’ve been in love with tropical islands, active volcanoes, and Hawaiian music.”

Murphy returned to Hawaii several times during the making of the film. He even took his family on a spectacular flyover of the active volcano Kilauea. He also came across a diorama in a shopping mall showing the region’s active volcanoes, including an underwater one which became the inspiration for the female volcano in the film.

2. The director not only wrote the sweet, catchy tune that tells the story of “Lava,” he also played the ukulele himself on the final recording.

“I’ll never forget the first time I heard Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s version of ‘Over the Rainbow,'” Murphy says. “It was featured on an episode of ER and it absolutely stunned me. And I never forgot it. And I thought, ‘What if I could write a song that makes me feel the way that song does and feature it in a Pixar short film?’ So that’s what I set out to do.”

Lava director Jim Murphy explains is inspiration for the short.
“Lava” director Jim Murphy explains is inspiration for the short. Image: Disney/Pixar.

3. The two volcanoes in the story are named “Uku” and “Lele.”

“Why waste a name that doesn’t mean anything?” Murphy says. “Mauna Uku and Mauna Lele sound like a place. The funny thing is, the Hawiians all giggle. Because ‘uku’ literally means ‘head lice.’ And ‘ukulele’ means ‘dancing flea.’ That’s where the name comes from. So they teased the singer. But I just thought it sounded right. Mauna Uku and Mauna Lele, and together they’re the island of Ukulele.”

4. The singing voices of the volcanoes were provided by two superstars of the Hawaiian music scene.

“In my initial pitch, I promised this song would be sung by traditional Hawaiian singers,” Murphy recalls. “So for one year, all I did was listen to Hawaiian music. I drove my family crazy, my friends crazy, but I was searching for the perfect singers for ‘Lava.’ And in my research, I learned about a Hawaiian musical festival called the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. And when I found out about it, I convinced [producer] Andrea Warren that we had to go, because every musician I was interested in was going to be there and this would be our opportunity to see, meet, and hear who we wanted to work with on ‘Lava.’ And it turned out to be the best decision we ever made for the film because we not only left there completely inspired by the culture and the aloha spirit that we felt, we ended up casting two of Hawaii’s most popular recording artists. Kuana Torres Kahele sings the part of the narrator and Uku, the male volcano, and Napua Greig sings the part of Lele, the female volcano.”

5. The gorgeous, millennia-spanning visuals will make you want to fly off to Hawaii immediately.

Producer Andrea Warren cautions all who see the short: “You’re about to see images of an extreme tropical nature and we can’t be held responsible if you feel compelled to go on a tropical vacation afterwards.”

‘My Little Pony Friendship is Magic’ – ‘Cutie Mark Quests’

MLP Cutie Mark Quests \ Image courtesy of Hasbro Studios
MLP Cutie Mark Quests \ Image courtesy of Hasbro Studios

I’ve enjoyed My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic since my son first introduced it to me. Each episode is filled with something fun that makes 20 minutes pass by fast. One of the things I enjoy is how subtle the writers make the lesson being taught. There’s no “lesson learned” speech at the end of the episode (well, not since Twilight stopped writing letters to Princess Celestia) and kids still get the point.

In Cutie Mark Quests, they take us back to five episodes about finding yourself and trusting your friends.

Image: Hasbro Studios

One of those episodes is the two-part episode, The Return of Harmony where the Mane 6 face off against the king of chaos, Discord. In 40 minutes of animated bliss, you watch as Twilight Sparkle and her friends put their studies on friendship to the test in an attempt to stop Discord from turning all of Equestria upside down (literally).

Another two-part episode follows the Mane 6 as they journey to a town where everyone is a blank flank (i.e., no cutie mark). While visiting, Twilight and her friends teach the townspeople that their cutie marks are a part of who they are and being unique isn’t something to fear, but instead something to be celebrated.

Not everything is about the Mane 6 though, and that’s where the Cutie Mark Crusaders come in.

In Showstoppers, Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle continue their journey to get their cutie marks, and, as usual, they are going around their manes to get to their hooves. When the school talent show comes up, they all want to have a piece of the spotlight. It was a 20-minute train wreck, and, in the end, each of them learned a lesson in sticking with what they already enjoy instead of forcing new skills on themselves.

My son and I are happy that we are able to add Cutie Mark Quests alongside our other My Little Pony DVDs including: Equestria Girls, Canterlot Wedding, and Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks.

Cutie Mark Quests arrives in stores on June 30th. 

Disclaimer: GeekMom received a review copy.

A 3D Lesson in Animation!

If you’ve been around GeekMom for a while, you’ll remember the posts I’ve done about an outside-the-box kind of thinker, named Rufus Butler Seder, and his company, named Eye Think Inc. Many of you might know Rufus for his series of children’s books that seem to come to life. Do these pictures ring a bell?

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

And of course many of you might own the Star Wars version.

His company has created tiles that seem to come to life for many aquariums across the globe. They also love to make fun toys that challenge the mind. Here is my review of their Scanimation Lamp, which my kids and their friends loved.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

I was thrilled to get an email from Rufus a few weeks go, because I knew whatever he had created next would be just as fun as his other creations. And I was right. This one is called Busy Body. It’s such a simple concept that brings to life what animation is all about.

Regular animation is time consuming. It takes hours to draw enough pictures that look almost alike to create any decent animation scene. The Busy Body is a way for even young kids to see how animation works. The carousel spins and you see the image of the little blue guys as they whirl past. The fun comes when you stop the spinning and move his bendable hands and legs into different positions. You can make him skip, jump, dance, all with the help of a simple instruction sheet.

Photo: Eye Think Inc.
Photo: Eye Think Inc.

My household has older kids these days but I was pleased to see my college son and the three buddies he brought home for Easter having a blast, making the little figure do all kinds of creative movements. I have no doubt that kids of all ages (and their parents) will enjoy this toy. The best way to see all the things Busy Body can do is to watch this short video demonstration. Fair warning: Gather the kids around the screen before you hit the play button. They’re going to love this.

It retails for less than twenty-five bucks, which makes it a perfect gift for birthday parties or holidays. If you’d like a whole list of creative toys that will intrigue you and your kids, go visit the Eye Think Inc. website. It’s filled with interactive, creative activities, books, cards, and toys.

Note: GeekMom received a sample of Busy Body for review purposes.

Must Love Dogs: Digging Into Disney’s Animated “Feast”

Image courtesy Disney.

Audiences who see the upcoming Disney animated feature Big Hero 6 in theaters will get a little bonus appetizer before it starts in the form an all-new short titled “Feast.” I had a chance to see “Feast” recently at a press day for Big Hero 6 and got an inside look at the process of making the short from director Patrick Osborne himself.

Disney has been on a roll with its short films in the past few years, releasing the technically ambitious 3D Mickey Mouse cartoon “Get a Horse!” in theaters with Frozen and the Oscar-winning “Paperman” alongside Wreck-It Ralph. This latest offering continues that tradition of quality, with a heartfelt story and a striking visual style that sets it apart from anything you’ll see in the main feature.

The short takes the point of view of a Boston terrier named Winston and tells the story of his life and his relationship with his owner through a series of meals. Along with the standard kibble there’s fast food, fancy food, party food, healthy food, just about any kind of immediately recognizable dish you can think of. The humans remain mostly in the background, but their story is also cleverly told through Winston’s eyes, and his stomach. Osborne told us he got the idea for the story from watching YouTube videos featuring images of different meals all cut together.

“There was something pretty cool about the amount of light that you see just in showing your meal, meal after meal, cut after cut,” he says. “And there’s something neat about the potential in sound design and color. It just felt like there was something to center a short around there. … The only thing missing was a through line to kind of follow through with it. It felt like maybe we could get a dog under the table and show his life with his new family and kind of let the human life be in the background.”

When it came time to pitch ideas for the next studio short, Osborne submitted his idea and some early concept art to studio head John Lasseter and a panel of directors. It was a nerve-wracking experience, he says, but once the project was green lit he didn’t have much time to agonize over it.

Image courtesy Disney.

“I waited and continued working on Big Hero 6 for a couple months,” he recalls. “And then one day they said it was mine, they were going to make this one. And instantly everything changes, and I’m no longer working on Big Hero and I have a deadline of story, which I’ve never done. So you start to work on story and figuring out how the actual short’s going to play out, but at the same time you’re also starting to figure out what it’s going to look like.”

An artist by trade, Osborne didn’t have much experience storyboarding before working on “Feast.” It was one of the biggest challenges for him, made even more daunting by the fact that he was working with John Lasseter, one of the most successful talents working in animation today.

“My first professional board was shown to John Lasseter,” he says in a tone that’s both reverent and incredulous. “It’s a crazy thing. It’s not something you should do. That was entirely the challenge for me of learning this process. Jeff Turley was the production designer and John knew what his work was like, but John didn’t know what my story was going to be like. So every meeting we had John would be like, ‘The art is beautiful, can’t wait to see it when it looks like that. The story just needs to work. You need to do something to make this work. It’s not good yet.’ And that happened several times.”

Director Patrick Osborne shows off some of the concept art created for “Feast.”

In the end, it all came back to that pitch and living up to what Lasseter saw in it back in the beginning.

“You realize after a while that he’s green-lit this idea because he believes in something,” Osborne says. “It’s your challenge just to deliver on the promise of the pitch. You promised something when you did this pitch and it hit something emotionally for him and it felt right in some way. And you just have to get back to that story. So it was amazing.”

The finished short is equal parts touching and visually appealing. Besides a parade of delectable dishes (I’d advise eating before you get to the theater), there are also some nice, subtle effects like dust particles in the soft light and other shallow-depth-of-field tricks that give the image some depth when it’s shown in 3D, and a sentimental climax that might have viewers going into the feature with misty eyes. It’s the perfect starter course for a meal of great animation.

You can see “Feast” and Big Hero 6 in theaters beginning November 7.

The Boxtrolls by the Numbers

The Boxtrolls are a community of quirky, mischievous creatures in LAIKA and Focus Features' family event movie THE BOXTROLLS, opening nationwide September 26th.
All photos courtesy Focus Features

When The Boxtrolls opens today in theaters, audiences will be witnessing the culmination of a production spanning years and countless hours of work by hundreds of talented people, and most will hardly notice.

It’s easy to get caught up in the story of Egg, a boy raised by the friendly underground-dwelling creatures for whom the film is named, and forget everything that went on behind the scenes to create the fantastical town of Cheesebridge and its various inhabitants. But it’s worth taking a closer look, because the artistry on display in the film is really quite something.

I got a chance to see it firsthand during my visit last spring to LAIKA studios, as filming on The Boxtrolls was nearly complete. (You can check out my previous interview with the film’s directors from the same trip here.) Like the studio’s previous films, Coraline and ParaNorman, it was created in traditional stop-motion style, using mechanical puppets which are manipulated one small gesture at a time and photographed in succession. It’s a trick as old as film itself, but the animators at LAIKA have perfected it to an art form.

To give you an idea of just how complicated and intricate the film really is, here are some amazing statistics provided by our hosts during the visit:

  • The animators were expected to produce 4 seconds of film per week. At 40 hours a week, that adds up to around 600 hours of work to create one minute of film. The final average came out to 3.7 seconds per week, or around 90 frames.
  • At the height of the production there were as many as 30 animators working all at one time on different sets. Since the film is basically made up of a series of still frames, several different scenes in different locations could be created side by side at the same time.


