Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Director Report Card: Don Bluth (1999)

10. Bartok the Magnificent

In the late nineties, direct-to-video sequels to famous cartoons were prevalent. Disney had created a mini-empire releasing cheap continuations of some of their most iconic films straight to the video market. While the quality of these productions were frequently challenged, they were obviously profitable. Fox Animation Studios - having shown themselves to be viable rival to the mouse factory with the gorgeous, popular “Anastasia” - obviously wanted in on this. A few of Don Bluth’s films had produced direct-to-video sequels, such as “Secret fo NIHM II” and the roughly ten thousand “Land Before Time” sequels. The biggest difference between those films and “Bartok the Magnificent,” the DTV “Anastasia” follow-up, is that Bluth had nothing to do with those. Bluth, meanwhile, directed “Bartok the Magnificent.” It would be the only sequel to any of his films he would ever work on.

In the days of royal Russia, Bartok is a traveling entertainer, amusing people with tales of his adventures and daring achievements. He brags about defeating dragons and monsters, none of which is true. Even the bear he fights every time is actually a friend named Zozi. One such performance catches the attention of Ivan, the country’s prince and the Czar in waiting. The boy is seemingly kidnapped by Baba Yaga, the terrifying witch of Russian legend. The royal consul, Ludmilla, sends Bartok on a quest to retrieve him. At least, that’s what Ludmilla tells everyone. Soon, Bartok finds forces working against him.

You might have noticed a word I used in that first paragraph: “cheap.” Disney’s various straight-to-video sequels were never much to look at, compared to their theatrical releases. The animation was usually handled by the same production companies that worked on Disney’s television series. “Bartok the Magnificent,” however, breaks this trend. Just having Don Bluth’s name in the opening credits implies a higher level of craft. The sequel looks way better then it has any right to. The characters’ movements are lively and fluid, with a nice cartoonish edge. The backgrounds are interesting to look at and detailed. The graveyard-like area surrounding Baba Yaga’s cabin is especially atmospheric. While not as lush or gorgeous as the animation in “Anastasia,” “Bartok the Magnificent” is comparable to the underrated work Bluth was doing during the nineties.

How exactly does “Bartok the Magnificent” tie into “Anastasia?” Just barely, is the answer to that question. Beyond Bartok, there are no characters from the earlier film. The film is seemingly a prequel, as it takes place long before the Russian revolution. The Russia shown here seems much older then the semi-modern one seen in Bluth’s previous movie. Prince Ivan is a Romanov, which does little to narrow the setting down. (There were a couple of Ivans in the Romanov dynasty, from the looks of it.) How Bartok lived so much longer then your normal bat, and came to be associated with Rasputin, is not expounded on. In general, “Bartok the Magnificent” has a much lighter, goofier tone then the film it spun-off from. It’s not a romantic fantasy but rather a light-hearted kid’s comedy. Both films don’t have much to do with actual Russian history.

As the title indicates, Bartok graduates from the role of sidekick to protagonist. The comic relief sidekicks have never been the best part of Bluth’s movies, when they’re not genuinely annoying. In “Anastasia,” Bartok narrowly avoided being obnoxious by having a small role combined with Hank Azaria’s mildly amusing work. As a lead, Bartok fares better then anticipated. Though something of a coward, the movie gives the bat enough ingenuity and courage to make him a viable hero. Azaria’s performance, which sounds something like a mangled Jerry Lewis impersonation, somehow never irritates. Basing an entire movie around the talkative bat might have seemed like a dicey proposition but “Bartok the Magnificent” never actively annoys, at the very least.

“Anastasia” used a Russian urban legend to build a lively animated fantasy upon. “Bartok,” similarly, takes a loose inspiration from Russian folklore. An important figure in the story is Baba Yaga. Easily the most prominent figure from Russian fairy tales, and one that’s gained a lot of ground in the last decade, Baba Yaga is a fascinating character. The animated film maintains more of the weirdness of these original stories then you’d expect. Yaga still travels around in a giant mortar and pastel. She still resides in a cabin resting atop chicken legs. The movie references, but never follows up on, her habit of eating children. After some worthwhile build-up, Baba Yaga’s eventual portrayal in the movie is disappointing. She’s portrayed as a typical cartoon witch, casting spells and making potions. Still, it’s a neat idea including the character in the film.

Most of “Bartok the Magnificent” brief 67 minute run-time is devoted to a fetch quest the witch sends the bat on. Considering gathering unrelated items at the behest of some magical being is a common attribute in old fairy tales, it doesn’t feel entirely out of place. First, he most recover a pink talking snake from a snowy mountain top, Secondly, he most retrieve the crown from a buffoonish troll. Lastly, he must gather a magical, golden feather. None of these scenes are especially exciting. Rescuing the talking snake involves lots of slapstick. The sequence with the roll is definitely the low point of the film. During this moment, the film begins to feel like the low-balling kid’s cartoon you might be expecting. The bit with the feather is fairly short-lived and inoffensive.

That so much of “Bartok” spends its time with this quest is a bit of a problem. See, Baba Yaga didn’t kidnap the boy prince. The entire scheme was cooked up by Ludmilla. This is obvious from the minute the character is introduced. Essentially, the movie spins its wheels for the majority of its run time. Ludmilla doesn’t match up to Rasputin. Though the rail-thin character design is interesting, especially the way she spins the tassels on her gown, there’s not much to her. She’s a goofy, indistinct threat. The finale of the film has her transforming into a dragon, which makes for decently exciting conclusion. Ludmilla is voiced by Catherine O’Hara, who brings a certain something to the part. She seems to be having fun, at the very least. There’s not much in the script but O’Hara at least put some effort into the part.

