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Progress City Home Theater: The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (2009)

The Disney documentary train rolls on, with this rather remarkable look at Richard and Robert Sherman – longtime staff songwriters at Walt Disney Productions and composers of some of the best known ditties ever. Much like Walt & El Grupo, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story is a family affair. Cousins Gregory V. Sherman and Jeffrey C. Sherman have teamed up to tell the complicated and surprising story of their fathers’ lives, which is far from what even lifelong fans might suspect.

Robert and Richard Sherman

The Film

Bittersweet is a word that tends toward overuse due to a lack of alternatives, but nevertheless if you looked it up in the dictionary you would more than likely find this film.

Any Disney fan word their salt knows the Shermans well; in fact, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find anyone anywhere in America that, even though they don’t know the Sherman name, doesn’t know one of their songs. Their body of work is so vast as to be absolutely absurd, and any collection of their music can only really begin to scratch the surface. The Shermans were the staff songwriters at the Disney studio during its most prolific decade – the 1960s – and in that time they wrote for animation, live-action film, theme parks and pop singles. Their career stretches from Tin Pan Alley standards to 21st century Broadway, and their names and faces have been a familiar and comfortably avuncular presence in Disney circles for fifty years. If the Shermans hadn’t existed, Walt would have had to invent them.

The Progress City Connection: In the studio with Walt, performing There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow

So, after all these years of seeing the brothers pounding away at the keyboard together and crafting countless familiar melodies, it came as a shock to nearly everyone when this film emerged and disclosed a remarkable fact – not only did the brothers lead very different and separate lives, but for the last 40 years they have been almost completely estranged outside of their work.

This is astounding for many reasons, not the least of which is that they managed to successfully hide this fact from the public while remaining fan favorites throughout. Most remarkably, though, is that they managed to keep working together with a high quality of output while having precious little to do with each other. Living only a few blocks apart, their families remained rigidly separated in private and in public, and cousins Gregory and Jeffrey Sherman were only reunited as adults before they made this film.

The reasons for this separation are as complicated as they are vague, and if there’s a flaw in this film it stems from this issue. The brothers were always very different people, living separate lives, but it seems that even then there remained some level of contact between the two young families. Only after an event in the late 1960s, during which elder brother Robert Sherman took a break from the partnership – and, indeed, from his family for a few days – did the two households truly go their separate ways. This is obviously still a very painful subject for the participants – even the usually ebullient Richard Sherman – and we never really find out what actually happened and why it was so significant.

One could argue that this has nothing to do with the real reason we care about the Shermans – their wonderful music – and that any further interest is sheer gossipmongering. Nor is it reasonable to root for the filmmakers to aggressively pry for more painful details from the elderly brothers when they’re visibly upset; I certainly wouldn’t care to do it, and I’m not as close to the situation as the interviewers. But if the issue is to be made a part of the narrative, and it really is a point that the film hinges upon, than it would make sense for viewers to have a better idea of why those events cast such a long shadow.

The brothers, in recent years

As the term bittersweet would indicate, though, the Shermans’ story is far from tragic. Born into a musical family, the two brothers were showmen from an early age. Their father, Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman, was an extremely prolific and successful composer in the early 20th century. At first the brothers seemed destined for different paths; older brother Robert was far more serious and literary, with ambitions to write the great American novel. Younger brother Richard was the first to dabble in the musical realm, and unlike the more reserved Robert he remains a font of constant motion, thought, and activity. As commentator Bruce Gordon points out during the film, the only real analogue to the two could have been if Lennon and McCartney had themselves been brothers.

The film charts the early lives of the two, through youth and beyond as Robert joins the service and witnesses the horrors of war; the trauma of his injuries, and the sights he encountered while liberating Nazi death camps, are evident even today. Economic necessity eventually forced the brothers into sharing living quarters, and with the encouragement of their father they slowly began to embark on a life as songwriters. Success came fairly quickly, but when one of their songs, Tall Paul, became a hit single for Annette Funicello in 1959, it led to career-defining staff positions at the Disney studio.

