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2016 WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS: CHICAGO CUBS (Collector’s Edition) (Blu-ray)

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chicagocubscollectorsedcoverGrade:  B+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 20 hours, Color
Shout! Factory
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: Widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: C
Includes: 8 single-sided Blu-ray discs
Amazon link

There are plenty who would lay claim to the title of “World’s Biggest Cubs Fan,” but I think I could build a case as well. As a kid I attended one to three games per week over the summers, working to raise money to afford the $1 bleacher seat, 10-cent program, 35-cent Frosty Malt, and 15-cent bus fare. During the school year I faked being sick more than a few times so I could watch Jack Brickhouse call the games on WGN-TV. Once, a friend and I even bicycled six hours round-trip across the city to knock on the door of Cubs player Glen Hobbie to ask for his autograph (many players were listed in the phone book back then). So you’d have to say that I’m part of the intended audience for this 2016 World Series Champions: Chicago Cubs (Collector’s Edition) Blu-ray.

But let’s be clear about what this eight-disc collection is, and what it’s not. The set includes a single Blu-ray disc for each of the seven World Series games plus a bonus disc of Game 6 of the NLCS that the Cubs won in order to advance to their first World Series since 1945. And each of those discs is a complete game telecast, sans commercials, 7th inning stretch, and pre-game show, and with only an abbreviated wrap-up—no locker room celebrations.

It’s too bad, though, that there’s not more postgame coverage. I don’t even remember seeing the Cubs carry David Ross around the field on their shoulders after Game 7, for example, but it was one of those moments that fans (and, of course, Grandpa Rossy) will never forget.

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2016 WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS: CHICAGO CUBS (Blu-ray combo)

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cubscoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 90 min., Color
Shout! Factory
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Every year, Major League Baseball comes out with a World Series Champions clip-show for fans to relive the series highlights, and this year it should appeal to an even bigger audience than usual. It features the two teams that had gone the longest without a title: the Cleveland Indians of Major League fame and the Chicago Cubs, the lovable losers from the Windy City’s North Side who play in their “ivy-covered burial ground,” as singer-songwriter Steve Goodman (“Go Cubs Go”) joked in a song titled “The Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.”

Goodman, whose ashes are reportedly buried under home plate, never lived to see the biggest win in Chicago sports history, and neither did a lot of fans. The Cubs last played in a World Series in 1945 and last won a world series in 1908, while the Cleveland Indians haven’t won it all since 1948. This documentary makes clear how generational being a Cubs or Indians fan has been, and the impact a win would have on either city. You couldn’t have written a better script than to have the two teams with the longest droughts squaring off against each other and needing seven games for the winner to finally emerge. The Cubs, who led the majors with 103 wins, went down 3 games to 1, and only four teams had come back from that deficit to win the World Series: the 1925 Pirates, 1958 Yankees, 1968 Tigers, and 1985 Royals. Throw in a rain delay at the end of regulation with Game 7 tied, and you’ve got high drama to rival any sports screenplay to come out of Hollywood.

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BOB HOPE: HOPE FOR THE HOLIDAYS (DVD)

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bobhopexmascoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
1993 & 1950, 110 min., Color & B&W
Time Life
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: B-/C+
Clip: “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Forever”
Amazon link

There’s an episode of Friends where an out-of-work Chandler takes an internship and, surrounded by twentysomethings, confesses that he feels old . . . though, he quips, he’s not exactly Bob Hope. “Who?” they say. “You know. Bob Hope. USO . . . ” to which one of them responds, “Uh, USA.” A year before Friends launched, an already old Bob Hope hosted a Christmas special that would turn out to be one of his very best. But if young people had no idea who Bob Hope was back in the nineties, they certainly won’t now.

They should, though. Hope, who lived to be 100, was one of America’s iconic entertainers—an ironic fact, considering he was born in England. Although he appeared in 70+ films, he’s most known for teaming up with crooner Bing Crosby and singer-dancer Dorothy Lamour in a series of “Road” pictures that cracked up audiences during the forties. And he’s known for entertaining America’s men and women in the Armed Forces, making 57 tours abroad for the USO (United Service Organizations) over a course of 50 years. He also did four decades of television specials, always beginning and ending with the theme song “Thanks for the Memory.”

