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Dream On Silly Dreamer DVD Review

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Movie & DVD Details

Director/Writer: Dan Lund / Producer: Tony West

Interview Subjects: Andreas Deja, Dorse Lanph, Jacqueline Sanchez, Carmen Sanderson, Mauro Maressa, Brian Ferguson, James Mansfield, Joey Mildenberger, Merry Clingen, Barry Cook, Thomas Baker, Paul Briggs, Joel Biske, John Cashman, Ed Coffeey, Larry Flores, Kris Heller, David Karp, Susan Lantz, Derrick McKenzie, Michael Montgomery, Sue Nichols, Sean Ramirez, John Tucker, Dougg Williams, Garret Wren

Narrator: Richard Cook / Voice Cast: James Harris, Kelly Hoover, John Tucker, Tyler Jones (The Dreamer)

Running Time: 40 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated
Theatrical Premiere: January 31, 2005 / Exhibitions Throughout 2005
1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Aspect Ratio)
Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None
DVD Release Date: February 14, 2006; Suggested Retail Price: $21.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9); Clear Keepcase

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Many of the most ardent and informed fans of Disney animation would not be able to tell you the significance that the date March 25, 2002 holds. Right off the bat, then, Dream On Silly Dreamer, a 40-minute film written, directed, and edited by former Disney animator Dan Lund, has something going for it which all documentaries should: information. On that Monday, Thomas Schumacher, then Disney's President of Feature Animation, advised more than 200 of the studio's artists that they would need to look for work elsewhere. Dream On enlightens any viewer it can find about that puzzling, frustrating decision and the moves that led to it. It achieves this goal with a supremely captivating blend of interviews with affected Disney animators and a running cartoon motif unmistakably inspired by Disney films.

There is no question that an air of mystery has long surrounded Hollywood movie studios and the secretive plotting they use to find financial success. This nature of the industry lends an innate element of intrigue to Lund's film, which was produced by veteran Disney visual effects animator Tony West and treated to seven months of sporadic theatrical screenings last year. That intrigue is considerably amplified since Dream On deals with a company whose empire in family entertainment triggers instant connotations of happy vacation memories, an indelible animated canon which has long been a childhood rite of passage, and a consistent image lending itself to fans unlike other studios. Add to the previous sentences the fact that even those
with enough knowledge and interest in Disney to visit a site like this are left scratching their heads to grasp why management would authoritatively close the book on traditional animation. All things considered, you've got yourself a fascinating premise and a golden opportunity for a film to fill a certain void on a compelling present-day story of art and business colliding.

Some might expect that a documentary made by and featuring people who used to work at Disney would be little more than bitter complaining, but they would be sorely mistaken. Dream On begins its real life story with the animation renaissance that the Mouse ushered in during the late 1980s and early 1990s with critically acclaimed and phenomenally profitable musicals like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. The interview subjects excitedly recall entering Disney with wide eyes and an appreciation of a multi-decade cinematic legacy. They proudly remember the hard work and ridiculous hours they put in on projects they believed in. In one of the most interesting patches, they reflect upon the perks that came with the territory, from simply being able to wear anything at work to receiving Eisner Era treats like hats and jackets.

The opening of "Dream On Silly Dreamer" intentionally resembles Disney's Winnie the Pooh shorts of the 1960s and '70s. Longtime animator Andreas Deja seems content with the state of Disney animation today, but he is less cheery in this documentary.

Attention, awards, and celebrations kept coming, culminating with the record-setting box office highs of The Lion King. That 1994 film's success was greeted with bonus checks that we're told could buy a new car. Hardly any participant can refrain from breaking into a smile or laugh while talking about those times. But the fame and wealth those glory days offered were accompanied by vast change for the Disney animation scene, bringing an apparently artist-unfriendly new Animation Building, agents and lawyers for animators, and massive expectations from upper management.

While it spends more than half of its brief running time cheerily covering Disney Animation's heyday with only a tinge of cynicism, Dream On does not ponder the subsequent fall very much. Indeed, as one speaker puts it, a combination of several factors deserves credit for a string of underperforming animated Disney features (none of which are mentioned by name). Though the film doesn't consider those factors sufficiently (beyond the fact that, despite their profitability, critically-drubbed direct-to-video sequels surely cheapened the brand name), it never loses our full attention and support. We discover, among other things, that the strong theatrical performance of Fox/Blue Sky's computer-animated Ice Age would seemingly lead to the abrupt "Tom Meeting." (To give greater context than what is provided, in the 10 days preceding the meeting, Ice Age had already accumulated more revenue in American theaters than Disney Feature Animation's previous effort, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, had made in its entire run the previous summer.) Needless to say, Dream On paints Tom Schumacher and middle management as the villains of the piece.

