31 July 2012

Cinematic Capsules: July 2012

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)

The lone screwball comedy to be helmed by Alfred Hitchcock is not much more than a trifle for either genre fans or auterist critics. The film is about a harried husband and his shrew of a wife who discover that their three-year-old marriage is null and void due to a mix-up in zoning laws. Furious that he did not rectify the situation immediately, the wife kicks the husband out and quickly begins seeing other men. Meanwhile the husband pursues her with impassioned intensity (insanity?) in an effort to win her back. Capably made but only intermittently funny, Mr. and Mrs. Smith depends on its leads to get the goofy antics across and unfortunately it is only half successful. Robert Montgomery does a solid job of playing the husband. He can handle the wackier bits as well as play the straight man when required. However, Carole Lombard fizzles as the wife. She plays it all a bit too broadly, even for the genre to which she is known. This is only the second Lombard film I've seen, after Twentieth Century, my least favorite Howard Hawks film, and in both instances I found her performance to be shrill and unpleasant. Throughout Mr. and Mrs. Smith I was constantly asking myself why Montgomery would even want to reconcile this relationship. Lombard gives us no indication of her charms despite the fact that every man in the film swoons for her. Her emotional outbursts and erratic behavior are the hallmarks of a psychotic, not a lover.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Even a second viewing on a scratchy print at a discount theatre cannot diminish the power of The Cabin in the Woods. It is still easily my favorite film of the last half year. Unfortunately, the film screened once in Texas at the ass pimple end of 2011 so it will not qualify for end-of-the-year accolades. Them's the breaks. Director Drew Goddard and producer Joss Whedon have co-written the horror film to end all horror films, while simultaneously deconstructing and taking the piss out of the entire genre at the same time. Five college kids head off for a pleasurable weekend retreat to the titular location but they quickly discover that nothing is at it seems. If I say anything more it will ruin the surprises of one of the most inventive, witty, gory, and hilariously freaky films I have ever seen. The cast is a real hoot as well, and it is great to see some Whedon regulars (Amy Acker! Tom Lenk!) sprinkled throughout. The Avengers may be raking in all of the dough and finally making Joss a household name, but The Cabin in the Woods is the purer, more idiosyncratic, and satisfying work. Grr Arrgh!

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

A ruminative exploration into the internal lives of a Castilian family in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive is a poetic piece of filmmaking superbly constructed. Every shot in the film is an expertly framed composition. A series of subtle dissolves are eminently effective. At the film's heart is a revelatory performance by the sad-eyed child Ana Torrent who plays the younger daughter, a girl obsessed with befriending the spirit of Frankenstein's monster after attending a screening of James Whale's 1931 film. The alternately compassionate, competitive and cruel interplay between Torrent and her sister (played by Isabel Telleria) is achingly real. The Spirit of the Beehive at times feels like Fanny and Alexander starring a prepubescent Celine and Julie. The film effortlessly achieves the oft-attempted but rarely successful feat of tapping into the quiet curiosity of childhood.

La Luna (2011)

Pixar's latest animated short, currently playing theatrically in front of Brave, is a resolute charmer. The adorable story of three generations of star sweepers out on their nightly shift features some of the most stunning images the famed studio has yet released. Director Enrico Casarosa tells the simple, fantastical tale with a deft touch. The film has an old world charm which coming from Pixar feels fresh and invigorating. The shorts division is responsible for the studio's most exciting work of late, specifically when they're working on original story lines and characters as opposed to the bland brand-reinforcements starring the Toy Story or Cars creations. With prequels and sequels becoming an increasingly large part of the company's slate, the recently announced Finding Nemo 2 being the most egregious of them all, the shorts are the place to see the creativity and wonder that defined Pixar.