  • There were around 190 puppets created for the film. Some of them were duplicates so they could be used in different scenes at the same time, others were backup puppets made to replace worn-out or broken ones. It took four to six months to complete a single puppet.
  • The puppets have removable faces, some in two pieces. The eyes can be switched out to express different emotions, while the mouths are carefully designed to mimic the shapes of human speech and a wide range of expressions. The filmmakers used a revolutionary color 3D printing technique to create each face individually, so the pieces could be designed on a computer first and then printed as needed. This process represented one of the most ambitious changes from LAIKA’s previous films. There were around 52,000 faces created for the production, compared to 20,000 for Coraline and 33,000 for ParaNorman.
  • The costume fabricators created more than 200 costumes for the puppets. The smallest was a sweater made for baby Egg measuring 3 1/2 inches from cuff to cuff, and his baby socks, which were just 5/8 inches long.
  • There were more than 20,000 props made by hand for the film, including 55 different kinds of cheese and a tiny sewing needle and thread. The sets even included 25 different kinds of weeds.

With so many films these days relying on computer graphics and dazzling special effects, it’s nice to know that there are still people out there creating things with their hands in true maker spirit. When you see The Boxtrolls try and take a moment to step back and appreciate the artistry and charm of that audacious concept. The film opens today.

Disney’s Big Hero 6: When Mickey Met Marvel

Photo courtesy Disney.

Earlier this summer, GeekMom was invited to participate in a preview day at the headquarters of Disney Feature Animation in Burbank, Calif., to get a sneak peek at the studio’s next big animated film, Big Hero 6. Due in theaters on Nov. 7, the film is a fascinating blend of graphic design and artistic influences, from comic books to anime to Disney’s own rich catalogue. We got to see some footage from the film and speak with the talented filmmakers and technicians who had a hand in creating this intriguing new project.

There’s no denying that the partnership between Disney and Marvel Comics has turned out well, for both the companies and the fans. The partnership has resulted in a complex cinematic universe, encompassing an impressive number of films and television series. So it was only a matter of time before the jewel in the Disney Studios crown, the feature animation department, got into the act by creating a comic-book-inspired world of its own. But Big Hero 6 is unlike anything Disney animation has ever done before. It introduces a fantastic, stylized world of tech-powered heroes and villains to rival anything that’s been done in live action.

It was co-director Don Hall who first saw the potential in a mash-up of these two distinctive influences. “As a lifelong fan of comic books and a lifelong fan of Disney animation, I started imagining what a combination of those two things would look like,” he said. “So in the course of research I came across a lesser known Marvel comics series called Big Hero 6. And it was from there that we were inspired to create the film that we’re going to share with you today.”

Photo courtesy Disney.

Big Hero 6 takes place in the fictional city of San Fransokyo, itself a blend of Eastern and Western cultures. The story centers on young Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter), a 14-year-old robotics genius. Aspiring to take after his big brother Tadashi and attend the prestigious San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, Hiro creates a revolutionary invention, microbots. Controlled by telepathic thought, these tiny machines can work together to create anything. But Hiro’s dreams are crushed when the invention is stolen and his brother is killed. Enter Baymax, an inflatable medical nursebot created by Tadashi, who assumes the responsibility of caring for Hiro in his brother’s absence.

Hiro sets out to track down the person responsible for his brother’s demise, a mysterious figure known only as Yokai (the name comes from Japanese folklore and refers to a spiritual entity). The directors were very secretive about the villain’s origins, saying only that he has “a fractured mind,” as evidenced by the erratic, menacing constructs he creates when controlling the microbots.

Helping Hiro in his quest are some of Tadashi’s friends and fellow students. There’s Wasabi (Damon Wayans), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung) and Fred (T.J. Miller). Hiro develops high-tech super suits for all of them, even Baymax, according to their specialties. Together they become a formidable super team. All of the suits and special powers are cool, but I predict spunky daredevil Go Go will be a standout character among the team. She zooms around on adjustable discs that are both wheels and weapons. It’s so much fun to watch.

Speaking of fun, one of the scenes we got to see was an exhilarating flying sequence in which Baymax and Hiro soar above the city in their suits. Co-director Chris Williams describes it as “one of the most aspirational scenes in the film.”

“My 8-year-old self would love this clip,” he said in his introduction. “My 5-year-old self loves this clip. We hope you love it too.”

In a sit-down interview following the presentation I had a chance to ask Williams and Hall about their specific influences and what kind of research they did while working on the film.

“Name your kid robot Japanese anime, we watched it,” said Williams.

Hall added: “I mean, in this building we’re surrounded by fans of animation and fans of anime and knowing that was going to be part of the influence of this film we knew that we would have license and would want to kind of push some of the action scenes. You guys have not seen some of the really over-the-top action scenes that we have in this movie.”

Photo courtesy Disney.

He went on to explain that they also drew inspiration from some sources that weren’t as obvious.

“I love superhero movies, I love action movies, but we knew that this movie had to have a really emotional center,” he said. “And we knew there would be a really unique relationship between Hiro and Baymax that was going to be the center of the movie. And so I thought a lot about My Neighbor Totoro and the relationship in that movie. That kind of character that seems so sweet and so naive and maybe there’s something a little bit more going on than you might at first recognize. And so I think some of those moments in Miyazaki’s films were also a guiding influence on this movie.”

Williams also elaborated on the ideas that went into developing the robot Baymax. In the course of their research, the team visited some of the most advanced robotics labs in the country and met with actual scientists and engineers in the field. One of the most interesting things they came across was the work being done in the new area of soft robotics.

“Soft robotics is sort of a new, bleeding edge technology that’s coming,” Williams said. “And then the other thing, as we were researching early on was just the idea of the uncanny valley where if things start to look too realistic they look creepy. So we looked a whole range of robots on this trip and the ones that were super human ones were like [scary]. My instinct is to go the other way. You have to project more of yourself into it as opposed to a super realistic thing that was looking back at you. And that’s what led to the idea of a very simple approach to Baymax.”

Stay tuned for more coverage from the press day, including a look at the adorable short film “Feast,” which will play in front of Big Hero 6 when it opens in theaters on Nov. 7.

Director/Animator Angus MacLane Talks Pixar and Toy Story of Terror

Toy Story of Terror includes Jessie, Buzz, Woody, and the rest of the Toy Story gang. Photo: Disney/Pixar.

There’s something spooky coming to lurk through stores this summer. It’s Toy Story of Terror!

Okay, the idea of a new adventure with Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Mr. Potato Head, Rex, Mr. Pricklepants, and the rest of the gang probably doesn’t sound all that scary. Well, how does the idea of losing one of Pixar’s beloved characters sound? (Feel free to insert some evil laughter here.)

That frightening concept is the idea behind Toy Story of Terror, a Disney/Pixar TV special, which ran on ABC last October. Now, for the first time, that special is coming to Blu-ray! The two-disc set includes the 22-minute short, with eye-popping colors and a lively DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Of course, Disney/Pixar is also throwing in a little something extra, including three deleted scenes, three “Vintage Toy Commercials,” and a short on the making of Toy Story of Terror. The best of the special features section is located under the “Toy Story Toons Shorts” menu. This area includes a crop of short animated films that were also previously released, but in theaters. That lineup includes “Hawaiian Vacation,” “Small Fry,” and “Partysaurus Rex.”

Toy Story of Terror (as well as “Small Fry”) was directed by long-time Pixar animator Angus MacLane. MacLane is a double Annie winner and has worked on every Pixar feature film, with the exception of the original Toy Story. If that’s not impressive enough, he’s also an avid Lego fan (and creator of CubeDudes) and a co-director of the upcoming Finding Nemo sequel, Finding Dory.

Recently, I got a chance to talk to MacLane about Toy Story of Terror, directing animation, and losing an entire lunchbox of beloved toys.

GeekMom: I know that you’ve been animating for Pixar for a long time and you’ve even directed a few shorts. Did Pixar basically come to you and say, “Hey would you be interested in directing this installment of Toy Story?” How did it all come about?

Angus MacLane: Well, I was in the middle of working on Small Fry and it was something that the company, that they wanted to make this Halloween or spooky-themed Toy Story special and I think they just saw it as being a good fit and it worked out schedule-wise. It was an assignment, but something that was, for me, still a very personal film and something from the ground up. It was a collaboration of figuring out what the movie was. It was an opportunity met with preparation.

GM: Well, did they just come to you and say they wanted a Halloween special and they wanted you to direct it? Was there an idea? How did the storyline come about?

AM: It was like, “We want to do a non-specifically Halloween/spooky Toy Story special; what would you want to see in that?” Then after thinking about it for a bit, I had a meeting with John Lasseter and we kind of went back and forth on a few different things. What I wanted was… I wanted Jesse to be the main character and have Combat Carl in the movie somehow. Then, we settled on it being in a spooky motel, the manager being the bad guy, and it being about eBay sales or you know, online auction sales. That’s kind of what we started with and then from there, we began to develop the process.

Director/Animator Angus MacLane. Photo courtesy of Disney.

GM: How does being the director change the whole process for you? What was your greatest challenge?

AM: What’s challenging about being the director, well…. you’re just managing a lot of different things, whereas being an animator, you’re focused on one shot or many shots in a sequence. As a director, you’re trying to keep a tone and the timbre of everything consistent and you’re trying to make the movie good. At least in my experience, the movie wants to be bad. It tries to be bad and boring at every step of the way and you’ve got to keep a sharp eye on things that will make the movie bad. It’s kind of a reductive process; it’s not very additive. You want to figure out all of what your movie needs and how much it needs. Then, you don’t have unlimited time and resources and you need to figure out how best to use those time and resources that you have. And then you need to find a way to work and convince a group of very talented individuals that the story that you’re making is worth making, to join us on the journey to make this picture, and hopefully have a pleasant time doing it.

GM: You’re normally part of the animation team. How many animators were involved with this 22-minute short?

AM: Maybe 20? For a feature, it would be anywhere from 40 to 70, depending on which feature. I’d say 20. It was a smaller crew, but it was still the same feature-quality. There were some newer animators, but everyone did fantastic.

GM: Looking at the plot of Toy Story of Terror, did you ever lose a favorite toy as a child?

AM: I had a skateboard stolen. It was horribly traumatic and then years later, I found out who stole it and it was awful.

GM: Well, that’s not as traumatic as losing your favorite pal!

AM: Well, I think I’m blocking this out, but I did lose an entire… like you know those old metal lunchboxes? I had an old Return of the Jedi lunchbox; it was full of Star Wars figures. Maybe 10 Star Wars figures, and maybe some Fisher Price Adventure People were in there too. I lost that when I was like 5. The reason why it took me a moment to remember is because I think I blocked that out because it was so painful. But yeah, I lost a few favorites there.

GM: Well the theme is painful like that, with toys going missing. So out of the entire Toy Story cast, which toy would you be most upset to lose—and why?

AM: I’ve always had an affinity for Buzz, just because he’s kind of the most robotic physically, as a toy. He’s the coolest toy, but they all have their positives and negatives, character-wise. Like, Woody is a great main character and certainly, in Toy Story of Terror, the focus is Jesse’s arc, but as far as when I came into the Toy Story world, I was always drawn to Buzz. On Toy Story 2, when I was first an animator, I really liked animating Buzz. That’s something that was important to me because that was the first Toy Story that I got. And I’ve always been interested in space toys.

