30 November 2012

Cinematic Capsules: November 2012

The Rare Breed (1966)

Curious, minor Western starring late period Jimmy Stewart as a rough-and-tumble cowboy who falls in with a cultured English widow (Maureen O'Hara) and her daughter as they bring the expensive bovine of the title from St. Louis to Texas. Once a particularly harsh winter hits, O'Hara must fend off the advances of the ranch owner, a distractingly bewigged Scot, played by Brian Keith. Meanwhile Stewart becomes nearly as obsessed with finding the recently blizzard-bound bull as John Wayne was of tracking his niece in The Searchers. Director Andrew V. McLagen does little to distinguish himself outside of a surprisingly harrowing stampede sequence. The script's humor falls entirely flat but the picture becomes occasionally charming as it wanders along, thanks in part to the performance of Vindicator, the star cow.

The Prestige (2006)

Yet another Christopher Nolan picture that is not nearly as clever at it thinks it is. Based upon the novel by Christopher Priest and adapted by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, The Prestige tracks the bitter lifelong rivalry between two magicians at the dawn of the electric age. The film itself tries to be a magic trick but handles the task as clumsily as an eight-year old with his first store-bought illusion. The narrative hinges on two big "reveals" at the end of the picture that unfortunately are telegraphed so far in advance that the entire last hour is spent checking off each inelegant and unsubtle allusion to the twist. The supporting performances run the gamut from inspired (David Bowie as Nikola Tesla) to embarrassingly miscast (Scarlett Johansson attempting a British accent). Meanwhile Michael Caine plays the exact same role he has in the last five Nolan films, while Hugh Jackman alternates between restrained and horribly hammy, and Christian Bale gets intense...again. Ho-hum.

Wagon Master (1950)

Thoroughly entertaining John Ford Western about a group of migrating Mormons who pick up some horse traders, a medicine show, and unwittingly, a family of bandits, on their way to the San Juan Valley. In that way, it resembles Ford's earlier Stagecoach, with a much larger ensemble of disparate personalities. The film starts with a rare cold open for a film from the classic era, an invigorating prologue showing the evil Clegg brothers robbing a bank and ruthlessly killing a clerk. Only after the brutality do we get the familiar titles, accompanied by one of the many great cowboy songs written by Stan Jones and performed by the Sons of the Pioneers for the picture. Once again, Ford finds glorious ways of including the unique topography of Monument Valley into most every shot. One of the director's regulars, the rough-and-tough Ward Bond, gives the film's greatest performance as the leader of the Mormons, a man whose temper betrays his pre-spiritual life, as he is constantly being reprimanded for swearing. Some of the humor falls flat and the film does not possess any of the depth or intensity of something like The Searchers, but it is a solid, enjoyable picture.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)

Martin Scorsese's three-hour documentary on the dark horse of the Beatles is another smooth, expertly edited feature in the vein of his Dylan picture, No Direction Home. Living in the Material World views most of the events in George's life through the lens of his relentless quest for spiritual enlightenment. The picture is split into two parts, roughly between the Beatles years and post-breakup solo life. Scorsese wisely assumes viewers know the basics of the Beatles' story and therefore spends no time rehashing elements that have been dissected exhaustively elsewhere, most famously in the Beatles Anthology series and book. For example, a section on the band's life in Hamburg takes no time to explain what brought them there, or even where there is. The city is never mentioned by name. The talking heads are all of the usual suspects: Eric Clapton, Patty Boyd, Olivia Harrison, George Martin, Tom Petty, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Yoko Ono, and Paul McCartney. As usual, Ringo steals the show in his interview segments. His final anecdote, recalling his last moments with George before his passing, is the highlight and heart of the film.

The Invisible Man (1933)

James Whale's lean adaptation of H.G. Wells's classic science-fiction novel witnesses the American film introduction to one of the greatest screen actors of all time, Mr. Claude Rains. It is amazing what a distinct impression Rains manages to make solely through his voice, as we only see his face in the film's final frame. He plays a scientist who develops a serum that makes his entire body disappear. The side effects also cause him to become a megalomaniacal psychopath. The film shares many qualities with the other classic horror films Universal released in the thirties, including Whale's two Frankenstein pictures. The Invisible Man doesn't live up to either of those Boris Karloff creep shows, but it is an entertaining and astoundingly inventive picture. Whale devises several interesting scenes that incorporate the interaction of a floating shirt or wandering pair of pants, as well as fluid shots of doors opening by themselves, chairs being dragged, and books floating through the air. The film isn't scary in the least, it's more of a thriller, especially once Rains goes on an anarchic spree, killing trainloads of people, robbing banks, and holding people hostage. In many ways, The Invisible Man would work well in a double feature paired with Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Both films star villains with maniacal laughs who thrive on absolute chaos.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