One can't help but concur with the underlying argument that the studio's decision to fire off the majority of its artists and abandon the medium that launched everything seemed, to put it lightly, rash. It's also fairly impossible not to sympathize with the interviewed artists, who poured their hearts and souls into films we love only to be dismissed and have their passion trivialized. It is worth noting that the movie definitely assumes foreknowledge of the ground being covered. Accordingly, it doesn't linger on basic concepts of animation or studio management. Nor does it really take steps to make sure everyone who might care does. Such a tone may divide its audience into those who feel under-equipped and those happy not to be talked down to. But its design and angles ultimately are overshadowed by priceless candid observations from fervent people who understandably feel cheated by having short-sighted business conquering art. This is reality for any for-profit employee of the entertainment industry, but nonetheless, the Disney animators' story is one which deserves to be told and ought to be heard.

In one of the film's most interesting sequences, the artists recall the perks they received during the good ole' days, such as this snazzy jacket. Carmen Sanderson was at Disney since the mid-1940s, but that didn't excuse her from being affected by the 2-D fallout.

Dream On tells the story skillfully, and its audience should appreciate that, ironically, it is modeled after Disney movies, down to the opening logo, credits font, and even a score which aspires to Walt Era features. The documentary takes most of its cues from the Winnie the Pooh featurettes of the '60s and '70s, with its opening set in a room that
"could be the office of any artist" and its narrator Richard Cook (who, despite the name, it's safe to say isn't the chairman of the Disney Studios) achieves the soothing tone of the omniscient storyteller of those films.

The roster of interview subjects does not include many people who would be recognized even by diehard fans of Disney animation. One exception is Andreas Deja, who seems to have changed his tune and now appears to be one of the studio's biggest cheerleaders from his various DVD appearances. Despite being relegated to "animation consultant" and on-screen animation personality on recent DTV Bambi II, Deja is known for being supervising animator on noteworthy heroes (Roger Rabbit, Lilo) and villains (Gaston, Jafar, Scar). Another is Mulan director Barry Cook, who appears briefly. The majority are individuals whose efforts generally go unsung by the public regardless of the honors bestowed upon the films. Many are, like the director and producer, effects animators. Others are clean-up artists or in-betweeners. One older lady, ink and paint artist Carmen Sanderson, had spent most of her life at Disney, beginning with Song of the South in the 1940s. Though the names and faces may be previously unknown, they are not easily forgotten. It is effortless to appreciate the unique perspective this group brings to the film.

Fast moving, well-edited, and not without a sense of humor, Dream On Silly Dreamer is a satisfying look at a subject not likely to be as openly documented elsewhere anytime soon, if ever.

This is the animation style of the cartoon portions of "Dream On Silly Dreamer." Rain falls on the Feature Animation building on the day of the infamous "Tom Meeting." Special effects animator Dorse Lanpher was at Disney for more than thirty years. He is one of many interview subjects with stories to tell. Jeffrey Katzenberg makes a speech at a party celebrating the success of "Beauty and the Beast."

VIDEO and AUDIO

Dream On appears in what is presumably its theatrical aspect ratio, roughly 1.33:1 "fullscreen." Obviously, this is not a film you turn to for the full DVD audio/video experience. Nevertheless, the new interview footage, clips of relevant locations, and original animation all look quite good. Some of the animators' home movies sampled are in terrible shape for being twenty years old or younger, but they easily provide the film with its most valuable visuals, and thus are forgiven. The viewer may observe shortcomings of the budget-conscious equipment that go hand in hand with independent film, but at least all new footage is capably filmed by Lund, who had three documentaries under his belt prior to this.

As far as sound goes, a pair of English tracks are offered. The default presentation, Dolby Stereo, gets the job done fine. But for those who need to be enveloped, a 5.1-channel mix is also provided. This delivers basically a surround experience without much directionality, but with some reinforcement in the rear channels for the music and animated portions. Alas, dialogue sounds somewhat stronger in the stereo track. With either soundtrack, it is evident that the equipment used to capture the interview audio isn't state-of-the-art. Background noises and locations regularly effect the quality of the recordings. Though slightly distracting, this trait is easy to overlook.

It's not every DVD which gives you the entire film score as a bonus feature. Even Easter Eggs aren't exempt from misspellings. The second page from Dan Lund's original pitch artwork. This page from the news scrapbook gallery illustrates the unflattering critical response that met many of Disney's early direct-to-video sequels. This is one of twelve poster designs found in the Poster Concept art gallery.

BONUS FEATURES

It might be tough to justify Dream On's standard film list price of $20-ish based on just the feature's 40-minute runtime, but it's much easier to do with the multitude of bonus features housed on the disc. First, from the Main Menu, there is a teaser (1:27), which very loudly but effectively previews the film. Next is the Original Score. That's right, you can choose to play the 24-track score in its entirety (25:08), or you can listen to the short Disney-inspired tracks individually. It's not John Williams, but it's the type of neat, easy-to-include extra that one really appreciates. The Main Menu also holds a couple of Easter Eggs. Selecting the right background elements takes you to two galleries. The first tours you through a "who's who" of the different roles of an animated film crew using the drawing style seen in the film. The second briefly illustrates the different shades of tan considered for the sketchbook background.