Into the Abyss (2011)

It is staggering to think of Werner Herzog's far-flung travels over the last decade as he continues to pursue the ecstatic truth. From the Alaskan wilderness to centuries-sealed caves in France, from Buddhist ceremonies in India to Antarctic science stations, Herzog now journeys down to death row in small town Texas with his fascinating documentary, Into the Abyss. Herzog has never claimed to be objective in his documentaries and here his anti-execution stance is firmly defined at the outset. His presence as filmmaker and interrogator is felt in every scene as he inquisitively guides his interview subjects down a series of off-beaten paths. He once again shows us that he is the master of the long take, getting onscreen subjects to do or say the most outlandish, contradictory, or beautiful things. One leaves the film, which pivots deftly from harrowing to hilarious, not with images of grisly homicide or even a better understanding of the death row experience, but animals. Always animals. The moments that linger, tantalizing and tenacious, are anecdotes from preachers, prisoners, and wardens about squirrels, monkeys, and hummingbirds, all creatures unconcerned with the plight of us foolish humans.

Straw Dogs (1971)

A Peckinpah horror film. Dustin Hoffman plays a cultured egghead, basically the antithesis of a usual Peckinpah protagonist, who moves with his wife, played by Susan George, to the English countryside where they are soon harassed by local hooligans. The film charts Hoffman's attempts to remain rational and civilized in spite of the atrocities committed against him and his wife. Peckinpah's take paints Hoffman as an ineffectual coward, who cannot stand up to the bullying taunts and does not see the extent of the damage the villains are perpetrating upon him and in particular, his wife. A sense of dread permeates the film from the very first frame and it does not let up until the typically bloody finale. Despite the contemporary setting and the foreign country, the movie is a Peckinpah flick through and through, meaning it is at once depraved, nauseating, violent, challenging, and a true work of art. Straw Dogs is a fascinating, nightmarish statement about society that one wrestles with long after the credits roll.

27 July 2012

Disney Daze: Week 26: The Great Mouse Detective

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 is rather astounding how many Disney animated features star mice. Sure, Fantasia and Fun and Fancy Free star Mickey, the mouse that started it all, but rodents pop up time and again in the films, all designed differently with a multitude of personalities. Dumbo's best friend and manager is one Timothy Q. Mouse, a huckster with a heart of gold and a mind for show business. Cinderella splits its narrative between the human protagonist's preparations for the ball and the exploits of little Jaq and Gus, who spend the duration of the picture escaping the clutches of Lucifier the cat. Meanwhile, the stars of The Rescuers are part of an international organization of mice sworn to help those in need. And now we find a thoroughly British society of mice in 1986's The Great Mouse Detective. The film is based on a book series by Eve Titus entitled Basil of Baker Street, which for a time remained the title of the film until the corporate overlords homogenized it, to the chagrin of the animators. The titular mouse is a Sherlock Holmes surrogate, living in fact beneath the great fictional detective (who himself makes a brief shadowy appearance, voiced by none other Basil Rathbone, whose dialogue was lifted from a previous Sherlock performance.) The plot revolves around a little girl named Olivia, whose father, an inventor, has been kidnapped by Basil's nemesis Professor Ratigan, played to the hammiest hilt by Vincent Price.

The Great Mouse Detective feels less like a continuation of the traditional Disney theatrical feature than the starting point (or ahem, the launchpad) for the studio's imminent dominance in syndicated television shows. A year after the film's release, Disney introduced DuckTales, a half hour cartoon show based upon the fantastic Uncle Scrooge comic series, written and drawn by one of the greatest artists ever to work for Disney, Mr. Carl Barks. DuckTales eventually became the anchor of the weekday block known as the Disney Afternoon. All of the shows originally presented under that moniker were well-produced, high flying adventures starring classic characters like Chip, Dale, Huey, Dewey, and Louie. To its advantage The Great Mouse Detective shares the syndicated shows' penchant for rip-roaring storytelling, but unfortunately the reason it is most reminiscent of the shows is because it basically looks like television. Almost all of the shots in the film are close or medium, there is very rarely a wide shot showing more than two characters, or any significant bit of landscape for that matter. Most images are dominated by a character framed from the chest up. This is a tactic used to cut down on production costs as there was less need to animate multiple things in any given frame or adequately fill in backgrounds.