GM: In this special, I noticed that there’s a little bit of Predator action going on. Are you a fan?

AM: I am. I do like Predator quite a bit. There’s a number of action films of the mid-to-late ’80s that have a certain kind of charm to the simplistic clarity of the mission—or it’s very cut and dry. That one is exciting because you get both the kind of the picked-off Ten Little Indians storyline and the one-character survival story at the same time. There are a lot of different things in that particular film. I think it was also McTiernan at the height of—not the zenith of his powers—but, it was at the time, dismissed. Now it’s seen as being a really solid action film in a way that I think they don’t make anymore.

Courtesy of Disney.

GM: I know that you’re quite the Lego fan, correct? What did you think of that movie?

AM: It was great. They did a great job. It’s basically going into it, you’re like… they’re going to make “Play-Doh, the movie.” The way I view Lego is like it’s a building medium, it’s like clay. It’s a tool. To say we’re going to make a movie about that and have it be as funny, heartfelt, and as hilarious… I think they did a fantastic job.

GM: Since Toy Story of Terror has that horror vibe… what scares YOU?

AM: I can tell you that the movies I think are scary are The Exorcist and The Shining. It’s not what’s shown, it’s more like what’s implied. It’s like the absence of action. A lot of times, there are these big moments of anticipation, big moments of the unexplained or the unknown. They are often very simple things and there’s a craft in those movies that’s really terrific. Oftentimes, it’s the mundane mixed with the supernatural. Certainly, the original Ring is very scary because it is so mundane with certain simple supernatural elements. Filmmaking-wise, those movies are pretty impressive.

GM: So your next film is Finding Dory. How many people are constantly asking you for spoilers?

AM: Nobody! Nobody asks. [Laughs] I think nobody wants to know.

Disney will release Toy Story of Terror on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, August 19, 2014.

On Set With The Boxtrolls: Meet the Filmmakers

The Boxtrolls are a community of quirky, mischievous creatures in LAIKA and Focus Features' family event movie THE BOXTROLLS, opening nationwide September 26th.
Image courtesy Focus Features.

Within the walls of an unassuming office building just outside of Portland, Oregon, there is a tiny, magical world. This is LAIKA Studios, where some of the most talented, and patient, stop-motion animators in the world lend their talents to bring these worlds to life.

On behalf of GeekMom I was invited along with a group of writers to visit the studio just as the latest production, The Boxtrolls, was winding down. I’ll be posting a series of features from this fascinating set visit, beginning with today’s overview of the film and a chat with the directors.

The title characters in The Boxtrolls are charming, inventive creatures who live underground, wear boxes instead of clothes, and love to tinker. Yet, despite their good nature they are misunderstood and feared by the people who live above them in the town of Cheesebridge. The two worlds are set on a collision course when the boxtrolls discover an abandoned human boy and raise him as one of their own.

As young Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright) begins to question where he belongs, he meets a spirited girl named Winnie (Elle Fanning) and they team up to stop the evil Archibald Snatcher (Sir Ben Kingsley) from eliminating the boxtrolls for good. The stellar voice cast also includes Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Jared Harris, and Toni Collette.

Check out the film’s official trailer:

The story is loosely inspired by the children’s book Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow. Directors Graham Annable and Tony Stacchi talked about the early stages of the film and the difficulties of adapting the intricate source material into a filmable script. Although there are many fantastical creatures in the underground world of the book, the filmmakers made the decision early on to focus on one set of creatures in particular, the boxtrolls.

“Alan Snow’s book is wonderful,” Stacchi says. “It has a great hero character. It’s a sort of child-empowerment story of this boy Arthur. You can’t imagine a more timid sort of hero and he’s the hero of the book. He has a glancing acquaintance with boxtrolls and cabbageheads that’s really sweet, but when we developed the story we wanted to have a much more intimate relationship between the hero and the boxtrolls.”

So Arthur became Eggs and the rabbit women, rat pirates, and freshwater sea cows had to go. That may be a disappointment for fans of the book, but what works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen. The character of Winnie, for instance, had to be created for the film through combing several different characters from the book. She evolved through the story process, the directors explained, to serve a very particular purpose.

“We needed a character who represented the above-ground world in every way,” Stacchi says. “She [is] the character who kind of goes through the biggest moral arc in the movie, who realizes the truth about boxtrolls. So we gave her a special relationship to the story of the boxtrolls. She’s morbidly obsessed with the idea of what boxtrolls do when they kidnap children. She thinks there’s mountains of bones and rivers and blood down there. ‘Did they let you watch them eat your family?’ She would ask questions of Eggs. And it turns out all of these are lies. But Eggs needed a guide above ground, so we created Winnie.”

In casting the role of Winnie, the directors went directly to Elle Fanning, whose sister Dakota provided the lead character’s voice in another LAIKA film, Coraline. The rest of the cast came together through listening to recordings and poring over lists of actors and actresses. Before hiring Hempstead-Wright to play Eggs, the filmmakers listened to bits of his dialogue as Bran Stark in Game of Thrones. But one of the biggest “gets” as far as the directors are concerned, was Kingsley, or “Sir Ben,” as they call him, as the film’s main villain.

Kingsley recorded most of his dialogue in a tiny booth at a recording studio in the quaint English village where he lives. Stacchi admits he was a bit intimidated by the Oscar-winning actor’s intensity and preparation for the role. At one point, Kingsley told Stacchi that if he gave him another line reading he would send him “to the Tower of London!” The director still isn’t entirely sure whether he was kidding.

(L to R) Director Anthony Stacchi, Director Graham Annable, Producer David Ichiok and voice talent Nick Frost review a scene during production of LAIKA and Focus Features' family event movie The Boxtrolls, opening nationwide September 26th.
(L to R) Director Anthony Stacchi, Director Graham Annable, Producer David Ichiok, and voice talent Nick Frost review a scene during production. Image courtesy Focus Features.

Annable and Stacchi agree that the real trick of directing is casting, and in this case that’s not only true of the actors. On a stop-motion animated film like The Boxtrolls, the animators are also performers.

“No matter what they tell you about live-action directors or any of this stuff, it’s 90 percent casting,” Stacchi says. “And in our case it’s casting 40 people, as well as the voice cast. Really, because there’s the actor and then there’s the animator or the six animators that animate that character. It’s all about empowering a bunch of department heads, because there’s so much to do. It’s getting the ship all steered in the same direction, is the main thing. And then along the way trying to keep it in that direction while those people do what they’re way better at doing than you are.”

Annabel adds, “It’s an interesting situation on this project because you have never directed a stop-motion production. I’d never directed before. I was working as a story artist and I thought I knew what was going on down on those stages, but I didn’t quite know all the steps involved. And yeah, Tony’s right, I mean we leaned so much on the department heads that are here. In a lot of cases it felt like we just did our best to sort of stay out of the way and let them maximize what they could do within the film.”

“They’ll eventually figure out how to do it without directors,” Stacchi jokes. “Graham has the best definition of what it’s like directing one of these things, though. It’s that every day is like having to take a test you didn’t study for. That’s exactly how it feels.”

I’ll have more later on the amazingly intricate sets and puppets we saw at the studio and how LAIKA has revolutionized the process of stop-motion animation with 3D printing, so be sure to stay tuned!

The Boxtrolls opens in theaters everywhere on September 26.

Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness Begins at Kickstarter

Pre-production monster from Mountains of Madness Kickstarter video. Screen capture by K. Moore.

For those of you who enjoy skating on the edge of chaos or even being pulled down into its deepest darkness, race over to Kickstarter and make your financial obeisance to the irresistible film project, Mountains of Madness. If you love reading H.P. Lovecraft stories, if you love dark horror, if monsters and our ancestral id call out to you, even if you just admire wild imagination delivered on film, your tithe is due to this movie project from Lux Digital Pictures.

Quoting from the Mountains of Madness Kickstarter page, Lovecraft’s story tells:

In 1930, a team of researchers traveled to the southern end of the world in an attempt to discover the unknown history of our planet. They found a series of gigantic, alien-looking fossils resting in an ancient cavern. The scientists believed they discovered an unknown species of prehistoric animal. Soon, however, they realized that those creatures were far from extinct and more dangerous than any primeval predator.

When the scientists failed to return, a search party was dispatched. The rescuers pursued a trail deep into the Antarctic tundra where they discovered a titanic mountain range that hid a sophisticated pre-human civilization. In the deepest recesses of the city, they learned the shocking fate of their friends and worse: the horrifying truth about the origins of mankind.

Hunted by supernatural creatures of infinite evil and sinister intelligence the men struggled to escape the bounds of “The Mountains of Madness.”

Lux is seeking funding for pre-production work, which they state is the most elusive financing for a film project. Once they have that step accomplished, they will have the material to show dedication and vision, convincing financiers to back the rest of the process. You can check out their past accomplishments on their website.

They cite Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Mike Mignola, and Stephen King as disciples of Lovecraft. According to the Kickstarter page, At the Mountains of Madness is “considered one of Lovecraft’s greatest and most cherished works.” Lux plans for an animated treatment, which creates the horror, newly imagined monsters, unearthly destinations, and startling effects that will bring Lovecraftian fiction alive for viewers. Pay your homage at Kickstarter and gain unearthly rewards, such as your name in the credits, a Blu-ray, a signed script, an animatic, an animation cel, and other talismans of protection.

And, I have to mention that their shortcut name for the film is MOM. Not sure how they are going to work “GEEK” into that, though…

Prepare to be Charmed by The Boxtrolls

Back in April I traveled to Portland to visit LAIKA, the studio responsible for the stop-motion wonders Coraline and ParaNorman, and got a sneak peek at their latest and most ambitious project, The Boxtrolls. I’ll be sharing all the whimsical details of that visit in a later post, but for now this shiny new trailer will give you an idea of what the film is all about. As you can probably gather from the trailer, the story follows a young boy named Eggs (voiced by Game of Thrones‘ Isaac Hemptead-Wright) who is taken in as a baby and raised by an underground society of inventive creatures called boxtrolls. Together with an adventurous girl named Winnie (Elle Fanning), Eggs ventures into the world above to save his adopted family from the wicked Archibald Snatcher (Sir Ben Kingsley). Also included in the stellar voice cast are Jared Harris, Toni Collette, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan. For more, check out the official page at TheBoxtrolls.com. The film opens in theaters on Sept. 26.

Wander Over Yonder Gives Fans What They Want

Image courtesy of Disney.

The last time I spoke with Craig McCracken, his new animated series Wander Over Yonder was about to premiere on the Disney Channel. I caught up with him again recently at the opening of “Man vs. Machine: The Robot Show,” the latest in-house art exhibition to grace the walls of Disney’s Television Animation studio in Glendale, California (you can read all about it here). Now that the show has been airing for a while, I asked him how he’s felt about the response he’s gotten from the audience.

“A lot of times what happens is there’ll be things that we’re doing organically in the show that we really like, and then we see that audiences respond to that same thing,” he said. “It kind of gives us the encouragement that all right, that was the right path. That was the right choice. So we’ve definitely being doing that. I mean, we see what the fans are responding to and we love those exact same things for the exact same reasons, so we’re happy to continue doing those things for fans.”

One of the unexpected reactions McCracken has found is just how popular the show’s main antagonist, Lord Hater (voiced by Keith Ferguson), has become. He may be out to conquer the universe and rule it with an iron fist, but deep down he’s just an overgrown adolescent riddled with insecurities. His relationship with Jack McBrayer’s Wander is more complicated than it seems, and McCracken plans to exploit those depths in the episodes to come.