Another clue that “Bartok the Magnificent” might have had a higher budget then most direct-to-video animated sequels is its voice cast. Besides Azaria and O’Hara, the film features a few other notable voices. Kesley Grammer returns from “Anastasia” as an entirely different character. This time, he plays a talking, singing bear named Zozi. Grammer brings the expected refinement and aristocratic feeling to the part. Though the sidekick doesn’t add much to the movie, Grammer’s tendency to drop references to classic literature is amusing. Tim Curry plays the talking skull that guards Yaga’s cabin, speaking mostly in riddles. Curry’s immediately recognizable, sensual brogue adds a lot to a nothing part. Jennifer Tilly’s equally identifiable whine fills the role of the pink snake. Again, it’s a silly part with a wildly overqualified actor bringing more to the character then it requires.

By this point in his career, it’s hard to remember that Don Bluth once directed cartoons without singing in them. The same songwriting team that contributed the wonderful songs to “Anastasia” returned to this prequel. However, the songs in “Bartok the Magnificent” are not of the same caliber. They’re forgettable, truthfully. The opening number, “Baba Yaga,” does an okay job of building up who the film’s villain appears to be. The title song never finds a melody worth humming. “A Possible Hero,” sung by Zozi to Bartok, is probably the best song in the film as it has the most clever lyrics. “Someone’s in My House,” sung by Baba Yaga, features back-up from her talking furniture which is one of the few times I was actually embarrassed during this Report Card. Ludmilla’s big number, “The Real Ludmilla,” is overshadowed by the bizarre transformation the character is undergoing at the time.

Like a lot of underachieving kid’s flicks, “Bartok the Magnificent” has a moral. The titular film begins the movie as a liar and a coward. As the story evolves, he discovers his courage and actually becomes the hero he claims to be. Unlike Bluth’s earlier, better films, which avoided blatantly stating moral lessons, “Bartok the Magnificent” more-or-less lays these things out for the little kid crowd. Though less obnoxious about it then some children’s fair, the tacked-on lesson is mostly unneeded.

All right, now it’s time for the judging. “Bartok the Magnificent” is comedy. Is it funny? The goofy slapstick is too broad to generate much laughter. Though the vocal performance’s qualify as amusing, they never quite translate over to actually funny. I didn’t laugh once during the 67 minutes it took to watch “Bartok the Magnificent.” Is the movie interesting or endearing? The movie’s riffs on Russian mythology is sort of interesting. The relationships between Bartok and his friends are mildly touching. However, even to the younger crowd it was made for, the prequel is likely to be forgotten soon after it is watched.

Before starting this Director Report Card, this is the only Bluth film I had never seen before. I’m not sure how this happened, considering I watched or owned most of Disney’s direct-to-video sequels and was certainly a fan of “Anastasia.” Maybe this just sneaked through the cracks or something. Having seen it now, I can’t say I was missing much. The animation is nice. The voice cast is an unexpectedly good. But the script is unspectacular and the story is nothing impressive. There are far worst films on Bluth’s resume but this is certainly not the most memorable. [Grade: C+]

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Recent Watches: The Pagemaster (1994)

I’ve watched a lot of movies over the years, over 4000 as of this writing. As a kid, I watched a lot of cartoons, which gave me a solid foundation as a movie consumer. Don’t get the wrong impression though. I come from a family of voracious readers. As a child, I caught the reading bug soon enough and have paged through many books in my time. As both a lover of animation and literature, “The Pagemaster” seemed designed to appeal to me. Expectantly, it was a frequent presence in my childhood VHS. I even played the video game a lot too. Despite watching it plenty of times, it wasn’t a film I felt the need to revisit before now. So I’m facing down the question every nostaglist must: Does it hold up?

Richard Tyler is a hugely neurotic little boy. He has a chronic fear of death and spends most of his time spewing statistics about accidents and injuries. This makes Richard a target of bullying and concerns his father, who foolishly built a tree house for the fearful child. Richard’s bike ride up to the hardware store is derailed when a thunderstorm rolls in. He takes shelter in a library before falling and hitting his head. He awakens in the world of literature, guided by the mysterious Pagemaster, teaming up with three anthropomorphized genres, and having an adventure through different classic stories.

Even in 1994, the shadow of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” loomed large. “The Pagemaster” is another combination of live action and animation, though the two rarely interact. In a framing device directed by experienced popcorn filmmaker Joe Johnston, we’re introduced to Macaulay Culkin and his family. Though Johnston doesn’t get much credit for his visual sense, these early scenes have a certain moodiness to them that I like. The library is a gorgeous set. The ceiling painting, which is an important plot point, is lovely to look at and certainly stuck in this young man’s memory. There are a couple of cutesy moments in these scenes that I don’t care much for. Macaulay’s ridiculous bike makes a funny noise when knocked over. James Horner’s score is quite good but these early scenes features some overly cute musical cues.