However, there are moments worthy of the silver screen. The climactic chase sequence that sees Basil and Ratigan fighting among the gears housed in Big Ben is a wonderful piece of big screen action, with some stellar early CGI work. The two rodents, bathed in the yellow light leaking through the clock's face, are almost completely dwarfed by the mammoth spinning mechanisms they are dueling upon. There are other visual moments sprinkled throughout the film that show a dedication to craft and a knowledge of cinematic history. Early in the picture we get two different shots of hulking shadows looming into the frame. The first predator appears in the prologue and turns out to be Ratigan's lackey, Fidget, revealed to be a rather small bat, not the towering presence his shadow portended. A few scenes later Ratigan summons another creeping shadow to exact punishment on an insubordinate. This time however, the subverted expectation is itself subverted and instead of getting another small creature, the rotund feline that stalks into the frame is much larger than anything we would have expected. Its size is akin to the Imperial Star Destroyer that swallows the rebel ship in Star Wars. In fact, to complete the comparison, the cat swallows the henchman.

Speaking of henchmen, one of Ratigan's gang is none other than Bill the Lizard from Disney's Alice in Wonderland. His appearance is curious because, Fidget the bat excepted, all of Ratigan's men are mice. The cameo is more distracting than anything else. The same goes for a brief appearance by Dumbo as a figurine in a toy shop. Playing "spot the character" does nothing but pull us out of the narrative. The most subtle and clever character allusion is in the design of Sherlock Holmes's hound, Toby, who Basil uses to track down Fidget. The dog, whose design is Disney-fied through and through, does possess an overly familiar blue collar that subtly reminds one of another canine who helped solved a series of mysteries. This one went by the name of Scooby.

To its discredit, the film chooses to shoehorn in a couple of song and dance numbers of varying degrees of annoyance. The most tedious is a vampy performance of "Let Me Be Good to You" sung by a floozy in a dive bar for bilge rats. The song seems woefully out of place in the picture, in part because it is delivered in a robust Broadway style unfit for both the environs and the 1897 time period. The better of the two sequences is an expository introduction to Professor Ratigan, sung by his drunken henchmen, although this too wears out its welcome long before the last note is sung. The best musical moment in the picture is sung by Price himself and works well because it actually serves a purpose in the plot. Ratigan is, as his name implies, a rather less adorable rodent than our mouse protagonist. Being a rat causes the professor extreme shame and he hides it by putting on the airs of a foppish dandy. This is best exemplified by his recording of "Goodbye So Soon" which plays on a Victrola set to trigger a chain of homicidal destruction upon the captured Basil and his sidekick Dawson.

If you trim the expository introductions and the superfluous musical numbers, The Great Mouse Detective could be a stand-in for a solid two-part episode of Darkwing Duck, nothing more. That is not necessarily a knock against the picture, as it proves itself deft in pacing and competent in its action. However it does lack certain qualities that would propel it further up the list of Disney features. No desire is exhibited and the picture possesses a dearth of dreams. Meanwhile the trademark darkness, that reached its zenith with The Black Cauldron, has been excised completely. Professor Ratigan may be an entertaining villain but he instills nary a modicum of fear. In summation, The Great Mouse Detective is a bit like its protagonist, witty at times and occasionally charming, but ultimately cold and a little distant.

23 July 2012

Disney Daze: Week 25: The Black Cauldron

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

In the annals of Disney history, The Black Cauldron stands out as one of the studio's biggest failures. The film was the most expensive animated film produced up to that point and was stuck in development limbo for months at the behest of new Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who demanded certain completed scenes be cut or reworked. When finally released, the film failed to recoup its massive budget and in fact, made almost two million dollars less than 1985's other animated feature, The Care Bears Movie. A reissue of One Hundred and One Dalmatians grossed 50% more than either film. Critically, the film fared poorly as well, with most reviews bemoaning the lack of Disney's trademark charm. This is unfortunate because The Black Cauldron, while indeed flawed, is a singular picture with a frustrating but fascinating voice.

