Winnie the Pooh and the Big Screen

Icons come and icons go. Coca Cola survives, but Woolworth’s, the standard of the early 20th century, is now history. What’s popular today may not make the cut to the next generation – few kids today play with Cabbage Patch Dolls, despite the frenzied battles people had over them in the 1980’s, and all those people who sank thousands of dollars into Beanie Babies as investments now have … boxes of worthless stuffed toys.

Winnie the Pooh Endures

Winnie the Pooh is one of those who made the grade. A.A. Milne (Alan Alexander) wrote first a book of children’s poems (When We Were Very Young), then a Christmas story, and finally, in 1926, a book of stories, Winnie the Pooh, based on his son Christopher Robin and his stuffed bear Edward. A sequel, The House at Pooh Corner, followed in 1928, as well as two books of poems. Filled with charming innocence after the bloodbath of World War I, bumbling, slow-witted but kind-hearted Pooh and his friends (Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet, and Kanga and Roo) hit a needy spot in a dejected population. By 1931, Winnie the Pooh was a $50-million business, the dream-deal of every author (and that was in the middle of a depression!).

Although Milne died of a stroke in 1956, Pooh continued to expand when the film rights, among others, were sold to Disney in 1961, and the first animated cartoon released in 1966, with Sterling Holloway’s voice becoming the standard for Pooh. Today, the marketing of Winnie the Pooh is worth as much as $6 billion dollars a year, the third most valuable franchise in the world, after Star Wars and Disney Princesses (both, not surprisingly, also Disney franchises, a company with more than 92 billion dollars in assets).

Two New Films

Within the last year, another expansion on the franchise has brought out two marvelous films not necessarily aimed at children but adults who once were children: Goodbye Christopher Robin, and Christopher Robin.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a lovely, sweet story of Milne and his relationship to his son, and how the success of Winnie the Pooh destroyed the childhood of Christopher Robin himself. Pushed into the judgmental spotlight too young, Christopher Robin was beaten up in school because of his fame, and grew to resent his father, whom he described as very bad with children. Although eventually he reconciled with Winnie the Pooh, he never really reconciled with his parents; even on her death bed, his mother refused to see him. Goodbye Christopher Robin is a British production filled with beautiful settings and a superb performance by eight-year-old Will Tilston; it was released on DVD in January.

On August 3, Disney launched their Christopher Robin film (does someone leak news between studios? This type of inter-studio film wars has happened numerous times, most recently with Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman both released in 2012, and Disney’s 2016 Jungle Book with this October’s Warner Bros. coming release of Mowgli). In a plot fairly reminiscent of Hook (which was not a Disney creation), Christopher Robin is a grown-up who has lost his imagination, so enter CGI Pooh and friends to help him remember it. While the voices are so close to the cartoons you loved in the 60’s, somehow the CGI just doesn’t work as well. Kids will probably love it, grown-ups not so much, and not for lack of imagination.

Winnie the Pooh was voted an icon of England, but you can see the original Winnie and friends at their permanent home at the New York Public Library here in the United States (Roo was lost in an apple orchard in 1930).

As the real Pooh turns 100 in 2021, he’s showing no signs of losing his status as a bear loved around the world. Pooh has been translated into more than 46 languages, including Latin, Mongolian, and Esperanto. If you have no child to share Winnie the Pooh with, try these “adult” Pooh books:

Isle of Dogs

I’m aware Studio Ghibli is a big deal, with assets worth more than 15 billion dollars, five Oscar nominations and a win to their name (2003, Spirited Away), and my kids love them, but I don’t much care for Japanese Anime, or Japanese animation in general. Steeped in the beauty of classic Disney and Warner Bros., I hate the minimalist design style of Pokemon, Power Rangers,  Howl’s Moving Castle, and others of that genre. So, when I started seeing previews for Isle of Dogs, a stop-motion animation set in Japan, I was really confused as to why I wanted to see it.