The most fun to be had in “The Pagemaster” comes from its episodic story construction. After the early scenes introduce Richard, the Pagemaster, and his friends Horror, Adventure, and Fantasy, the movie can get down to exploring each of those genres. The first of which is horror which was, unsurprisingly, my favorite segment as a kid. The quartet journeys through a spooky graveyard up to a gothic mansion on the hill. Once inside, they’re greeted by Dr. Jekyll who only takes minutes to transform into his alter-ego, Mr. Hyde. The moment when Jekyll transforms into Hyde is one of the film’s best animated scenes, as Jekyll’s body shifts into the beastly Hyde. Hyde’s disposal, which has him dragged into a hole in the floor by the chains of a chandelier, is also dramatically created. A run through a spooky hallway features spectral ghosts appearing out of books and some gothic gargoyles atop the building’s roof. (Apparently, a segment involving Frankenstein’s Monster was clipped from the movie but bits of it can be spotted in trailers.) While none of this is actually scaring, the segment has enough spookiness to it to hit a sweet spot for me. The beautifully drawn backdrops help a lot.

Probably the most lengthy sequence in the film is devoted to Adventure, which the film seems to correlate with maritime fiction. After stepping down a stairway composed of book spines – a nice touch – the cast hits the scene. Another stand-out sequence has them stumbling into the climax of “Moby-Dick,” right before Ahab is crushed by the whale. The dramatic lighting, which makes use of heavily contrasted red and blacks, is memorable. So is the moment when shark fins poke above the choppy, green water. The sequence that follows, a heavily abbreviated adaptation of “Treasure Island,” is the weakest part of the film. Though Jim Cumming is a fine Long John Silver and I like the pirates having fang-like teeth, the film gets a little goofy here.

The fantasy segment of the film is the least outwardly probing. While the other scenes threw out references to well known public domain works, Fantasy doesn’t prominently feature any iconic characters. There’s quick references to “Alice in Wonderland” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” but that’s it. Instead, the segment is dedicated to a battle with a dragon. (Is the dragon from “Beowulf?” Sure, let’s say the dragon is from “Beowulf.”) And it’s relatively awesome. The film’s animation really shines during this moment. The dragon is beautifully created. The aerial chase is exciting. Flight, fire, daring escapes, and a sword and shield are nicely used. It’s a fine note to conclude the film on.

The movie’s got a solid voice cast. Macaulay is the only member to play himself in the framing device and voice his cartoon character. He’s fine. Christopher Lloyd is quite good as the Pagemaster, bringing a sage-like quality to the character, and even better as the enthusiastic librarian in the live action scenes. Patrick Stewart has fun as Adventure, channeling his inner pirate. Whoopi Goldberg seems a little out of place as Fantasy, as her sassy persona sometimes jives with the character. Frank Welker, probably the busiest voice actor in the biz, is my favorite as the pathetic, drooling Horror. (Though to be technical… “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which the character references repeatedly, is gothic melodrama, not horror.) I also like Leonard Nimoy as Jekyll and Hyde. Yes, as the internet has pointed out repeatedly, many of these people have been in various “Star Trek” things. What, they couldn’t get Ricardo Montalban to play Captain Ahab?

I guess “The Pagemaster” is nothing especially exciting. Culkin’s character arc, of a fearful kid discovering his courage and manning up a bit, is as routine as can be and doesn’t tie into the literary theme much. The movie has some cheesy sentimentality and not one but two overwrought theme songs. However, the animation sure is purdy. I like the voice cast and the movie features a handful of really well done scenes. That was enough for me as a kid and, you know what?, it’s enough for me now. [7/10]

Monday, July 27, 2015

Director Report Card: Don Bluth (1997)

9. Anastasia
Co-directed with Gary Goldman

After scoring hits of both the cult and box office variety at the beginning of his career, Don Bluth spent most of the nineties in the wilderness. He made a long string of financial bombs and critical flops. Maybe Bluth continued to have a career simply because animation was huge in the nineties. Disney was churning out classic after classic and breaking records at the same time. 20th Century Fox wanted some of that money and decided to start up their own animation studio. Perhaps realizing that Bluth was underserved by the movies he was then making, the studio scooped Bluth and his partner Gary Goldman up. As the creative heads of the brand new Fox Animation Studios, Bluth and Goldman would return to their previous artistic heights with “Anastasia.”

Beginning in 1916, the film introduces the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna as a young girl. Her happy family life is disturbed when Rasputin, the ousted mystics of the family, uses dark magic to turn the Russian people against the royal family. Anastasia’s family is killed, save for her grandmother. The little girl, however, survives, with amnesia. Ten years later, a pair of conmen are training girls to be the Duchess, as to earn the Dowager Empress’ reward. However, they are thrown off when the girl they find, Ana, turns out to be the real thing. Meanwhile, Rasputin is resurrected as an undead ghoul, still planning to end the Romanov bloodline.

“Anastasia’ is notable for being the first Don Bluth movie about grown-up adults. Most of his previous movies were about cute talking animals or magical creatures. Following this logic, the film is a little more mature then anything the director has made since “Secret of NIMH.” Part of this is because of the movie’s inspiration. “Anastasia” was loosely inspired by the 1956 film of the same name. The animated feature frequently plays as an extended homage to old Hollywood glitz and glamour. The film takes place in real locations and the characters are frequently dressed in fancy gowns and glamorous outfits. Even the musical numbers seem directly inspired by the classics of old. This approach gives “Anastasia” a distinct flavor from Bluth’s other films.

