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Paul McCartney: The Music And Animation Collection

MPL Films (1984–2000), Miramax Home Entertainment (April 14 2004), single disc, 43 mins plus supplements, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Not Rated, Retail: $29.99

Storyboard:

Three animated featurettes that bear the McCartney stamp of approval – not to mention exclusive new music – appear in an exclusive compilation for the first time. Features Rupert And The Frog Song, Tropic Island Hum and Tuesday plus a vast array of supplemental features.

The Sweatbox Review:

Miramax’s idea to collect ex-Beatle Paul McCartney’s various animated projects together under one roof is a great one, though this new DVD ultimately falls short in a couple of areas. However, the three films included here really do warrant a wider release and to be seen by the kind of family audiences that used to flock to the latest Disney films. Let’s take a look at them, in year of production:

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Rupert And The Frog Song (1984) was created for a music video project to accompany McCartney’s Christmas 1983 hit single We All Stand Together and flourished into this full-length featurette, released later in 1984 with his musical feature drama, Give My Regards To Broad Street. The short features the star of London’s Daily Express newspaper comic strip Rupert The Bear, whose stories were compiled each year and issued as an “annual” – a hardcover bound book. The story goes that one of these books featured Rupert hidden amongst a group of frogs performing their own concert, and McCartney’s musical inspiration began to whirr.

The film opens with young Rupert eager to go play with his friends, Bill Badger and Edward (an elephant, naturally). When he finds they have to baby-sit Bill’s little brother, Rupert heads off to the trees on his own, finding adventure himself when he follows some frogs into a forbidden cave, where their special ceremony crowning the new king and queen is about to take place. Also tracking the frogs is an evil owl and his two sneaky cats, out to ruin the celebrations. The frogs launch into the main theme, We All Stand Together, a wonderful piece of animation worthy of Disney, before the owl makes his move. Luckily, Rupert is able to warn the frogs before things get too critical, and all ends well.

Rupert And The Frog Song is a great little short, and has been one of my favorites since I first caught it theatrically with the Broad Street feature, and its lost nothing of the charm and technical ability it has even after this 20 year gap. True, the story is basically written around the main theme song, the owl never really builds up to being a serious villain and Rupert’s role is minimal at best, but one must remember that this was conceived as a test film by McCartney, who wanted to launch a full-length Rupert feature. Though that would never happen, the adventurous bear had in fact garnered success previous to this film with the hit song Rupert The Bear and did go on to a (non-associated) Nelvana animated series.

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Tropic Island Hum (1997) tells the tale of William The Squirrel, who escapes being hunted in the forest to fly away with Frogo in a wondrous balloon that takes them to an island that cares for endangered animals. This particular featurette seems to get the big push in this DVD package, probably due to the fact that McCartney hopes to develop the characters into a full feature formatted story. We’ll have to wait and see if that pans out (McCartney also of course said the same thing about the Rupert film 20 years ago), but in the meantime this stands on its own as a delightfully fun little story. It almost plays as a “semi-sequel” to Rupert, since the film does feature another frog, as well as repeating a core musical motif from the earlier film (both feature scores by Paul’s long-time collaborator George Martin).

Though the short Tuesday is dedicated to the memory of Paul’s late wife Linda, it’s Tropic Island Hum that really manages to push its animal welfare cause forward, but in a soft way that never seems too forced. The title island reminded me of Naboomboo, from Bedknobs And Broomsticks, being entirely inhabited by animals, in this case “a sanctuary for those who have been cruelly treated”. Now that they’ve escaped the trials of man, these guys actually have it pretty easy: Will and Frogo are welcomed with a huge celebrational song and dance that rivals the I Wanna Be Like You number from The Jungle Book.

Tropic Island Hum is a little rougher around the edges than Rupert, despite being made years later, but matches the two other films on the disc in technical ability, and there are nice nods to other animal movies, most notably one of McCartney’s own favorites, Bambi, as well as The Lion King and The AristoCats. The music is as infectious as any in the McCartney canon, and guaranteed you’ll be humming the Tropic Island Hum by the end of the end credits!

