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Published: Thursday, 9/4/2003

Tribute to a bygone era

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Prince Phillip awakens Princess Aurora from a long sleep with a kiss in <I>Sleeping Beauty</I>. When it was released, <I>Sleeping Beauty</I> was the most expensive animated film ever made.
Prince Phillip awakens Princess Aurora from a long sleep with a kiss in <I>Sleeping Beauty</I>. When it was released, <I>Sleeping Beauty</I> was the most expensive animated film ever made.
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What Hollywood did this summer: Hollywood sat on the couch and got fat and flabby while its younger siblings, Digital Animation and Specialty Films, had a summer to remember.

A quick recap goes like this: May went great. X2 and Bruce Almighty and The Matrix Reloaded all found summer love with a wide audience. Then things got shaky. Through June and July, sequels to beloved hits meandered. Harrison Ford found no joy in Hitsville, again. Pirates were hot. The lemonade stand in front of the house of Will Smith did business, but the taste was sour. Seabiscuit hasn't broken stride; and smaller, more thoughtful movies, from Whale Rider to Spellbound, stayed in theaters longer than films with budgets a zillion times larger. All that, and a rumble broke out that barely got started.

Like a lot of fights, the outcome was fast, but the ramifications will linger for years.

Disney and Pixar's Finding Nemo, with its breathtaking computer-generated animation, flattened the traditional 2-D cell animation (spiked with CG) of DreamWorks' Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. Which, in itself, isn't surprising, or remarkable. What's ironic, though, is Disney's Nemo and its $300-plus-million success has driven maybe the last nail in the grand tradition of Disney cell animation. And that news is especially poignant this week.

Arguably Disney's finest aesthetic hour, Sleeping Beauty (Buena Vista Home Entertainment, $29.99), arrives in another of the Mouse's fine two-disc special editions.

Nicer still, the 1959 classic is finally presented on video in a wide-screen format, showing off sprawling sequences with fairies and dragons - especially the fire-tipped finale with Prince Phillip and Maleficent - so skillfully rendered they have the delicate, back-lit texture of stained glass. At the time of release, it was the most expensive animated film ever made, and often mistakenly considered a poor man's Cinderella - and it's sad to think that this flat art can't coexist with CG. But I suppose that's the drawback to breaking ground.

As for the DVD, extras come by the pound: Don't skip past Grand Canyon, a very '50s triptych that'll have Boomers digging through boxes for their old Viewmaster slide reels; but do skip yet another attempt by Disney to use its special edition DVDs to push its generic bubblegum music acts. The remaining bonus material includes storyboards, story reels (run to give studio execs what the film will play like before it's animated), animator interviews, Disneyland TV series shorts on Tchaikovsky's music and the animator's different styles, and best yet, rare footage of Helene Stanley dancing as the artists sketch her moves.

eSpeaking of two-dimensional Disney characters: If you're the type who finds Kangaroo Jack (not the movie, Kangaroo Jack) an affront to the human race, you definitely do not want to celebrate the release of the DVD special edition of the granddaddy of all modern dopey family comedies, The Apple Dumpling Gang (BVHE, $24.99). But Gen Y, gather 'round: Don Knotts and Tim Conway were the Bad Boys of their day. Tim was the Will and Don was the Martin. They lock horns with orphans who've inherited gold. Bill Bixby plays the straight man. You have no idea how many people tell me this is the first movie they ever saw - indeed, I think, possibly, it's the very first movie I remember seeing in a theater myself.

Disney gives it a loving treatment, too. Extras include the Dumplings reminiscing on the commentary track; and my favorite, a vintage 1975 studio tour of the Walt Disney back lot.

What is it about Disney and orphans? Also from that year is Escape To Witch Mountain (BVHE, $24.99), getting the special edition treatment. Coat racks attack two clairvoyant orphans on the run from a nasty millionaire. All that and Eddie Albert, too. Extras include the Pluto cartoon shown with Witch Mountain during its initial theatrical run.

eWhen studios flood multiplexes with remakes of slight TV shows like S.W.A.T, it's easy to forget there are still great stories out there to tell. One story begging to be retold is the true tale of the Turk, a carved, turbaned mannequin from the 1770s that was filled with machinery, placed atop a cabinet - and taught to play chess. It toured Europe, beat Benjamin Franklin, appeared to think on its own. The Chess Player (Milestone, $29.99), a lost 1927 silent picture restored to surprising crispness by preservationist Kevin Brownlow - and ideal if you flinch at the idea of watching silent film - takes the Turk and gives him an epic fantasy spanning Poland and Russia. My favorite scene: The Turk beats Catherine the Great at chess. She then orders him shot by a firing squad. Extras include an engrossing public radio discussion of the weird myth of the Turk, a fascinating study in mass delusion.

NEW ON VIDEO: A Man Apart (Starring Vin Diesel, whose celebrity is another study in mass delusion; this time he blows stuff up and tries a revenge drama, and the results are generic); Identity (John Cusack, Ray Liotta, and others play Ten Little Indians in this creepy attempt at a highway motel whodunit that ultimately can't get hold of its own reins).

- CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI



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