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AMAZONIA (DVD)

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amazoniacoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2013, 83 min., Color
Lionsgate
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

To describe Amazonia (2013) as a Brazilian-French documentary is to make it seem tedious and dry, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. This live-action nature film is a wonderful choice for family movie night, for a number of reasons.

#1—Amazonia educates while it entertains. Viewers learn all sorts of things about the Amazon rainforest from a script that juggles cuteness and factuality with amazing adroitness. Martin Sheen provides the voiceover, but as Disney did with Perri and a number of other True-Life Adventures,
director Thierry Ragobert opted to combine nature photography with a fictional storyline. In this case, a born-in-captivity capuchin monkey named Saï (pronounced “psy”) finds himself flying out of Rio across the Amazon jungle. When the plane crashes, he’s left on his own to learn how to live in amazoniascreen1the wild for the first time in his life. We’re so focused on the cute little guy and his adventure that the voiceover lessons about the Amazon seem like fun facts rather than pedantic distractions. You’re glad you learned that there are over 2 million species of insects in the Amazon, for example, or that the rainforest provides a full 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen. You get the idea of how important it is to preserve the Amazon, and yet Ragobert doesn’t hit you over the head with an environmentalist message. It’s all about a monkey and his fascinating adventure.

#2—My daughter dislikes nature films for one simple reason: “They’re sad,” she says. That whole survival-of-the-fittest thing is depressing to her and
often frightening to other children. Amazonia is unique in that there is only one instance of a predator snatching prey, and since it was another monkey you find yourself less traumatized than you are relieved it wasn’t Saï. Though Amazonia is all about survival, it’s mostly upbeat. It’s the gentlest and most fun nature film I’ve seen, in fact. Even when Saï comes across an anaconda that could swallow him whole, the confrontation is quickly ended, but in a positive way. Same with every obstacle or danger the little guy faces along the way. Only when, starving, he eats some mushrooms and Ragobert gives us his version of “Pink Elephants on Parade” does the tone change briefly weird. Otherwise it’s all lightweight adventure and fun lessons learned about the Amazon.

amazoniascreen2#3—It turns out that Disney and BBC haven’t cornered the market on nature photography after all. Gustavo Hadba and Manuel Teran do a wonderful job of shooting in the rainforest and capturing all sorts of creatures in the process. Aerial shots and sequences involving a harpy eagle and jaguar on the hunt are especially impressive, but there are also wonderful close-ups of such creatures as frogs and snails and sloths. Did you know that sloths are good swimmers? We see them doing their thing thanks to underwater cameras, as we do pink river dolphins at play.

#4—Amazonia manages to sustain some credible tension despite the fact that it’s pretty lightweight as a nature film. There isn’t a lot of violence here, or predators tearing prey apart as you’d likely see elsewhere. Yet, I have to admit that I found myself in a state of tension a number of times. That’s a testament to the script, editing, and direction. The filmmakers have really woven together a compelling narrative with documentary footage and voiceover information.

All of which makes me convinced that Amazonia would make for a great first nature film to introduce children to, and even those who don’t respond well to the survival-of-the-fittest world of nature films will find this a welcome change of pace. I have only one complaint: it would have been great to get this in HD.

COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE (Blu-ray)

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commandocodycoverGrade: B-
Entire family: Yes
1953, 361 min. (12 episodes), Black-and-white
Olive Films
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe probably owes his existence to Flash Gordon.

In the early ‘50s, baby boomers woke on Saturday and Sunday mornings to discover not just cartoons and new programs, but syndicated, recycled black-and-white shorts and serials that were made decades earlier to be shown in theaters—features like The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, and yes, Flash Gordon.

When Republic Pictures noticed that youngsters were hungry for more of the old Flash Gordon serials, they decided to create a TV series that would look like one of those early Flash adventures or several of their own, like King of the Rocket Men (1949) or Radar Men from the Moon (1952). The interesting thing about Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe is that while it commandocodyscreen1looks like an old movie serial, it was made for television, and as such, it lacks the cliffhangers that end every serial. These episodes are more self-contained, despite a narrative arc that also stretches across all 12 included here: Enemies of the Universe, Atomic Peril, Cosmic Vengeance, Nightmare Typhoon, War of the Space Giants, Destroyers of the Sun, Robot Monster from Mars, The Hydrogen Hurricane, Solar Sky Raiders, S.O.S. Ice Age, Lost in Outer Space, and Captives of the Zero Hour.

