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Morning Light DVD Review

Morning Light (2008) movie poster Morning Light

Theatrical Release Date: October 17, 2008 / Running Time: 98 Minutes / Rating: PG

Writer/Director: Mark Monroe / Conceivers/Producers: Roy E. Disney, Leslie DeMeuse / Idea: Thomas J. Pollack

Tagline: A 2500-mile journey that will change the course of their lives forever.

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Without a doubt, Roy Edward Disney is the most famous Disney living today. The 79-year-old bears clear physical resemblance to his uncle, who decades ago built an empire of family entertainment upon some imaginative cartoons.
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Today, Walt's legacy is probably more celebrated than that of any other behind-the-scenes entertainer and his company thrives as the world's largest media conglomerate by market value. And yet, Roy hasn't featured too prominently in that success, particularly in recent years.

As a young man in the 1950s, Roy got his feet wet working on the True-Life Adventures, Disney's pioneering line of nature documentaries. Thereafter, he received the occasional producing and directing credit and in 1967, following his uncle's death, he was elected to the company's board of directors. Leaving in the late-1970s when the studio was considered creatively challenged, Roy returned in the 1980s alongside CEO Michael Eisner and President Frank Wells. Together, the three helped restore glory to Disney's animation department, reaching new heights with a number of early '90s hits.

As progress slowed, Roy remained an active presence, particularly championing Fantasia 2000 as a project Walt envisioned. Things grew sour, though, and in 2003, Roy Disney resigned from his namesake's board, disgruntled with the company and especially Eisner's management of it. Roy continued to be one of Eisner's fiercest critics, even establishing a website in the campaign to oust the executive. As appeared to be the case with Pixar Animation Studios, Eisner's 2005 resignation and succession by Robert Iger mended bridges for Roy, who returned to the company as Director Emeritus and consultant.

Playing out mostly in the public eye, that drama was of sure interest to fans of the Disney company. It may be the most interesting activity ever surrounding Roy Disney, who whether because of or despite his surname, has largely acted as a figurehead. Need an authoritative interview subject to comment on one of Walt's triumphs? Need someone whose signature can render official a Walt Disney Treasures DVD authenticity certificate? Need a meaningful sound bite for the passing of a Disney Legend? In all cases, nobody meets your needs better than Roy Disney.

As for Roy Disney the filmmaker, his credits for theatrically-released fare can be counted on one hand. When news came a few years back that this number would be growing by one, Disney fans felt some obligation to take notice. And yet, past pet projects such as Fantasia 2000, 1989 family film Cheetah, and 21st century animated short subjects (Lorenzo, Destino) felt epic compared to Morning Light, a sailing documentary released to just 55 theaters last fall and disappearing soon after.

Roy Disney's 2008 documentary "Morning Light" centers on the assembly of a team of under-25 amateurs competing in the Transpac, an over 2000-mile offshore race from Los Angeles to Honolulu. The fifteen finalists to sail on the Morning Light dive into the process of assigning positions and cutting four runner-ups.

Roy Disney is credited with conceiving and producing Morning Light along with Leslie DeMeuse, a TV sports producer and Roy's wife of one year. The film's promotional subtitle, "A True-Life Documentary", harks back to Roy's earliest films. And yet this is no product of a bygone era, a fact immediately made obvious.

A writer of little-seen, long-windedly-titled documentaries Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos and Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who, Mark Monroe makes his directing debut here and he does so with a distinctly 21st century flair. The techniques of Monroe and editor Paul Crowder invoke time-lapse photography, speed-change effects, handheld camera work, and the Jerry Bruckheimer principle that only a rare shot last longer than five seconds. Ordinarily, such style may be used to compensate for a lack of substance and to some degree that may be the case here, but the methods do successfully boost visual interest in the hard sell material.

The film centers on the 2007 Transpac Yacht Race, specifically the title vessel, which is assembled by Roy Disney and a largely unseen panel. Fifteen applicants are chosen to compete for the eleven spots on the Morning Light crew. These fit young people, mostly Americans and all in their late teens and early 20s, travel to Hawaii for training exercises that double as auditions. The design brings to mind reality television competition and the film embraces this feel, complete with candid first-person interviews like those originally seen on MTV's "The Real World."

Human drama emerges as prospective team members are profiled. A few stand out: the lone girl who makes the cut despite a snowboarding injury, a black Baltimorean whose mother has recently passed, and the one foreigner, an Australian chosen as the boat's skipper. Their unique angles and the group's common journey are both able to make accessible a recreational activity most would deem of minimal interest. The portrayal of the challenge as life-or-death seems mildly overdramatized as does the anticipated competition with rival favorite, Samba Pa Ti. But there's romanticism and adventure to the notion of sailing across a no man's land, the sparsely-traversed part of the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii.

Australian-accented appointed skipper Jeremy Wilmot, alias Troll, makes one of the biggest impressions of the young Morning Light crew. Aboard the yacht and near its giant steering wheel, three crew members look interestedly at their surroundings.