James Cagney stars in this rah-rah rousing biopic of patriotic songsmith George M. Cohan, writer of such iconic American melodies as "Over There" and "Give My Regards to Broadway". The film, by director Michael Curtiz, is a show-stopping extravaganza charting the rise of Cohan and his family from the unheralded houses of vaudeville to the grand theatres of Broadway. The film rests firmly on the capable shoulders of Cagney who sheds his gangster persona here so efficiently and effectively; tap-dancing, singing and charming nearly everyone in his path. He also brings a nuanced emotional resonance to the role, especially in two great, later scenes with his father (played by Walter Huston). The best sequence in the film however isn't a character moment but instead a clever montage showing the passage of time on Broadway with billboards and marquees marking the bygone years as a medley of Cohan tunes plays through. There are a few conceits however that do not work, particularly the framing device of Cohan telling his life story to Franklin Roosevelt alone in the Oval Office. The film is wrapped so tightly in an American flag that the filmgoers who saw it less than a year into the country's entrance into World War II must have left the theatre and headed straight for the recruiting office.

Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid (1942)

A hilarious Merrie Melodie pitting Bugs against a dullard of a buzzard named Beaky, presumably based on Edgar Bergen's moronic puppet Mortimer Snerd. The buzzard is tasked by its domineering (Russian?) mother with going out and catching a rabbit for supper. The languid bird settles on Bugs, who gives him the run around like he has for Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam before him. As usual from the works of the Termite Terrace gang, there a number of breathless gags executed with a flair and wit that has never been surpassed. Bugs and the buzzard tussle for a moment before fluidly and hysterically turning it into an impassioned swing dance. There are some truly terrific character moments as well, with Bugs escaping from the flying buzzard's clutches and falling back down to earth, where his body is submerged beneath a pile of cow bones. Mel Blanc does a grand job of turning a wail Bugs emits after thinking he has died into a maniacal laugh when he realizes he will live to taunt another day.

Cloverfield (2008)

Director Matt Reeves, producer J.J. Abrams, and screenwriter Drew Goddard giddily team up for the thrilling, terrifying and wildly entertaining Cloverfield, a thoroughly successful update of the rampaging monster genre, transplanted to post-9/11 New York City. The film is framed as a handheld documentary of the unfolding disaster, which transpires on the night of a going-away party for a fashionable Manhattan twenty-something (who is coincidentally leaving for a job in Japan, birthplace of Godzilla). The conceit of the Blair Witch-style cinematography is intelligently done and never feels like a gimmick. It lends an immediacy to the proceedings and allows the filmmakers to more cleverly obscure the digital seams of their monster and the havoc it wreaks. Goddard's grasp of the horror genre and his ingenious ways of upping the ante are nearly equal to his similar accomplishments in his directoral debut, The Cabin in the Woods. Cloverfield is not afraid to put everyone in death's destructive path. It is a rollicking fright of a good time.

26 November 2012

Disney Daze: Week 43: Treasure Planet

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Ron Clements and John Musker were two of the more successful men behind the decade-long Disney renaissance in the nineties. The pair, who scripted and directed both The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, two of the most successful films in Hollywood history, were the golden boys at Disney. While their last picture, Hercules, was less rapturously received by the public, it did little damage to their vaunted status. That is why when the duo once again pitched their idea of a science-fiction version of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island, a story that had been floating around since The Little Mermaid, they were given the green light. Working with another creative tag-team, screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who would shortly begin scripting their own pirate story (this one based not on a book but a ride at Disneyland) the team began melding the sea-faring adventures of Stevenson with the cosmic grandeur of the universe. 

Treasure Planet possesses more overt allusions to films past than any other Disney feature in memory. There is a line lifted from Jaws and the home of the robot B.E.N. recalls the landscape of René Laloux's singular Fantastic Planet. But the film that Treasure Planet is Star Wars. The references are there from the film's opening shot which shows a hulking space ship entering the frame and being shot at by mercenaries. Switching the ship's direction and having the pursued be larger than the pursuer cannot hide the similarity. Meanwhile, a creature seen briefly in the film's early going emits a shriek that sounds as if it was lifted directly from the cries of a Tusken raider. Even Jim's awkwardly "hip" haircut, which features shaved sides and a ponytail, evokes nothing more than the Jedi-hazing Padawan coif.