Though it was made in 1953, Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe has the look and feel of the old Flash Gordon serials. Even now, without knowing anything about the production, you’d swear that it was made in the ‘30s. That in itself is an achievement—though Commando Cody doesn’t have the same range or production values. The cast is smaller, the budget isn’t as big, there aren’t as many villains or costumed aliens of different kinds, and the sets aren’t as elaborate.

commandocodyscreen2But Commando Cody is just as campy and still fun. Though it was made for children, many families might enjoy it now because, well, what’s not to like about a man with a bulky metal mask and jet-pack who can fly through the air like Superman? Or hydrogen hurricanes, magno-force rays that can tilt the Earth on its axis, freeze rays that will remind you of playing freeze tag, and a thought-control chair that looks like a cross between a barber chair and an old Victorian parlor chair? Or robots from Mars? Or any number of gizmos and gadgets that might inspire your kids to head for the craft table and make a few of their own. Some of the fun comes from seeing how low-budget and low-tech some of the props are.

It’s hard not to laugh at Commando Cody’s atomic-powered rocket ship, which he unclogs at one point using a plunger-like device, and which has standard-issue office chairs with seat belts. When the camera tilts and the men lean back on their seats to give the appearance of “lift-off,” your family will probably crack up, if yours is anything like mine. And the top-secret headquarters for Commando Cody? You don’t have to look too carefully to see that they filmed it in front of a southern California apartment building complex and just propped a phone and two guards in front of one entrance. It’s funny too to watch Commando Cody leave his “decompression chamber” and walk on top of his stratosphere-bound rocket ship, leaning over an exhaust that looks more like it came from a giant firework pinwheel than a jet-propelled aircraft.

In Flash Gordon, the planet Mongo’s emperor, Ming the Merciless, caused natural disasters all over Earth as a first step toward conquering the planet, and Flash took off in a rocket ship with two others to thwart him. In Commando Cody the plot is similar. Commando Cody (Judd Holdren) is somehow appointed Intergalactic Sky Martial (though it’s unclear who actually appointed him) and his activities are so top secret that even viewers can’t be told. But we do know this: a cosmic ruler from another planet known simply as The Ruler (Gregory Gaye) has spies on Earth who are transmitting information to him and helping him carry out his own plan to conquer Earth. But not if Commando Cody can help it . . . with the help of his assistants Ted Richards (William Schallert) and Joan Gilbert (Aline Towne), with Richard Crane replacing Schallert midway.

The acting, as in most serials and B-movies, is no great shakes, but there’s just enough science fiction in here to make it interesting, and plenty of low-budget props and scenes to make it unintentionally funny. Commando Cody could easily serve as a warm-up for family movie night, with the installments spread out over a dozen weeks as originally intended. Yes, you can watch the episodes on YouTube, which is where the screen grabs come from, but the audio-visual quality on this two-disc set from Olive Films is far, far superior.

CAROL + 2: THE ORIGINAL QUEENS OF COMEDY (DVD)

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Carolplus2coverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes (Once Upon a Mattress)
1963-1972, 277 min., Color and black-and-white
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Not rated (Once would be G, the others PG)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

The Carol Burnett Show aired from 1967-78, making it one of the last yet longest running of the old vaudeville-inspired variety shows that combined song and dance with sketch comedy. Burnett broke into TV as a regular on The Garry Moore Show and in 1966 was given her own TV special. The network wanted her to ask Lucille Ball to guest star, as well as the Tony Award-winning Zero Mostel, who was currently appearing on Broadway as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Both said yes, and the result is Carol + 2, a one-hour special that all but set the format for The Carol Burnett Show to follow.

Carol + 2 is a part of television history, and for general fans it will be the gem on this DVD, which (sorry, Mr. Mostel) is being marketed as Carol + 2: The Original Queens of Comedy. But it’s not the big draw for families with children. The reason to buy this DVD, if you have children, is the colorful TV movie version of the beloved Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Princess and the Pea,” starring Burnett as the princess.