Image courtesy of Disney.

“We found that Lord Hater is kind of a breakout star character,” McCracken said. “People just love him. And we love writing for him. And even though he’s a villain, he’s really just sympathetic and really lovable, so we’ve kind of embraced that. We love him and the fans love him, so you’re going to learn more about him. He’s not as evil as he says he is. He’s a lot more vulnerable than he maybe portrays. And we also learn more about what Wander’s trying to do with Hater. He’s kind of slowly trying to wear him down and just make him his friend, because he knows that deep down, somewhere inside of him, there’s a good guy. And Wander’s just kind of going to keep persisting until he finally gets that guy to come out.”

There’s a certain aesthetic appeal to Hater’s design as well. With a hooded skull face and lightning bolt embellishments reminiscent of 1980s death metal, there’s a bit of a nostalgic quality to his aesthetic. McCracken promises even more of that to come.

“There’s one episode where Hater’s feeling down in the dumps and he doesn’t know if evil’s the same as it used to be, so Peepers takes him out in his own van. So we have an old van with a skull painted on the side of it. And they kind of go out and they’re just kind of doing what bullies or teenagers do when they’re being rowdy. They kind of just get back to the rudimentary thing of being jerks.”

That episode will be part of a run of brand new episodes premiering this summer on Disney XD. (Reruns will still air on the Disney Channel, but XD is Wander Over Yonder’s new official home.) McCracken said he’s looking forward to the opportunity to reach even more viewers.

“I’m really excited about it because it’s some of our best work from the season,” he said. It’s going to be airing right at the time when they’re doing a big push for shows in the summer. Wander’s been normally premiering at night, but I’m curious to see how it’s going to do in the mornings or in the daytime, because it’s a really bright and sunny and positive and energetic show. It seems like the kind of show where after you watch it, you want to go outside and run around. Wander kind of gets you excited about having fun.”

Man vs. Machine: Disney Artists Take on Robots

From L to R, Disney Television Animation’s Craig McCracken, Sam Levine, Dan Povenmire, Lisa Salamone-Smith, Eric Coleman, Daron Nefcy, and President of Disney Channels Worldwide Gary Marsh. Photo credit: Rick Rowell/Disney Channel.

From the outside, Disney’s Television Animation studio doesn’t look like much. There’s no giant wizard’s hat out front like the Feature Animation building or seven stone dwarves holding up the roof like the Team Disney building on the Burbank lot. Driving through the gate and into the parking lot of the nondescript brick building in an industrial part of Glendale, you’d never know that it’s currently the home of some of the company’s most creative and prolific talents. At least, not until you step inside.

The small lobby is filled with computer screens showing clips and promos from many of the shows in production: Jake and the Neverland Pirates, Sofia the First, Gravity Falls, and the phenomenally popular Phineas and Ferb. Up one flight, down the hall and just past the cereal bar there’s a unique space that serves as an in-house art gallery, where staff members are invited to show original pieces they’ve created in their spare time. The art is periodically rotated and usually centered around a theme. GeekMom was invited to the opening reception for the latest exhibition, titled “Man vs. Machine: The Robot Show,” where some of the biggest names in the world of television animation mingled and appreciated the work of their colleagues.

Kimberly Mooney, manager of development at Disney Television Animation, explained that the rotating gallery was always imagined as a part of the studio’s office space from the very beginning. “It goes all the way back to when this building was being renovated and built for us to be an animation studio,” she said. “We wanted a dedicated space where we could showcase the artists’ art, their personal artwork. It helps to establish that real sense of community we have here.”

Alex Rosenberg, an assistant at the studio, added that everyone is welcome to submit work to the shows, even if they’re not professional artists. “Eric Coleman, our SVP, actually put in a piece this time,” she said. “And we have work from people who are in tech and a coordinator on our current series side who did one. We have writers who submitted pieces. It’s a really nice way to showcase the talent that’s here at TVA and celebrate artists who are outside of what we normally define as artists.”

Povenmire with his piece “Girl vs. Machine.” Photo credit: Rick Rowell/Disney Channel.

Phineas and Ferb co-creator Dan Povenmire contributed “Girl vs. Machine,” a drawing of his two daughters taking on a massive wave of technology with a pair of slingshots. “The theme was ‘Man vs. Machine’ and I was thinking about it for a while and I was like, ‘Screw it, I should just do “Girl vs. Machine” and then I can put my daughters in it and then I’ll have a place to put it when I’m done with it,” Povenmire said. “And they love it. They’re like, ‘That’s us!’ And they like looking at all the little things in there and trying to figure out what they are. Like, ‘Oh, there’s our Zoomer dog. That’s our boom box!’ I put a lot of other stuff in there too. I was basically just doodling for a day.”

He enjoys the opportunity for self-expression the gallery offers and the chance to see what the other Disney artists are all about. “We’re all in the same building but everybody who is working on a show is really working on one piece of art that they’re all doing together,” he said. “It’s a big, collaborative piece of art. And nobody gets to see what these people actually think of themselves if you just say, ‘Hey, go off in a direction.’ I love seeing the kind of stuff that people do at home. It sort of gives you a different feel for them. And it’s gotten so I can tell different people’s art, though it’s nothing like what people do here.”

I also got to chat with Craig McCracken during the event. He’s currently the creator and executive producer of Disney Channel’s Wander Over Yonder, but you might also be familiar with his earlier creations The PowerPuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. His piece, “Taishi,” features a graphic, 70s-inspired profile of a humanoid robot with flowing yellow and orange locks.

McCracken and his robot “Taishi.” Photo credit: Rick Rowell/Disney Channel.

I asked McCracken which piece in the show was his favorite. “I’m leaning toward Alex Kirwan’s,” he said. “He’s my art director on Wander and he built a model of a very obscure robot from a Donald Duck cartoon. It’s like so inside baseball because he’s in this one specific Donald Duck cartoon. And he’s like, ‘I’m going to make a sculpture of that.’ I’m like, ‘I think only you and like 10 people in this building are going to know who that character is and appreciate it.’ But if anyone would, it’s the people here.”

Pixar Easter Eggs Revealed!

The folks at Pixar love hiding in-jokes and references to their impressive body of work in their films. If you’re a fan you might know about some of these Easter eggs already, but others may be a nice surprise.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, merely a taste of the longer feature available in the Discovery section of Disney’s new cloud-based media service Disney Movies Anywhere, which allows you to share your Disney content across an array of platforms and iOS devices.

Do you know about any Pixar Easter eggs? Share them in the comments!

The Pirate Fairy Red Carrr-pet Premiere

Image courtesy of Disney.

More than 60 years after Walt Disney’s talented team of artists created the animated feature film Peter Pan, the legacy of its iconic characters only continues to grow. Tinker Bell has become a popular character in her own right, thanks to a series of movies produced by DisneyToon Studios, a division of the animation powerhouse devoted to home-video exclusives. Disney recently celebrated the fifth release in that series, The Pirate Fairy, with a red carpet premiere, held just steps away from the very building where the original Peter Pan was made.

Up until now, the Tinker Bell movies have only tangentially referenced the source material, but this one features the closest connection yet to the Neverland in J.M. Barrie’s original story. The Pirate Fairy introduces Zarina (voiced by Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks), a curious and bold fairy who leaves pixie hollow and joins up with a motley crew of pirates. When she returns to steal the fairies’ precious blue pixie dust, Tinker Bell and her friends must set out after her to get it back. To do that, they’ll have to face a legendary adversary, but that’s all I can say for now. The rest is too good to spoil.

The event featured stilt walkers dressed as pirates (one even had her own ship made out of balloons), live music, and photo ops with Tink herself in front of Skull Rock. There were activities for the kids, including coloring, stickers, and a sand pit where they could dig for “buried treasure.” Each child attending also got a foam pirate sword or a set of fairy wings (or both). Among the special guests were Hendricks, director Peggy Holmes, producer Jenni Magee-Cook, and the voice of Tinker Bell herself, Mae Whitman. I got a chance to talk to them on the red carpet, except for Whitman, who was pulled away just as she reached me.

Disney's "The Pirate Fairy" World Premiere
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney.

Holmes talked about the significance of the location before heading in to introduce the film to an enthusiastic audience. “It’s so exciting to do the premiere here on the Disney lot where the characters of Peter Pan were created,” she said. “It was right here in the building behind us. So it’s really exciting to be here today and share the movie with everybody.”

Magee-Cook elaborated a bit more on the connections between the two films. “That was a real responsibility that we had. I mean, we were working with the art and introducing the beginning before Peter Pan was around. So we wanted to be honest and true to what we were building on and we wanted to continue that forward and make everybody happy with what we were doing.”

I asked Hendricks about what drew her to the role of Zarina. She said she’d been a fan of the movies even before signing on. “I was just thrilled to be part of Disney and the Tinker Bell series,” she said. “I probably would have played the crocodile if they’d asked me to. But then I got to know her and she was so spunky and so smart and such a great little character. She was really fun to play.”

Disney's "The Pirate Fairy" World Premiere
(L-R) Director Peggy Holmes, Tinker Bell, voice actors Mae Whitman (Tinker Bell), Christina Hendricks (Zarina), Pamela Adlon (Vidia), and producer Jenni Magee-Cook. Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney.

Hendricks also appreciated that the film is empowering to young girls in particular. “The movie is about knowing who you are and being proud of who you are and not trying to be something you aren’t. It’s about knowing yourself and developing that talent of yours as best you can.”

The Pirate Fairy is available on DVD and Blu-ray beginning today, April 1.

Go On an Adventure With Tad, The Lost Explorer

Image: Tadeojones.com

Every so often while browsing Netflix/Amazon/the internet, in search of something to provide respite from Daniel Tiger, The Octonauts, and anything Disney, we come across a gem. Admittedly, the foray into my own childhood did not prove fruitful, nor that of my husband’s. The Flumps is not as entertaining as it was in the early 80s, while The Super Mario Brothers Super Show is a touch too far on the stereotyping side of things.

But we recently discovered an animated film from Mexico, translated into English, that was not what we expected.

Tad, The Lost Explorer, or Las aventuras de Tadeo Jones, exceeded our expectations. Tad Jones is a Chicago construction worker with fantasies of being Indiana Jones, or more to the point Max Morden, his archeological hero. He is friends with a professor at the local museum, and while helping the professor get to the airport for a journey to Peru, ends up taking his place. Tad is, of course, mistaken for a professor himself and the story follows the basic formula of mistaken identity. The girl falls in love with the real guy, ditches the phony guy, our hero accidentally succeeds where he should consistently fail, etc. There are lots of misdirects as the good guys attempt to find the treasure and keep the bad guys far away.

But it works; it really works. There are great human characters and great animal roles, especially in the ever-knowing bird. There are no songs, too, which for a nation reeling from the collective rendition of “Let it Go,” is high praise. We watched it over several days, and I was reluctant to let the boys watch without me in the room. I was as into it as they were.

The American version has a few recognizable voices in it. The female lead, Sara Lavroff, is voiced by Modern Family‘s Ariel Winter, while Cheech Marin lends his comic abilities as the tour guide/street vendor/inventor on the road. For the American rendering, the two main bad guys are given a German accent and a British accent, of course. But it is only the translated voices that really harp on the stereotypes.