The character designs in the film are incredibly erratic in quality. As mentioned, Jim's slightly edgy look relegates the character to the dustbin of millenial fashion conceptions. There are a plethora of aliens that populate the ship from the gelatinous, mutable puff known as Morph to the straightlaced feline Captain Amelia. The stumbling physicist Doctor Doppler, who convinces Jim's mother to allow the two to embark on the treasure hunt, is an anachronistic anthroporphized dog, akin to the species of Goofy or a mild-mannered resident of Duckburg. The best design in the film is reserved for the bulbous, exagerrated linework and cyborg circuitry hybridized into the scheming pirate, John Silver. The blend of the computer-generated and hand-drawn is elegantly achieved, as his glinting robotic eye hides within the organic flesh of a hard-living man. 

The secondary characters make little impression, except when they're annoying, which unfortunately, they frequently are. The picture's most egregious offender is the crew member who literally only speaks in fart sounds. The filmmakers run with the flatulent conceit, having Doctor Doppler attempt communication with the creature, placing his cupped hand under his armpit and wasting everyone's time, the audience's most of all. The worst character in the movie however is the silly sidekick robot, B.E.N., voiced by Martin Short at his most irratatingly energetic. B.E.N. has had his memory taken out and this leads him to constantly worry and repeat information. The best thing that can be said about B.E.N. is that he does not appear in the film until the last half hour. Moments after meeting him, Jim instructs B.E.N. that, "if you're going to come along, you need to stop talking." The filmmakers here needed to heed their own advice. 

The greatest element contained in Treasure Planet is the animation itself. The filmmakers pushed the envelope in terms of blending the computer-generated and hand-drawn, as evidenced in John Silver's design. The revolutionary Deep Canvas technology introduced in Tarzan is used to stunning effect here, creating a stunningly vivid three-dimensional landscape. The camerawork is surprisingly fluid, showing some swooping tracking shots onboard the ship, as well as a phenomenally rendered 3-D point-of-view shot as Jim scours the mess hall. The first shot of the space port where Jim and Doppler board their ship is also cleverly executed. From his home planet, Jim looks out into the night sky at the sliver of a moon. As the camera draws closer it is discovered that the moon is in fact a bustling way station with vehicles taking off and landing and all manner of odd-looking creatures milling about. Aside from matters of oxygen supply and other logistical necessities that remain unexplained, the imagery of wooden pirate ships floating through the vastness of space is a delight. The greatest visual sequence in Treasure Planet comes when the treasure-seeking vessel is careening towards a star that unexpectedly goes supernova before turning itself into an energy-sucking blackhole. There is a brief moment of darkness and silence before the ship comes hurtling out of the void, propelled by a great fiery explosion of stunning orange and yellow. 

Meanwhile the writing leaves plenty to be desired. The crucial elements of Stevenson's story are touched upon but there is little embellishment or time for deeper understanding. The segment that might have had the best emotional impact, a montage juxtaposing the memories of Jim's distant father with his newfound relationship with the conflicted pirate Silver, is completely undone by the overwrought balladeering of the Goo Goo Dolls' frontman John Rzeznik, who pens one of the absolute worst pieces of music ever to find its way into a Disney picture, the trite and terrible "I'm Still Here". Rzeznik's other contribution to the soundtrack, the equally abysmal "Always Know Where You Are" (notice any lyrical patterns here?) is quarantined to the closing credits. 

Treasure Planet was a complete failure at the box office. The film cost an astronomical sum to produce and only returned a fraction of it in the United States. The film was received with at best tepid admiration from critics. It didn't help that less than six months earlier the Walt Disney Studios had released another animated film with sci-fi undertones, the charming, witty, and thoroughly heartwarming Lilo & Stitch. Both films were nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar in the category's second year of existence. However they both lost to a film made halfway around the globe at a smaller studio in Japan. The winning feature told the story of a young girl whose parents turned into pigs as she was forced into service at a magical bathhouse for wandering spirits. The film was called Spirited Away and would become one of the best examples of animation's uniquely transformative powers. These films did not need to rely on proven properties or aggressively pander to their audiences. They could be majestic and idiosyncratic, finding their narrative way through intuition and dream logic, instead of beats from screenwriting 101. Spirited Away showed that the real treasure lay in the imagination and conviction of its creators who pushed the boundaries of art and storytelling in ways no one had done before. 

19 November 2012

Disney Daze: Week 42: Lilo & Stitch

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

The idea of a film being the result of one person's pure artistic vision is more often than not a complete pipe dream. Nearly every aspect of a film's production necessitates collaboration. Such vaunted auteurs as Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese made their greatest films from other people's scripts. Even control freaks like the Coen brothers need to rely on others to photograph, score, and of course, act in their films. Nowhere is the idea of auteurism more unheard of than in animation. Feature length animation requires a legion of artists working in concert, alongside the efforts of writers, voice actors, singers, composers, and yes, studio heads, to bring a picture to the screen. After Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, no film in the long line of Disney productions comes as close to being the work of a singular mind than 2002's Lilo & Stitch.