Under Bonus Features and Extras, one finds an exciting number of listings. First is a gallery of 27 pages of writer/director Dan Lund's pitch artwork,
which roughly sketches out the entire narrated animated storyline of the film pretty closely to how it turned out. Next, a Still Art Gallery depicts most of the clever drawings comprising the cartoon portions of the film.

"Early Animation Tests" offers seven brief versions of cartoon segments from the film. Most are silent and black-and-white, though fully animated as intended. Altogether, they only run a minute and a half, making the dedicated menu a bit needless. "'News' Scrapbook Pages" depicts fourteen collages which are briefly witnessed in the film. The eye-catching layouts are taken chiefly from newspaper and magazine reports and artistically arranged. A gallery of "Poster Concept Art" holds twelve designs considered and the final poster artwork decided upon in marketing the film.

Three brief videos document the farewells which ensued among the animators and their employer. "California Clean Up Crew Goodbye" (7:10) shows poorly-lit highlights from a party at a place called Viva Fresh, in which clean-up artists wax poetic on what nearing completion on Home on the Range (a film some have disparaging words about) means. "Florida Effects Goodbye" (7:20) is in the same vein, consisting mostly of dark video of another closing celebration, in which a number of effects animators recount the first scene they animated. It would be more poignant if the subjects could be more clearly seen and if some had joined prior to The Lion King and Mulan. Lastly, one of the more interesting bonuses, "Buying Our Desks" (4:18), contains surreal footage of the laid-off animators paying $1300 to Disney to take their special animators desks with them from the shuttered Florida studio. Lund, West, and others again briefly recall the first scenes they animated.

The "Premieres and Festivals Slide Show" (8:00) is likely of more interest to the filmmakers than you, unless you toured the globe with them like a groupie. Set to music, it depicts the various theaters in which and crowds to whom the movie played. On the other hand, "BBC Radio Interview" (13:48) is definitely one of the best extras on the disc. This upbeat piece finds director Lund and producer West chatting with two cheery presenters of a Radio Cleveland show called "Gobstopper" in the UK, as the former Disney animators discuss their film and its intentions. Within this featurette is some footage from the downtown Minneapolis theater where the movie was screened before in February 2005 on the eve of a Disney shareholders meeting and a scrolling list of film festivals that turned the movie down. "L.A. Premiere at the Alex Theater" (17:20) is another interesting supplement. It offers a professional-looking narrated overview of the May 2005 screening which brought out former Disney animators in droves including many of the folks interviewed in the film. The festivities include opening remarks from Roy Disney, plus an address from Lund and West, and a capella group Reverse Osmosis performing some Disney songs (only seen in glimpses due to "legalities"). While this substantial segment may not sound good for much more than vicarious thrills, it truly captures what appears to be an electric day filled with warm, eager reception.

It's not Alan Partridge, but Lund and West's appearance on BBC Radio's "Gobstopper" program is one of the most entertaining supplements included. Lund and West introduce their film to much excitement at the May 2005 premiere in L.A.'s Alex Theater. Michael Eisner speaks to animators in this home video footage from a party for "Beauty and the Beast."

The remaining seven supplements fall under the header Super Sized Sequences. Much of this footage would have enhanced the film, but obviously had it all been left in, the movie would have tripled in length. Still, it would have been neat to watch an extended version of the film as a whole, since some footage from the feature is repeated here. Other than that fact, this material makes for an ideal inclusion as is. The "Growing Up Disney" Sequence (22:25) expands upon the love that the artists express for Disney, as many (including Deja) happily recall the thrills (and anxieties) of how they started working at Disney. The "Warehouse" Sequence (7:16) contains mostly complaints or praises for the workplace environment where animation was done. More exciting, this portion also houses some interesting home video footage of the effects department's final weekend of working on Aladdin.

The "What It's Like to Work for Disney" Sequence (19:05) offers more favorable recollections from the interview subjects, as feelings of pride and accomplishment are recalled (and in turn, conjured) from the animation renaissance's glory days. There's some rich home video material from the wrap parties for Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King; the former offers some comments from Roy E. Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg, which one can't help but feel privy to observe. There's also more on the goodies that various department workers received, the personal touches of Katzenberg that were missed following his departure, and an oddly-repeated comment from Andreas Deja.