The movie came out in 2013, but I had not heard of it until random chance on a bored afternoon. It doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page and only the original version is referenced on IMDB.com. Yet, the movie became the highest-grossing Spanish animated feature of all time, when it snagged $24 million at the box office and the short movie on which this full length feature is based, Tadeo Jones and the Basement of Doom, won the Spanish Oscar (the Goya) for Best Animated Short in 2007.

It is definitely worth your time. Check out the the trailer below.

Frozen Turns Blu, But Is It Worth Buying?

image courtesy of Disney Animation Studios
Box art courtesy of Walt Disney Home Entertainment.

Since I became a parent, my views on Blu-ray releases have changed a bit. I used to base my home-video purchases on the bonus material as much as the film itself. If a new release I really wanted had a paltry offering of extras, I might wait for what I figured was the inevitable special edition (and I was often right). But my kids are too young to really appreciate making-of featurettes, audio commentary, or even art galleries. For them, it’s about bringing home the movie they saw and loved in the theater and watching it over and over (and over) again. We don’t go out to the movies very often, so our living room is where they consume most of their filmed entertainment, and repetition is still a big thing at their age. So I guess I’m starting to see the merit in owning a movie for its own sake.

For this reason, the comparatively small amount of bonus features on the Frozen Blu-ray isn’t as much of a disappointment as it might have been a few years ago. We’ve had the combo pack for a couple of weeks now and I don’t think we’ve gone more than a day or two without watching at least some of it. They love acting out the scenes and musical numbers with their Anna and Elsa dolls as they flash by on our television screen. I imagine there will come a day when they’ll get tired of it and move on to something else, but I don’t see that day coming any time soon.

I can’t help but wonder, though, why Disney didn’t put more of an effort into this release. The cynical side of me can see the business sense in holding back some materials this time around. Frozen is so huge they could have released it without a single extra and people still would have bought it (I would have). Sure, there would’ve been some grumbling as we handed over our cash, but it would have ended up in Disney’s hands all the same. Maybe we ought to be grateful that there are any extras on this at all. So why do I still feel at best annoyed and at worst disrespected by the studio that put out one of my favorite films of the last year? Perhaps this is part of a larger discussion about how Disney consistently takes its fans for granted. I’m not even going to get into the major issues I have with retail exclusives (Target and Best Buy each offer exclusive bonus discs with additional content like deleted scenes and featurettes). But I digress.

Frozen display at the entrance to Disney’s Feature Animation building. Photo by Cindy White.

I realize that all of this is starting to sound rather harsh. I should say that I did enjoy most of the extras that were included on the disc. I’ve had the “Making of Frozen” song, written by Frozen‘s songwriters Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, stuck in my head for days at a time. The big production number starring Josh Gad (Olaf), Jonathan Groff (Kristoff), and Kristen Bell (Anna) is pretty great and it’s turned out to be the exception to the rule for my kids when it comes to watching bonus features. They love it for the music and dancing, while I love the mini tour of Disney’s famed Feature Animation building and the cameos by the actual production team. The promise in the lyrics to “give you that inside look” is never quite fulfilled, but it’s really fun anyway.

You also get “D’Frosted: Disney’s Journey From Hans Christian Andersen to Frozen,” which attempts to cover 70 years of development history in just seven minutes, and “Get a Horse!”, the clever Mickey Mouse short that ran before the film in theaters. There are four deleted scenes on the standard release (plus an additional one on the Target bonus disc), with introductions by directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck. Curiously, none of them include the clip from the commercials where Anna says, “That’s no blizzard, that’s my sister!” I don’t remember that moment in the final film, but based on the brief glimpse we got in the ads, the scene was much further along in the animation process than any of the rough sketches presented here. Finally, I’m not a huge fan of music videos, nor of Demi Lovato’s version of “Let it Go,” but that’s included here too, along with three other versions of the song in Spanish, Italian, and Malaysian.

As for the movie itself, it looks predictably gorgeous on Blu-ray. Audiophiles will appreciate the inclusion of a 7.1 DTS-HD surround track to really get that theatrical experience, though my home setup isn’t sophisticated enough to test it out. It’s not so much about thumping bass in the LFE channel or crystal-clear treble in our house these days. With two little girls belting out “Let it Go” at the top of their lungs, you can’t really make out anything else anyway.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Frozen‘s Art of Tech: Do You Want to Build an Olaf?

Image courtesy of Disney.

I think one of the reasons that Frozen has become such a massive hit is that you can enjoy it on more than one level. I’ve previously written about the story and the characters, but it’s also such a delight to look at. There is a feeling of an artistic hand at work in every frame, from the architecture to the costumes to the decorative rosemaling on the textiles and scenery. It may not be something you think much about when you’re watching the film, but all of that luscious detail came from somewhere, and it took a team of hundreds to pull it off so flawlessly. These designers, artists, animators, programmers, technical supervisors, and engineers may not get to stand up on the stage at the Oscars and you won’t see their names on billboards, but they each contributed their own little bit of magic to the film.

I got to meet a few of these unsung heroes during a recent press event organized by the studio to promote Frozen‘s upcoming release on home video. Like any geek, I’m always curious about how things are made and the technology used to make them, so I was excited to get a first-hand look at the animation operation and have a chance to play around with the tools used to create the characters.

Our first stop of the day was at the rigging lab. A rig is what gives the characters the ability to move in a realistic way. Just like people, animated characters need to have a skeletal framework underneath layers of muscles and skin. The technical animation team is responsible for building those elements and also the means to control them, so the animators can make the characters do anything the directors need them to do. Sometimes, especially in the cast of a sophisticated project like this, they may also need to create entirely new software packages to handle things like hair, fabric, or snow.

Frozen Rig Lab
Photo by Cindy White.

Three members of the team were on hand to give us a quick overview of their work on the film. Frank Hanner, character CG supervisor, kicked things off; followed by Keith Wilson, character simulation supervisor; and Greg Smith, character rigging supervisor. Here are some of the astounding facts they shared:

  • There were 312 character rigs built for the film, including background characters. That’s the most of any film in Disney history.
  • They built 245 cloth rigs for the film, meaning there are 245 unique simulated costumes on-screen.
  • Elsa has 420,000 hairs on her head. That’s 320,000 more than the average human (we only have about 100,000 hairs) and 391,000 more than Disney’s previous record holder for luscious locks, Rapunzel, who had a mere 29,000 or so.
  • Anna’s intro dress has exactly 12 box pleats in the skirt. Art Director Mike Giaimo was very specific about the number and type of pleats her costume would have.

Before allowing us to try our hands at being Disney animators ourselves, Greg Smith talked a little about creating one of the film’s most popular (and challenging) characters, Olaf the snowman:

“Olaf was a really fun character in the movie and we had a really fun time with him on the show. In the rigging department, we always like challenges with characters. What’s going to be interesting about this character? How do we make him move? How do we provide that control set to animation to really allow them to explore what needs to happen? And Olaf was one of those characters for us. And when we started this we thought, ‘Okay, they’ll move him a little bit.’ And then we saw the teaser and we were like, ‘Okay, wow, you guys went a little further.'”

Each of us was assigned a workstation where we could manipulate Olaf using the 3D modeling program Maya. It took some getting used to, but I was able to move him into a jaunty pose, one hand on his hip, the other behind his head, hips jutting out slightly to the side. The controls for his mouth were incredibly sophisticated, so I had to play around with it before I could get just the right smirk rather than a scary, buck-toothed grin. I won’t be sitting by the phone waiting for Disney to call me to join their animation team, but I sure enjoyed getting a look at how they work.

Another call I probably won’t be getting anytime soon is for voiceover work. And here’s the reason why:

The above clip has me singing the beginning of “In Summer” and totally screwing up the intro timing. With a booth full of other bloggers, a publicist and a professional sound engineer (not to mention the pressure of recording in the very booth where Josh Gad recorded the very same scene), I couldn’t keep a straight face. You can hear me breaking in the middle of that last note. It may not have been professional quality, but it sure was a lot of fun.

So, yeah, my Olaf turned out to look a bit more like a burlesque dancer who sings in an off-key female voice, but I’m kind of fond of him. I guess the actual movie version is okay, too.

Frozen is currently available for digital download and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday, March 18.

Frozen Directors on How “Let It Go” Changed the Film and More

"FROZEN" (Pictured) ELSA. ©2013 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
Image courtesy of Disney.

Back in September of last year, I attended an early press day at Disney Studios for its upcoming animated feature, Frozen. When I spoke with the directors, I hadn’t yet seen the film in its entirety. Although I had a sense it would be a success, no one could have predicted just how big it would be.

Frozen has now won two Academy Awards—for best animated feature and best original song—and crossed the billion-dollar mark at the box office, making it the top-grossing original animated film of all time (only the sequel Toy Story 3 has earned more). Stores can’t keep the merchandise on shelves, the soundtrack album was the first to hit number one on the Billboard 200 chart since Titanic, YouTube is filled with cover versions of “Let It Go,” and thanks to John Travolta’s now infamous mangling of her name on the Oscars telecast, Adele Dazeem, er, Idina Menzel, ironically has more name recognition than ever. It seems that the early feminist criticism I argued against in November didn’t have much of an effect after all.

With the home-video release approaching, I had another chance to speak to directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (who also served as co-writer and is the first woman to have a directing credit on a Disney animated feature) during a two-day blogger event organized by the studio to promote the DVD and Blu-ray. Having seen the film this time, I had all sorts of burning new questions for them, so I jumped right in and asked about that remarkable ending. I should warn you now that from this point on there will be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Frozen and don’t want to know any details of the plot, including the ending, you might want to come back and read the rest of this later.

Frozen Filmmakers
Directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck. Image courtesy of Disney.

I wondered if Buck and Lee had taken into account Disney’s rich animation legacy and the modern criticisms of it when they were developing Frozen. I asked them how that played into the story, especially Anna’s climactic act of true love for her sister, something the studio has never done before in an animated film.

“We started realizing in developing it why you had never seen it before,” Lee said. “Because it was a really hard thing to earn, and I mean that emotionally. So that when you get to that moment, it’s surprising, inevitable, and satisfying, and you’re emotionally there. It was amazing in the story process how much if you just lean too heavily one way or the other on the romantic story or the sister story it would fall apart. So I think so much of our development—for a year at least, 14 months straight—was the constant reworking and rebuilding and stripping away and starting anew, just to get to that moment. So I think that that’s why we talk about it a lot, as that was True North the whole time.”

“The idea was, how can we sort of redefine true love?” Buck explained. “What does true love mean? What have we done in the past here at the studio and how can we do something a little bit different? So everybody was on board with that idea—and it just kind of built from there.”

In the finished film, the ending works because of the depth of the love between Anna and Elsa, but that wasn’t always the case. In early versions of the story, the characters weren’t even sisters and until very late in the development process, Elsa was the villain of the piece. In the original source material, Hans Christian Andersen’s folk tale The Snow Queen, the title character is indeed a much darker figure. Lee said they hung on to that concept for so long because they loved the idea of creating an iconic Disney villain. It wasn’t until they heard a demo version of a little song called “Let It Go,” by husband and wife songwriting team Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, that the Elsa we now know and love started coming into focus.

Frozen Elsa
Image courtesy of Disney.

“We were struggling with how villainous should she be,” Buck said. “And Bobby and Kristen, they were on the journey with us, so we were all struggling together. And they came up with this song. We talked a lot about it and loved the demo. When we first heard the demo we went, ‘Wow.’ And it was Kristen Lopez singing it. She’s got a great voice. So she gave a lot of power to it, a lot of emotion. And then Jen got to rewrite.”