Burnett got her big break in 1959 as a 26 year old when she was cast by the legendary George Abbott to star in the off-Broadway production of a new show based on that fairy tale, and Once Upon a Mattress quickly moved on Broadway for a total run of 244 performances. Burnett earned a Tony nomination for her role as Princess Winifred the Woebegone, and as a TV personality she would star in three special televised productions of Once Upon a Mattress: in 1966, 1972, and 2005, the latter in which she would play the queen rather than the unconventional princess. The version on this DVD is the 1972 special, which is indeed special because Jack Gilford and Jane White reprise their original off-Broadway roles as King Sextimus and Queen Aggravain.

Carolplus2screen1Once Upon a Mattress is aimed at families, which is made clear from the beginning as Burnett reads and shares an abbreviated picture-book version of the fairy tale, after which we’re told we’re about to see the “adult version” of what really happened. Don’t be alarmed. Even your four year old can watch and enjoy this production, which sports outrageous and colorful costumes and lines that are delivered slowly enough that the smallest children won’t need much in the way of narrative summary. Once Upon a Mattress is an engaging 90-minute romp that showcases Burnett’s talents as a physical comedienne and also features verbal comedy, singing, and dancing.

The plot is simple, yet, like so many fairy tales, timeless. Queen Aggravain is so domineering that her husband, the king, has been rendered unable to speak. Communicating only in pantomime, he’s like the fifth Marx Brother. Their son, Prince Dauntless (Ken Berry), is also dominated by the queen, yet this mama’s boy, despite being in his mid-thirties, yearns to marry. Trouble is, he can only marry a true princess, and Mama devises a different test each time so devious that none of the princesses who visit the castle are ever able to pass. When a rain-drenched Princess Winifred (who prefers to be called “Fred”) turns up on the doorstep, the vetting process begins anew. Children will especially get a kick out of a “dance off” in which Fred instantly masters the silliest local folk dance and outlasts everyone else in the kingdom. The Queen tells the princess that she needs to get her sleep because the big test will be tomorrow, when in fact the test is whether she can detect a tiny pea placed underneath a stack of 20 mattresses. The “adult version” is that this happily-ever-after tale didn’t come about because Fred was indeed able to detect that pea. She had a little help. Bernadette Peters stars as Lady Larkin, while Carol Burnett Show regular Lyle Waggoner appears as Sir Studley, and Wally Cox (who gave voice to the TV cartoon Underdog) narrates as The Jester. Look closely and you’ll even see a cameo by Kermit the Frog. All in all, it’s a highly entertaining 90-minute TV musical special.

Carolplus2screen2Carol + 2 is geared more for adults than families, and while it’s great to see two of television’s First Ladies perform together and Zero Mostel is as wild-eyed and manic as ever, the sketches and performances are a mixed bag. The funniest might be the opening sketch featuring Burnett and Mostel as a married couple grown spiteful of each other who find out briefly that a mistake means they’re not married after all . . . and that changes the way they see each other. Close behind is “Goodbye Baby,” in which Ball plays an older sister who drops in for a visit on her way to her annual vacation. Burnett is the younger sister with a baby buggy in the park who insists that her sister not leave until she hears the little guy say “Goodbye.” Of course, as with all sketch comedy, things escalate, and while the ending might be a little far-fetched it’s the progression that’s fun to watch. Some of the other sketches are less successful, but Ball and Burnett sing a spirited song about “Chutzpah” as Hollywood charwomen, and this one-hour color special gives contemporary audiences a chance to see three legendary talents at work.

Thrown in as a bonus feature is the very first black-and-white Charwoman sketch that Burnett performed as part of her first special, An Evening with Carol Burnett. It was a character that, animated, would become part of her long-running TV show’s title credits. This 1963 sketch is more of a historical artifact than a family entertainment, though Burnett’s introduction to it, as with her introductions to the two TV specials included on this DVD, is nice to have.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE (Collector’s Edition Blu-ray)

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PeanutsMoviecoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2015, 88 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated G
Aspect ratio:1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Steve Martino is a brave man. Sure, he directed the Dr, Seuss classic Horton Hears a Who! (2008) and Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012), the fourth installment in the Fox animated prehistoric series. But Charles Schulz is in a totally different league.

