The Farce Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released on Blu-Ray and DVD today. Naturally, I stopped by my local Target to pick up a copy for myself.

Immediately upon entering Target you are assured that THIS is the place to scratch your Star Wars itch. If a product even bears passing resemblance to something (anything!) in the Star Wars Universe it has received a Force Awakens treatment. For example, Target will happily sell you C3PO coffee creamer and BB8 oranges.

Nevermind that, after this particular orange has been removed from its clever packaging (BB8 is cute, round, and orange… just like an orange!) it’s just an ordinary piece of citrus fruit. Unless you plan to drag that netted bag around with you – proudly displaying your on-trend styles – what you’ve got is an everyday, run of the mill, coated with food-grade lac-resin based wax, naval orange. Just like all those poor schlubs who bought the unhip non-licensed fruit.

On that note I will segue into the real topic of today’s blog entry.

Target is currently offering two versions of the Force Awakens Blu-Ray.

The model on the left will set you back twenty dollars; while the option on the right sells for $25. The difference? The packaging.

In truth, in addition to this “exclusive collectible package” Target’s version of the Blu-Ray claims to have “Over twenty minutes of bonus content”… which was already available on the [free] Star Wars mobile phone app. If these interviews and making-of featurettes aren’t already all over YouTube – be patient – they will be (likely before you can rush home and watch/re-watch this summer’s biggest blockbuster with your ultra-chic BB8 orange at your side).

By all means, feel free to spend an extra $5 on 20 minutes of video you weren’t going to watch anyway. When comparing the price-per-minute seeing the entire movie opening day in IMAX 3D cost less but don’t let that stop you.

And I’m totally sure you had HUGE plans for that exclusive collectible package – like, you were going to have it framed (behind archival UV-resistant glass) so you could properly show it off. There’s no way you were going to shove that box to the back of your entertainment center or let it gather dust on a media tower. Who even has those anymore, anyway?! Um, 1992 called and it wants its nestable disc organizer back. No, you’re hip and forward thinking. You plan on downloading the movie to your networked media server and safely storing (ie: shoving in a box under the stairs) the physical disc as a back-up in the unlikely event your entertainment drive would fail.

Either way – let’s face it – you’re never looking at that Blu-Ray clamshell ever again.

And I take particular offense with Target’s desperate use of the word collectible. These Blu-Rays are just about as collectible as the glut of comic books released during mid-90s. When everyone owns something the perceived value falls – because you can obtain another one literally anywhere. If these discs were numbered and limited to a very small print run (like Disney’s Treasures DVD sets) that would be one thing, but they’re not; making Target’s “exclusive” package the equivalent of DC’s Death of Superman. Worthless.

Target’s not the only retailer offering “exclusive” versions of this highly anticipated Blu-Ray. Best Buy, Walmart, and Disney all have their own over-priced versions… but Target is the only retailer offering extra content on the disc (the aforementioned 20 minutes).

Please, don’t let the hype fool you into paying extra for worthless extras.

Star Wars: Battlefraud

Let’s cut right to the chase: my PS4 arrived last Saturday.

I had been saving up my pennies (I literally had a mason jar full of pocket change at one point) as well as Amazon Gift Cards I’d received as gifts in order to purchase my new toy. When it arrived I was neck deep in a basement bathroom project I’ve been working on but finally found time in the evening to set everything up.

The bundle I purchased came with a code to download Star Wars: Battlefront (and four other “classic” Star Wars titles). After the brief set-up I proceeded to download my new game… a staggering 25GB file. Because we still have [are stuck with] CenturyLink DSL as our ISP Saturday evening internet speeds tend to reside somewhere between elderly motorist and caffeinated sloth… so, I ended up going to bed and letting it download overnight. Early the next morning I was seated in front of my TV happily slaying rebels in beautiful HiDef. I even grinned in wide geekish delight when I realized the front of my PS4 controller would glow red when I was playing as Darth Vader.