“Anastasia” is even more loosely inspired by actual history. We know for sure now but, even back in 1997, the survival of the Grand Duchess was regarded as an urban legend. Presenting the Russian Revolution as the work of a evil sorcerer is in questionable taste. Setting a lively animated musical in Soviet Russia was questioned at the time by some historians. Ultimately, none of that is too important. Kids watching the movie at the time wouldn’t understand the circumstances that actually led to the revolution anyway. “Anastasia” is, instead, a fantasy which has barely any connection to fact. It’s owes more of a debt to old-school Hollywood and what Disney was doing at the time then anything that actually happened.

While the quality of his films have varied wildly over the years, one thing has remained consistent about Don Bluth’s output: It looks nice. The animation is always lovingly created. Even compared to the solid work seen in last few films, the animation in “Anastasia” is eye-popping. The colors are bright and clear. The character movement is fluid and vivid. The detailing is amazing. Even minor characters have a full personality. The digitized animation pushes Bluth and Goldman’s work to previously unseen levels. “Anastasia” is absolutely gorgeous from beginning to end.

“Anastasia” being gorgeous wouldn’t count for much if the film itself wasn’t compelling. Luckily, the movie has got plenty of personality and heart. Though styled after classic Hollywood, the title character has more in common with snarky nineties heroines. Ana, as she’s known for most of the movie, is a spin on the classic Disney princess type. She has a dream, of a family and home bigger then what she’s used to. However, she doesn’t idly wait for this dream to come true. She essentially runs from the orphanage where she was raised, trying to find her own destiny. Her character arc is not your standard animation storyline either. Ana knows she’s meant for greater things but doesn’t remember exactly how. The film is about her rediscovering her own past, which she has dream-like recognitions of. Meg Ryan, still a viable star in 1997, gives Ana a lot of spirit.

“Anastasia” is also a romance, though a much more grown-up one then “The Pebble and the Penguin.” When Ana and Demitri first meet, they don’t have much respect for each other. Ana doesn’t know he’s a con artist but seems to feel that he is. His snarky behavior certainly puts her off. Demitri at first thinks Ana is a simple girl without much to her. The two both have attitudes and they clash. This is classic stuff, the “slap-slap-kiss” dynamic. Their chemistry manifest as tension first. The two playfully call each other names, always denying their obvious attraction. It’s nothing we haven’t seen a hundred times. Yet “Anastasia” pulls it off really well. The moment the characters realize they feel something for each other, when they dance on the deck of a ship, is a genuinely disarming moment. The way their romance builds and resolve also feels natural and touching, Ana’s beauty and grace melting Demitri’s cynical heart. It helps that John Cusack is perfectly cast as Demitri, his famously sardonic wit proving to be suited just fine to voice acting.

As I’ve gone through all of Don Bluth’s films, I’ve lamented the awesome villains that used to appear in his pictures disappearing. By 1997, it had seemed like a long time since we saw Sharptooth or Jenner. “Anastasia” corrected this. As a historical figure, Grigori Rasputin was more complex then the mystical die hard boogieman he’s frequently portrayed as. Don’t expect complexity from “Anastasia” though. This Rasputin is an animated bad guy in the mold of many Disney villains. He’s sadistic, relishing his own evil acts. He has a certain style and grace, even a kind of cool, that makes him interesting to watch. He’s also an undead ghoul, which adds a macabre element to the character. I can’t imagine a Disney villain that is a decomposing corpse, literally falling apart several times. He also resides in a dimension made of floating dark matter, surrounded by hellish pools of lava. He controls an army of magical bat-demons, who glow green and perform nasty deeds. It’s hard to imagine these darker elements in a Disney flick, making Rasputin an ideal Don Bluth villain. Christopher Lloyd’s vocal performance brings some comedic energy to the part without ever devaluing him as a threat.

Another way “Anastasia” makes up for the no-risk kiddie flicks Bluth made in the early nineties is that the characters actually feel endangered. There are at least two stand-out moments in the film that gets a thrill out of the audience. The first occurs when the central trio is traveling on a train. Rasputin’s bat-like minions destroy the engine, disconnect the car, and take out a bridge. The characters rush to save themselves, trying to break the train car free with a hammer or dynamite. They make a dangerous dive from the moving train just before it falls to its doom. The sequence is not only beautifully animated but actually exciting. A later moment in “Anastasia” even pushes up against creepy. While on the boat, Rasputin enchants Ana. She has a dream, reunited with her family, painted in a gorgeous golden color. Unbeknownst to her, she’s actually dangling over the edge of the boat. When the dream goes bad, Rasputin appears to Ana, transforming into a demonic bat-monster. Cutting back between her idealistic dream and the spooky reality makes for an exciting sequence.

“Anastasia” doesn’t double-down on cute animal sidekicks. Instead, it only features two. The first of which, one that was merchandised to death, is Bartok. A white talking bat, he’s Rasputin’s usually ignored conscious. Hank Azaria voices the character, bringing his usual manic charm to the part. Bartok skirts up against being annoying, like when he’s professing his karate skills. However, Azaria is amusing enough to avoid this, even if the character doesn’t add much to the film. The second animal sidekick is Pooka, Ana’s puppy dog. Pooka’s flopping ears and happy barking are cute. Thankfully, the character is not anthropomorphized beyond that. Though he accidentally leads our heroine into danger at the end, he also makes himself useful, distracting the villain for a second.