Based upon a series of fantasy novels by Lloyd Alexander inspired by Welsh mythology, the film feels indebted to Tolkien and his unparalleled creation, the Middle Earth of The Lord of the Rings. In fact, the film could be construed as Disney's response to Ralph Bakshi's reviled Rings adaptation released two years before production began on The Black Cauldron. The story follows a simple young man named Taran who longs for a life of adventure away from his duties as an assistant pig keeper. When he discovers that his pig is actually clairvoyant, he is told to secret the swine away from the horrible Horned King who will use the pig to find the whereabouts of the mystical black cauldron that will grant unlimited power. On the journey the boy loses the pig, makes some friends, finds a magic sword, and eventually defeats the king, becoming the hero he daydreamed about in the process. 

Those critics and fans that cried foul at the film's claim to the Disney lineage ignored an element that is equally essential to the most satisfying of the studio's pictures, and The Black Cauldron has it in spades, that is, evil. The movie studio that made its fortune with a happy-go-lucky mouse has always been expert at tapping into the darker aspects of storytelling as well. It is rather shocking how often this is forgotten. Sleeping Beauty would not be the masterpiece it is without Maleficent's terrifying presence. The same goes for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and its vain and vicious Queen. The Black Cauldron however is the darkest of them all. The Horned King is an all-together terrifying villain, albeit a little one-note, with his lack of remorse and Skeletor-like visage. He also gets to spout, in the voice of John Hurt, one of the greatest lines in Disney history: 

"I presume, my boy, that you are the keeper of this oracular pig."

It is not just the Horned King that fills the screen with dread. His minions, especially the army of undead skeletons raised by the cauldron are a fright (as they recall the Dead Men of Dunharrow in The Lord of the Rings). His pair of tracking dragons, who at one point rush toward the screen as they fly through a craggy landscape, are demonic, nightmarish creations. Even the Horned King's dank and labyrinthine castle is a villain in itself, its mere presence swallowing the dwarfed characters onscreen. To The Black Cauldron's credit, the dark elements are easily the strongest sections of the feature. It is a shame that the main thing the critics denounced the film for is its most consistent strength. The film only stumbles when it attempts levity. 

The middle third of the film, taking place after Taran and his newfound friends escape the Horned King's castle, is by far the weakest for this very reason. The group, now featuring the requisite princess, Eilonwhy, as well as an old minstrel named Fflewddur and a furry scamp called Gurgi, find themselves sucked into a whirlpool that leads to an underworld populated by flickering sprites. There is some unfunny business featuring two of the sprites bickering before one of them takes the group to a witches' outpost where the black cauldron is kept. The witches themselves are used for comedic effect with an extended bit featuring a toad-transformed Fflewddur being trapped in one of the witch's ample cleavage. 

The animation style in The Black Cauldron is a step up from the few previous features. The work here is more lavish, with some of the first uses of computer generated imagery ever seen in an animated film. The raising of the dead and the ethereal green smoke emanating from the cauldron are particularly splendid creations. The backgrounds, especially the aforementioned castle, are dense and well conceived. The animation that unfortunately gets the short end of the stick is the characterization of the heroes. While the aforementioned villains make a forceful stand, the protagonists are either bland, derivative, or ugly. Taran could be a teenage version of Arthur from The Sword in the Stone, while Eilonwhy looks all too much like a pale facsimile of Princess Aurora. Gurgi however gets the worst treatment. Call it the prolonged influence of the seventies, but at this point in Disney's legacy any time they try and make something adorable, which used to be their stock and trade, they fail miserably. Gurgi looks like a terrier/bichon frise mix with the body of a chimp and an old man's mustache. 

