I've been getting a lot of e-mail lately about Bill Desowitz's March 15th VFXWorld article. You know, the one that gave folks a sneak peek at Buena Vista Home Entertainment's upcoming release, "Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas."
This particular film (which isn't even due to hit store shelves 'til the second week of November) is already causing a lot of controversy among animation fans. Not so much for its subject matter ("Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas" -- as its title clearly suggests -- is a sequel to BVHE's extremely popular 1999 release, "Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas," which was a direct-to-video project that celebrated the joy of the holiday season by featuring the Fab 5 in several shorts). But rather, because this will be the first long form film in which Mickey and friends will appear in CG form.
You see, "Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas" was a traditionally animated project. Albeit one that Disney Television Animation had animated in Australia and Japan. And "Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas" was originally supposed to be traditionally animated as well. This direct-to-video project had been boarded that way and was allegedly ready to be shipped over to Disney's overseas production facilities. But then -- in December of 2002 -- plans suddenly changed.
What happened? Well, "Twice Upon a Christmas" producer Pam Marsden and supervising director Matt O'Callaghan had been pushing Disney management to allow them to produce one segment of the direct-to-video project in CG. But the concern was that -- by doing this -- the other segments of the film would look ... well ... flat.
But after a particularly successful screening of "Twice Upon a Christmas"'s boards, suddenly the folks at Buena Vista Home Entertainment didn't want just one part of the film to be done in CG. They now wanted the entire picture to be computer animated.
(Truth be told, the pitiful numbers that "Treasure Planet" -- Disney's most recent traditionally animated feature -- was racking up at the box office at the time may have had some impact on Buena Vista Home Entertainment's decision back in December 2002. That -- coupled with the ridiculous amount of money that Pixar Animation Studios' most recent release -- "Monsters, Inc." -- had earned during both its theatrical run as well as its VHS and DVD sales.)
The only problem was ... The CG tests that had been done with Mickey Mouse up until that point had been -- to be polite -- somewhat lackluster. Some of you who attended Disney's annual meeting in Hartford, CT. in February 2002 may recall seeing the test footage that Eisner ran for shareholders then. It showed a computer animated Mickey walking out of his house, opening up his umbrella and then getting swept up in a windstorm. This three dimensional version of Disney's corporate symbol came across as rather stiff.
Nevertheless, Buena Vista Home Entertainment still greenlit a computer animated version of "Mickey's Twice Upon a Time." Assuming that -- as they went along -- the animators that Disney hired would get better at using their computer mice to make Mickey Mouse look A-OK in CG.
To date, that hasn't happened. How many of you recall Mickey's appearance at the 2003 Academy Awards? Where a computer animated version of the Mouse supposedly stood on stage with Jennifer Garner to present that year's award for Best Animated Short. For days afterward, both Disneyana and animation fans complained. Not just because of the awkward banter between Mickey and the "Alias" star. But rather, because of how bad the CG Mickey looked.
Another warning sign that coming up with an acceptable computer animated version of the Mouse may be a lot harder that the folks at Disney had initially thought came when "Mickey's Philharmagic" began previewing at WDW's Magic Kingdom in September of last year. People who attend the previews of this 3D CG extravaganza reported that the entire film was in sharp focus ... except for the sequences that Mickey appeared in. Then -- for some inexplicable reason -- "Mickey's Philharmagic" would suddenly shift to soft focus.
According to WDI insiders that I've spoken with, this was done deliberately. "The CG Mickey we have in 'Philharmagic' just doesn't look very good, " said one unnamed Imagineer. "We tried and tried to get that Mouse to look good in the computer animated format. But we all know Mickey so well from all of his traditional animated appearances. In the end, the CG Mouse just didn't look like Mickey. And -- given that we had run out of time and money -- going with a soft focus in those two quick scenes was the easiest way to go."
Which brings us back to "Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas." Those who have seen the images included with Desowitz's VFXWorld article as well as the brief preview of the project that's been running in the "Coming Attractions" section of recent Buena Vista Home Entertainment releases are still complaining about how stiff and strange this CG version of the Mouse looks. "That's just not the Mickey that I grew up with," said Anna L., a JHM reader who recently wrote to me to comment about the controversy.