Unfortunately, the arrival of the actual race 50 minutes in loosens the film's grip on non-sailor viewers' attentions. How do you capture the excitement of a 2,500-mile offshore trek expected to take ten days in a half-hour? I don't know and the filmmakers don't seem to either, despite having the journey covered top to bottom in their impressive footage. Thus, the technical experiences encountered are compressed and simplified without meaning.
The racing parts would benefit from depicting the sacrifices of living under these conditions. A section on normal dry land food cravings works, but frankly I'd rather have seen more similar passages than hear about vague navigational efforts. Yacht racers no doubt would disagree.

The 98-minute runtime doesn't seem like a perfect fit for the material. A short-run TV series on one of those cable channels I don't watch sounds suitable, but would have drained my interest. IMAX's half-feature length might have worked, but the upside of avoiding the format is that Morning Light doesn't simply rely on supersized spectacle.

Allow me to conclude with some random thoughts and observations. Adding to the documentary's modern stylings is a score by an unresearchable band called Matter and the liberal use of pre-existing British pop tunes (hopefully acquired at a cut-rate considering the movie's $275 thousand worldwide earnings). The film is rated "PG for some language" and that seems a bit severe. Although we do get uses of "bastard", "effed", and "balls out", the one s-word utterance is bleeped and the collegiate cast largely manages to keep the talk clean without an air of censorship. (The movie was edited and resubmitted, earning its second PG with less description baggage.) Sitcom regular and voice actor Patrick Warburton provides opening narration, but only ninety seconds' worth. Roy Disney claims only slightly more screentime, his initial appearance as an emcee of sorts nearly being forgotten by the time he resurfaces.

Eight months since starting its limited theatrical run, Morning Light comes to Disney DVD and Blu-ray next week.

Buy Morning Light on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Extras Captioned and Subtitled
DVD Release Date: June 16, 2009
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Black Keepcase with Side Snaps
Also available on Blu-ray Disc

VIDEO and AUDIO

Morning Light appears in 1.85:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16:9 displays. The nicely-shot documentary and its clean video are easy to appreciate when you consider the challenging conditions of ocean filming. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is strong, exhibiting good bass and some atmosphere like a bit of tactful wind in the surround channels.

Producers and spouses Leslie DeMeuse-Disney and Roy Edward Disney get interviewed by well-meaning manchild Jason Earles in "Stories from the Sea." Having to cut the field from 30 to 15, judges deliberate with headshots and a dry erase board in ESPN's "Morning Light: Making the Cut." The Morning Light's colorful sail logo appears prominently in this shot from the DVD main menu's montage.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The film is supplemented by two substantial bonus features, each presented in 16x9 widescreen and Dolby Surround sound.

First up is "Stories from the Sea" (28:30), which begins with an awe-filled study of sailboats and sailors, covering the Morning Light's first aid training and navigational devices. It proceeds to tell the story of Steve, the unselected black man who wound up accompanying Roy Disney on his lush boat, the Pyewacket. The most interesting making-of stretch highlights the amply-challenged efforts of cameraman/interviewer Richard Deppe, who accompanied and shot the crew with a number of cameras.
Each segment is set up by barefoot host Jason Earles of "Hannah Montana", who starts reading his cards much too quickly but ultimately settles down for his brief discussion of yacht parts. The promotional piece concludes with Earles interviewing Roy Disney and Leslie DeMeuse. The producers individually are also heard from elsewhere, as are crew members and team trainer Robbie Haines. Beyond those sound bites, we get plenty of footage from filming, only some of it used in the film.

The ESPN special "Morning Light: Making the Cut" (41:54) stands as something of a prequel to the movie. This program focuses on the judges whittling down the candidate pool from 30 to 15, a week of Los Angeles activity not seen in the film. It profiles both the judges and the hopefuls; the former group's deliberations (completely absent from the film) are seen at length. The applicants engage in exercises on sea and land while reflecting on their experience and hopes. The reality TV feel is even stronger here and, with good reason, since this fits the bill as that. It's neat and rare to encounter a bonus feature that is fine and maybe better to watch before viewing the feature.

Although the case and press release mention a third DVD-only extra, Dylan and Cole Sprouse's "Blu-ray is Suite!" mini-infomercial is nowhere to be found here. It can be seen on Bedtime Stories' Deluxe Edition DVD and future Disney discs not yet released.

The sleek animated main menu spruces up ocean footage from the film with graphics and overlays. The bonus features menu gives us a simpler version of the same, while the remaining selection screens simply play Matter score on static imagery.

Head-of-the-disc trailers promote Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Race to Witch Mountain, Earth, Blu-ray, and Disney Movie Rewards. The Sneak Peeks menu's only addition is a Hannah Montana: The Movie preview.

Normal for a 2009 Disney DVD, the only in-case inserts are the obligatory Blu-ray booklet and a sheet supplying your unique Disney Movie Rewards code.

Inside the ship's hull, three leading crew members observe and discuss the Morning Light's navigational path. Morning Light sails off into the sunset and so does this review.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Roy Disney's latest pet project, Morning Light, considers his own interests above those of audiences. Though the subject matter limits the film's appeal to a small niche market, viewers giving it a chance may be pleasantly surprised by how accessible and investable the contemporary reality TV stylings render this yachting race documentary. While it's not something I expect to remember very long, Morning has enough going for it to warrant a curiosity viewing, which Disney buffs and offshore racers may want to give it without any stronger endorsement. The DVD boasts terrific picture and sound plus an unusually meaty couple of bonuses.

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Reviewed June 10, 2009.