The Black Cauldron unfairly carries the weight of its initial failure and critical expectation like an anchor. The stigma of "the bomb" can cloud any picture's legacy. However when all of the production problems, reshoots, and pithy reviews are swept away, all one is left with is the film itself. Despite its similarities to other fantasy worlds, and the occasional callback to previous Disney creations, The Black Cauldron continually makes choices that separate it from the rest of the pack. The film should be praised, not damned, for these deviations. For example, the film contains no songs, which is unprecedented and certainly for the best considering the terrible soundtracks that accompanied The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound. The instrumental score by Elmer Bernstein is for the most part fairly rote, although some particularly creepy moments are heightened by the music. The Black Cauldron stands at a distance from its Disney brethren, shunned for not following the formula. Instead of faulting the film for failing to adhere to the studio's standards, the studio itself could afford to learn some lessons from this dark, disturbing, troubled creation. Blaze your own path. It might not always be successful but it is certainly never boring. 

15 July 2012

Disney Daze: Week 24: The Fox and the Hound

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 Fox and the Hound was the first film that shifted the reins at the Disney studio to a new generation of animators. This second wave of talent would include such future cinematic titans as Tim Burton, Brad Bird, and John Lasseter. The younger crowd would soon splinter off, with many creative minds defecting from the studio completely, while others steered the company through its roughest patch before eventually finding its footing with a succession of features that heralded a second Disney renaissance. The Fox and the Hound is decidedly not one of those trumpeted features. It suffers from many of the faults of its predecessor, the abysmal The Rescuers. However the film provides an improvement of sorts upon the previous picture.

The film is based upon a novel by Daniel P. Mannix and tells the story of two animals, a fox named Tod (?) and a hound dog named Copper. The two spend their infant days frolicking through the forest, without a care in the world, but soon Copper is taken away on a hunting expedition and when he returns, the two creatures--now pitted as enemies in the animal world--must give up their friendship. The inevitability of people (or foxes) growing up and growing apart is a rather mature theme for a Disney picture. The disintegration of friendship should resonate much more with adults than with children. This is indeed one of the film's strengths, although the handling of it is for the most part, blunt and uninteresting.

The film most closely resembles the fifth Disney masterpiece, Bambi, with its tale of the immutable laws of the forest and its halves split between carefree youth and the responsibilities of adulthood. While not as intricately detailed and naturalistic as the previous feature, The Fox and the Hound even manages to pleasantly evoke some of the background beauty associated with Bambi, especially in its third act, which is unequivocally the strongest section of the film. There are also more obvious callbacks to the film as well with a brief homage to the young Bambi's pratfalls on the ice as hound-dog-in-training Copper slips and slides on a frozen lake. Meanwhile Tod's clumsily romantic introduction to the female fox Vixey later in the picture immediately recalls Bambi and his pals twitterpated adventures.

There is even a knowledgeable owl who keeps track of life in the woods, but in design the character of Big Mama looks less like Bambi's Friend Owl and more like the spitting image of Owl from Winnie the Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood. In fact, the only identifier to distinguish the two is the lazy cartoon conceit of giving the female version long eyelashes. The same luscious lashes are added to Vixey the fox who otherwise looks like a mirror image of Tod. And here is one of the biggest faults with The Fox and the Hound. While the background work is well done (if a little sparse) the character design is, on the whole, deplorable. Every character got beat with the ugly stick, or pencil, on their way to celluloid. The most hideous design is that of the puppy version of Copper, who is all hollowed out and lumpy, as opposed to what one assumes was meant to be wrinkled and cuddly. Tod fares a little better, although he gets stuck with a horrible tousled forelock that is distracting and unpleasant. There is certainly a reason that these characters didn't make it onto t-shirts, mugs, or into costumed characters in the theme parks.

Another factor in the film's failing is most certainly the voice performances. Like The Rescuers before it, The Fox and the Hound possesses some of the most distracting, annoying, and out of place voice work in the studio's history. Once again, the voices of children are particularly egregious with cloying readings coming out of both young Tod and Copper, the former voiced by a ten-year-old Corey Feldman. The adult versions of the two stars are provided by Kurt Russell and Mickey Rooney, which is a buddy cop movie I've been waiting my whole life to see, however voicing a dog and fox doesn't quite cut it. Two veterans most known for their iconic work on Winnie the Pooh show up here as well. John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet, shows up briefly and inoffensively, but Paul Winchell's work as a woodpecker sounds like nothing more than an unfunny a parody of Tigger, replete with an ever-so slightly altered laugh. The character of Vixey might get the worst treatment with Sandy Duncan (from The Hogan Family!) sounding not only out of character, but out of place. It is hard to explain, but her voice here doesn't even seem to be coming from the fox she's playing. It is almost as if she was overdubbed after the animation while the rest of the cast's work was done early in production.