Which is true. Me personally, though ... I think I'd prefer to wait on passing judgment on "Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas" and its CG versions of the Fab 5 'til after I see the finished product. Why for? Because I know that these things tend to get better the more time you give the technicians to tweak them.
Case in point: How many of you have seen the CG Tinker Bell at the end of DCA's "Soarin' Over California"? Pretty awful looking, isn't it? Now compare that Tink to the one that makes an appearance in the Peter Pan sequence of "Mickey's Philharmagic." There's a world of difference, don't you think?
Well, there were just two years difference between when the CG Tink that was created for "Soarin'" and the computer animated Tinker Bell that appears in "Mickey's Philharmagic." But -- thanks to the great advances that have been made in CG software over that period (as well as the additional experience Disney's animators have had in the interim when it came to successfully translating traditionally animated characters to the CG format) -- Ms. Bell did look a whole lot better in her second outing.
The same (I hope) will happen with the CG version of Mickey Mouse as time goes by. Certainly the Walt Disney Company seems more confident with the computer animated version of their corporate symbol as of late. I've noticed that the CG Mickey has begun popping up in bumpers over on the Disney Channel. And -- this time around -- the Mouse is in sharp focus.
Of course, the next logical question should be: Should traditionally animated characters even be translated into CG? With Mickey Mouse ... this is kind of a moot point now. Given that there have been computer animated versions of the Mouse since as far back as May 1991. When "Jim Henson presents Muppetvision 3D" opened at Disney-MGM and Waldo tried to make his escape by morphing into Mickey.
But with "Mickey's Philharmagic" featuring a number of classic Disney characters (Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, the brooms from "Fantasia," not to mention newer traditionally animated characters like Ariel from "The Little Mermaid," Lumiere from "Beauty and the Beast" and Aladdin, Jasmine and Iago from "Aladdin"), clearly this is a subject that's going to come up more and more in the future. Particularly since Disney CEO Michael Eisner is said to be championing the idea of remaking some of Disney's classic traditionally animated films as CG projects. With "Peter Pan" supposedly right at the top of Uncle Michael's list.
Will this actually happen? Perhaps. I do know, however, that a number of the Disney faithful are doing everything they can to stop this from happening. For example, you can thank Disney legend Joe Grant for derailing "Dumbo II." That direct-to-video project was supposed to be done in CG. But -- before that could happen -- Joe had to sign off on which computer animation company would be allowed to translate the characters of this 1941 Disney classic into the CG format. And since Grant hated all the test footage that he saw, he refused to given the CG "Dumbo II" his blessing. Which is why this particular BVHE project never made it off the drawing board.
Mind you, this sort of thing cuts both ways. After all, there are animation fans out there who would never give "Buzz Lightyear of Star Command" a chance because this "Toy Story" spin-off series wasn't done in CG. Which meant that they denied themselves the chance to watch a pretty funny television series. All because these folks were really resistant to change. To opening themselves up to new possibilities.
Yeah, some people can get a bit nuts when it comes to change. Me? Like I said earlier, I'd like to wait and see the finished version of "Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas" before I decide whether the Fab 5 looks good in CG or not. I know that -- based on the still photographs included with Bill's article as well as those brief bits of footage I've seen of the computer animated versions of the characters in motion -- that Mickey and Co. are going to be somewhat different looking than I remember them. And that may take a little getting used to.
But does that then give me the right to join the mob of people who are already rushing to condemn this Buena Vista Home Entertainment release before they've even seen it? No.
Do yourselves a favor, folks. Give "Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas" at least one chance before you reject.
Not that I'm saying that the people who have been writing to me lately, saying that they're very concerned about "Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas," are wrong. I'm just saying that these folks might be a bit premature in their condemnation of this computer animated project.
I mean, shouldn't we actually wait to see a film BEFORE we decide whether we like it or not?