The "Story Department" Sequence (15:10) offers long stretches with Sue Nichols of story and visual development, who openly explains that problems experienced in storytelling coincided with an excess of stories being bounced around and, in turn, having
creative executives joining in and becoming a part of meetings. There is also quite a bit more from Barry Cook, who talks about My Peoples, a film project of his which was axed, and briefly mentions how he feels about Christina Aguilera's end credits version of "Reflection" used in the film of his which did get made. A number of participants also reflect upon the scriptural strengths of The Little Mermaid.

The "Meeting" Sequence (19:54) enables all involved parties to elaborate on the infamous Tom meeting, recounting what was dictated, why Florida's studio got to stay open instead of California, the role that Ice Age played, and Eisner. While there is heavy griping in this "supersized" version (which was one of the wiser trimmings conducted), surely, one observes a catharsis for the animators trying to grapple with the unfairness of the situation. There's also an interesting end bit about "Artist Appreciation Day", for which management allocated party money to various departments following this massive layoff meeting.

"The Number One Question Answered" (0:45) is an amusing explanation of what busily working Joey Mildenberger was doing while being interviewed in the film. Last but not least is "Extra 'Jacki' Drama!" (8:25), in which oft-smiling in-between artist Jacqueline Sanchez recalls stressful things at work and sets the record straight on what happened at the Tom Meeting. It should be pointed out that profanity is a prominent feature of this last piece (as warned on the back of the case), and it's of the type that can barely be uttered in a PG-13 film.

"Mulan" director Barry Cook talks about "My Peoples", a film that was never made despite his high hopes for it. If you didn't get enough of Jacki Sanchez in the feature itself, an additional 8 minutes feature her profanity-laden recollections of the Tom Meeting. The Main Menu is one of the few not to be marred by typos.

MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Anytime you're dealing with the DVD release of a low-budget independent film, you open yourself up to potential problems in areas taken for granted on major studio output. Fortunately, this is quite a satisfying and well-designed presentation, especially surprising as no DVD mastering company is given credit, only WestLund Productions. The biggest disappointment is that the feature itself has no chapter stops. That may not be an issue if you
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have a player that can jump to a timestamp or you're watching on a DVD-ROM drive and can instantly access any point, but it's a minor annoyance when you're not, especially when the film is clearly structured in a concrete way, as evidenced by the names given to the supersized sequences.

The menus themselves are nicely designed, featuring imagery from the animation of the film. Some animated transitions make for awkward waits for cursors to appear, but the introduction is apt and navigation is otherwise pretty smooth. The Bonus Feature menu gladly lists running times of most video-based supplements as well. That almost makes it easier to forgive the typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors, but these are pretty rampant. They're in the menus, in the movie, the bonus features, and the extended sequences. Heck, even the title appears to be missing a comma. Such errors are a personal pet peeve, and while you may be more forgiving, they do undercut the professionalism of a disc and contents that are otherwise praiseworthy.

The DVD itself comes in a clear keepcase with a typo-free insert outlining all of the bonus features. (The back cleverly features the front of "My Sketch Book", as seen in the movie.) There's definitely none of the shoddiness in the packaging and disc mastering that often can be found in independently-produced DVDs, which again helps to justify the standard pricing.

An artist's self-explanatory response to the closing of Disney's Burbank animation studio. Our dreamer's equally expressive reaction.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Dream On Silly Dreamer is a fascinating and well-executed film which documents the extremes characterizing the past twenty years or so of Disney animation. While not quite flawless, this 40-minute production can by default be considered the definitive take on the subject on account of being the only one. But its lack of competition is far from the only reason it merits praise. Its candid animator interviews, clever Disney-inspired approach, terrific insider perspective, and expert exertion of moderation makes it a compelling film that's affecting and easy to take in spite of the inconceivable nature of its revelations.

The independent DVD release goes above and beyond the call of duty with hours of material, most of which is really interesting. Expanded sequences, videos on the film's screenings, and more priceless home videos serve to truly complement the brief feature and for the most part, help viewers appreciate the movie's creation and the plight of everyone involved with the vast Disney animation layoffs.

Those disenchanted by or simply interested in Disney's recent rise and fall from glory owe it to themselves to buy this DVD, which is fairly easy thanks to the magic of the Internet. You won't find the film in stores or theaters or airing on television anytime soon. You also probably won't find another movie able to address this subject from such a situated position. For something like this, you just have to accept the limitations and to allow yourself to benefit from the priceless insights offered. Dream On garners a sturdy recommendation to all holding some degree of interest, no matter how long the current death of traditional animation at Disney lasts.

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Related Reviews:
The Little Mermaid (1989) Beauty and the Beast (1991) Aladdin (1992) The Lion King (1994)
Mulan (1998) Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) Treasure Planet (2002) Home on the Range (2004)
Walt: The Man Behind the Myth (2001) America's Heart & Soul (2004) Aliens of the Deep (2005)
Sacred Planet (2004) The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan (2004) Ghosts of the Abyss (2003)

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Reviewed March 4, 2006.

All images copyright Dan Lund & Tony West.