“The whole movie!” Lee finished with a laugh. “It was an important moment because we could feel the tug of war. What I love about animation is it’s very collaborative. But the challenge is, it’s very collaborative. There were a lot of ideas about the [character of the] snow queen for a year or two of development, and she was the villain. And then there was a new idea of moving away from that. And so you had a tug of war. It’s very important in all storytelling or in any film, you have to be able to prove your point. If you want her to not be villainous, you have to show us why we should want that if we always thought we were going in a different direction. And ‘Let It Go’ was that. It was the day when we showed everyone ‘Let It Go’ we were able to say, ‘This is the potential.'”

The songwriters contributed to the story in other ways, too. Lee recalled that Bobby Lopez was the first one to see the potential when she first suggested that Olaf the snowman could dream about seeing summer.

“I love when a character wants the opposite of what is right for them,” she said. “It’s just a fun thing. And it was just a funny idea to me. I was like, ‘What if he wants summer?’ And a lot of people were like, ‘Oh my god, that’s suicidal! No!’ And then Bobby Lopez went, ‘I think I can get behind that.’ So they wrote [the song ‘In Summer’]. And I think why it works for us is because it’s the only song where we stop and have fun. But if you look at it, it really says everything about innocence. It’s the impossible dream. And there’s something about it, that’s what childhood is. And every now and then, that dream comes true. So I think that’s why it ended up really working and not coming off so mean and sick.”

Frozen Anna, Olaf, and Kristoff
Image courtesy of Disney.

We got a bit of background on Olaf’s origins as well. Initially, he was part of a whole army of snowmen built by Elsa, only one of which remains in the finished film. Buck described him as “the first pancake,” as in the one you throw away. But when they hit upon the idea that young Anna and Elsa first built him when playing together as children, he became something much more.

“In ‘Let It Go,’ the first thing she does is the last thing they did, in terms of the last time she was happy,” Lee said. “Like, they built this snowman, not magical, but together—and that was her happiest moment with Anna. And then everything went bad. So when she starts ‘Let It Go,’ she goes right back to the last moment she was happy. And it was Olaf. So to us, he’s imbued with the magic of innocent love, of love that’s pure, that’s undamaged and unhurt by life.”

The subject of love came up in our conversation a lot, but it’s only half of the film’s overarching theme. When the filmmakers finally hit on the idea that Anna would represent love and all the good and bad that goes along with it, and that Elsa would represent fear, everything really fell into place.

“Fear becomes the enemy of the film,” Lee said. “That’s when we all just, I think we just knew. We felt it. We’re like, ‘Now we have what we’ve been looking for.'”

Look for Frozen now on digital download and on DVD and Blu-ray beginning March 15.

Interview: Floyd Norman, Disney Legend and Jungle Book Veteran

Floyd Norman, we want to be just like you. (Image Floyd Norman)

Recently, I had the extraordinary experience of speaking about animation with someone who worked at the Disney Studios while Mary Poppins was in production in the mid-60s. Floyd Norman, a Disney Legend animator and story artist who also worked at Pixar Animation Studios, started at Walt Disney Studios in 1956 and was the first black animator hired at the studio.

We can thank him for contributions to films from several studios, such as Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Mulan, Dinosaur, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, plus the TV special, “Hey! Hey! Hey! It’s Fat Albert.” He’s also the author of several books, including a memoir of his time in animation, titled Animated Life: A lifetime of tips, tricks, techniques and stories from an animated legend, which I summarized Between the Bookends.

Although my family didn’t see many movies when I was small, except for an occasional drive-in, I remember total enchantment when I saw Bambi as a birthday outing, and I have loved Mary Poppins all the decades since I first saw it. I was thrilled to talk to someone who had their fingers in so many entertainment pies from my childhood. Similarly, my own children loved The Jungle Book and we have re-watched it many times since their first viewing—which should really be called a wiggle or a bop or a shimmy, since the music induces so much movement. I couldn’t wait to hear what Floyd had to say.

Floyd at his Disney desk in the 50s. (Photo Floyd Norman)

GeekMom: Floyd, it’s an honor to visit with someone so wise in the ways of animation, with a career spanning more than 50 years. Do you think that a film like The Jungle Book has something special to offer today’s kids that they don’t get from modern animated films?

Floyd Norman: Animation is timeless, that is one of its great characteristics—when modern kids see The Jungle Book for the first time, they don’t know or care that it is from 1967. They think it’s modern. A good story is a good story, a good gag is a good gag. We were helped by the music from the Sherman brothers, which held up for today’s listeners.

GM: Does modern animation and all the media available to kids today put The Jungle Book at a disadvantage with modern viewers?

FN: No! Quite the contrary! More attention is paid to such films, there’s more animation today.

That works out to a win-win situation… when people get interested in any animation, all animation benefits. And animation as a skill and art gets more respect now. Back in the day, it was a metaphorical step-child, sitting at the kids’ table. There is lots more money in animation now, although I wouldn’t say it is more fun than in the hand-drawn days. Back then, an animator could be well-known for his style and work; now, in the days of CGI, it is a commodity and individuals are cogs.

There is nothing now like Disney’s Nine Old Men. It is less personal and more anonymous, even though it still takes a tremendous amount of skill. In the old days, a film like The Jungle Book needed about a dozen animators, and in the modern process, it takes two or three times that number, or more if several companies are involved.

GM: I have vivid imaginings of the scene you describe in your book, Animated Life, of the recording session when the jazz great Louis Prima showed up to record “Just Like You“:

…the Vegas showman couldn’t stand still. He was really into being King Louie. With all that energy being expended, the band couldn’t help but join in. Of course, you’ll never hear this music. Prima’s voice was isolated on a separate track… The final tracks you hear on the movie’s soundtrack have been toned down. And, I mean way, way down. Louis Prima at full tilt was more than Disney moviegoers of the 1960s would have been able to handle.

So, what is your favorite memory or association with The Jungle Book?

FN: Definitely it is being in the same room with Walt Disney. Since he focused his attention on story, he was at every story meeting. On the story team, I got to hear critiques and have opportunities to learn from the Old Master. The Jungle Book was his last film animation before his death. After that, the studio went through a big transition; Walt had made all the big decisions himself and did not name any successors. The studio floundered for several years.

GM: There’s been a lot of hub-bub on the internet about animated films and the portrayal of diversity. What do you have to say about it?

FN: Films generally reflect common culture, whether at Disney or at other studios. There were generally changes in the 70s. Studios started to think about their reputations, both on and off the screen. At Disney they called me in and wondered why there were no [minority or African-American] applicants, and I had to tell them that mostly, none of them even thought to apply at Disney. Still, with so many people saying that Walt Disney was conservative, when it came to offering people opportunities, he was progressive.

GM: At my house we are big Mary Poppins fans, and liked Saving Mr. Banks as well, about the history behind Mary Poppins. Did you see it?

FN: Yes—I was at the premiere, on the Disney lot where Mary Poppins was shot. I talked to some of the same people at that premiere that I talked to during production of Mary Poppins—Julie Andrews, Dick van Dyke, and Richard Sherman, among others. There was a wonderful sense of being part of it back then and again at the premiere. What a pleasure! What a triumph for Walt Disney!

GM: We showed Mary Poppins to adult visitors from mainland China several years ago, and we couldn’t pull them away. They loved it, especially the dancing penguins. Diplomacy from a palette. 

FN: Yes, Walt really meant it when he told Mrs. Travers [author of Mary Poppins], “Every time a person walks into a movie house, they will rejoice.”

GM: Do you have favorite recent animated films you’d like to recommend?

FN: I got to attend an open house and screening for Frozen, and was impressed by the film, and its director and writer, a talented young woman named Jennifer Lee. Kids are still doing great work, regardless of whether it’s CGI or hand-drawn or something else.

GM: Thank you for talking with GeekMom and for the contributions you’ve made to so many films that my family and so many others have enjoyed.

If you’d like to spend more time with Floyd Norman and his animation and writing accomplishments, here are more opportunities to visit:

 – Between the Bookends: Animated Life

The official, informative and pointless blog of Floyd Norman

Floyd Norman page at Amazon

Floyd Norman Special Feature at afrokids.com

Diamond Edition Jungle Book on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital from Disney.com


Join Us (Virtually) for a Frozen and The Pirate Fairy Event

Photo courtesy Disney

The folks at Disney Home Entertainment have organized a two-day press event to publicize some of their big upcoming home video releases and GeekMom is on the guest list. The good news for you, dear readers, is we will be bringing you all the interviews, tidbits, and information from the event as if you were right there beside us.

The tour kicks off next Tuesday, February 11, and begins with a behind-the-scenes look at Disney’s latest animated feature, Frozen. The Oscar-nominated hit is due for release on DVD and Blu-ray on February 25. Extras will include making-of featurettes, music videos, deleted scenes, and the original Mickey Mouse short “Get a Horse,” which is currently running before the feature in theaters.

Image courtesy of Disney Animation Studios
Official box art courtesy Disney

We’ll be talking with filmmakers Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, as well as producer Peter Del Vecho. We’ll also get a technical demonstration from character supervisor Gregory Smith and watch a voice-over recording session with audio engineer Gabe Guy.

On Wednesday, February 12, we’ll travel to DisneyToon Studios to get a preview of the next film in the Disney Fairies series, The Pirate Fairy. This direct-to-video movie features the voice of Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) as a renegade fairy named Zarina who leaves Pixie Hollow and joins a band of pirates. Thor‘s Tom Hiddleston also stars as James, a cabin boy destined to become a Neverland legend. Tinker Bell (Mae Whitman) and her fairy friends are along for the ride as well, of course.

Here there be fairies, mateys

We’ll get to talk about the new movie and the creation of the lead character with director Peggy Holmes (who also helmed the last installment, Secret of the Wings) and producer Jennifer Magee-Cook. The Pirate Fairy will be available on DVD and Blu-ray combo pack beginning April 1.

If you have questions for any of the talent mentioned above, be sure to let us know and we’ll pass them along!

Set sail with Zarina and James

P.S. There’s also a third title included in the event, but we’re not allowed to mention it until the release date is announced. As soon as we can share that too, we’ll let you know. Stay tuned for all the home video news that fit to blog about!

GeekMom Video Playlist

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 10.13.41 PM
Image By The Slow Mo Guys.

Take a break, sit back, and enjoy some videos.
Crazy photoshopping, and a sky all aglow.
Liquids that don’t stick.
A kitten video pick.
Star Trek parody, and how imagination grows.

Let’s start with something gorgeous. This month, there was a slight chance I could have seen the northern lights with my own eyes in upstate New York. My family and I trekked out around midnight, drove out of the city and waited, watching the sky…nothing. Someday I will see them. For anyone who marvels at the night sky, the movement of clouds, the allure of northern lights, enjoy this:

Superhydrophobic Surface and Magnetic Liquid! Impress your friends with a new vocabulary science word. I’ve never heard of The Slow Mo Guys before this video. Cool stuff.

Many of you have probably seen the Dove video, where a nice-looking girl is made up and photoshopped to look like a fantasy model. Here is a musical artist singing her (very cool) song, while being photoshopped in real-time.

And this just cracked me up: A kitten trying to stalk an iguana’s tail. I don’t watch every kitten video. Really. This one is funny.