One of the most famous cartoonists of all time, Schulz received the Congressional Gold Medal for his influence on America culture—an influence that famously extended into the U.S. space program, with the Apollo 10 command module named “Charlie Brown” and the lunar module named “Snoopy.” Over his career Schulz drew close to 18,000 Peanuts comic strips, published dozens of collected strips in books, and came into American homes through a series of now-iconic television specials, many of which were linked to holidays. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Upon his death, Schulz requested that his characters remain essentially unchanged, and The Peanuts Movie was to be the first time the characters were rendered in 3D CGI. In addition, the script was written by Cornelius Uliano and Schulz’s son and grandson, who also had a hand in producing the film. But hey, no pressure!

PeanutsMoviescreen1Martino presides over a production that remains faithful to the spirit of the Peanuts world, choosing to surprise viewers not with twists or deviations, but with the clever rendering of familiar elements from the Peanuts gang repertoire and recognizable visual cues from the comics themselves. Snoopy hauls out his typewriter and takes to the skies atop his doghouse to fight the Red Baron, Charlie Brown is smitten by a new red-haired girl in the neighborhood, and everyone starts to think differently about failure-magnet, disaster-prone Charlie after he scores a perfect 100 on an exam.

In the end, the perceived messages about never giving up, the thin line that often separates failure from success, and the fickleness of public opinion come across loud and clear—whether you’re an adult or a child. And universal messages like that are a big part of what has made the Peanuts adventures popular with all ages.

PeanutsMoviescreen2If The Peanuts Movie feels like a first, it’s only because it’s the first full-length animated feature to be produced for the big screen in 35 years. It’s the fifth film, really, though this one feels like a first film because it introduces all of the familiar elements for a new audience. Yet, old ones will take delight in the way that those familiar elements are treated. Lucy is her old irascible self, setting up her psychiatric advice booth on the street in the middle of winter—though she could probably stand to see a shrink herself because of her self-image and anger-management issues. Pigpen doesn’t have much to do, but his cloud of dirt appears every now and then. Schroeder is more visible with his Beethoven fetish and his toy piano, and Charlie’s sister Sally seems to lurk everywhere in the wings, like a real little sister.

Despite being set in winter, The Peanuts Movie manages to bring in all of the most famous “bits,” from Charlie Brown’s disastrous attempts at kite-flying to school talent shows, or from birdie Woodstock and Snoopy’s comic antics to and Charlie Brown’s dance lessons. The 3D CGI characters and stylized backgrounds seem perfectly melded by comic-strip wordless graphics like gigantic stars briefly flashed to signify an explosion or implosion, thought balloons, or eyes and eyebrows on a character that shift like drawings hovering over the CGI bodies. The effect is fairly mesmerizing and adds a charming uniqueness to the faithful tone and treatment of familiar material. The Peanuts Movie is one of the better 3D CGI animated adaptations in a sub-genre that sees far too many wrong turns and stinkers.

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (Blu-ray combo)

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SnowWhitecoverGrade: A-
Entire family: Yes
1937, 83 min., Color
Disney
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link
Trailer

Walt Disney didn’t invent Snow White, but then again, neither did the Brothers Grimm, who published their version in an 1812 book of folk tales they collected from across Germany. But Disney renamed the dwarves and gave them individual personalities. With their help, he proved to the world in 1937 that it really was possible to create a full-length animated feature that could engage movie audiences.

When Disney first announced the project and put out a call for artists and animators, the press called it “Disney’s Folly,” because no one in Hollywood thought it possible for an animated cartoon to hold the public’s interest for more than a few minutes. But Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made movie history and started a cottage industry of Disney Princesses and full-length animated features that had strong enough storylines and evocative characters to entertain adults as well as children.

SnowWhitescreenPerhaps most amazing, it still holds up today because of the formula that we’ve come to expect from Disney: characters with personality that we care about, gorgeous artwork, true-to-life animation, a strong storyline, memorable music, and an emotional ride that makes us laugh, cry, and fear for the characters’ lives. Compared to later Disney animated features Snow White has a much simpler trajectory: A wicked queen gets jealous of Snow White’s beauty, orders her huntsman to kill her, and she runs into the dark forest after he spares her. There she discovers a tiny house that’s a frightful mess and decides to clean it with the help of forest animals. She bonds with the house’s inhabitants—seven dwarves that work in a diamond mine—but the ever persistent Queen transforms herself into an old hag and stalks Snow White. Yet, for such a simple story, Snow White is packed full of emotions and colorful characters and all of those things that now seem standard-issue in a Disney movie. Ironically, if it wasn’t for the decidedly ‘30s look of Snow White and the Prince, you’d never know the film was that old. It’s aged very well.