That said, I’m somewhat torn on this game. It’s fun – and really beautifully detailed (especially Endor) – but what-the-actual-crap is going on with the micro transactions?! It is not an exaggeration to claim that 75% of this game is locked down until you’re willing to pay extra. In fact, the term “micro” transaction may be a bit of a stretch because the absolute minimum you’re going to pay is $15.

Electronic Arts will argue that the Season Pass is available for $50; allowing gamers to buy all current and future Expansion Packs right now and never pay again. First, that’s pretty dang presumptive. Sure, dropping a fifty up-front sounds like we’d all be saving $10… but that’s assuming everyone agrees that these unseen expansions are worth $15 each. Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeros was hardly worth it’s full price.

Second… um, hold the bus… are we all okay with paying $110 for video games now? Is that the new normal?

No, actually it isn’t because (wait for it) it’ll actually cost you MORE than that. While this came as no surprise to the Xbox faithful it was a bit like a bucket of cold water to us PlayStation fans: if you want to play online you must have a PlayStation PLUS membership; which will cost you $45 per year.

For those not already doing the math in your head the disc costs $60. For that price we get some training missions and something I’ll refer to as “Arcade Mode” which allows you to fight off endless waves of Stormtroopers (or rebels, depending on which side you choose, but let’s be honest it’s still the same experience) across four different maps. FOUR.

If you want to play online where the vast majority of the gaming modes and maps are available – arguably the reason you bought the game – you’re in for another $45.

If you want to have access to the most amount of weapons, maps, skins, “emotes” (which is super lame), and anything else you don’t even realize you’re missing out on it’s another $50.

All totaled, that’s $155 for an online third-person shooter. Holy. Crap.

That seems excessive.

But, yeah, it’s beautiful and sounds great and what’s playable out of the box is totes fun.

Oh, and they guy who designed the Goazon Badlands map needs a new title like “Honorary Jedi Master” or something. Amazingly good level design!

Chronological Star Wars Canon

As you may (or may not) know, shortly after the purchase of Star Wars, Disney and JJ Abrams made the landmark decision that everything that existed outside of George Lucas’ six movies – something referred to as the “Expanded Universe” – was no longer canon. This meant that literally decades of stories were wiped clean; freeing JJ Abrams to tell his story without the burden of continuity errors sure to be brought up by nerds not unlike myself.

Naturally, this enraged quite a few people… but not me. My opinion was that the vast majority of the Expanded Universe was pretty awful. The one rare gem is Timothy Zahn’s excellent “Heir to the Empire” trilogy (colloquially known as the Thrawn trilogy). Zahn basically knocks it out of the park – proven by the fact that most Expanded Universe stories reference characters and events in this series as canon.

Well, not anymore!

Disney was quick to fill this void with new “officially in-canon” stories – and I’ve listed the major entries below. Enjoy.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Episode II: Attack of the Clones
The Clone Wars (ABC TV)
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Lords of the Sith by Paul S Kemp
Tarkin by James Luceno
A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller
Star Wars Rebels (DisneyXD)
Rogue One
Episode IV: A new Hope
Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne
Battlefront: Twilight Company by Alexander Freed
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Battlefront (PS4)
Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
Bloodline by Claudia Gray
Lost Stars by Claudia Gray
Episode VII: The Force Awakens

A Brief History of Disney’s Frozen

Now that Frozen has become the top grossing animated film of all time it may be hard to believe that this box office juggernaut was plagued with problems, and trapped in development hell, dating all the way back to World War II.

It’s true. Disney’s animation department always saw great cinematic possibilities with the source material, but Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen proved to be quite problematic.

The story begins sometime in 1943 when Walt Disney and Samuel Goldwyn met to discuss the possibility of collaborating to produce a biography film of author and poet Hans Christian Andersen. The original idea was that MGM’s studio would shoot live-action sequences of Andersen’s life and Disney would create animated sequences of Andersen’s stories (including The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Thumbelina, The Ugly Duckling, The Red Shoes, The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Snow Queen).