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Finally, Tuesday (2000) features more frogs and returns to another literary source, this time an American book, by David Wiesner. Not having flipped the pages of the book, I can’t say whether the short is a faithful representation of it, though the designs and artwork certainly look as if they pay tribute to the original illustrations. As in the (pretty wordless) book, Tuesday tells of a magical time, around 8pm, when the frogs of a seemingly enchanted swamp begin to rise with their lily pads and float about, heading toward a nearby town to surprise the other animals and play neat little tricks on the humans there. It’s a little like the “flying whales” sequence in Fantasia/2000, but played much more for laughs and magical-ness rather than the awesome majesty in that Disney film.

Animation is again top-notch (actually probably the best in this collection due to the film being the most recent and completed digitally). Detail is amazing, especially the human animation, which is among the most realistic ever captured on screen, and with a unique 3D quality that CGI can still only dream of. The direction (as with all three films) is by Geoff Dunbar, another long-time McCartney associate, who here follows the original award-winning book’s look closely, but has fun with the subject and brings his own style to the proceedings. Eventually, the frogs’ lily pads give way, and the amphibians return to their swamp, not quite content that they have had their nocturnal fun for the night, and waiting for the time they will be able to soar again.

In the book, a statement appears on the inside cover which reads “The events recorded here are verified by an undisclosed source to have happened somewhere, USA, on Tuesday. All those in doubt are reminded that there is always another Tuesday…” In this short, the statement has been moved to the end of the film, where it is read by a very factual sounding Dustin Hoffman, and where it works much better dramatically. This leaves the doors well open for more flights of fancy (the book and film both hint that “pigs could fly” next) and for the audience to come up with their own future variations! It reminded me of the closing to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (though not as graphic of course), and provided a perfect way to capping off this immensely playful, perfectly paced and very enjoyable film.

The Music And Animation Collection itself is bookended by new live-action material featuring Paul, and the one thing that I was undecided about was the way the three films ran “as one”, with the linking pages of a book turning and acting as the glue. As a presentation, it works well enough, but given the short running time of the disc, it would have been nice to have also had the films stored separately again in their original form for true independent viewing. For instance, the Rupert short, which is placed last in the running order, ultimately appears to contain “two” sets of credits – one for the film, and another for the disc presentation itself.

The films are presented in a strange order, with Tropic Island Hum first, for the reasons stated above, and Tuesday stuck in the middle, with Rupert bringing up the rear. I’d have probably liked to see the films in their original production order, but it’s all “much of a muchness”, and the whole thing runs smoothly whichever way you look at it (there’s an argument that the program gets stronger as it runs, saving the “best” for last). Be aware though, that the linking material won’t let you watch each film “end to end” (with straight fade ins and outs) since the audio seeps through from the end of one film and into the next.

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The animation in these films can certainly be easily placed next to other contemporary films of their time, with some stand out sequences, especially Rupert’s undersea frog chorus which evokes memories of Dumbo’s abstract Pink Elephants scene and predates the kind of look Disney would go for in The Little Mermaid some four years later. Interesting is the fact that Eric Goldberg, the lead animator on Aladdin’s Genie, the Rhapsody In Blue segment from Fantasia/2000 and animation director on Joe Dante’s recent Looney Tunes feature, is listed among the key animators on that film – it seems he did get about quite a bit during his early 1980s stint in London’s animation industry!

The three films included here are well worth catching, and the disc is one of those that will be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. Doing a quick check, I couldn’t find that any of these films had ever been nominated or won any major international awards – an amazing feat in itself, since they are certainly up there in terms of quality and entertainment. Here’s hoping that Sir Paul finally manages to get his dream feature film project off the ground. With these films as examples, there’s no reason it should fail – and at the very least, we know it’d contain some decent tunes!

Is This Thing Loaded?

Where the Music And Animation disc shines is in the unexpectedly in-depth extras. None of the films have any commentary, but we do get a “making of” for two of the films, and a great look at the production process for Rupert. As I said at the top of this review though, the disc overall falls short of being an ultimate collection, and not just due to the technical qualities.

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Originally released in late 1983, the We All Stand Together song provided Paul with a Christmas hit (as sung by “Rupert And The Frog Chorus”), and apart from the final, full-length featurette included, it would have been very, very nice to have the original promo video version included here as well. The music video wasn’t just a cut down from the longer featurette, but rather an alternate cut, with a different introduction and closing (featuring Paul sifting through an old store room and coming across the Rupert book). That opening has been kept and tacked on to the front of the film on this disc, but it would have been great to be able to see the full video again and relive some warm memories.

