"THE SWORD IN THE STONE: 45TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION"


        MOVIE: *** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: ** (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING
    Sebastian Cabot as SIR ECTOR
    Karl Swenson as MERLIN
    Rickie Sorensen as ARTHUR
    Junius Matthews as ARCHIMEDES

    Rated G
    Studio: Disney
    Directed by: Wolfgang Reitherman

The funny thing about growing up is that you often remember things from your childhood as better than they really are. Case in point: Saturday morning cartoons.

Back when there were only four stations, I remember watching the slate of cartoons each weekend. One of my favorites was the Laff-a-Lympics, which brought all the characters of the Hanna-Barbera universe into a sports competition. Years later, I have seen this show on Boomerang and marvel at what a cheap piece of animation it was.

My memories of “The Sword in the Stone” are quite similar. I remember absolutely loving the film as a child. I can’t say I remember what the movie was about, but I was enthralled with it when I was about six or seven. I hadn’t seen it in years before I got the DVD for the 45th Anniversary Edition. Watching it at age 36 is a different experience.

The story follows a young boy named Wart who successfully pulls Excalibur from the famous stone where most knights have failed. Wart is to become the famous King Arthur, but this is him in his younger days as he’s trained by Merlin. I consider it to be the polar opposite to something like “The Lion King” which completely glosses over the hero’s adolescent years.

Part of the charm of “The Sword in the Stone” is the 1960s style of Disney animation that was both rough and beautiful. Using the new Xerox process, there’s a sketchy look to the art, and that gives the film the same warmth we see in “The Jungle Book,” “Robin Hood,” “101 Dalmatians” and the “Winnie the Pooh” shorts.

Sadly, in viewing the film as an adult, I lost a bit of the magic. The story isn’t as well-formed as other animation classics. And the most memorable sequence I remember was the magical dual between Merlin and Madame Mim. It’s still a cool dual, but it’s lost some of its potency against a backdrop of decades of Disney films.

Still, “The Sword in the Stone” is and always shall be a classic. The new 45th anniversary DVD comes with a Merlin’s Magical Academy set-top game, bonus movie shorts, Disney song selection and a spotlight on the endearing Sherman Brothers, who gave us most of the unforgettable Disney songs of that era.



"THE JUNGLE BOOK 2: SPECIAL EDITION"


        MOVIE: **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: ** (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING
    John Goodman as BALOO
    Haley Joel Osment as MOWGLI
    Mae Whitman as SHANTI
    Connor Funk as RANJAN
    Bob Joles as BAGHEERA
    Tony Jay as SHERE KHAN

    Rated G
    Studio: Disney
    Directed by: Steve Trenbirth

What’s actually more interesting than the film “The Jungle Book 2” was how it was released. While the original is a far superior film, this movie (which I believe was originally planned as a simple video release) grossed more than $130 million when it was dropped into theaters in 2003.

Nowadays, this film would have been just let loose onto the DVD market, but back in 2003, DVDs were still found with VHS tapes on the shelves, and the film served a market.

Not exactly a sequel to Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” this film follows Mowgli as he tries to integrate into human society. However, Mowgli still feels the call of the jungle, and his big friend Baloo wants him back as well.

One day, Mowgli heads back into the jungle to see old friends, and he’s followed by a girl from the village and her brother. At the same time, Shere Khan is seeking revenge on the man cub that defeated and humiliated him.

The thing that does make the movie work is the reuniting of old characters. With Phil Harris gone, John Goodman is brought in to voice Baloo, and he does a decent Phil Harris impression in the process. However, the blue tint to the bear makes him a little odd in the grand scheme of things.

The DVD comes with two activities – a storytime adventure and a maze game. There’s also music videos from the songs, including Smash Mouth’s cover of “I Wanna Be Like You.” Finally, there are two deleted scenes to enjoy.

Fans of “The Jungle Book” should enjoy this film for a chance to relive some of the characters, and the climax does get rather exciting as Shere Khan tries to exact revenge. However, with “The Jungle Book” being such a classic, it’s hard to top the original. In the sequel, the songs aren’t as good, the message isn’t as free and the animation (while more crisp and exact) isn’t nearly as endearing as the original.



"HANDY MANNY: PET ROUNDUP"


        MOVIE: ** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: *1/2 (out of 5 stars)

    Rated TV-G
    Studio: Playhouse Disney

Since it debuted on Playhouse Disney and on DVD, I haven’t been a huge fan of the “Handy Manny” cartoon. To me, it was a bit of a rip-off of “Bob the Builder,” and the low-rent CGI used to animate it gives all the warts of everyday cartoons and none of the excitement.

It’s not that substandard 3D animation is cause to dislike a show. Other Playhouse Disney properties like “Higglytown Heroes,” “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” and “My Friends Tigger & Pooh” aren’t exactly Pixar quality, but the writing of these shows help give them pizzazz.