Right away Walt’s team of storytellers and animators encountered difficulty with many of Andersen’s stories but, for the sake of this blog entry, most notably The Snow Queen. Simply put, they couldn’t find a way to make modern audiences relate to the Snow Queen’s character. This, among other things, eventually led to the cancellation of the Disney-Goldwyn project.

Interestingly, MGM did go on to produce its very own live-action film in 1952 starring Danny Kaye in the titular role. The film was extremely successful; receiving six Academy Award nominations the following year. Meanwhile, back at the Disney Studios, development work on all of the Andersen fairy tales, was suspended.

The Snow Queen – a concept sketch by Marc Davis.

After the smash success of The Little Mermaid in 1989 Walt Disney Feature Animation reassumed work on their adaptation of The Snow Queen but, shortly after Glen Keane quit the project in 2002, the project was completely scrapped. Apparently, at some point Michael Eisner even offered his “support” to the project – suggesting that The Snow Queen should be handed off to Pixar Animation Studios (which may very well be the reason Keane threw in the towel).

The next attempt started in September 2008, after Chris Buck pitched The Snow Queen to John Lasseter (who by then had become Chief Creative Officer of Disney Animation); ironically, a story Lasseter had been extremely interested in pursuing as far back as the early 1990s when Pixar was working with Disney on Toy Story. John has since commented that he was “blown away” by some of Disney’s prior attempts at preproduction art (some of which are on display in this blog).

Development began immediately for a traditionally animated film under the new working title Anna and the Snow Queen. Anna’s name was added to the title because one of the major hurdles that Disney faced was that their main character, who happened to also be the title of the movie, was the villain!

Think about it: never before had Disney created a feature-length animated movie where the antagonist was the centerpiece of the film. Snow White, Cinderella, Hercules, Tarzan, Aladdin, even the Hunchback are all heroes and heroines. No villains in any title role and they weren’t about to start.

It didn’t matter. This small change in the film’s name had nearly no effect on the writing team.

By early 2010 the project entered development hell once again. With the success of Tangled Disney’s marketing team – concerned that an emphasis on the word “Queen” would have discouraged young boys from seeing the film – believed the best way to capture a wide audience was with another single-word title. At their advice, the movie’s name was changed to Frozen; but the writers were still stumped on how to make people care about Snow Queen’s character. The story they had developed was fun and light-hearted… but the Queen’s character just didn’t resonate. She wasn’t multi-faceted and test audiences were never really able to connect.

Using test-audience feedback, the production team drafting several different variations on The Snow Queen until the character and story felt relevant. At that stage, the first major breakthrough was the decision to rewrite Anna (the protagonist) as the younger sibling of Elsa. This one simple change established a family dynamic between the characters and changed the entire course of the film.

Regardless of the many changes throughout the story I find it striking how much the Snow Queen’s character design remained mostly consistent throughout the years. Marc Davis’ drawing (displayed at the top of this article) originally served as the inspiration for the never-built Ice Palace, a winter wonderland proposed for Walt Disney World. The sketch was one of the very last drawn by Davis before retiring in 1978. Most would agree that there is more than a passing resemblance to Elsa, from Frozen.

Truly, there are no such things as bad ideas at Disney – just good ideas whose time has not yet come.

Doctor 8.5

With Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary this coming Saturday the BBC has planned an all-out cinematic spectacular that has the hearts of die-hard fans (calling themselves Whovians) all a flutter. This special episode, called Day of the Doctor, brings fan favorited David Tennant (the tenth doctor) and Billie Piper (Rose) back into the action. It also introduces an interesting new character and may very well answer a nagging Whovian question.

For those not so intimately familiar with the Doctor, he has the ability to regenerate when he faces death – allowing the character to live on in another body. He has done this, that we know of, a total of ten times; thus creating 11 distinct Doctors. His new body shares all the memories of the previous incarnation(s) but may have a slightly altered personality and ego (certainly a difference in personal taste) than the previous Doctor(s).

