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Meet Elisabeth Harnois from "Mars Needs Moms," the Disney Channel star that didn't implode

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Meet Elisabeth Harnois from "Mars Needs Moms," the Disney Channel star that didn't implode

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Have you ever gone to the movies and - as you were watching that film - suddenly fixate on a particular performer in that motion picture?

By that I mean: You know that you've seen this actor somewhere else before. But you just can't remember where or when.

Well, this past weekend, for the first time ever, this happened to me while I was watching a performance-capture movie. I was at a preview screening of "Mars Needs Mars." And as Ki - the Martian tagger who teaches herself to speak English by watching 1970s sitcoms - came on the screen ...

Copyright ImageMovers Digital LLC. All rights reserved

... there was something so familiar about that voice, about the way that this character carried herself ... It kind of pulled me out of this ImageMovers Digital production for a moment. As I racked my brain trying to remember where I knew this actress from.

But given that "Mars Needs Moms" is a pretty entertaining movie, I eventually found myself sucked right back into this 3D sci-fi comedy-adventure. But every time that Ki came back on screen (which was a lot, actually. This character plays a crucial role in Milo's quest to rescue his mother after she's taken to the Red Planet) I still kept wondering: Where do I know this actress from?

And to be honest, the credits were no help.  When the line "Elisabeth Harnois as Ki" went by at the end of the movie, I have to admit that I drew a complete blank. Only after I got a partial view of Elizabeth's face in that behind-the-scenes production footage which is featured in "Mars Needs Moms" end credits did I finally sort of realize where I knew Ms. Harnois from.

Elisabeth Harnois and Ki, the out-of-this-world character that this
actress did performance-capture work for in "Mars Needs Moms."
Photo by Joseph Lederer. Copyright ImageMovers Digital LLC.
All rights reserved

You see, Elisabeth is a Disney girl from 'way back. How far back? Well, do you remember "One Magic Christmas" ? That 1985 Walt Disney Pictures release which starred Mary Steenburgen and Harry Dean Stanton? Well, in this Phillip Borsos film, a 5-year-old Elisabeth Harnois did a terrific job of playing Steenburgen's daughter, Abbie.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But where most Disneyana fans will probably know Ms. Harnois from is "Adventures in Wonderland," that educational program which the Disney Channel aired on weekdays from March 1991 through the Fall of 1995. On this Emmy Award-winning series, Elisabeth played a contemporary version of Lewis Carroll's Alice character. She'd enter Wonderland through the mirror in her bedroom and then - through story and song - teach TV viewers all sorts of vocabulary and language skills.

A total of 100 episodes of "Adventures in Wonderland" were produced over this educational program's 4-year run. With 35 of those being shot on the soundstages at Disney-MGM Studios theme park in late 1992 / early 1993.

But me myself ... Well, I got to spend a day on the "Adventures in Wonderland" set when the first 65 shows were being taped at CBS Studio Center in Studio City, CA. And one of the more memorable aspects of that experience was watching how poised & professional Ms. Harnois was.

13-year-old Elisabeth Harnois back during her
"Adventures in Wonderland" days. Copyright
 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

I remember talking with Broadway veteran Armelia McQueen (who played the Red Queen on this TV show, but is probably best known to Disneyana fans as the voice of Uh-Oa, the Tiki Goddess of Disaster in WDW's "The Enchanted Tiki Room - Under New Management" show) about how talented Elisabeth was. How this then-13-year-old seemed to know all of her lines, songs and dances before she came on set.

"I wish that the adult actors who work on this show were half as prepared as that kid is," Armelia laughed.

Over the course of that day, I got to watch as the "Adventures in Wonderland" crew blocked out all of the camera moves for a pretty elaborate production number. And throughout that fairly lengthy rehearsal process (not to mention that afternoon's equally long shoot), Ms. Harnois' energy never flagged. She always hit her marks with precision. Elisabeth knew exactly which camera she was supposed to be playing to when. This 13-year-old girl was an absolute model of show business professionalism.

The cast of the Disney Channel's "Adventures in Wonderland." Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And in the end, I think that's what made me recognize Ms. Harnois' performance-capture work as Ki in "Mars Needs Moms." This now-31-year-old actress still carries herself with the same precision and poise that she had back in 1991. And after having seen Elisabeth do the same production number over & over & over again during my day-long visit to the "Adventures in Wonderland" set ... well, I think the way that Ms. Harnois moves kind of got burned into my brain.

Of course, Elisabeth (who actually stepped away from acting in the late 1990s to complete her studies. Eventually graduating from Wesleyan University with a degree in film studies in 2001) would most likely dismiss this sort of praise for her poise & professionalism. In an interview that she did for the "Mars Needs Mars" press kit, Ms. Harnois insisted that (these days, anyway) ...