The Rupert music video has never been made available to the public on any home video format as far as I am aware, but the full featurette became a record breaking VHS tape seller during Christmas 1985, and a later Pioneer Artists LaserDisc release. Both these editions also featured two further animated clips, Seaside Woman and The Oriental Nightfish, directed again by Geoff Dunbar for MPL. The songs were written and performed by Paul’s wife Linda rather than Paul himself, which may give good reason as to why they are not represented here, but given that Wings backed her on these tracks and her involvement in the other films on the disc, I couldn’t help but feel that having these two extras would have rounded things up very nicely.

Anyway, those are the bonuses that would have made it a better, more complete collection for me, but let’s take a look at what the disc does include (all footage is presented in full-frame or letterboxed 4×3).

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First up are the delightful menus, introduced vocally by Paul with help from William, the squirrel from Tropic Island Hum. It’s a sweet opening to the disc, with one particular joke that really made me laugh, when Will offered the chance to watch the films “In Costly Stereo” (an anagram of a popular DVD feature, which I’ll leave you to work out). Going to the Set-Up option will offer the viewer access to the subtitles and Spanish dub, while the real extras are in the good old Special Features option.

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A Conversation With Paul McCartney runs seven minutes and is comprised of several answers to questions edited out. The subjects Sir Paul talks about run as captions along the bottom of the screen, and cover a great deal of background information. Pretty basic (simply using the talking head technique), but in-depth, and a nice overview that doesn’t feel like rushed sound bites, filling us in on such topics as his feelings on the differences between traditional and digital production, his inspiration for the films and animated plans for the future.

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The Making Of Tropic Island Hum is perhaps the most traditional of the supplemental material, being more of a standard behind-the-scenes documentary, featuring interviews with McCartney and director Dunbar, a description of how an animated film is made, pencil test and final film footage. Particular attention is paid to the animation process, and it was interesting to see how the hand-added pencil-look shading was added to each frame. The twelve-minute piece ends with some new animation of Paul and Linda on their own tropical island – fun and touching.

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The Making Of Tuesday, at twelve minutes, runs around the same length as the film itself and is made up of “video diary” footage, cut very nicely together (I have to say that, since I’ve worked with the editor before)! In truth it’s an interesting look at the production, supposedly told in snapshots from various Tuesdays during the making of the film, when Paul would stop by the studio to offer his input. Like the film itself, the documentary is a little more intimate this time around, since we are literally following McCartney around from the animators desks to the sound studio for the music recording sessions – there’s even a brief snatch of Dustin Hoffman (heard but not seen) reading his lines. A nice peek, it almost feels as if we are actually there, taking part in the production meetings.

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Next up, and best of all for me, is a complete early version of Rupert And The Frog Song in Line Test form (10:50m). Apart from the song track, there’s no additional music at this point, and the film sports many nicks and scratches as it went through various stages of production. This cut of the entire film plays out with scratch vocals, an unmixed version of the main theme song, and is as rough as they come: though it’s mainly pencil tests, there are some early story sketches and some moments yet to mapped out at all. But this simply magical, and offers up the kind of rare look into the animation process that an overview documentary could seldom do.

Rounding the disc out are additional Layouts, Storyboards And Line Tests for Tropic Island Hum (11:23) and Tuesday. These are again the entire versions of the films at various stages of completion, but for some reason they aren’t as involving as the Rupert section. This is likely due to the fact that Tropic Island Hum is more finished, with completed song and score, and containing much more final color art. While Tuesday features a lot less color, piano demo music and temp track sound effects only, this rough cut has been taken from a digital tape copy, which loses all the inherent film roughness. It’s certainly easier to see what’s going on, but there’s something about all those nicks and scratches when one is viewing a rough cut that adds a charm that is lacking here. However, stick around, for after the line test presentation, the entire film plays out again in pure silent storyboard form, allowing for closer inspection of the artists’ work. Combined, these two looks at the Tuesday short make up an additional 20 minutes of interesting material well worth checking out.