The original series ran continuously from November 23, 1963 until December 6, 1989 before being cancelled. The very last episode of the original series (Survival) shows the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) walking off into the sunset; supposedly to have many more adventures. Indeed, the Seventh Doctor did live on in two short TV specials (1990 and 1993), dozens of audio dramas, and at least 60 novels published by Virgin Books.

The audience isn’t introduced to the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) until 1996, in a one-off made-for-TV movie. Near the beginning we are shown the Seventh Doctor changing into the Eighth; thus sealing the gap between the two Doctors and creating a sense of finality. However, much like the final December 1989 television episode, the movie ends happily with the Doctor piloting the TARDIS off to further adventures (realized in 8 novels, 38 comics and 75 audio plays).

The series started up again in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston taking on the role of Doctor Who. The BBC simply continued the stories, rather than reboot (as is the popular recent method), but chose not to show any regeneration. Eccleston was just introduced as the current Doctor, leaving fans to assume he was the ninth.

Thankfully, there has been some recent closure.

We now know from a short video, titled Night of the Doctor, that the BBC has posted on their website that the Eighth Doctor does officially regenerate…

…into someone the BBC is calling The War Doctor (played by John Hurt).

Please note the older style Sonic Screwdriver partially obscured by the War Doctor’s coat.

This has left some fans – myself included – wondering if this War Doctor will then regenerate into the official Ninth Doctor (played by Christopher Eccleston); as his is the [now] one and only regeneration not shown on camera.

As of this blog entry, it is still possible that there have been multiple regenerations between this new War Doctor and the Ninth Doctor. No fan truly knows for sure… however, the director’s choice of wardrobe sure seems to indicate a possible connection between John Hurt’s and Christopher Eccleston’s depictions of the character (shown below).

One might conclude that the War Doctor’s wardrobe seems to be a near perfect transition between the Eighth Doctor’s debonair, overly stuffy, Victorian-era (steam-punk?) style and the minimalist Ninth Doctor’s worn leather jacket and V-neck jumper. I’d go as far as to say the War Doctor’s leather coat is an exact replica.

Anyone needing proof of the Whovian’s willingness to accept this theory, effectively renumbering the most recent Doctors, look no further than these two images recently posted to fan sites:

Exciting times, indeed.

As the Ninth (Tenth?) Doctor would say: FanTAStic!

In Defense of Mystic Manor

While perusing the comment section of the recently posted video of Hong Kong Disneyland’s Mystic Manor I came across the following question: “What will it take for Imagineering to produce an original E-Ticket attraction at Disneyland or Walt Disney World?”

Allow me to translate for those readers scratching their heads and asking themselves “Didn’t Disney just open an entire new land in California?!”.

What the commentator means to ask is “What will it take for Imagineering to build attractions that tell new stories in the United States?”.

The person is bemoaning the oft-repeated gripe: Long gone are the days of the Pirates of the Caribbean style attractions; built for the sole purpose of telling entertaining new stories.

But that’s not entirely true – as I’ll point out in a moment.

It would appear that Disney is operating under the impression that there is absolutely zero reason to build a new attraction on an untested intellectual property. This is not an unfounded theory. I assume that fueling this opinion are their carefully researched points outline below:

  • Low Risk. Recently added attractions are based on properties with proven financial success (Toy Story, Little Mermaid, Cars).
  • Familiarity. They contain characters already familiar to an American audience that resists change or chafes at learning anything new.
  • Popularity. The newly added attractions based on existing properties are quite popular (regularly commanding 45+ minute waits).

Building a new E-Ticket attraction isn’t getting any cheaper – and Disney wants to hedge their bets on a sure thing. They want the most bang for the buck. What better way to ensure low risk and popularity than to build an attraction around a beloved property?

Let me state the point regarding familiarity from another angle: When you’re far away from home are you more willing to try a new restaurant or an existing franchise? What do you think the vast majority of Americans say?… and before you answer please understand that there are more than 34,000 McDonalds for a reason.

In order to see it from Disney’s point-of-view, let’s quickly examine the four most recent attractions that were not based on any existing intellectual properties.