Directors Jeffrey Sherman (L) and Gregory Sherman (R) flank everyone’s favorite funnyman Dick Van Dyke

I could go on at length recounting the tales of the Shermans, as this film really does seem like an endless stream of amusing or interesting anecdotes about the brothers and their work. As I always do with any good documentary, I feel like this could have been expanded into five different films and I would have been satisfied. An endless stream of commentators, historians, and participants appear to help tell the stories and discuss the music; off the top of my head, participants include Roy E. Disney, Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Jeff Kurtti, Bruce Gordon, Leonard Maltin, John Lasseter, Angela Lansbury, Hayley Mills, Leslie Ann Warren, John Davidson, Debbie Reynolds, Alan Menken, John Williams, Randy Newman, John Landis (!), Kenny Loggins (!!) and Ben Stiller (!!!). And that’s just off the top of my head.

The real joy of the film, of course, is seeing the brothers themselves, in both new interviews and a wealth of archival film. Richard remains as sunny and energetic as always, banging away on his piano in his stream-of-consciousness fashion. He also has a seemingly infinite recall of every number the brothers ever wrote. Robert, having moved to London after the death of his wife, remains pensive and at times almost haunted; he focuses now on his career as a painter. Still, despite their occasional barbs and bristles, the footage of the brothers working together remains endlessly entertaining and one gets a hint of the sheer creative energy that must have been a constant presence in the Disney studio of the 1960s.

The Shermans on the Disney lot in swankier times

The DVD

Mercifully, the documentary hits DVD with a suite of interesting extras that flesh out the story of the film.

Video & Audio

Another documentary, another variety of source materials. The newly-filmed interviews consist mostly of “talking head” segments, but the film also extensively uses archival photo, film, and video to flesh out the tale. These are, naturally, of varying visual quality but everything looks pretty good except for elements that were obviously filmed on video in the 1980s.

The film is in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 (English) and Dolby Digital 2.0 (Spanish).

Bonus Materials

The extras on this disc fall into two main segments. Eight extended segments focus on certain topics with more detail than in the film itself. Then there’s the “Sherman Brothers’ Jukebox”, which features eight individual segments focusing on specific songs. Of special note here is a collection of hilarious sketches that Disney storyman Roy Williams used to slip under the brothers’ office door to illustrate whatever the brothers were up to at the time.

Features

  • Extra Scenes – Why They’re “The Boys”, Disney Studios in the 60’s, Casting Mary Poppins, The Process, Theme Parks, Roy Williams, Bob’s Art, Celebration
  • Sherman Brothers’ JukeboxChim Chim Cher-ee, Feed the Birds, There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, Jolly Holiday, Up, Down and Touch the Ground, A Spoonful of Sugar, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Ugly Bug Ball

In Summary…

Clip-n-Save Drop Quote: “THUMB A RIDE WITH THE BOYS!! – ProgressCityUSA.com”

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story would seem to be a natural for any Disney fan who has ever hummed a Sherman tune; that would be, well, pretty much all of you. Two very interesting and very different individuals managed to live separate lives while maintaining a public facade that cloaked their personal acrimony, but in this time they also achieved unheard of professional success; during their thirteen years on Disney staff alone they received four Oscar nominations for their more that 200 songs. All told, their work graced 27 Disney films and two dozen television productions, and their post-Disney work includes such family standards as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Charlotte’s Web. It’s a remarkable body of work by two remarkable people.

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Progress City Home Theater: Walt & El Grupo (2009)

Last week saw the release of three prominent Disney-related documentaries. The only of these that I had not seen in theaters was Walt & El Grupo, so I was naturally eager to check out director Ted Thomas’s (Frank and Ollie) recounting of Walt Disney’s 1941 South America trip (Thomas’s father, animator Frank Thomas, was one of the studio personnel on the tour). Taking place during the infamous animation strike of 1941, and ending shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the “El Grupo” trip in many ways marked the end of innocence for Walt Disney Productions; after the trip, the Disney Studio, its films, and its artists would never be the same.

The Film

Produced by Walt Disney Family Foundation Films, Walt & El Grupo was made by people very close to the Disney legacy and it is perhaps best enjoyed by those of us who know these artists and their work well. I noted a great deal of criticism when this film was release that decried its slow pace and decision to not explore certain aspects of the story in detail. I understand those criticisms, and indeed feel that there are a number of other ways this film could have been successfully made, but that’s just not the kind of film that this is.

Instead, I think of this film as the perfect companion to J.B. Kaufman’s truly excellent book South of the Border with Disney: Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program 1941-1948. Kaufman’s book really digs into the the nuts and bolts of the trip, how it came to pass, and the artistic output that resulted. Thomas’s film gives a sense of what it was like on the road with El Grupo, revisits a number of their ports of call, and even finds several South American residents whose paths crossed with the Disney party.