Besides being split down the middle with two halves representing the two periods of life, The Fox and the Hound also has a side story used as comic relief that runs parallel to the A-story and has little bearing on it whatsoever. It is a device that seems commonplace in children's films nowadays but at the time was rather unprecedented. The only other Disney feature I can think of with two separate stories that run for the duration of the picture is Cinderella with its screen time dedicated to the exploits of the mice and the villainous cat Lucifer. In The Fox and the Hound this side story involves two clumsy birds, the aforementioned Tigger stand-in Boomer and his pal Dinky who are obsessed with capturing and killing a tenacious worm, who fools them at every turn. These comedic interludes are reminiscent of the bygone era of the cartoon short subjects like Disney's Silly Symphonies or Warner Bros.'s Looney Tunes, although the gags here are fewer and in every respect, less effective. However the payoff at the end of the picture is well done and makes the time spent off the main track with these three a little more worthwhile.

The same can be said for the picture as a whole as the final third, featuring a surprisingly well-conceived and emotionally effective climax, is the strongest section of the film. After Tod is associated with the injury to Copper's mentor, the old dog Chief, Copper and his master seek revenge on the fox. They sneak into a game reserve and set bear traps before tracking Tod and Vixey down and cornering them in a burrow. Soon a grizzly bear appears and Tod risks his life to save them. It is an action-packed sequence that deftly balances the emotional and physical stakes, bringing the picture's themes to a successful and satisfying conclusion. The Fox and the Hound is a flawed, mostly forgettable feature that leaves its characters and its audience thinking back longingly to the past.

13 July 2012

Disney Daze: Week 23: The Rescuers

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

Bring on the blandness. Welcome boys and girls to the 1970s, where all of the wondrous, exotic colors of the rainbow are watered down and dull. Were the seventies a chromatic response to the vibrant psychedelic kaleidoscope of the sixties? In 1974's The Rescuers we'll see our fair share of muted greens and drab reds, however brown and grey are the predominant shades of the picture. Overall an uglier looking film I cannot recall coming through the Disney pipeline. It is shocking how unpleasant this feature looks. And it is not just the color scheme that is responsible for The Rescuers homeliness. The animation serves an all-too crucial role as well. Some of the most transparently crude animation is on display in the film, many moments of it galling in its cheapness. One such example occurs almost at the onset of the feature. After the credit sequence--which is done in a novel method of slightly animating muted pastel drawings to tell the prologue, which involves the travels of the orphan Penny's message in a bottle--we enter the film at the United Nations, which is hustling and bustling with some of the most egregious uses of rotoscoping imaginable. The drawings are stiff and anonymous, with no sense of style or fluidity. Faceless figures move to and fro in almost robotic fashion. Luckily the film soon turns its attention to the animal world and all later appearances of humans show a little more life.

Admittedly there are the occasional flashes of style in the animation. The drawing and movement of two secondary characters, the old orphan cat Rufus and the albatross pilot Orville, are well-conceived and a joy to watch. The essences of their respective species are captured nicely and show some of the spark used to bring classic characters such Bambi and Lady to life. No wonder, Rufus was designed and animated by the superb Ollie Johnston, whose forty-year career at the studio ended with this picture. Rufus moves with the slightly diminished grace of a cat long in the tooth. However, the best bit of physical movement in the film involves the avian aviator Orville and the take-off from his rooftop airport. (side note: the titular mice Bianca and Bernard enter what looks like an airport for humans in downtown Manhattan but they climb an escalator and end up on the roof of a tenement building. Where are the humans flying out of?) Orville, beak to the ground, builds up momentum as he stumbles towards the roof's edge before plummeting down to the chaotic city streets below cresting on the wind just before he hits the pavement. The wind-up is such a great moment that the filmmakers decide to use it not once, but twice more later on in the picture. Unfortunately the novelty by that point has worn off.