“Anastasia” was obviously a big budget affair and has the star-studded cast to prove it. Aside from Ryan, Cusack, and Lloyd, it also features Kelsey Grammer as Vlad, Demitri’s rotund partner. Grammer’s voice is unrecognizable under a convincing Russian accent. Vlad is lovable, sensible, and another memorable aspect of the film. Angela Lansbury plays the Dowager, bringing her usual sense of refinement to the part. When she’s finally reunited with her Anastasia, the joy in her voice is inviting. Also on hand is Bernadette Peters as Vlad’s equally round love, the charming Sophie. Even Anastasia as a little girl is played by a name talent, in this case Kirsten Dunst. Though name actors, they each do good work, seemingly cast just as much for their skill as their marquee value.

What really makes “Anastasia” a minor classic is its gorgeous musical score. The collection of songs are excellent. “Have You Heard,” the opening number, is insanely catchy, with a chorus designed for crowd sing-alongs. It also helps provide back story to the film. “Journey to the Past” is Ana’s defining number. It’s a lovely, uplifting song. I especially like the quieter bridge in the middle. Rasputin’s song, “In the Dark of the Night,” sung by an instantly recognizable Jim Cummings, is probably the most energetic song in the film. The singing cartoon bugs, bright colors, and swirling staircase makes it a highly memorable number. “Learn to Do It” is lively, upbeat, and character-oriented, letting us learn more about the cast while also entertaining us. The crowning song in the film is “Once Upon a December,” a sweeping, wistful song full of meloncholey and nostalgia. The sequence where its performed features memories coming to life, dancing through a dusty ball room. It’s an incredible song. Bizarrely, the film pushed the inferior “Journey to the Past” as the break-out number. That earned an Oscar nomination. If the studio had focused on “Once Upon a December” instead, it would have won the Oscar, I’m sure.

“Anastasia” is a winner, all the way through. The animation is beautiful. The action is exciting. The romance is compelling while the humor is funny without being overbearing. As a musical, it’s fantastic, not a single song being a dud. The movie would be Don Bluth’s first commercial success in years, re-establishing the director as one of the top filmmakers in his field. Though frequently overshadowed by Disney’s output, like every non-Disney feature cartoon, “Anastasia” still has an audience who remember it as a touching, effective film with gorgeous animation and great songs. [Grade: A-]

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Recent Watches: The Swan Princess (1994)

Animation was big business in the nineties, thanks to the overwhelming success and popularity of the Disney Renaissance. Many films would appear in the wake of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” seeking to cash in on the public’s apparent demand for beautifully animated fairy tales featuring hit soundtracks. Many of these copy-cat films bombed, even the few that had the professionalism of animation auteur Don Bluth behind them. One such film was “The Swan Princess,” the most blatant attempt to emulate Disney this side of Filmation’s “Happily Ever After.”

Inspired by the ballet “Swan Lake,” the film follows Princess Odette and Prince Derek. The children of different kingdoms, the two are arranged to be married through a ridiculous scheme that has them meeting every summer, in hopes the two will fall in love. Baffling, exactly this happens. Despite loving her, Derek’s shallow appreciation of Odette’s beauty drives her away. Meanwhile, an evil sorcerer named Rothbart with a bone to pick with Odette’s dad, kills the king and kidnaps Odette. He curses her to become a swan, only assuming human form under the light of the moon. Derek prepares to find his love, unaware that of what’s happened to her or who is responsible.

“The Swan Princess” was directed by Richard Rich, a former Disney animated who also made “The Fox and the Hound” and “The Black Cauldron.” Like Don Bluth before him, Rich left the Mouse Factory to start his own studio, attempting to create a glossy look on a fraction of the budget. (Another weird coincidence: Bluth and Rich are both Mormons.) At the time of its release, “The Swan Princess” received some faint praise for its animation. And I suppose the animation is fine. It’s about par with some of Don Bluth’s lesser films. However, there’s something unappealing about the way “The Swan Princess” looks. The character designs are dull. The animation is sometimes stiff. The colors are flat. More then once, the film resembles television-grade animation. It has the crisp lines and painted backgrounds of other cel-animated films but not of the life or energy.

While Rich and his team made some ambitious attempts to copy the Disney look on far less money, “The Swan Princess” is staggeringly unambitious in story and personality. Odette and Derek have one of the least appealing romances of any animated film. Despising each other as kids, they fall in love as young adults… Because they do. Rothbart wants to rule the kingdom… Because he does. Odette has a trio of comic relief animal sidekicks, most of which are incredibly annoying and bring little to the plot. Because that wasn’t enough, Derek has a comic relief sidekick to, in the form of Bromley, a portly guy with a stutter that hangs around him. An especially obnoxious scene has Derek trying to kill the swan, unaware that it's Odette, because of a staggeringly stupid series of coincidences. The movie maintains some of the original ballet’s plot, such as the business with the Black Swan and the prince accepting her nearly killing Odette. That a happy ending is added on isn’t shocking. How sloppy and half-assed that happy ending is… Well, it’s not shocking either. It just speaks to how lazy “The Swan Princess” is.