And what would this playlist be without a Star Trek musical parody? This one is to a song from Frozen.

Finally, I’ll end with some sweet animation. Did you ever wonder where imaginary friends came from?

How to Be a Super Frozen Mom

super mom frozen logo
Welcome to How To Be A Super ____ Mom! From crafts and recipes to fun toys and adventures, here are ways to take your child’s fandom and make it even more fun!

The biggest hit at the movies right now is Disney’s Frozen! I’m not just talking box office numbers here. The fandom obsession has taken off with fans creating cosplay, food, and crafts all devoted to the film’s characters! We at GeekMom called it by showing the very first homemade Anna cosplay back in August at D23, before the film’s release!

With people seeing the movie multiple times in the theater, fan creativity has been amazing and continues to grow everyday. Get inspired to “Let It Go” and showcase your own Frozen fandom!

disney frozen costumes etsy
Image by: Lady Herndon.

1. Frozen Costumes by Lady Herndon on etsy.
While many fans love to create their own variations of cosplay, not everyone has the sewing skills to pull it off. That’s where talented fans like Lady Herndon come in. The Lady Herndon Etsy shop is filled with beautifully created kids’ cosplay items with a definite geeky spin. The attention to detail is stunning, from seemingly screen replica material to perfectly placed trim.

Her Anna dress is perfection and a lot of that has to do with the adorable model, too! Check out Lady Herndon’s Etsy shop for even more geeky kids cosplay. I mean, how can you resist a Princess Bride Dread Pirate Roberts costume for a 6-year-old?!

disney frozen gloves
Image by: JInxNSparkyCrafts.

2. Frozen Anna and Elsa-Inspired Fingerless Gloves by JinxNSparkyCrafts on etsy.
Don’t want to fully commit to an entire cosplay outfit? No problem! One of the best ways to show fandom is through everyday cosplay! Little accessories here and there will be special just to you, but can also be noticed by eagle-eyed fans as well.

JinxNSparkyCrafts’ etsy shop makes these adorable Frozen-inspired fingerless gloves. There’s no doubt that they are an ode to Anna and Elsa and a great way to keep warm and stay functional!

elsa braid
Image by: @amy_geek.

3. Frozen-inspired Elsa braid.
Frozen fans aren’t just obsessed with the costuming, but also with the hairstyles of the two leading ladies. Hair is a major part of cosplay and getting it just right can equal costume perfection!

Hairstyles are another way to incorporate everyday cosplay into your life. Amy Ratcliffe tried her hand at creating the perfect Elsa braid with much success! She used a YouTube hair video from Rotoscopers to help her visualize how to get it just right. Following a tutorial and a little patience can really pay off!

frozen mickey ears
Image by: LunaLaLonde.

4. Frozen Mickey Ears.
What I love about fandom is the creativity that a movie or show can inspire. LunaLaLonde’s tumblr shows her love of Disney and Frozen—and she took it to the next level by creating these fun Frozen Mickey Ears! It’s the perfect mash-up!

Follow along on her tumblr and you can see her sketches, crafts, and even her etsy shop.

disney frozen snowflakes

disney frozen maze
Images and files provided by Disney.

5. Disney’s free Frozen printables.
Disney does a great job at providing materials to grow fan interest. Free Frozen printables like coloring pages and mazes are great activities to keep little ones busy and entertained!

The Simpsons Pay Tribute to Miyazaki

Two animated universes will collide on the small screen this Sunday, January 12, in a new episode of The Simpsons. Fox has released a sneak peek of a scene that honors the films of anime master Hayao Miyazaki. The Studio Ghibli founder recently announced his retirement from filmmaking; his upcoming release The Wind Rises will be his last, he says. See how many references you can spot in the clip above.

For those playing at home, there were nods to Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle (and possibly even more we didn’t catch).

The episode, which is titled “Married to the Blob,” features a romance between Comic Book Guy and a manga creator named Kumiko. As if we didn’t already have enough reason to watch, it also boasts guest stars Harlan Ellison and Stan Lee as themselves.

Why the Feminist Controversy Over Frozen Misses the Point

Frozen's Anna and Elsa
© Disney

I’ve seen a lot of criticism from feminists in many corners of the web and social media leading up to the release of Frozen. Their gripes range from a knee-jerk aversion to Disney’s princess culture in general to the liberties taken with the source material—Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen—to outrage when the studio’s animation supervisor was quoted as saying that animating female characters is hard because you have to make them “pretty.”

I resisted the temptation to comment until now since I hadn’t yet seen the film, and though the early footage and previews seemed to discount these charges as wildly reactionary and having little to do with the actual product itself, I wanted to be sure I hadn’t been taken in by my own anticipation and the formidable powers of Disney’s PR machine.

Now that I have seen it, I believe it’s even more important to confront these accusations head on, because not only are they way off base, they distract from the film’s true message and may actually be detrimental to the promotion of feminism in Hollywood. I believe this because Frozen may just be the most feminist animated film Disney has ever produced. Anyone who supports the depiction of strong, independent women in the media, not to mention the positive representation of sororal bonds, ought to be championing it, not organizing a boycott.

It’s true that Disney has a princess dilemma. The consumer product driven phenomenon is extremely popular and lucrative, yet its detractors are becoming increasingly vocal and demanding of better role models. (I’ve personally tried to stem the tide of princess culture in our house, and I’m here to tell you it’s a constant struggle.) Disney’s response to the backlash has been mixed. At the same time the studio is promoting the resurgence of The Little Mermaid, with its archaic message of “change yourself for your man,” we also get a film like Brave, which actively avoids those tropes and features a princess who dreams of independence rather than the love of a prince. And then that progress was undermined with the infamous slimmed-down, glammed-up redesign of Merida. Even Tangled, with its capable, headstrong version of Rapunzel, left the final heroic act to her leading man. Knowing the studio’s history, you could be forgiven for expecting Frozen to follow suit. But it doesn’t. Instead, it cleverly tweaks the formula, all the while acknowledging that it is a formula.

Frozen directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck. © Disney

Without going into too many spoilers, let’s just say that Frozen‘s climax does not involve a man coming to the rescue of a starry-eyed princess. The princesses at the center of this story—sisters Elsa and Anna—are defined by their unique upbringing and estranged relationship to one another, not by the men in their lives. They are fully fleshed out characters with a wide spectrum of human qualities including love, fear, loneliness, anger, frustration, bravery, and vulnerability. What drives the film is Anna’s longing to connect with her sister and Elsa’s struggle to protect Anna by keeping her distance. The stakes couldn’t be higher for them. Romantic love is an aside, a subplot; the men are supporting players in this love story between two sisters. I have no problem with them being role models for my daughters.

That said, there’s no getting around the fact that those who were hoping for an animated adaptation of The Snow Queen are going to be disappointed. There is a legitimate conversation to be had over what happened between the page and the screen and whether Disney should even mention the connection to the book in the credits. That’s not what I’m talking about, though.

Let’s dispense with the notion that the finished film is anything other than an original work influenced by, not based on, Andersen’s story. Rather than focusing on what it doesn’t do or doesn’t have, look at what it does do (promote positive female role models and relationships) and does have (fascinating, three-dimensional characters). Frozen doesn’t purport to be a faithful adaptation. In case that wasn’t already obvious, the different title should make it crystal clear. (And yet those same critics have complained about the title change too.) As Elsa sings in her defiant anthem, let it go.

"FROZEN" (Pictured) ELSA. ©2013 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
Elsa has some good advice for critics. © Disney

Finally, we come to the whole “pretty” controversy. Let’s take a look at the actual quote from Disney animation supervisor Lino DiSalvo, as reported by Fan Voice (I’d link to the article, but it is no longer available on the site):

Historically speaking, animating female characters are [sic] really, really difficult, ’cause they have to go through these range of emotions, but they’re very, very… you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to… you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna being angry.

A few things about that quote spring to mind. First off, I was at the same press event where this quote was given, although I was in a different group so I didn’t hear DiSalvo say it (the studio divided everyone into groups and rotated us through the various departments). When it was our turn to interview him and two of the lead animators who worked on the film (one of them a woman), DiSalvo spoke about the extensive research that goes into creating each character, how they brought in the actors and acting coaches and discussed at length where the characters were coming from and going to. He made it clear that the inner lives of these characters were just as important as how they looked.

“The ultimate goal at the end of the day was, is always, obviously, honest, truthful, believable performances,” DiSalvo told my group. “And once we kind of got our hands on the script and we realized how well-written and how weighty the characters were and how rich the depth of them [was], we knew that we had to elevate our game.”

Later, he talked about what he called “shape language” and how the animators strove to make each character unique to any other Disney character. There wasn’t any distinction between the degree of difficulty in drawing females or males, he lumped them all together.

“If she was mad or sad or excited or angry—from everything that we learned with the acting coach and the actors coming in and doing our homework—how does that funnel into the actual shape language of the characters?” he said. “And the idea is that when the characters are in a scene together, if you have two characters sharing an angry scene or if there’s a sad emotion involved, that each character still has their own sad shape.”

He also mentioned in our interview that there were as many as 70 animators working on the film at one time. When you have that many artists, each with his or her own style, it can be a difficult task to keep the characters consistent through a wide range of actions and emotions. That’s why they create model sheets like the one below.

Character designs for Frozen's Elsa
Elsa shows a range of emotions. © Disney

If you were predisposed to be offended, you could take these comments to mean that Disney as a company is overly concerned with the attractiveness of its heroines. I don’t think that’s what he was saying at all. I interpret his use of the word pretty to mean “on model,” in other words, keeping the character looking like the original character design. In that context it becomes an entirely innocuous quote. Of course, that’s not the kind of statement that goes viral now, is it?

In response to the heat this quote generated, a spokesman for Disney later told The Wrap:

These comments were recklessly taken out of context. As part of a roundtable discussion, the animator was describing some technical aspects of CG animation and not making a general comment on animating females versus males or other characters.

I have one last thing to say about this, and then we can all move on with our lives. When we get incensed that Disney princesses are too pretty or too white or look too much like the last Disney princess, aren’t we really saying that aesthetics are more worthy of concern than any other aspect of a character? Doesn’t it matter more how they are written and depicted within the context of the story? To focus solely on appearance without considering what’s beneath the polished exterior isn’t just shallow, it’s hypocritical. Anna and Elsa are so much more than pretty faces.

I would urge those who read some of the same feisty reactions I did to keep an open mind about Frozen. I waited until I saw the movie to see if the complaints were legitimate, but you don’t have to take my word for it. See it for yourself when it opens Thanksgiving weekend and draw (see what I did there?) your own conclusions.

Mickey Mouse in 3D: How “Get a Horse” Gets It Right

1928 or 2013? (Courtesy Walt Disney Animation Studios)

Let’s get this out of the way up front: I’m not a fan of 3D movies. I think they’re a scourge, a nuisance, a gimmicky money grab that’s rarely worth the extra expense. Given the choice, I’d almost always rather see a film in plain old 2D, and I’ve never walked out of a theater regretting that decision. I want to firmly establish this point so when I say that Disney’s new 3D Mickey Mouse short “Get a Horse” is a brilliant, genuine visual treat you will understand it’s not an opinion I came to lightly. When I say it’s the best narrative use of 3D I’ve ever seen, know that’s not just effervescent hype. This is the real deal.