The story is based on a pair of novels by Margery Sharp and involves two mice who are members of a rodent organization dedicated to helping creatures in need. They receive the aforementioned message in a bottle sent by an orphan who has been kidnapped by a pale Cruella de Vil-impersonator named Medusa. She is using the child to retrieve a prized diamond from a treacherous cave. The mice track the child down in a swampy bayou and help her escape from the woman, her corpulent henchman, and two menacing alligators. That description sounds like an action-packed romp and it appears that the filmmakers had hopes of achieving something of the kind but like the color scheme, it is all so dull. This viewer attempted two screenings before actually completing the feature, both viewings were interrupted by naps. Not only did I fall asleep but both times it was during a chase scene. 

Another accomplice in this mediocre affair is the voice talent. Eva Gabor is adequate as the refined mouse Bianca, she's basically playing the same character as her role in The Aristocats, namely herself. The difference is in the previous picture she had the boisterous Phil Harris to bounce off of. Here she is shackled to the tentative mumbling of Bob Newhart. (This begs the question: how many filmgoers were salivating at a chance to see the pairing of Gabor and Newhart onscreen? Was that a selling point?) Newhart's whole shtick is his low-key demeanor but in an animated film where he's the ostensible hero it works about as well as well, umm, gee, I don't know...this sentence. Another weak spot in the cast is the performance by Michelle Stacy as the orphan Penny. Stacy plays the child with an ingratiating preciousness, drawing out her words in a pouty, woe-is-me manner. It doesn't help that she is given some serious treacle to force down our throats, with lines like "a man and lady came and looked at me, but they choosed a little redhead girl. She was prettier than me." (She probably had more self-confidence too whiny-pants.) Some secondary characters shine however with the most welcome appearance being that of Pat "The Sheriff of Nottingham" Buttram as Luke, a moonshine-swilling backwoods muskrat.

Fairly or not, Disney is often pegged as a studio that promotes the insistence of impossible dreams. They tell us to wish upon a star and have no worries. The thing is the studio was once capable of selling us such facile fantasy because they were absolute masters of their medium. We want to believe Jiminy Cricket because the breathtaking animation, superb storytelling, and gorgeously orchestrated melodies convince us so. Rarely are the aphorisms handled so poorly than in The Rescuers. The aforementioned pastel prologue is ultimately unsuccessful because the godawful tune playing over it ruins the proceedings. The film is flush with mild, folky ballads that are offensive in their inoffensiveness. The worst of the lot is "Someone is Waiting for You" which doubles down on a faith-based pep talk given by Rufus to the unwanted Penny earlier in the picture. The lyrical drivel includes the line "always keep a prayer in your pocket and you're sure to see the light". It all adds up to an unconvincing and empty message. Penny's plight feels completely hopeless, not in spite of the songs and encouragement, but because of them.

Part of the pain inherent in The Rescuers is the fact that it was a transitional picture at the studio. It was the first film to feature two generations of Disney animators working together side by side. This was when stalwarts like Ollie Johnston and his best friend Frank Thomas, artists of the highest order, responsible for such iconic moments as the spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp and the meeting of Thumper and Bambi, were writing the epilogues to their storied careers. The Rescuers is an unfortunate swan song for such talented individuals. Meanwhile, working alongside these masters were a crop of newcomers like Don Bluth and Glen Keane, both talented men who would be integral forces in the world of animation in the next decade. The DNA of later works like The Black Cauldron and The Secret of NIMH can be traced back to this mild, mediocre, misfire of a picture. The Rescuers gives us no reason for its existence, it has no purpose. It is just quiet, mild, and brown. Oh so very brown.