The bottom line is that Snow White belongs in every family movie collection, and it looks positively wonderful on Blu-ray. The soft palette look of the film is preserved, but with slightly greater edge delineation, and that makes all the difference in the world. Meanwhile, the 7.1 DTS-HDMA really enhances songs like “Hi-Ho-Hi-Ho” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” What it will come down to is whether you already own the three-disc Diamond Edition that was released in 2009. In that case, unless you really want the film in Digital HD to watch on other devices, you’re just fine with that edition.

Not all the bonus features from the 2009 Blu-ray were ported over, but that’s not surprising, since the earlier release featured a second Blu-ray disc of bonus features in addition to the DVD. What made it: two deleted scenes, a fascinating making-of feature, “Snow White Returns,” a Hyperion Studios tour, “Bringing Snow White to Life,” “In Walt’s Words,” “Decoding the Exposure Sheet,” and an audio commentary featuring historian John Canemaker, Roy Disney, and recordings of Walt Disney. What seems to be new are features on the iconography of Snow White, “@Disneyanimation: Designing Disney’s First Princess,” a fun facts featurette hosted by Disney Channel star Sofia Carson, and “Snow White in 70 Seconds.” Like the 2009 release, Snow White comes with DisneyView, drawn borders to fill out the black bars on the sides of a classic film that’s presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio that actually measures closer to 1.37:1.

This new release shows how the digital landscape has changed. Gone is the BD-Live content and games for the kids to play, and added are the Digital HD copy and instructions on how to download a Disney Movies Anywhere app.

ALADDIN (Blu-ray combo)

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AladdincoverGrade: A-
Entire family: Yes
1992, 91 min., Color
Disney
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features:  B+
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Aladdin was the first animated movie to gross more than $2 million, and it’s always been one of our family’s favorites. What’s not to like? It’s a rags-to-riches story about a petty thief who becomes a prince. It’s a love story about a feisty princess who refuses to marry unless she has feelings for him. It’s one of the intricately and energetically animated films with music that was produced during Disney’s so-called second Golden Age, which began with The Little Mermaid and ended with Tarzan. And it’s a story about wishes coming true, which is pretty much the Disney brand in a nutshell, isn’t it?

Ron Clements and John Musker co-wrote the screenplay and co-directed this adaptation of “Aladdin’s lamp” (One Thousand and One Nights). But for all the hype over Disney princesses, Aladdin has always been and will always be Robin Williams’ film. The late comedian was so perfect as the voice of the big blue Genie that Disney gave Williams top billing—the first major animated film to be promoted on the strength of a major star as one of its voice talents.

Aladdinscreen1Williams improvised roughly 16 hours of material for animators to draw upon and changed so many lines on the fly that the script was denied an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. It remains the funniest animated Disney movie ever, and it’s mostly because of Williams. You’ll recognize Scott Weinger’s and Linda Larkin’s voices as Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, but Williams makes this world go ‘round.

There’s more, of course, including terrific animation and memorable songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. “A Whole New World” is the gem in the film’s musical crown, and anyone who’s been to a Disney theme park and seen that now-iconic clip in 3D will remember how romantic the scene is as Aladdin and Jasmine fly over the world on their magic carpet. But atmospheric and energetic numbers like “Arabian Nights,” “One Jump Ahead,” “Friend Like Me,” and “Prince Ali” are also sparkling.

Aladdinscreen2Aladdin isn’t as frightening as some animated Disney films, even though there are moments of peril as, for example, when the characters enter the Cave of Wonders to retrieve the lamp. Legend has it that only a “diamond in the rough” can accomplish the task, and that, as it turns out, is Aladdin.