Somehow, Rich managed to wrangle a decent voice cast into appearing in this thing. I don’t mean Michelle Nicastro or Howard McGillin as Odette and Derek, both of whom are utterly generic. I mean the supporting parts. John Cleese sports a ludicrous French accent as Jean-Paul, a frog who has a ludicrous French accent for no particular reason. Not even a performer as energetic as Cleese, an expert at getting the best out of shitty material, can bring any life to this. Famously dry Steven Wright brings some of his dry charm to Speed the turtle. Wright is one of the film’s saving grace. The script never allows him to be funny but he actually seems to be putting some sort of energy or wit into the part. Most odd of all is Jack Palance, slumming as hard as possible as the villain Rothbart. Just two years after winning an Oscar, Palance brings his famously gravelly voice to the part. Though the character is as thin as can be, Palance at least has a little bit of fun. He is, after all, playing some kind of friggin’ wizard.

Of course, “The Swan Princess” is a musical. The crappy attempt to rip off Disney wouldn’t be complete without some half-assed songs. Hoo boy, are these songs half-assed! The songs frequently feature multiple singers, in a truly odious Broadway style with many characters chirping in. “This is My Idea” is sickeningly long, seeming to stretch on for the entire opening portion of the film. “Practice, Practice, Practice” brings whatever pacing the film has to a total and complete halt, as it moves the plot forward in no way at all. “No Fear” searches hopelessly for a melody. The same could be said of “Far Longer than Forever,” the film’s attempt at a love theme, which also features no memorable lyrics. “Princesses on Parade” is the worst kind of pseudo-Disney shit I’ve ever heard, an achingly lame bit of music. Lastly, the movie makes no attempt to match up its talking voice actors with its singing voice actors. The guy who sings the villain’s song, the utterly embarrassing “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” does not even attempt a Jack Palance impersonation. The songs are bad. The movie is bad.

Like a lot of other attempts to copy the Disney formula, “The Swan Princess” bombed at theaters, only grossing 9 million dollars. Despite this, the film would still spawn a franchise of crappy direct-to-video sequels. (This is in addition to the many other crappy straight-to-video cartoons Rich would make, like the terrible “The King and I” adaptation, some fucking thing called “The Scarecrow,” and the string of sequels to “Alpha and Omega.”) “The Swan Princess: Escape from Castle Mountain” followed in 1997, with “The Swan Princess: The Mystery of the Enchanted Kingdom” coming in ’98. The series made the move to ultra-cheap CGI with the late “The Swan Princess Christmas” in 2012. Baffingly, the series continues to this very day with “The Swan Princess: A Royal Family Tale” being released just last year. Jesus Christ! Who’s watching these things? Not me, I can tell you that. I can’t speak to the quality of the sequels but of the original, I can say this: “The Swan Princess” is swan shit. [3/10]

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Bangers n' Mash 69: The Terminator Saga

This went up a week ago. I honestly meant to post this to the blog sooner but things kept coming up. By the time I remembered I hadn't posted the latest Bangers n' Mash Show, it's usually really late at night. Well, it's still really late at night but I haven't to have a moment to remind my blog readers to listen to my podcast.

Anyway, here's a podcast about the Terminator movies. This was more relevant earlier in the month.

Director Report Card: Don Bluth (1995)

8. The Pebble and the Penguin
Co-directed with Gary Goldman

Despite his last three films being catastrophic bombs, Don Bluth was still being allowed to make movies. The funding was coming from somewhere, I guess. “The Pebble and the Penguin” was produced around the same time as “Thumbelina” and “A Troll in Central Park,” the final film in the three part deal with Media Assets. Perhaps the money people were beginning to notice that none of Bluth’s films were making returns on their investments. MGM, the US distributors of the movie, reportedly demanded changes, delaying the movie’s release. Don Bluth and his co-director Gary Goldman were so disgusted by this executive meddling that they left the project before it was finalized, going uncredited on the release print. Bluth’s name was still used to advertize the movie. Despite its troubled production, “The Pebble and the Penguin” may be Bluth’s best movie in a while.

Set in the icy Antarctic coast, the film follows Hubie. A lovelorn penguin with a stutter, Hubie is too shy to approach Marina, the she-penguin he loves. Attempts to find the perfect pebble to present to her, part of the mating rituals of the penguins, go astray. However, Hubie finds a brilliant pebble after nearly being hit by a falling meteorite. Drake, the alpha penguin on the glacier who has his eyes set on Marina, feels threatened by this. Tossing Hubie into the sea, he assumes the other penguin is dead. Hubie survives, teams up with an eccentric rockhopper penguin named Rocko, and sets out to be reunited with his love before the mating cycle is over.

The sex lives of penguins are fascinating. The Adelie Penguin, the species that inspired “The Pebble and the Penguin,” can get down to some kinky shit. Males will sometimes copulate with dead females, coerce unwilling females, and molest baby penguins. When none of these options are available, sometimes the male Adelies just hump each other. The penguins have even been seen partaking in what some describe as prostitution. The female will sometimes trade a stone, which they use to create their nests, for sex. This decidedly un-G-rated behavior is what inspired “The Pebble and the Penguin.” The movie cutes up the whole thing, taking out all the rape and necrophilia that is a part of life for wild birds. But this is still an interesting world to set a kid’s cartoon in. If the film had come out in the post-“March of the Penguins” mania for all things penguin related, where the sort-of similar “Happy Feet” became an Academy Award-winning success, maybe it would have been a far bigger hit.