“Get a Horse” will be a little bonus gift for audiences who see the new animated feature Frozen in theaters beginning November 27. Audiences at the 3D showings will also get the short in 3D, the best way to experience it, in my opinion (I’ve had the privilege of screening it twice now, both times in 3D). I’m sure the charm of it will still come across in two dimensions, but without the full 3D effect you’re missing out on something truly special. And I never thought I’d say that about any 3D film.

I should advise you at this point that there are some delightful surprises in “Get a Horse” that may be spoiled in the remainder of this article. If you want to go in without knowing anything about it, come back and read the rest of this after you’ve seen it. If you’re like me and don’t mind knowing every last detail going in, by all means read on.

Continuing the metaphor above, this little bonus gift comes wrapped in many layers. The first is a painstakingly faithful recreation of an original 1928 Mickey Mouse cartoon. Although it may look authentically vintage, there is no lost or restored footage in “Get a Horse,” as you may have been led to believe if you’ve seen any of the studio’s coy publicity for it. Every frame is brand new. The only element taken from the archives is the voice of Walt Disney himself as Mickey, pieced together from different sources to match the needs of the script.

Even the poster looks vintage. (Courtesy Walt Disney Animation Studios)

Director Laura MacMullan (the first woman to have a solo directing credit on an animated Disney film) and her team went to great lengths in production to emulate the rubbery, free-form style of famed artist Ub Iwerks, one of Disney’s early collaborators and the co-creator of Mickey Mouse. At a recent press screening, MacMullan explained that as far as technology has come, we still don’t have the ability to effectively mimic the fluid quality of those early black-and-white cartoons. As she puts it, “They seem to be made of ink and expressiveness and humor.”

To fully capture the look and feel of an authentic 1928 cartoon, all of the 2D animation in the “Get a Horse” was drawn just like they did in the old days, with pencil on paper. Then it was put through an extensive aging process to make it look 85 years old.

“We created a bunch of ways to simulate digital film damage,” MacMullan said. “And this was a matter of adding some gate weave, scratches, and dust. They shot on high contrast film so the blacks start to bloom and the whites kind of blow out in this really nice way. There was emulsion flickers. We discovered at one point that what we thought was happening was that the electrical system in 1928, as they shot each individual cell, the current wasn’t steady. So the lights kind of go up and down. And then we also added stuff like cell shadows and then at the very end we had to go back and carefully add mistakes, because that’s the way they did it. They rushed through it.”

“Get a Horse” marries form and narrative in a way that’s not only innovative, it’s magical. This is where the big reveal comes in and the technology takes over. The story features a hayride gone awry when Pete shows up in an automobile and steals Minnie away from Mickey. At one point during the action, Mickey bursts through the screen into the real world and transforms from a flat, black-and-white drawing into a fully dimensional, colorful figure. At this point, the 3D effectively becomes part of the story. What follows is a wonderfully madcap chase as the characters jump in and out of the screen through what appears to be a tear in the very fabric of space. And the effect is so seamless it’s easy to forget the incredible amount of work it took to achieve it.

To accomplish this tremendous task, the project required close collaboration between the two halves of Disney’s animation studio—2D and CG. Eric Goldberg (co-director of Pocahontas and animation supervisor on The Princess and the Frog) led the 2D team, while Adam Green (an animator on Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph) was responsible for the CG aspects. Since the majority of the short involved shots with both elements, the two groups each had the opportunity to take the lead in creating portions of the action sequences, sharing shots with each other as much as four times a day. It took 18 months in all to complete the dazzling seven minutes of footage audiences will see on the screen. But there’s so much packed into those seven minutes, you may feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth before the main feature even starts.

“I still can’t believe we got to make this short,” MacMullan said as she finished her presentation. “And I’ll just close by saying people call this the animation industry, but to us it’s an industry of hands and drawings and light and motion. And I’m so happy that we got to make this little engine of joy.”

The Little Mermaid Diamond Edition, Beautifully Restored, Fantastic Bonus Features!

Image: Disney

This Tuesday, October 1st sees the release of The Little Mermaid Diamond Edition on Blu-ray/DVD, giving a whole new generation of kids the chance to experience Ariel’s undersea world. The film features digitally restored audio and video along with a host of bonus features that make this a must-have for Disney fans.

Originally released in theaters back on November 15, 1989, The Little Mermaid is the 28th Walt Disney Studios animated film and kicked off the Disney Animation Renaissance. Ariel, Flounder, and Sebastian stole the hearts of kids and adults alike and they’ve lost none of their charm over the years.

The digitally restored version of the film will let you see and hear The Little Mermaid like never before and it’s an absolute treat to watch with your kids. There are plenty of parents who grew up with this movie, and even if it’s been awhile, the words to those songs are hard to forget and a silly amount of fun to sing.

#TheLittleMermaidEvent Goodie Bag, Image: Nicole Wakelin

There are also a bunch of special bonus features including:

  • Part of Your World music video performed by Carly Rae Jepsen
  • Crab-E-OKE Sing-Along
  • Deleted Character: Harold The Merman
  • Under the Scene: The Art of Live-Action Reference
  • Part of Her World: Jodi Benson’s Voyage to New Fantasyland
  • Howard’s Lecture

Of all the features, Howard’s Lecture was the one that, as a fan of Disney animation, I found most fascinating. It features Howard Ashman giving a casual lecture to the animators about how he sees music and animation coming together to create an amazing viewing experience. To watch him talking so confidently and passionately about his vision is just a joy.

In support of the movie’s release, Disney is also bringing out a new line of consumer products to support the film. It’s not just for kids, either. In addition to adorable plush versions of the characters, costumes, and that red wig, there are shirts, bags, and even make-up for us grown-up fans.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

Return to a world under the sea with Ariel, Flounder, Sebastian, and even evil Ursula with The Little Mermaid Diamond Edition on Blu-ray/DVD this October 1st.

GeekMom received this product for review purposes.

Disney’s Frozen Debuts New Trailer!

The new trailer for the upcoming Disney film Frozen has arrived! I was fortunate enough to get a little behind-the-scenes look at the film when I was in Los Angeles for the premiere of Planes this summer and I can’t wait to see Frozen in theaters.

Frozen tells the story of Anna (Kristen Bell) who is on a quest to save the kingdom from an icy spell of perpetual winter cast by her sister, Elsa, The Snow Queen (Idina Menzel)). Anna has the help of mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer Sven as she travels through the snow-covered world in hopes that she can find Elsa and break her wintry spell.

There’s also an amazing short, Get a Horse!, that you’ll be able to see in front of the movie. Fans of Disney’s older animated works will think they know exactly what they’re about to see, but there’s a bit of a twist to this short that will have you and your kids laughing out loud in the theater.

Keep up with all the latest Frozen news by liking the movie on Facebook and following Disney Animation on Twitter.

Catch Frozen in theaters on November 27th!

Chatting With Jodi Benson, Voice of The Little Mermaid

Jodi Benson, The Little Mermaid, Image: Nicole Wakelin
Jodi Benson, The Little Mermaid, Image: Nicole Wakelin

Jodi Benson has voiced countless characters in video games, television shows, and animated features as well as appearing on Broadway, but she is most well-known for providing the voice of Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I had an opportunity to sit down for a roundtable discussion with Jodi about being Ariel and the impact it has had on her life.

Jodi came from Broadway and was new to voicing animated characters so she had to learn the ropes while she was recording Ariel. She even faced first-day jitters just like anyone starting a new job. “The first two days were just a whirlwind and you have to overcome your nerves because your nerves show through your voice so much. And I just didn’t know what I was doing. I felt embarrassed and completely unqualified. Learning this whole craft was a little hard for me.”

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

She credits her ability to create the voice and character of Ariel to all the incredible people she worked with like Ron Clements, John Musker, and Howard Ashman.

“During our sessions that’s probably the most challenging thing for me, I felt like I was giving it my all and when I was in the studio, and I still do this now, I don’t just say the lines I physically act everything out. That’s just kind of how I work. I would just pour it all out on the line and pour out my heart and Ron and John would push the button and say ‘We’re just not getting it.’ And that’s were Howard was really helpful to try to convey everything that you’re feeling with just your voice.”

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

Yet, from that rocky, nerve-wracked start came one of the most beloved Disney princesses. Jodi knew, even before the movie was a hit, that she was working on something that could last far longer than just those first nervous recording sessions and it was a big concern.

“The realization that this character was possibly going to live forever and to maintain the integrity of it and the responsibility. It’s not a job. It’s not just a character. She’s an icon, a character that’s touched a lot of people’s lives.”

She first voiced Ariel 25 years ago and since then, the character has remained an important part of her life. “Everything that I’ve had…ever since that day, since the movie came out, every job, every concert, business relationship, pretty much everything has happened because of this film. It’s been really life changing.”

Image: Disney
Image: Disney

And although many actors tire of the roles that made them famous and grow weary of being identified as one character among the many they have played, Jodi has no such problems being identified as he little red-headed mermaid.

“This character has definitely changed my life. Some people ask is it limiting or do you feel its been restricting to you or that’s the only way people know you as and I just don’t really see it that way. I just look at it as an incredible blessing.”

You can hear Jodi in her most famous role when The Little Mermaid Diamond Edition arrives on Blu-ray/DVD on October 1st.

Dine and Draw: Teen Titans Go

Dine and DrawEvery night my kids and I sit and draw/craft/create our favorite things. While I’ve lost the older kid to Minecraft, the 7-year-old and I both like to be creative through drawing. Our art sessions are always inspired by our favorite comic books or animated shows. He likes to draw while I come up with corresponding ideas for geeky recipes.

Currently, DC’s Teen Titans Go on Cartoon Network reigns supreme in our house. The witty humor and adorable characters make this show a hit for both of us. My son decided to draw me the characters while I set to work on creating a recipe inspired by the show.

I always suggest getting ready to draw just as you would in an art class:

1Dine and Draw-Set Up
image: justJENN

1. Set Up:

  • Find a clean, flat place to draw.
  • Google Teen Titans Go (parents, screen the images carefully!) and find the characters and poses that you want.
  • Gather your tools: pencil, eraser, black pen, crayons/colored pencils/colored markers
2Dine and Draw-sketch
image: justJENN

2. Sketch:

  • Start with basic shapes and forms.
  • Then sketch out features.
  • Check back and forth with the image for character attributes.
  • Fill in character details.
3Dine and Draw-ink
image: justJENN

3. Ink:

  • Outline the pencil sketch with a black pen.
  • Lightly erase leftover pencil lines.

Note:  Sharpies are great because of their smoothness and varying points but Sign Pens are also good for smaller hands.

4Dine and Draw-color
image: justJENN

 4. Color:

  • Fill in the lines with colored pencils, crayons or pens.

Note: Even though I’ve provided the kids with my top of the line artist tools they still always go back to good ol’ Crayola Crayons. I don’t blame them; they’re comfortable to use and come in a dizzying array of colors now. (Yes, Macaroni and Cheese is a real color.)

Dine and Draw-Teen Titans
image: justJENN

There you have it – all the Titans in a row! Little ones can sometimes get frustrated when it comes to drawing but mistakes happen. You can always start over and try again. That’s why this pencil to ink to color process is a good method to follow. Sketching before the drawing becomes permanent makes life a lot easier.

Beast Boy Veggie Burrito 2
image: justJENN recipes

With inspiration from his drawings, my edible work of art became dinner: Beast Boy Veggie Burritos!

Drawing is an entertaining, creative exercise and your favorite geeky characters make it a fun way to spend time together!