A Multi-cultural Film

In truth, it’s hard to call Isle of Dogs a Japanese film, no matter what it seems like it should be, based on content and style. It’s written and directed by American Wes Anderson (Grand Budapest Hotel, Fantastic Mr. Fox), co-produced by Germany, takes place in Japan, and contains a fair amount of Japanese conversation and several Japanese actors (including Yoko Ono, who mercifully does not sing). If anything, it’s an homage to Japanese films. The story takes place in the fictional city of Megasaki, where a dog flu has taken hold and there is worry it could transfer to humans. The corrupt Mayor banishes all dogs to Trash Island – starting with the dog of his ward, 12 year old Atari Kobayashi, despite the assurance of a scientist that he has a cure. Atari sets out immediately to get his dog back, and the story begins.

Incredible Animation

The draw for me was that the film is dependent on stop-motion animation, not any style of art. This is dolls come to life – the dogs were filmed with animatronic heads, giving a life-like range of facial movements. Characters have a living translucence that is often achieved with wax over porcelain, but here was done with special resins and computer programs to coordinate freckle movement. Having grown up on Art Clokey’s Gumby, and Davey and Goliath, the dominating force in claymation from the 1950’s through 1989, and all those Rankin-Bass Christmas specials such as Rudolph, claymation and stop-motion animation have a very fond place in my heart. The animation in Isle of Dogs is superb, right down to blowing fur, and watch for it come Oscar season. If you doubt it, just watch the sushi-making scene.

That’s fine, but what about the story? Giving Dogs a PG-13 rating seems harsh (especially when the highly controversial Show Dogs was given a PG) – there’s no sex, no major swearing, some mildly upsetting scenes of experimented dogs and threatening robots, implied violence but not graphic, but I would consider it appropriate for ages 9 and up – some of the themes could be upsetting to younger children (such as euthanasia, and a dog that starved to death). Overall, Isle of Dogs is a sweet, caring story about a boy who loves his dog and will go to any lengths to get him back. It’s endearing, heartwarming, cheer-worthy, with several good laughs – well-worth a movie admission price.

Controversy

Of course, nothing, nothing today is without controversy and because this is not an actual Japanese film, there was an outcry of cultural appropriation and insensitivity, that the culture is seen through American eyes and is more caricature than accurate. However, when shown to native Japanese, the reactions were positive.

Isle of Dogs was released on DVD and Blu-ray on July 17, 2018. Although it’s a wonderful animated film about a boy and his dog, it is not a sensitive-child’s movie. If you love animation, if you love rebellion, if you love dogs, be sure to give it a try.

Unforgettable Teen Vacation Trips

Summer can be a trying time for parents and kids alike, and teens are often the most difficult to entertain. Being seen with family is bad enough, but being dragged on vacation to another boring site-seeing trip when they could be doing anything else is totally bogus.

It doesn’t have to be that way!  Here are several attractions within a day’s drive that are sure to get a nod from even the grumpiest teen (and their school-aged siblings):

Rustic Rides Farm, Block Island: Ride horses on wooded trails or on the beach at sunset, just like in the movies. Is there anything better?

New York: There are so many things to do in New York City they can’t be listed, from Broadway to the Ninja Restaurant to a hundred movie sets (you can tour them). For something indoors, try Ripley’s Believe It or Not, with fun facts and crazy but true tales to delight children and adults alike. Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum is like attending a cocktail party with the stars – and you can stand next to them for photos as long as you don’t touch. Something quieter? Try the Jim Henson exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image – Sesame Street, Muppets, and Henson’s larger works like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Avoid New York City like the plague? Try Howe Caverns – let out your inner Indiana Jones, explore the labyrinth of caves and take a boat ride through a dark and bat-infested cave – if you dare.

Philadelphia: Liberty Bell and the Declaration of Independence too much like school? Then check out the Philadelphia Museum of Art – see the statue of Rocky Balboa, run the steps, and explore the amazing collection of armor and swords, some dating back to the Vikings – as well as some cool art. If your kids are High-School aged, make sure to stop at the Mutter Museum of the Philadelphia College of Surgeons, one of the premiere collections of medical oddities this side of Ripleys – the Soap Lady, the Wall of Skulls, and drawers of weird things people have swallowed. Probably not best for younger kids. And you’re only an hour from the Ripley’s Museum on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, where you can match the street names to the Monopoly board and try – just try – to walk through the spinning tunnel.