The film was commissioned by Michael Eisner, who after breaking the bank on increasingly lavish productions like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, wanted to make a simple, inexpensive film just as Walt Disney did back on Dumbo in the 1940s. Storyboard artist Chris Sanders pitched an idea that he had abandoned as a potential children's book in the 1980s. Sanders would be credited on the final film as co-writer, co-director, character designer, and voice of the titular alien. This singularity would be to the film's ultimate success as it possesses the surest, purest personality of any Disney picture. The film was made with a relatively small crew out in Orlando, a continent away from most of the meddling upper management who were much more focussed on the studio's other 2002 release, the epic Treasure Planet.

Lilo & Stitch begins in a far-flung galaxy as a mad scientist is on trial for creating an indestructible monster in his lab, a creature designed solely for destruction. We are introduced to a grand galactic federation populated with a wealth of alien designs, some faintly recalling the extended Star Wars universe as well as seminal Disney characters. The criminal creation, named Experiment 626, is brought before the tribunal. He is a small blue creature resembling a koala with four arms and antennae. The council decides to lock up the scientist and strand 626 on a deserted planet but 626 escapes in a ship and crash lands on the island of Kaua'i on a tiny planet called Earth. 

On Kaua'i we meet a young Hawaiian girl named Lilo who is mischievous and remarkably, refreshingly odd. She is a loner who takes pictures of the pasty and bloated bodies of tourists and feeds peanut butter sandwiches to fish. She lives with her older sister Nani up in the mountains. Of her missing parents she later explains that, "it was raining and they went for a drive." Nothing more needs to be said. The economy of this backstory is one example of the film's strengths, as is the depiction of the troubled little girl's personality. Unlike your run-of-the-mill child protagonist, who is usually precocious and wholly unreal, Lilo can at times be a brat, a goofball, and a frightened, defenseless little kid, oftentimes within the same scene. Her peculiarities are idiosyncratic enough to feel organic and entirely real. When she gets upset at one of the kids in her dance class for calling her crazy, Lilo lunges at her and shockingly punches the girl in the face. It is a visceral moment all-together unseen in an animated feature but all too common on playgrounds and in schools. 

Lilo is in danger of being taken from her sister and put in an orphanage by the uniquely-monikered social worker Cobra Bubbles, played by Ving Rhames as if this were a sequel to Pulp Fiction. In fact, the character's design may or may not have been an homage to Quentin Tarantino, as Bubbles possesses the slick suits, sunglasses, and gold earrings of Marcellus Wallace. After a rather disastrous meeting between Bubbles and the sisters, Nani tries to make amends with Lilo by taking her to the pound to pick out a puppy. Lilo instead chooses 626, whom she renames Stitch. The blue alien was picked up after being run over by not one, but three semi-trucks. Meanwhile, the galactic federation has sent the scientist and an underling to Earth to capture Stitch in exchange for the scientist's freedom. The two stalk Lilo and Stitch in ridiculous disguises as human tourists. The remainder of the film shows both Lilo and Stitch learning responsibility as they deal with the bonds of family, even a family that is cobbled together from unloved parts like theirs.

The animation is stellar throughout the film. The designs of the characters are charming and original. How does one adequately convey how gosh darn adorable both Lilo and Stitch are? Their soft, rounded features and complimentary body sizes make for an overwhelmingly cute pair. The watercolor backgrounds were the first at the studio since the 1940s, and they give the Hawaiian locale a wonderfully expressive design. Meanwhile, the limited use of computer animation, saved mostly for two action scenes involving spacecraft, are integrated well into the film's delicate palette while retaining the feeling of advanced alien technology. 

Nearly every element of Lilo & Stitch is a resounding winner. The depiction of Hawaiian culture is more fully realized than the recent films set in far-flung locations like Asia and Australia. The island culture permeates every scene of the picture. Alan Silvestri's score is easily one of the best of the latter day Disney pictures, incorporating traditional Hawaiian melodies with a helping of classic Elvis Presley tunes, including "You're the Devil in Disguise" and "Heartbreak Hotel". The only songs that fail, including a histrionic take on "Burning Love" by Wynonna Judd, are thankfully relegated to the closing credits. 

There a dozen precious little moments in Lilo & Stitch that give it a sense of gravity and life. Lilo borrowing two dollars from Nani so she can pay for Stitch herself, Stitch taking a moment to browse Lilo's book collection before stumbling upon The Ugly Duckling, a depressed Lilo locking herself inside and listening to records on the floor. The film manages to be heartwarming, poignant, and consistently funny. The gags are unexpected and fluidly executed. A sterling example of the film's distinctive personality comes from a brief shot of Stitch walking along the beach dressed as Elvis and carrying a ukulele. That goofy little gag would not work in any other film because it only belongs here. It makes complete sense in this weirdly wonderful world.