Walt Disney cuts a rug (and cuts up) with members of the Andrés Chazarreta folk dancer troupe in the rooftop garden of the Alvear Palace Hotel in Buenos Aires. Amazingly, the filmmakers actually found the dancer on the right – Miguel Gramajo – in Argentina and interviewed him for the film.

It is indeed a slow-paced film; for me, the relaxed tone matches the tropical scenery of both the modern day on-location scenes as well as the archival film from 1941. Music plays a key role in the film, with several segments matching various native melodies to snapshots from the Disney trip as well as a variety of sketches and artwork.

This, perhaps, is the film’s greatest strength – the filmmakers’ level of access allowed them to include lots of art from the Disney Animation Research Library, clips of Disney films, and a great deal of rarely-seen film shot by Disney and his artists. A number of children and descendants of the Disney party take part, often reading letters that the artists sent home to loved ones. Even Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt and Lillian Disney, takes part in the proceedings; her on-camera presence is, as always, welcome and she remains an eloquent and appealing spokesperson for her family’s legacy.

Additional on-camera contributions are made by Kaufman and animation historian John Canemaker; both are dependable and authoritative sources about the subject matter. While other voices would have been welcome to discuss various members of El Grupo, it’s hard to fault these choices.

The film takes its time going where it wants to go, and for the most part I was happy to let it do the driving. There are a few threads that seem tangential to the narrative, and which would be perhaps best relegated to the DVD extras; on the other hand there are some points that are left hanging or which seem to trail off, and perhaps more detail could have been spared in these areas. One particularly glaring point is when a local begins to tell a story about three myths that Argentinians believe about Walt Disney, but we only hear of one before the film moves on. More time could be spent on the artists as well, as many of them do not receive their full due. But, as I said originally, when viewed in concert with Kaufman’s book many of these concerns evaporate.

Departing the plane in Rio de Janeiro: Hazel and Bill Cottrell (Hazel was Lillian Disney’s sister), Ted Sears, Lillian and Walt Disney, Norm Ferguson and Frank Thomas. El Grupo split up their travel arrangements because Walt’s life insurance mandated that he could only fly with six of his employees at the same time!

The DVD

Walt & El Grupo comes to DVD with a fairly respectable slate of extras – more than what many of the studio’s releases receive these days. Most notably there’s an entire extra film – the entire, uncensored 1942 release of Saludos Amigos for the first time on DVD.

Video & Audio

The film combines a number of media, so a variety of picture qualities should be expected. After all, when your film incorporates 16mm film shot seventy years ago there are going to be some issues. Still, the archival material has been cleaned up to a remarkable degree and the film shot by El Grupo, as well as other vintage footage of the Disney lot, looks excellent. The older footage is shown windowboxed in the 1.78:1 frame of the film itself.

The rest of the film looks good, with a number of neat effects used to incorporate vintage photographs with modern-day scenes of South American cities. The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 in both English and Spanish.

Bonus Materials

As stated, the film contains some worthwhile extras. There’s an audio commentary by director Ted Thomas and author J.B. Kaufman that helps flesh out the details behind the film’s story, and the two maintain the very affable mood that pervades the film itself. There are three deleted scenes, a featurette about the film’s use of vintage photos, and, of course, Saludos Amigos.

Features

  • Audio Commentary – With director Theodore Thomas and historian J.B. Kaufman.
  • Photos in Motion – A demonstration showing the technical process of how photos from the original trip came to life for a unique viewing experience.
  • From the Director’s Cut – Three deleted scenes from the film.
  • SALUDOS AMIGOS – The original release from 1942 is one of the films inspired by Walt & El Grupo’s trip.
  • Original Theatrical Trailers – For Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.

In Summary…

Walt & El Grupo is a thoroughly pleasant documentary tracing the steps of one of the most fascinating adventures in the Disney Studio’s history. The wealth of archival film and artwork presented makes this a natural for any fan, and provides an excellent companion to Kaufman’s book on the same topic. The number of participants that Thomas managed to unearth in the various South American cities visited by El Grupo is remarkable, and also is a testament to the impact that this single, short trip had. While certainly not an unobjective assessment or rigorous analysis of the Disney Studio in the prewar era, it doesn’t seem meant to be. It’s part triptych and part time machine, and a very enjoyable one at that.