Test Track (1999, $200 million) was ridiculed before it even had a chance to open; mainly because of how long it took Disney to work through a particularly rough test-and-adjust phase of a new ride system. After it opened people complained that it was boring – less thrilling than the actual drive to the park. 14 years later a slower version of the same ride opens in California with a Cars overlay and it’s the best thing since audio-animatronics. The Epcot original gets a Tron-inspired overlay and suddenly all is forgiven.

Soarin’ (2001, $3.5 million) is still a massive success today and may be our one bright spot in this list. It’s relatively inexpensive to build (when compared to the rest on the list) and popular with guests. As far as ROI is concerned, Disney’s certainly making an impressive profit on this one. However, I would argue that this attraction introduces no new characters and doesn’t attempt to tell a story.

Mission: SPACE (2003, $100 million) received scathing media coverage. The most often repeated story was that this attraction could kill you. Those unaffected by the ride’s apparent dangerous ride system claimed it was nothing more than a slick spinner ride. Others complained about everything from Gary Sinise’s poor acting to the unimaginative queue. Meanwhile, Disney spent millions retooling the attraction; yet the media would not relent. Eventually, in order to appeal to the media and an American audience who had not (would not) ride the attraction, Disney turned off most of the thrilling (and expensive) effects for half of the ride vehicles. Today, we’re left with a $100 million ride that half-operates.

Finally, we have Expedition Everest (2006, $100 million). Of the four, it is the only attraction that introduces any new/memorable characters and attempts to tell a real story. It’s richly themed, fun, thrilling and insanely popular. There’s just one hitch: a few months after opening it broke. Not the whole ride, mind you – just the footings for the Yeti animatronic; which have cracked in a horrifically un-repairable way. What’s Disney to do with a brand new multi-million dollar attraction that regularly services 18,000 thrill-seekers per day? Well, they ask maintenance to leave the beast in a menacing pose and aim a strobe light at him (casually referred to as “B-mode” by Team Disney). Fixing the ride would require Disney to tear open the mountain façade and carefully remove sections of track just to get to the Yeti. Why would Disney risk taking a popular ride off the grid when, even when it’s broken, it still commands the longest lines in the park. Apparently a major, non-working, story-driven effect just isn’t that important to visitors. It’s certainly not driving them away.

Okay, so Disney hasn’t had very good luck locally with original attractions. What makes them think they should try adding them to Hong Kong, instead?

For starters, the Government of Hong Kong owns 52% of Hong Kong Disneyland. I’d imagine they have a lot of say in what attractions get green-lit for their park. The Walt Disney Company has the ultimate vote in what goes into their own stateside parks. The same cannot be said at any of the parks outside the US borders (Tokyo Disney and DisneySea are mostly owned by The Oriental Land Company and Disneyland Paris is mostly owned by European shareholders and Saudi Prince Alwaleed). When someone else is footing the bill… you’re obligated to do what they say.

Disney has worked very hard at localization – meaning, they haven’t just dropped exact copies of Disneyland onto Europe and Asia. They have wisely chosen to research the local cultures, customs, history and traditions before even developing the layout of the parks. Ask yourself, what reference do the Asian people have to the late-1840s American west gold rush?… other than being imported for slave labor on railroad lines. Do their customs and traditions include the same fantasy and folklore that Americans immediately understand? How would the Chinese, who respect and honor their dead elders, react to the graveyard scene in our beloved Haunted Mansion?

Disney’s careful research has lead them to replace Hong Kong’s Frontierland with Grizzly Gulch and Tokyo’s Main Street USA with the World Bazaar. Most excitedly, the upcoming Shanghai Disneyland’s Main Street will be replaced with an abbreviated avenue that opens onto a spectacular 11-acre garden hub. I can’t wait to see how this plan is realized!

Finally, what’s Disney to do when they realize that the Asian audience could really care less about Disney’s back-catalog of characters. This was made evident to Bob Iger at the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland (2005). As the story goes, Bob was on stage watching the parade go by; but also paying close attention to the guests. Floats carrying Mickey, Pluto, Belle, Peter Pan, Cruella DeVil, and a host of other classic characters were all met with polite applause. Then the Toy Story parade unit arrived… and the crowd went wild.