Lilo & Stitch was a success with critics and moviegoers alike. Creator Chris Sanders was given the reins to helm another one of his original ideas, this time about a spoiled television dog who gets stranded in the desert and learns some much needed life lessons. After Michael Eisner's ouster, the new head of feature animation, Pixar's John Lasseter, viewed early footage of the film and did not like the direction the production was going. Sanders was resistant to changing his vision and was soon removed from the project. He subsequently left the studio and he soon found success alongside his Lilo & Stitch co-director Dean DeBlois with their DreamWorks animated feature How to Train Your Dragon. His work on the half-completed film known as American Dog was scrapped and the final film, now entitled Bolt, was but a faint glimmer of his wild and original vision.   

18 November 2012

Happy Birthday Mickey Mouse!

On this date eighty-four years ago, Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon premiered. As has become a custom here on UP, we celebrate a birthday by selfishly plugging an upcoming personal project. Read on!

Now that this year's Disney Daze project is winding down, one needs to look towards the future, which this time around means delving ever further into the past. Starting on Monday, 7 January and running until I am finally committed to the mental institution I have successfully evaded for the last three decades, I will be watching Disney's Mickey Mouse shorts in chronological order and writing about them here. For now I only have plans to tackle the 74 black-and-white shorts, all released between 1928 and 1935, which for those of you who can count will easily take me into 2014. The reasons for this are three-fold. One, that's a heck of a lot of shorts. Two, the earliest incarnations of Mickey are the ones that truly interest me, back when he was more of a rapscallion and less of a corporate cipher. Lastly, I only own the two-volume Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White sets. (If someone wants to spring for the two-volume In Living Color sets--Jim Carrey-free, I assure you--I will accept them with open arms.)

A couple of notes regarding these posts. Since a Mickey Mouse short has a tenth of the running time of the typical Disney feature, expect a tenth of the wit, a tenth of the ribald humor, and a tenth of the penetrating insight associated with the Disney Daze posts. And I'd say expect about a third of the word count. You're not getting off that easily! I will also be classifying each short under one of the following three headings: Essential, Worthwhile, Avoidable. This will help separate the wheat from the chaff for those who need pithy answers to life's big questions.

Oh boy!

11 November 2012

Disney Daze: Week 41: Atlantis: The Lost Empire

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire was completed by much of the same crew responsible for the surprisingly awesome The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise reteamed to develop a story based on Victorian science fiction, à la the work of Jules Verne, in particular his influential novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. The finished film contains allusions to Verne's work, including a replica of the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but the completed story was cobbled together from myriad sources. The first writer to take a stab at a treatment was none other than current Disney golden child and geek god extraordinaire, Joss Whedon. Whedon left the project shortly after completing his first draft but some of his trademark elements remain in the final product, first and foremost the huge ensemble cast. It is unclear how much direct DNA is shared between the spunky Audrey and her young female mechanic-in-arms, Kaylee, of the spaceship Serenity, but the similarities are striking.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire opens with an action-packed prologue showing the submersion of the ancient city of Atlantis. The sequence is full of mechanized weaponry, sci-fi technology, and onscreen subtitles translating the dialect the fleeing Atlanteans are shouting. This invigorating, bravura introduction starts off in a manner entirely foreign to the general conception of a Disney feature and runs full throttle with it. It is a breathless section that refuses to hold the audience's hand. One has to work to catch up. The sequence is representative of the entire feature, which almost willfully shuns any of the trappings some deem crucial to a Walt Disney Studios' production. There are no songs and no talking animals. The animation style is modeled after the work of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, who was hired on as a production designer for the film, and the completed picture looks like nothing in the Disney canon. 

Following the dense opening section, we get a glimpse of the film's underlying wit when we are introduced to Milo, a scrawny, geeky linguist who works in the basement of the Smithsonian, as he gives his audience of dusty artifacts a brief history of Atlantis and how he--with the work of his explorer grandfather--has discovered the whereabouts of an ancient text that will reveal the location of the sunken city. One clever bit has a cuckoo clock chiming just as Milo finishes his lesson, subtly voicing the skepticism of Milo's findings. Milo is voiced by Michael J. Fox. Fox does an admirable job of presenting the right amount of nerdiness to the character, although as usual with celebrity voice work, the star's persona is occasionally distracting. The rest of the voice cast, which includes James Garner, Leonard Nimoy, and Jim Varney, settles better into their roles. 