"... I'm a big goof ball. At the audition I was a goof ball and while working on the project. This role has allowed me to flex my goof ball muscles like I never have."

So - as you can see - there's not a whole lot of ego here. Nowadays, Elisabeth thinks of herself as a working actress who is happy to once again go to work for the Mouse whenever Mickey calls. Which has meant that -- over the past 10 years -- Ms. Harnois has done everything from playing Bianca's ex Sarah Livingston on ABC's "All My Children" ...

Elisabeth Harnois and Matt Bomer (now of "White Collar" fame) on
"All My Children" back in 2001. Copyright American Broadcasting
Company, Inc. All rights reserved

... to channeling Paris Hilton as she played self-centered LA heiress Milan Carlton on Touchstone Television's "Dirt," a short-lived drama set in the world of sleazy Hollywood tabloids.

Courtney Cox and Elisabeth Harnois perform poolside in "Dirt."
Copyright 2008 Touchstone Television. All rights reserved

And somewhere inbetween being a modern day Alice and a Martian, there was a brief stint in that popular Disney-produced sitcom, "Boy Meets World." Where Elisabeth played Missy Robinson. a high school temptress who tried to lure Cory away from Topanga.

And speaking of "Boy Meets World" :  Back in 1998, Ms. Harnois co-starred with Will Friedle (who played Eric Matthews on that ABC series) in Disney's "My Date With the President's Daughter." During which Elisabeth played First Daughter to Dabney Coleman's Commander-in-Chief.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But these days ... Ms. Harnois is just happy to be part of " ... a really fun, smart family film" like "Mars Needs Moms." Being cast for a production that used performance-capture technology was particularly appealing to Elisabeth. Given that - as she put it in ther press kit interview -- "I've always been a fan of new technologies. I went to film school myself, so I'm always looking into those sorts of things."

So how is "Mars Needs Moms"? Well, I'm not allowed to file a formal review of this film 'til late Thursday / early Friday. But Nathan Rose and I do discuss this ImageMovers Digital production in great detail over the course of this week's Magical Definition podcast.

Copyright ImageMovers Digital LLC. All rights reserved

Just be warned, though. Nathan and I discuss a number of "Mars Needs Moms" -related spoilers over the course of this podcast. And if you'd like to go into this Simon Wells film (which opens in theaters nationwide this Friday) cold ... Well, you might want to hold off on listening to this particular Magical Definition podcast until AFTER you get back from the multiplex.

Elisabeth Harnois today. Photo by Joseph Lederer.
Copyright ImageMovers Digital LLC.
All rights reserved

Anyway ... Getting back to Ms. Harnois now: You know, I have to say that -- after all of those tabloid stories about Disney-related  starlets like Lindsay, Britney, Christina, Demi or Miley who've either gone off the rails and/or done things that embarrassed The Walt Disney Company - it's actually kind of refreshing to write about someone like Elisabeth. Who spent years working for the Disney Channel but then didn't come away from that experience with a desperate desire to "borrow" necklaces, punch back-up dancers and/or shave her head in front of the paparazzi.

Which suggests (to me, anyway) that working for the Mouse while you're a teen isn't quite as toxic as some folks would like you to believe.

Your thoughts?

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  • I remember even though  was above the normal age for watching AiW, it was pretty entertaining-back in the day when there was content on the Disney Channel that I could watch alongside my younger sisters without feeling like I was being dumbed down.

    Though it seems that the press is always eager to jump on anyone having a 'bad day,' and then proceed to hound these people to where it almost feels like they're saying, "we're enjoying this so much, could you somehow die so that we can do a giant expose on where you went wrong?" Me personally, I just read a few articles on Christina, Britney and even Lindsey...and then just looked to actual 'news.' At the moment, what's going on in Libya is more newsworthy than the entertainment news that people say I should be paying attention to.

  • And boy did she pick a great film to be a part of! I had the good fortune of seeing this at the LA Premiere and it far surpassed my expectations. This film has been poorly marketed and I think people will be very surprised and hopefully word-of-mouth with make up for the bad marketing. The film looks amazing artistically and technically. Hats off to ImageMovers and it's really unfortunate that Disney was so short-sighted and shut them down without giving them chance. My 3 kids all LOVED the film and have asked to see it again. Moms will especially appreciate and enjoy the message. Great film, go see it!

  • A year ago, I saw her at a mall in Los Angeles.  She had a neck brace on and she told me she just had a tooth pulled.  I told her how great she is in everything she does.  Despite the pain she was in, she carried a full conversation with me.  That was so cool.

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