Disney had huge success with “Beauty and the Beast” and Bluth and Goldman were clearly still envious of that. Bluth decided to put his own spin on the cartoon romance genre. “The Pebble and the Penguin” is expressly concerned with penguin mating habits. But in a kid-friendly way. Hubie feels inadequate, because of his stutter and his inability to find a nice pebble to present Marina. For a while, he’s content to observe her from afar until fate intervenes. The romance in “The Pebble and the Penguin” is not especially compelling. It’s love at first sight for Hubie and Marina. After he disappears, she pines for him, certain her love will return. The comparison to “Beauty and the Beast” is most obvious in the film’s villain. Like Gaston, Drake is a macho male who doesn’t take no for an answer. The romance may not be complex but it is interesting to see Bluth tackle a love story in his usual style.

At the beginning of watching “The Pebble and the Penguin,” I was concerned the characters would be annoying. Hubie has a stutter, a trait which does not endear characters to the audience. Drake is a macho poser. The other female penguins swoon over him. Rocko, meanwhile, is a penguin with a ‘tude. Amazingly, the characters slowly win the audience over. Hubie’s stutter fades as he discovers his bravery. Rocko is less tubular then he is genuinely grouchy. Drake develops into a truly dangerous enemy. These aren’t high bars to clear. However, considering Bluth’s last two movies and how dire the movie appears to be, “The Pebble and the Penguin” becomes surprisingly charming.

Bluth and Goldman were also working with a better voice cast then their last few flicks. Unlike “Thumbelina” and “A Troll in Central Park,” which seemed to start with loose stereotypes and cast familiar, B-list talent in those part. At least the characters here seem to have real personality. Martin Short does not in indulge in high-pitched comedy, like you might expect. He makes Hubie genuinely likable at times. Annie Golden as Marina has a sweet, likable voice, making her a good choice for the love interest. Even James Belushi, the dreaded Belush, brings a nice husky quality to Rocko.

“The Pebble and the Penguin,” in addition to being a kid’s adventure and a bird-themed romance, is also a buddy flick. When Hubie meets Rocko, the team can’t seem to stand each other. The cranky Rocko finds the nervous Hubie annoying, while Rocko doesn’t mesh with the skittering Hubie. However, the character’s find a middle ground. Rocko has an impossible dream about flying. Hubie just wants to be reunited with his girlfriend. On their quest across the ocean, they learn to depend on each other and forge a true friendship. This is best summed up in a funny musical number called “Looks Like I got a Friend,” where Rocko snipes at the overly upbeat Hubie while further establishing their new found bond. Martin Short and Jim Belushi have a pretty decent chemistry.

Another reason to be in favor of “The Pebble and the Penguin” is the mysterious Tim Curry factor. Curry, a veteran of voice acting and on-camera acting, affects a non-convincing American accent as Drake, the villain. He even seems to be going for a surfer dude thing at times. The part allows Curry to do two things he’s really good at: Inappropriate sexual tension and a genuinely menacing sense of villainy. Curry’s slithering baritone drips with cheesy greasiness when he’s trying to seduce Marina. When threatening Hubie, Drake drops all pretense. He’s a killer, determined to smite his romantic rival. It’s surprising how the film makes the character, whose buff physique looks goofy and out-of-place, seem like a real threat. I think this is solely the work of Tim Curry, an expert at wringing the best out of sub-par material.

A problem I had with both “Thumbelina” and “A Troll in Central Park” is that both films felt far too safe. There was no sense of danger. The villains were cartoonish. The heroes’ lives never truly seemed threatened. “A Pebble and the Penguin” fixes this. One scene has Hubie and Rocko diving under an ice flow, looking for fish. Both wind up pursued by a harp seal, which is portrayed as a giant monster. Later, a pod of killer whales go after the penguins, leaping up rock formations to get at them. The animals want to kill and eat the heroes. They aren’t silly, fangless comic relief threats. The actual danger seems to have given Bluth and his team a renewed energy.

The animation is nice too. You can almost take for granted that a Don Bluth movie, no matter how dire, will at least look nice. The painted backgrounds are as rich as ever, the rolling ice caps looking wide, white, and impressive. The character animation is vivid and detailed. The movie also shows a slightly experimental side of the director emerging. The opening musical number has the penguins diving in-between the notes and bars of a song book. Penguins transform into bowling pins and roll into them. Color is used in an interesting way during the songs. Deep oranges and reds color the scenes, adding an interesting contrast. It’s not mind-blowing stuff but it brings an edge to the sometimes routine material.

And what about those songs? Barry Manilow returned to write the songs and score the music. This did not enthuse me, as Manilow’s sleep-inducing songs were one of the worst things about “Thumbelina.” He does better this time. “Now and Forever,” the opening number and reoccurring love theme, is somewhat catchy and has some decent lyrics. “Don’t Make Me Laugh,” Drake’s number, makes great use of Tim Curry’s deep, vibrating vocals. The aforementioned “Looks Like I Got Me a Friend” is cute. “Sometimes I Wonder,” the love song between Hubie and Marina,” isn’t very memorable. “The Good Ship Misery” is a mostly superfluous number that doesn’t add much to the plot, features silly lyrics, and broad vocals. The dance sequence is well-animated and creative though. I’m not going to rush out and buy the soundtrack but the songs are way better then they had any right to be.