Milo has been shunned in his attempts to mount an Atlantis expedition by his higher-ups at the museum, but is soon whisked away by a smoldering, sexy dame to a mansion where an eccentric millionaire, who was lifelong friends with Milo's late grandfather, enlists the linguist to finally track down the sunken city. Milo is thrown in with a multi-cultural crew, all with their specialities. There is the African-American-Indian doctor, the French excavator, the Italian demolition expert, and the aforementioned mechanic, who is of Puerto Rican descent. The crew is led by Commander Rourke and his assistant, Helga, the woman who brought Milo to the mansion.

The crew is quickly off on their expedition and the film erroneously tries to jam as many vignettes of their journey into a very short time frame. We get a frantic introduction to the crew, a handful of harrowing escapes from a series of dangerous adversaries, including a wonderfully conceived robotic Leviathan who chases the crew through the depths of the ocean. The sequences would work well on their own, but strung together in such quick succession, they become a bit tiring. The filmmakers unfortunately pile it on way too thick. Happily, by the time the crew reaches Atlantis, the film slows down to manageable pace, as Milo befriends Kida, the civilization's beautiful princess, and learns more of the city's history. 

Once in Atlantis, the film becomes a familiar retread of the conquering explorer's pillaging of a wise and ancient people's land. This is the story we've seen time and again in the likes of Avatar and Disney's own Pocahontas and Tarzan. However, there are some surprises along the way, including the reveal that the entire crew that has accompanied Milo to the submerged utopia are ruthless, greedy individuals who are only involved in this job solely for their own financial gain. Many of them see the error of their ways long before the film closes, but it is interesting to spend the first half of the picture getting to know this rag-tag unit of explorers, only to have them all pointing a gun at Milo and kidnapping Kida.

The film is surprisingly mature in a handful of ways. In keeping with the spirit of the prologue, the filmmakers feel no need to condescend to their audience. This is seen in a number of ways, some as small as tossed-off asides like an obscure reference to P.T. Barnum, with no compulsion to explain or contextualize the aside. Meanwhile the villain refers to himself as an "Adventure Capitalist", a phrase that would fly right over the heads of the children in the audience. The film is also surprisingly violent. Most of the faceless, auxiliary crew members are killed in the chase with the Leviathan, their deaths acknowledged by a makeshift ceremony conducted by the survivors. There are scenes of remarkable destruction including a climax that is full of flying bullets, arrows, knives, explosions, lacerations, and for good measure, a beheading. 

The film even manages to succeed with some of its crasser elements, with a shocking number of gross-out jokes that are actually funny. Unfortunately, the filmmakers push their luck and after a handful of quality chuckles at the expense of a naked old man and a character analyzing his own vomit, the film doubles down with nothing but diminishing returns. Luckily, the latter half of the picture trades in the laughs for big, bold action and some crazy visual elements, including glowing ancient runes and mammoth, Iron Giant-esque guardians who shield Atlantis from a torrent of boiling lava. 

Atlantis: The Lost Empire succeeds much in the way of its production crew's predecessor, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by pushing the envelope with its visual style, cramming as much exhilarating animation into the frame as possible. It also reminds one of the much-maligned The Black Cauldron which strained at the bonds of the Disney formula and came through as a curious, unique artifact. Also, like The Black Cauldron, Atlantis: The Lost Empire was not much of a financial success. Domestically, it grossed less than its production budget, only recouping its investment overseas. Usually comparing a Disney film to two of its predecessors results in detrimental criticism of the current feature, but when your film resembles two of the more audacious, idiosyncratic works to come through the pipeline, it is a sign of praise. Atlantis: The Lost Empire is far from perfect but it is a vigorous, entertaining experiment. Maybe like the famed city lost to the ages, this film will be rediscovered buried deep under the voluminous detritus of sequels, remakes, and direct-to-video features the studio has churned out in the decade since. There is some treasure deep down there.

09 November 2012

Disney Daze: Week 40: The Emperor's New Groove

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

There is a famous adage that a film is created in the editing suite. This is certainly true for live action films. However, in animation there is never abundant footage to add or subtract to a narrative. By the time a scene has been sketched, drawn, inked, and filmed it better be in the picture. So when an animated film is well along in production and the creators discover that the story they labored over for years; writing, storyboarding, casting, and drawing is not working, there is no option but to scrap most of their completed work and start over basically from scratch. Pixar famously did this with two of their greatest achievements, Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille, both of which were redone in the eleventh hour. They also did it with two of their least effective efforts, the more recent Cars 2 and Brave. Disney's late 2000 release The Emperor's New Groove may be one of the most vastly reworked features in animation history. Regrettably, the retooled and retitled feature falls decidedly into the latter camp of those aforementioned examples.