So there’s adventure, but the stage was set for a love story from the first scene when Jasmine, feeling a prisoner in her own palace, first met Aladdin in the marketplace after sneaking out to experience village life. Both hero and heroine are extremely likable, and the villain, while not one of Disney’s best, is a solid second-tier bad guy. The sultan’s advisor, Jafar (Jonathan Freeman), is a Rasputin-like wizard who’s played with Maleficent-like relish and whose companion is a wisecracking parrot named Iago (think Othello). Jafar wants the lamp in order to become sultan, and of course he’ll do anything and hypnotize anybody to get it.

There are thrills and moments of peril that balance the humor and romance, but the closest thing to a PG rating comes when one character is lost in the mouth of the cave, another is threatened with the loss of a hand, and still another transforms into a rather scary reptile. But what’s striking about Aladdin all these years later is how contemporary it still feels, how edgy, and how jam-packed full of energy it is. And I really can’t emphasize enough how much better the film looks and sounds on Blu-ray. Aladdin on Blu-ray is a must-add to your family video libraries.

THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW: THE LOST EPISODES (DVD)

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CarolBurnettShowcoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes, but…
1967-73, 1255 min. (16 shows), Color
Time Life/StarVista
Not rated (mostly G, some PG sketches)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 6 discs, color booklet
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The Carol Burnett Show is a tough one to review because it’s a variety show, and that brand of television is nearly extinct—TV-land’s dinosaur. It’s like trying to assess a pterodactyl, even though this particular old bird won 25 Emmys, eight Golden Globes, and three People’s Choice Awards.

Now TV is dominated by reality shows and snarky talk and news shows, but during TV’s golden age the variety show was king. The Ed Sullivan Show, which ran from 1948 to 1971, preserved the vaudeville format almost exactly, televising animal acts, circus acts, magicians, mind readers, musical acts, dancers, musical acts, and comedians. But it was Sid Caesar in Your Show of Shows (1950-54) and Caesar’s Hour (1954-57) who pioneered sketch comedy as the meat-and-potatoes of future variety shows, and that’s the direction that Carol Burnett took.

The Carol Burnett Show ran for 11 seasons, tying her with Milton Berle for eighth all-time among variety shows, and it was as popular as TV gets. But to watch her show now just isn’t the same as watching it then. So many of the sketches were parodies of TV shows, movies, and commercials, and topical humor loses its edge. Plus, as SNL fans know, sketch comedy is hit or miss. Amazingly, many of the sketches in this six-disc collection still work. In fact, I’d say that there are more “hits” here than the current SNL group manages to muster in an average week.

“Interactive” is a big buzzword now, but Burnett interacted with her audience from the time her show debuted. Instead of doing a monologue, Burnett strode out onto the stage and took questions from the audience for a full three to four minutes. Sometimes she was quick to crack jokes, while other times the questions prompted more serious responses. But can you see a studio allowing a live audience to interact with stars today? Stars would be a nervous wreck, and network honchos would be that times 10. So it’s a fascinating part of every show, and half of Burnett’s weekly traditions.

As for the other half, Bob Hope had his “Thanks for the Memories” theme, and Burnett often closed her shows by singing the words to her own theme song:

I’m so glad we had this time together
Just to have a laugh or sing a song
Seems we just get started and before you know it
Comes the time we have to say, So long.

CarolBurnettShowscreenIn between there was song and dance and performing guests. But anchoring the show were the comedy sketches, starring, at first, Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Wagoner, and later Tim Conway, after Wagoner left the show to do “Wonder Woman.” Guest stars got in the act too, and the talents on these 16 episodes are Chita Rivera, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, Mel Tormé, Nanette Fabray, Jim Nabors, Bing Crosby, Paul Lynde, Tim Conway, Eydie Gorme, Burt Reynolds, Lesley Ann Warren, Don Adams, Lucille Ball, Bobbie Gentry, Phyllis Diller, Gwen Verdon, Nancy Wilson, Andy Griffith, Bernadette Peters, Cass Elliot, Flip Wilson, Vicki Carr, Carol Channing, Steve Lawrence, Jack Jones, and Ruth Buzzi. I suspect that the more of these celebrities you recognize, the more likely you will be to appreciate The Carol Burnett Show. It’s suitable for families, but children and a new generation of viewers may find the musical numbers especially dated, though the sketches are still funny, and Burnett is as likable as ever.   More

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