Washington DC:  DC is second only to New York in attractions, but many of them are free! White House tours are free, but it can take years to get tickets. The Smithsonian holds something for everyone, but the sheer size needs days to see more than one building, and may overwhelm smaller children. While the docents are proud of their knowledge, kids only need about 15 minutes at Ford’s Theater – they came, they saw, Lincoln died. The Mall is a cool place you see on TV and in the movies, but in summer the Mall and Arlington can be brutally hot (every time I try to go there, it’s 100 degrees), and it’s still just something to stare at. The place to take your kids (12 and up) is the International Spy Museum. Not only does it have all the cool spy paraphernalia, but the one thing you can’t miss is the interactive hands-on exhibit. You (and your group) become the spies in a real-time adventure, searching for clues, deciphering radio broadcasts, interviewing suspects, and fleeing the scene to be “rescued” by helicopter from a roof top. It is over-the-top live-action fun for the entire family that they will never forget.

It doesn’t take a lot of money to make memories with your teens (anywhere from Ogunquit Beaches [3 hours] to Philly [3.5 hours] can be done as day trips if need be), so get out there and try something new!

                   

               

            

What is an MP3-CD Audiobook, Part 2 – Why We Still Love Our LPs

My blog post about MP3-CDs several years ago generated an unexpected interest – what was different about an MP3-CD audiobook? Did I need a special player? And how did they get an entire book onto one single disk? I answered the questions, but it bugged me that I didn’t answer them enough. And when I dug just a little deeper, I realized the answer might be why there’s such a resurgence in old-fashioned vinyl LP records (kids, ask your grandparents).

Format Development

Back in the 1980’s, as CD and digital technology was taking off, committees were formed to create the format, so that the technology could be used anywhere. JPEG, that familiar photo tag, was formed first, the Joint Photographic Experts Group (1986), and they set the coding and standardization of digital transfer and storage of still photographs. MPEG-1 committee followed a year later, the Moving Picture Experts Group, Phase 1, which included both video and sound. It remains the most widely compatible audio-visual format in the world, and we all know the MPEG-1 Layer III by its short form of  .mp3.

When CDs hit the market, they took off like wildfire. You didn’t have to worry about compact discneedle and dust scratches ruining the fidelity of a record, and even better, you could carry that music with you wherever you went, just like a tape cassette but without all the mess and rewinding. Not all musicians jumped on it, though. Just as John Phillip Sousa hated the invention of the record, Neil Young was one of the earliest critics of CDs and delayed putting his music onto digital format, as is David Crosby, two men who know just a bit about music and the recording industry.

The Battle for Quality

high res vs. low res imagesAnd here’s why: MP3-CDs use what’s called lossy compression, a form of psychoacoustics (your gold-star word of the day). What it does is reduce or eliminate sounds that the system thinks the human ear can’t hear, either because they’re out of normal frequency or other sounds might be louder and keep you from hearing them. Once all that “useless” noise is gone, the audio files are a LOT smaller – enough to fit that whole audiobook onto one or two discs. Of course, in doing so, you lose a lot of sound quality, like when you send a low-resolution photo over the internet, or use a cell phone inside a tunnel.

The Return of the LP

And for all those people who said LP records were dead, here’s why more than 14 million of them were sold last year (14% of ALL album sales).  By the early 1900’s, when records became a thing, they were made of shellac (that bug resin), had a wide, noisy, grinding groove (think of those 1920’s recordings), and at 78 rpm (the speed they spun at), you could get no more than 5 minutes of play to a side – no American Pie, no Thriller, and forget In a Gadda Da Vida. That lasted until 1949, when Long-Playing (LP) records came out on vinyl (good ol’ PVC). At a speed of 33 rpm, with a finer groove that runs almost a third of a mile, they played more than 20 minutes of music per side, with a much higher sound quality. Stereo, which recorded two channels and put one on each side of the same groove, giving you that left and right sound, came in 1957. In a vinyl record, the sound waves from the microphone are transferred directly by needle to a core, which is transferred to a metal master, which is then pressed into vinyl. A needle then rides the groove, transferring those same exact soundwaves to the speakers. With proper speakers and tuning, the result is a rich, deep, acoustic sound much more like live music. Listen to enough LPs, and you really can hear the canned music effect on a CD recording. There is no comparison if you are a music purist.