Originally titled Kingdom of the Sun, the film was to be a musical based on the "Prince and the Pauper" tale and set in the Incan empire. The film was patterned after the epic sweep of the blockbuster The Lion King, whose director Roger Allers was initially helming the project. Former Police frontman Sting was commissioned to write a majestic score similar to the bombastic songbooks heard previously by Elton John and Phil Collins. Infamously, the composer's wife was hired on to film a making-of documentary for home video. However, the film ultimately became a fascinating chronicle of the bitter struggle over the troubled film's direction. The Sweatbox, as the documentary came to be known, was never released but did crop up online earlier this year before being yanked by Disney. It contains the only traces of this earlier abandoned production.

When early footage of Kingdom of the Sun was screened for test audiences the feedback was resoundingly negative. However, the Walt Disney Company had already made licensing deals with fast food restaurants and soda companies which they could not back out on. This is probably the least heartening thing one could hear about a film's creation: "Hey, do you want to go see the new movie forced into production because of Happy Meals?" The film's co-director, Mark Dindal, split off with the writer Chris Williams, and took the basest elements of the original story and flipped everything else on its head. The latest incarnation of the film would retain the petulant Incan king cursed to be a llama but make it a sassy, self-aware, snarky feature.

It works better than Hercules. But that certainly isn't saying much. In fact, The Emperor's New Groove starts off much like its brother in flippancy, by opening with a musical number introducing the brash young emperor Kuzco. Instead of a chorus of gospel-singing black women, the theme song is sung by credited "Theme Song Guy" (seriously, the credits list him as Theme Song Guy) Tom Jones, who oozes the slickest and sleaziest style of his Las Vegas act. From there we spend the first half of the picture at the mercy of Kuzco's cloying, redundant voiceover provided by none other than master thespian, David Spade. Spade's casting fits with the filmmakers' desire to portray the emperor as a pompous jackass, but that doesn't help the fact that pompous jackasses are incessantly annoying. And boy howdy, does David Spade run with that direction! 

Sadly most of the supporting cast was also selected for their abilities to conform to a one-dimensional archetype. By far, the worst offender is Patrick Warburton, who plays the dunderheaded lackey Kronk as one long David Puddy episode of Seinfeld. Yeah, that's right. Eartha Kitt portrays the villainous Yzma and she does a decent job of hamming it up. Not surprisingly, the voice actor who comes out the best is John Goodman, playing the noble villager Pacha, who helps the emperor become human again, both physically and compassionately. If there is any ounce of heart in this movie, it's contained in Goodman's delivery. Too bad he is given little opportunity to showcase it. (Thankfully the following year would see Goodman inhabiting a more nuanced animated character in the form of the big furry "kitty" Sully in Pixar's Monsters, Inc.)  

Using the style of Incan artwork as a launch pad, the film succeeds visually in its vibrant color palette. There are many deep reds in the temple and lush greens in the hillsides. Many Disney films of the era feature one scene of more abstract animation, usually when the villain is engaging in some sort of nefarious magics, and The Emperor's New Groove is no exception. The scene showing Yzma concocting her llama potion is a brief visual delight with bubbling pink and purple beakers all shaped like Incan characters and a scheming reverie set in a black shapeless void.  When the film turns to this abstraction it is frequently beautiful. The character designs throughout the film are angular and distinctive, although Yzma's look resembles the iconic Cruella de Vil a little too much. The best animated sequence in the picture revolves around a slapstick action scene, easily the cleverest in the film. On their way back to the palace, Pacha and Kuzco become trapped above a gator-infested river. Their attempts to scale a rock face to safety are thwarted by increasingly dire catastrophes in a cataclysmic Rube Goldberg-esque chain reaction. 

The Emperor's New Groove's prerogative is to make the audience laugh and it fails at this task with stunning consistency. The filmmakers confuse manic hysterics and uncomfortable pauses with genuine humor. Characters break the fourth wall, have absurd monologues, and mug for the camera like their lives depended on it. Unfortunately it all adds up to another forgettable product whose patina of funky attitude remains hopelessly and instantly dated. Like its main character, the film went through a series of transformations, but the two went in opposite directions. Kuzco the character ends the film compassionate and caring, while the film he lives in became an immature trifle.

04 November 2012

Disney Daze: Week 39: Dinosaur

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

It took an entire decade and half since the first glimpses of computer generated imagery in The Black Cauldron and five years after the release of Pixar's groundbreaking Toy Story before Disney finally took the plunge with their first completely non-hand-drawn animated feature. Dinosaur's original script was finished long before production began. Initially the film was to be created with stop-motion animation but once Steven Spielberg released Jurassic Park in 1993, the style was scrapped for digital wizardry. 