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Tangled And Unbraided

One of the kookiest things to pop up online lately is this pre-visualization reel for Rapunzel Unbraided, one of the earlier incarnations of the film now known as Tangled. The film had a long and tortured development, subject to the whims of management earlier in the decade. Originally a traditionally animated fairy tale, it became a CGI project as director Glen Keane tried to save it from going down with the hand-drawn ship when Eisner & company shifted all development to computer animation. Seeing the success of Shrek, management decided they wanted a more “modern” take on things and so Rapunzel became Rapunzel Unbraided, a wacky, “hip and edgy” fractured fairy tale.

That’s the version of the film that this clip is from. According to the caption on YouTube, this dates to 2005 and is credited to Tony Hudson.

Thankfully, this approach to the story was abandoned and the film once more became a traditional tale when Disney bought Pixar in 2006.

We’ve had teases of other early versions of this film online; this animation test shows a different look for the heroine and features her earlier sidekick – a squirrel:

As you can see, it’s a different take on the material. In fact, some of the early publicity artwork published for the film depicted scenes from this version. How late were these major changes made? And how odd is it that most of the film we know was made in the last year, when it was in development for almost a decade? Animation can be weird sometimes. Here’s hoping that we get a quality Blu-ray with lots of information on what these alternate-universe features were like.

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Tangled Up In Green

Now that Tangled (or Rapunzel, for the non hip-and-edgy among us) has hit theaters to great critical and financial success, hopefully everyone has taken a moment to congratulate the folks at Walt Disney Animation Studios, directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, and most definitely and especially Glen Keane, who has spent most of the last decade trying to get this story to screen.

Of course, the big question on everyone’s lips is… what’s next? What can we take away from this, and what does it mean for the future? So far, there have been no hints from Disney. Their current slate consists of next year’s traditionally animated Winnie the Pooh, and the quasi-announced CGI Reboot Ralph in 2013. We’ve seen them alter The Frog Princess to make it the more allegedly “girl-friendly” The Princess and the Frog; we’ve seen them panic and alter Rapunzel to make it the more allegedly “boy-friendly” Tangled; we’ve seen that same panic lead to the abandonment of the hand-drawn Snow Queen and the revival of the videogame-themed Reboot Ralph.

My reaction to pretty much all animation news

Then, right before the release of the film, we’ve seen a prominent story in the L.A. Times focusing on statements by Ed Catmull about how Disney was going to get out of the fairytale business for a while; after an explosion of media interest (and fan hackles), Catmull rolled back the story with this statement on Facebook (!):

A headline in today’s LA Times erroneously reported that the Disney fairy tale is a thing of the past, but I feel it is important to set the record straight that they are alive and well at Disney and continue this week with Tangled, a contemporary retelling of a much loved story. We have a number of projects in development with new twists that audiences will be able to enjoy for many years to come. – Ed Catmull

As to what those projects are, however, we’re left to guess. Although I have to say that I had to laugh at the statement in the Times that John Lasseter has been “encouraging filmmakers to break with safe and predictable formulas and push creative boundaries.” This from the director of Cars 2 and the producer of Toy Story 3, Monsters Inc. 2 and Winnie the Pooh. As to telling filmmakers, “‘Tell us what’s driving you,” I’d like to hear that question asked of Chris Sanders or Brenda Chapman.

ANYWAY… Tangled. After all the fretting, it roared into theaters with a $70 million five-day Thanksgiving weekend. This was the best opening for a Disney animated feature ever, and the second-highest Thanksgiving debut ever behind Toy Story 2. The film continued strong in its second weekend, taking first place from previous champ Harry Potter and wrapping its first twelve days with $96.5 million in the bank. More than likely, by its third weekend it will surpass the entire box office take of The Princess and the Frog.

But what does it all mean? That CGI will, by default, beat hand-drawn animation? That the title change was some master stroke of marketing? That people don’t like princess fairy tales but really do but only if you call them something else?

The film’s early marketing was derided by animation fans for being generally awful, and word of mouth about the picture did not improve until a massive wave of preview screenings were held before release. Almost uniformly, the word came out: “This movie is nothing like its previews! It’s really good!”

This shored up rumors that had existed since the very first teaser trailer. After each new trailer or commercial, the film’s animators would pop up in the usual online hangouts to beg people not to believe what they were seeing. “This isn’t our movie,” they’d say – “Our movie is really good, we promise!” Well, they were right. And sure enough, those trailers were not indicative of the film. Let’s take a look at that first trailer, which was the most lamentable:

Now of all the animation clips in that trailer, less than half appear in the actual film. Yep. And the rest are, for the most part, taken out of context. So there’s that.