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Case Study:

Simply put, this is very much a “Disney” release in anything but name. Apart from the Miramax branded logos on the cover art and disc itself, everything here is your typical Buena Vista Home Entertainment standard issue. The cover as seen online is actually a very nice slipcase that has the disc “dropping out” from the bottom. The actual keepcase art itself is basically the same, but with a full length color picture of (a perhaps slightly airbrushed?) Paul and his animal friends filling the front sheet and replacing the green borders – a nice touch. Interestingly, the specs do not list an aspect ratio format at all, but rest assured that the image is anamorphic 1.85:1 (they probably don’t want to scare off the “family-friendly” crowd). Inside it’s even better, with a 16-page deluxe booklet that introduces the films and McCartney’s overall vision for them, illustrated with frame stills and concept art – great stuff, and if only all Disney releases were handled this way!

Ink And Paint:

Perhaps due to the fact that the material contained on the disc was originated in Britain, all of the video footage is here presented as PAL conversions to region one’s native NTSC. While this may be acceptable for the supplemental material (being shot and edited by UK crews), I found it a real shame that Miramax didn’t spring for new film-to-tape transfers for the shorts. The conversion process has the side-effect of creating “melded frames”, where the NTSC system has to re-arrange the images to “create” a new frame every few frames or so. While the prints on offer on the disc look sharp enough, this could cause a slight “blur” on select frames depending on your display, but it is only ever really noticeable on high contrast scenes. Unfortunately, many of the sequences in these shorts take place in dark conditions, or at night, so it’s more often than not – a little annoying, especially on a release of this calibre which otherwise displays pleasing colors and a fairly filmic presentation.

The three actual featurettes are presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, which looks like the original framing for Tropic Island Hum,, though certainly Tuesday and Rupert And The Frog Song have been matted from original 1.66:1 full-frame (definitely Rupert, which I checked against my full-frame Pioneer LaserDisc pressing that, at 1.33:1, opens up top and bottom and loses a sliver on the sides). However, these films were shot “open-matte”, meaning that the widescreen image on offer here would match any theatrical aspect ratio showing of the films.

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All in all, not the absolute best that could have been achieved, and though everything looks okay, it might be worth holding out for a PAL edition of this title, since at least it would mean a one-to-one native frame transfer which would get away from the overall “soft” look of the disc. Print-wise, all the films have been mastered from film elements – there are no digital-to-digital files here even with Tuesday, and the presentation matches that – with the usual slight imperfections that this implies. Though I was surprised at the amount of wear on Tropic Island Hum, seeing that it was one of the two most recent of the three, the prints are clean are there are no problems with the sources used.

Scratch Tracks:

Again, this material being likely sourced from a PAL master, I was ready to jump all over the soundtrack for being pitched one musical key higher (another side effect of the PAL-to-NTSC conversion route, since the PAL process is notorious for a “speed-up” from 24fps film to 25fps video). However, as a musician, I’m sure that Paul is well aware of such problems and I’m happy to report that the musical pitch throughout seems to have been shifted back down to its correct key. I can at least confirm that this is the case on the Rupert film, checked against the PAL VHS and the NTSC LD, though I am sure this is true with the other two films as well.

Given the whole emphasis on the music content in the package, it’s a good job this was done, and the rest of the disc sounds great. Though these are mostly stereo dubs, there is a whole bunch of surround activity, and I found Tuesday’s particularly lush score (actually written by McCartney, and arranged by Jonathan Tunick) to be the most enveloping experience on offer. Sound is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital only, with additional English subtitles and a Spanish language track.

Final Cut:

This is a potentially wonderful disc and is almost up there with the “must-haves”, with three really sweet and intricately made stories that do deserve wider viewing. The whole presentation was marred for me slightly by the PAL-to-NTSC conversions rather than new, film based transfers but, getting over that, the disc does boast a vibrant image and the correct musical shifting proves that care and attention has gone into the project. It is very nicely presented and offers up some unique animation that will enchant and entertain, with the extras making for interesting viewing, especially the line tests, which are truly fascinating. Though this is a missed opportunity in making a definitive collection (which would have included all the McCartney animation in the MPL vaults), the quality of the three films easily outweighs any technical gripes and the disc will please those who make the purchase, and surprise others with its true artistry.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

macca13.jpg MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

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