In 2006 Disney bought Pixar.

For a company looking to aggressively expand into the Asian market this was a very wise move.

How does Disney provide what the consumer wants when the consumer has a cool reaction to 75 years of material? Use Pixar where you can… then develop new stories for the other attractions.

So, in short, what will it take for Imagineering to develop attractions based on stories that have not already been films? Probably, a measurable (and sustained) drop in attendance coupled with a dramatic shift in how American’s consume classic content. And I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Oh, The Humanity!

Men: you’re not truly married until, with your pants around your ankles, you yell a request across the house for more toilet paper.

I have no sons, only daughters. If the four women I live with (varying in age from two up to… my wife) represent any kind of accurate sampling of the entire gender’s habits then women are disgusting and evil.

At the risk of using even more generalizations – no man would ever leave a single square of toilet paper. Never! At a bare minimum we leave a replacement roll precariously perched on the back of the toilet. Women will run that roll down to nothing but a few tattered shards sadly clinging to the glue strips on an otherwise empty paper dowel.

To compound the severity of this crime – and correct me if I’m wrong – every visit to the ladies room requires the use of this rolled 2-ply tissue. With guys it’s kind of a 50/50 deal. There’s a pretty good chance a visit to the men’s room will not necessitate the use of toilet paper. The same is not true for women.

What this means is that women are knowingly screwing over 100% of future visitors to the ladies’ lavatory.

That is evil.

Ladies! Have the common decency to, at the very least, look out for your own kind!

Sure, in a public restroom, a guy might shut the lights off – knowing full well that he’s leaving another man to grope around in the dark. Rest assured ladies, it’s never done with a malicious spirit. Men equate this act of hazing with blindfolding a cadet and asking him to successfully field strip an M1 Garand Rifle. A well-trained man can do it. Besides, it’s not like we’re leaving the poor sod without the proper tools to complete the task at hand – we’re just upping his game. Taking him to the next level. Sometimes we men refer to this as Call of Duty: Black Ops number 2.

Okay, only I call it that (but other guys might start now).

A second item worth noting is that, in our house, we have two bathrooms. One upstairs, the other downstairs. Since we purchased our house brand new I was able to design and finish off the bathroom myself – and I chose a brilliant design. Sensible, functional, and efficient. The shower is too small to accommodate the shaving of legs and the lighting does not lend itself for the application of makeup. Furthermore, there is not adequate counter space to hold said cosmetic products. In other words the women stay away from it and that is fine by me.

This last week I came home to find the ladies’ bathroom door shut with no one home. All at once, I became that idiot in the horror films who hears a noise behind a closed door… and opens it anyway.

I found what can only be described as either a horrific crime scene or the discovery of an ancient civilization. Either there was an attack, a struggle, and Cover Girl was subsequently dragged off site for a gruesome back alley disposal or the women of the house were unexpectedly called away while using tiny brushes (and other unidentifiable archeological tools) to unearth the Lost City of V Vivaudou.

Every surface was covered with bottles of wildly diverse shapes and sizes and an equally bizarre assortment of plastic containers. Upon no surface could I rest my eyes without locating a motley of miscellaneous equipment. Brushes of varying sizes. A colorful assortment of polyhedral sponges. Some sort of tackle-box full of warpaint. An arrow that points true north. Something that can only be described as brown. Possible sifting screens and a spoon excavator.

Towels were draped from everything (except the towel bars). The rug was thrown askew and the mirror had freakish streaks of unknown origin. I eased the door open further and the subsequent breeze made a large ball of snarled hair roll across the floor not unlike a tumble weed.

I was alone and I was afraid.

Slowly I backed away and reminded myself: I have my very own bathroom (insert smug smiley face emoticon). Sometimes in life it’s the little things; and having a bathroom all to myself is a special and cherished thing.