Unfortunately to the film's detriment, this attempt to place the most cutting edge, realistic visuals in service of a cartoon makes Dinosaur look almost instantly dated. Toy Story and many of the other computer-generated features released at the dawn of the medium depicted a stylized world with plastic or otherwise smooth protagonists to hide some of the infant technology's shortcomings. Meanwhile, something like Jurassic Park expertly mixed CGI with models and puppets to blur the lines between the analog and the digital. Dinosaur strives for a realism that is never quite there. The visual style is ultimately distancing and all-together uninviting. However, in their pursuit of the real, the filmmakers did stumble upon one fascinating technique that on its own is stunning. Throughout the film the backgrounds that the CGI creatures interact with are real 35mm filmed locales, including shots of Samoa and Hawaii. The lush backgrounds provide some truly remarkable images, particularly in the film's early going. But as a contrast to the animated elements onscreen it ultimately detracts. For example, a shot of a CGI stream looks even worse than it normally would when it is bracketed by real footage of roiling oceans.  

There are many roadblocks on the path to distinguish Dinosaur from its thematic and technological forefathers. Some of these similarities were addressed early on in production but were ultimately ignored. For example, the film was originally conceived as a story without dialogue to give the material a different feel than the legion of Land Before Time films popularized in the eighties and nineties. This bold, exciting move would have given Dinosaur more of a thrill and would have resulted in a much more distinctive picture. In fact, the sequences in the film that remain free of dialogue are the strongest. The opening montage that shows a dinosaur egg swept up from its nest and pushed, floated and otherwise carried along to its new home on a lemur-infested island, is wordless and in moments, majestic. The reverie is soon broken by characters voiced like late-twentieth century everymen, stentorian elders, sassy black women, and oddest of all, an upper-class British brachiosaur.

It is when these creatures open their mouths that Dinosaur's most egregious moments transpire. At one point, the lemurs attempt to help our protagonist Aladar woo a female of his species by anachronistically catcalling and making "woof" noises. Dogs weren't even invented yet! Gee Disney, stick to the facts! The woman turns to one of her traveling companions and points out Aladar as an example of a "jerkasaurus". Thankfully however, the film steers clear of any attempts at pop culture jokes a la its fellow in "jerk"-nomenclature, Hercules, or any benign songs, say a ballad sung by a pining stegosaur.

The film's best visual moments occur in the first twenty minutes. After the opening journey of the dinosaur egg we cut to the hatched and orphaned iguanodon and his adopted lemur parents looking on at a strange mushroom cloud billowing on the horizon. A meteor has crashed landed on earth, laying waste to much of the planet. The impact spreads towards the idyllic island shore and a brief moment of silence is punctuated with a gale force of energy that wreaks havoc upon the beach. The resulting film depicts a menagerie of migrating dinosaurs, including Aladar the iguanodon and his lemur family, as they trudge across barren earth to the nesting ground, a promised land of sanctuary from the destruction and death.

The theme of the movie is one pitting the cruelties of a survival-of-the-fittest mentality with that of a caring collectivist ideal. This is hammered home time and again as the gentle Aladar questions the motives of the roaming pack's leader, another iguanodon, the bullheaded Kron. It is all well and good as a moral lesson that steers kids away from the ideals of their Tea-partying parents but it is a bitter irony seeing the film's final shots of newly resurgent dinosaur population, replete with dozens of hatching eggs, thriving in the Pebble Beach vistas of the nesting ground, knowing full well that the entire civilization is doomed for an extinction that is lurking just around the corner. In a way, Dinosaur could push kids past benevolent socialism and into a world of existential despair.

In fact, Dinosaur could bum kids out on a few different levels. There is a surprising amount of death in this Disney picture. While most of it is tastefully treated offscreen, we do get predators and prey alike meeting untimely ends. An iguanodon maimed from a velociraptor attack is crushed by a cave-in of his own devising. At the film's climax, Kron is chewed and smashed against a rock by a bloodthirsty carnotaur, who himself is thrown from a cliff to his death. Of course, none of the heroes fail to reach the nesting ground and share in the celebratory party. Maybe if a lemur got trampled or the brachiosaur died of thirst, we would muster up some feelings, but it is all just wanton destruction.

Dinosaur garners respect for attempting to do something different within the Disney form. If nothing else, the film looks nothing like any of the studio's other work. Of course, the film's look turns out to be one of its biggest flaws. It's a cutthroat world out there. You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. Consider Dinosaur a random genetic mutation that popped up somewhere along the evolutionary path and was never seen nor heard from again.