Thankfully, they did decide to have those screenings and word of mouth spread like wildfire. Audience polling by Cinemascore recorded a very rare perfect A+ score, something no other film this year – not Toy Story 3, not Inception – achieved. And the word of mouth seems to have paid off.

And how about the movie? Yeah, it’s good. Really good. I still would love to see Keane’s vision, and out of curiosity I’d like to see the handful of other takes on the story that were developed over the last ten years. But thankfully this time all the retooling still resulted in a successful film. The visual style, art design, lighting and shading is all absolutely gorgeous, and really does avoid that plastic look that so often plagues CG animation. The animation itself is very detailed and nuanced, and save for some very unfortunate exceptions avoids the stereotypical “attitude” that has become the bane of animation fans.

Ooh. Pretty.

More important, the characters are both believable and likeable – Rapunzel herself is a delight and the “rogue” Flynn Rider overcomes a very iffy start to become not nearly as irritating as everyone thought he would be. Mother Gothel, Rapunzel’s captor, starts off pretty overwhelmingly camp but overcomes that as the films go on. Even the “cute sidekicks,” the chameleon Pascal and Maximus the horse, are very well animated and act entirely in pantomime, reminiscent of Disney’s best.

Appeal!

So, seriously, congratulations to everyone at Disney Animation. Here’s hoping that this leads to a little job security for everyone, and that management learns the right lessons from this (I know, I know) and lets you really flex your creative muscles on some new projects. It’s time to put some new projects in the pipeline, and some of those should involve some challenging new hand-drawn animation. Hopefully, with a little success under their belt, we’ll have fewer decisions motivated by fear. Tangled, at the very least, proves that Disney can still do what Disney does best.

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December At The Walt Disney Family Museum

I’m a few days late with the update for this month, but fear not because the Walt Disney Family Museum has an excellent slate for goodies for your holiday season. Time for Christmas with Walt!

SCREENINGS + DISCUSSIONS

FILM OF THE MONTH – November 26-December 31
Christmas with Walt Disney

1:00pm and 4:00pm daily, Theater
(except Tuesdays, December 5, December 11 and December 25.)
Tickets available online at www.waltdisney.org
Produced exclusively for the Museum by Don Hahn, (The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast) this special holiday screening includes The Nutcracker Suite from Fantasia (1940), Pluto’s Christmas Tree (1952), scenes from the television Christmas specials, and rarely-seen home movies of Walt and his family. See how Walt celebrated Christmas at the studio, at Disneyland, and at home!

December 11 – A Tribute to Art Linkletter
3:00 pm, Theater
Tickets available online at www.waltdisney.org
Celebrate the life and career of one of America’s most popular television hosts—he hosted the live broadcast of the opening day of Disneyland!—and a great friend of Walt Disney’s: Art Linkletter! Author and historian Don Peri will talk with Art’s daughter, Sharon, about what it was like to grow up in the Linkletter household.

MUSIC

December 18 – Artists’ Vocal Ensemble: A Candlelight Christmas
4:00pm and 6:15pm, Special Exhibition Hall
Join us for an evening of Christmas songs and carols. This hour long program will include contemporary American carols, anthems, and will conclude with a festive family sing-a-long. A perfect way to celebrate the holiday season.

DECEMBER DISNEY DISCOVERIES! + LOOK CLOSER SERIES

DISNEY DISCOVERIES: Second Saturday of each month
December 11 – Disney Discoveries!

1:00 pm – 3:00 pm, Learning Center Art Studio
Join us in the holiday spirit and bring your creativity! We will be making holiday ornaments that you can hang from your tree or window.

Imaginations and creativity will soar with our new Disney Discoveries! The second Saturday of each month, join us for family fun and activities in the Learning Center. The activities planned by our education staff will inspire the hidden artist in young visitors while learning about the life and work of Walt Disney.

LOOK CLOSER:
December 17, 18 + 19 – Look Closer: Walt’s Skis

11:00 am and 3:00 pm, Gallery 3
Walt was an avid skier, and in the Disney short starring Goofy—“The Art of Skiing”—you can even see influences of Walt in the Goof himself! Join us in Gallery 3 on December 17, 18 +19 to learn more about Walt Disney’s skis and his love for this snowy sport.

Would you like to know more about one of the artifacts in the galleries? Our Look Closer series will give you that opportunity—staff will reveal little known facts, behind the scenes information, or just additional information during the 5 to 8-minute gallery talk.

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