Vinyl is Final

So, what’s playing on modern LPs? Ed Sheeran’s Divide was a top seller in 2017, and the old/new sound track to Guardians of the Galaxy, Awesome Mix No. 1, but so were the classics – Sgt. Pepper’s by the Beatles, Abbey Road, Thriller, and still, forty five years later, the champion of staying power, with more than 1,000 weeks on the top-200 best-selling albums, STILL selling more than 8500 albums a week, Pink Floyd’s 1973 Dark Side of the Moon.Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon album cover

For audiobooks, where one or two voices may recite a book in a calm, steady voice, you might not notice just how much sound is missing when you listen to it – enough to cut out six or seven discs worth. For music, I urge you to find a friend or a library that still has music LPs and players. Listen to the album (Dark Side of the Moon is amazing with serious headphones and a very dark room), and then listen to the digitally compressed MP3 files, missing highs and lows and the depth they provide. It might take a few tries, but you will start to hear the differences, and while MP3s are so fabulously convenient and almost foolproof, it just can’t compare to a good LP.

Fun fact: There is a gold-plated LP traveling the galaxy. Sent aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 with recordings of Earth music, it is now more than 11 million miles away. MP3s only made it as far as the Space Station.

A Legacy of Spies

The other year, in preparation for a novel I hoped would have more intrigue and action than I was used to writing, I decided to break with my comfort zone and read a few spy novels to deconstruct the genre and see how the action was set up and paced. I’d read a James Bond novel once and was less than impressed; the movies I loved so much were horribly dull novels, and the book-Bond looked much more like Truman Capote than any pretty-boy actor.

I didn’t want to waste time, so I Googled “best spy novels”, and one of the top two on almost every list was John LeCarré’s 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, so that was the one I read first.

The lists were right. The book was brilliant, and I couldn’t put it down. After that I rushed out to watch the 2012 BBC film version, an incredible cast including Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, and more – which was still excellent, though some people prefer the 1979 mini-series adaption with Alec Guinness (that’s Obi Wan Kenobi to some of you). The strangest part was that, while reading the book, I had already cast Toby Jones in one of the roles in my head  –  but as Peter Guillam, though, not Percy Alleline as he was in the film.

Why so good? Well, see – like Ian Fleming, John LeCarré (real name: David Cornwell; spies aren’t allowed to use their real names to publish novels) was an actual British spy in World War II, so he knows the ins and outs and tiny little details of how the game is played, layers upon layers of secrets and trades and double-dealings. He’s lived it first hand, and that makes all the believable difference. He began writing novels in 1961 (Call for the Dead), but it wasn’t until his third novel in 1963, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, that he hit the best-seller list and wound up quitting MI6 (the British Secret Intelligence Service) to pursue writing full time.

While all of us sit here and think, why would you quit being an awesome spy to write books?

But LeCarré certainly is good at it, with more than 24 novels to his name, almost all of them best-sellers. Several have been made into successful film adaptions, including The Constant Gardener (2005), starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) starring Richard Burton, and the recent delicious adaption of The Night Manager (2016), starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, a book that reads more like a James Bond adaption than a Bond novel does.

Unable to sit still in retirement, LeCarré, now 86, has pumped out yet another novel last year, A Legacy of Spies, a conclusion of sorts for George Smiley’s people, his ex-agent who keeps coming back. Pulling his best-loved characters from so many of his novels, LeCarré manages to weave them together with new characters in present-day, finding new depths and bringing new truths to light, even after 50 years. LeCarré shows that time has not diminished him nor his characters, and if you think you know how it will end, like all of his works, it’s pretty well guaranteed you don’t.

Give le Carré a try. If you like mystery, espionage, intrigue, and unraveling puzzles with characters who won’t let you go, then you’ll love his work. If you haven’t tried him, he’s a wonderful place to begin to explore the genre. For modern novels, he’s rather clean, without a lot of graphic violence or sex or language, perhaps making the stories even more remarkable. Start with Legacy of Spies and work backward, or start at the beginning and work forward. If you prefer to watch rather than read, there are more than ten films, five television adaptions, and four radio plays to keep you entertained. You’ll be so glad you did.