Not that I look for overblown conflicts, but things are just a little too nice with “Handy Manny.” There’s no bad guy, like Pete from “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” and there’s no real mysteries to solve (as, no pun intended, Mickey Mouse as they seem) like in “My Friends Tigger & Pooh.”

However, I cannot deny my children’s affinity towards the “Handy Manny” program. It’s a sweet show, and it connects with the younger viewers, so it’s definitely reaching its target audience.

The latest DVD release of the show has something more to connect with kids – animals. In cast the anthropomorphizes tools weren’t enough, Handy Manny lends some help to various animals in “Handy Manny: Manny’s Pet Roundup.”

The DVD features six episodes that feature our furry friends. Topics covered include finding lost animals to finding a good home for a kitty. The episodes are basic “Handy Manny” faire, with a good message and the depiction of friends helping friends.

There’s a single set-top game as a bonus feature: “The A-Maze-Ing Pet Roundup” which invites kids through a maze to find missing animals. And, like most other Disney DVDs aimed at the preschool market, the FastPlay selection allows you to let the DVD play though its entire menu.



"LITTLE EINSTEINS: FLIGHT OF THE INSTRUMENT FAIRIES"


        MOVIE: ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: *1/2 (out of 5 stars)

    Rated TV-G
    Studio: Playhouse Disney

Unlike the “Handy Manny” selection of shows and DVDs, I’ve always enjoyed the “Little Einstein” brand quite a bit. What makes this show stand out is the studio’s commitment to making the show creative, exciting and educational at the same time. However, instead of hammering lessons and learning down your throat, things are approached in a much more clever way.

The “Little Einsteins” are four friends who travel around in a big red rocket to help friends and learn new things. Each episode features a classical composer and his music and a famous painter and his style through the animation.

The latest DVD release is “Little Einsteins: Flight of the Instrument Fairies.” This DVD title relates to the first episode in which the children try to help different musical instrument fairies. Additional episodes include “The Puppet Princess,” “The Glass Slipper Ball” and “Little Red Rockethood.” One of my favorite recurring characters, the pseudo-villain Big Jet, shows up in the last episode to steal Rocket’s soup that he made for his ailing grandmother.

Part of the charm of “Little Einsteins” is that the world is very big in this small cartoon. Rather than loafing around their back yard and simply pretending, the kids go on worldwide adventures and see many miraculous things. It also plays to the preschool crowd and inspires them with classical painters and music, which is a nice break from other preschool shows like the dreadful “Hip Hop Harry.”

The DVD comes with a single set-top game: “Music Mix-Up Game.” Kids are challenged to identify the different instrument sounds in this game that is simple enough for which preschoolers can take charge of the remote.

If you have young children, the “Little Einsteins” series is a great buy, and “The Flight of the Instrument Fairies” is another step in that journey.



"THE ULTIMATE MULAN 2-MOVIE COLLECTION"


        DVD EXPERIENCE: *** (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING
    Ming-Na as MULAN
    Eddie Murphy as MUSHU (Mulan)
    Mark Moseley as MUSHU (Mulan II)
    B.D. Wong as CAPTAIN LI SHANG
    Harvey Fierstein as YAO
    Gedde Watanabe as LING
    Sandra Oh as TING TING (Mulan II)
    Lauren Tom as SU (Mulan II)

    Rated G
    Studio: Disney

While some have criticized Disney for bringing their films in and out of the DVD vault, making them available only for limited times, you can’t say that there’s few opportunities to buy them.

One of the latest releases from the Disney vault is the “Mulan” movies. Both the original animated film and its direct-to-DVD sequel are available in a gift set. The set contains three discs in all, with two belonging to the Special Edition of “Mulan.” The third disc is “Mulan II.”

There is no difference between these DVDs and the original releases from 2004 and 2005. The only catch is they are now boxed together. If you already own either release, it’s not a great deal to get the box set. However, if you – or rather your kids - have never seen the “Mulan” films, here’s a way to get a little more bang for your buck.

From a critical standpoint, “Mulan” is far superior to its sequel. Part of this is because it was an original theatrical release with a full budget while “Mulan II” was a profit grab in the DVD sequel market. As Disney sequels go, it’s not the best. Much of this is due to the fact that in the first film, the young Mulan is off to save the country while the sequel features a main story of her getting married and finding her independence.

Still, if you’ve got a girl in the house who is into the Disney Princesses, the Mulan films offer a nice alternative to the traditional fairy tale characters.

Special features on “Mulan: Special Edition” include deleted scenes, music videos, fun facts that can play on screen while you watch the movie, a DisneyPedia entry on “Mulan’s World” and a “Discovering Mulan” featurette.

Special features on “Mulan II” include deleted scenes, a music video, a spotlight on the voice talent, a look at the world of Mulan and “Mushu’s Guess Who Game.”

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