There are some elements of the film I don’t especially like. Drake’s gaggle of sidekicks are useless. The film doesn’t even seem to know what to do with them. Two cute birdies, a boy and a girl, are another unnecessary pair of sidekicks. These seem like left-overs from Bluth’s lesser films. Also unneeded is the occasional voice-over segments from Shani Willis. These bits seem to frame the film as a pseudo-documentary. The movie abandons this aspect almost immediately and whenever it reoccurs, it truly feels out of place.

I’m not saying “The Pebble and the Penguin” is a classic. It’s not even on the same level as Bluth’s more uneven flicks. However, after three films that were varying degrees of not-good, it's refreshing to see a Don Bluth movie that is fairly entertaining. The animation is good, the characters are likable, the songs aren’t bad, and the movie actually has a sense of dramatic drive. It doesn’t feel like entirely toothless kiddy fair. The executive meddling most have really pissed him off. I can’t see how Bluth would disown a mildly entertaining family flick like this, while admitting ownerships of fiascoes like “Rock-A-Doodle” or “A Troll in Central Park.” Lowered expectations: Sometimes they’re not so bad! [Grade: B-]

Friday, July 24, 2015

Recent Watches: We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story (1993)

Steven Spielberg really likes dinosaurs. I can’t blame the guy, as dinosaurs are awesome and objectively one of the best things to exist ever. Back in the late eighties, he produced “The Land Before Time,” a classic cartoon about dinosaurs. In 1993, Spielberg would direct a little dinosaur movie you might have heard of called “Jurassic Park.” That same year, through his Amblimation studio, Spielberg would produced another, far more whimsical dinosaur movie. Called “We’re Back! A Dinosaur's Story,” the animated film was loosely based on Hudson Talbott’s children’s book. Though overlooked upon release, the quirky animated film has collected an internet following for its odd combination of fluffy kids’ stuff, catch-all plot, and darker elements.

In the distant future, time travel has become possible. The benevolent Dr. Neweyes uses this technology to make the dreams of children come true. You see, Neweyes has a magical radio that can tune into the dreams of people, which manifest as bubbles. Anyway, he gathers some dinosaurs from the past, making them intelligent and sentient with his magical cereal. Taking the dinosaurs into the present day, the creature meet some modern day kids. Their journey to the museum is interrupted and the dinosaurs wind up in the hands of Professor Screweyes, Neweyes’ evil brother.

“We’re Back!” has to check-off a lot of boxes in order to get to its' main plot. We’ve got time travel, dream-detecting radios, space ships, a little floating alien guy, intelligence expanding drugs, and that’s before we even get to the dinosaurs. Once we get pass all that, the film gets to the point. Primarily: Dinosaurs! The movie makes the not-at-ridiculous assumption that kids all over the planet - regardless of gender, age, race, or creed - want to meet dinosaurs. So here’s the saurian cast. The T-Rex is, naturally, named Rex and introduced on the golf green, which doesn’t even rank on the list of funny, odd images in this movie. John Goodman, whose rolly-polly physique and matching voice would soon make him a regular presence in animation, brings a goofy, likable quality to the part. There’s a pink Pterodactyl named Elsa, who seems generally loving. Woog the Triceratops and Dweeb the Parasaurolophus don’t get much development, beyond their love of food and general awkwardness. The scenes of the dinosaurs having a slap-stick adventure through the streets of Manhattan is probably the funniest, most cartoon-y stuff in “We’re Back!”

Rex and his friends discover Louie and Cecilia. The two kids have wildly different backgrounds. Louie is middle class. Cecilia’s parents live in a New York City penthouse. Louie talks with a tough guy Brooklyn accent. Cecilia is posh and upper-class, even curtseying when introducing herself to the dinosaurs. Despite their differences, the two both feel abandoned by their parents. The relationship between the two is cute, though the film’s decision to go romantic with grade schoolers is a little weird. “We’re Back!” runs a brief 70 minutes. In that time, the film has to establish that the kids and the dinos love each other enough to risk their lives for one another. Surprisingly, it works. Though a very silly film, “A Dinosaur Story” packs in enough earnestness to earn that emotions it seeks.

Helping matters is how weird this kid’s flick is willing to get. Though Amblin had long since severed its connection to Don Bluth, it’s good to know that the company was carrying on Bluth’s goal to traumatize children. The film’s villain lives up to his name: Professor Screweyes has a literal screw for an eye, with which he can hypnotize people and dinosaurs to his will. He also makes Faustian bargains with children, getting them to sign their lives to him in blood. At one point, he turns Louie and Cecilia into apes. This is creepy enough but the movie also makes Screweye the ringmaster of a circus of fear. Unlike his brother’s dream radio, Screweye has a fear radio. He seems to feed off bad vibes. The circus features demonic torturers, ghosts, grim reaper-like spectres, and sad looking mastodons. I’m not a big fan of the film’s suggestion that fear is a wholly negative emotion and that people who seek out being scared are freaks and weirdos. And how serious can the film be when it obviously delights in presenting spooky, weird imagery to the kiddies?

On top of everything else, the film is loaded with an utterly bizarre, star-studded voice cast. But they’re not the kind of stars you may be expecting. Rhea Perlman as a smothering mother bird, sure, I can see that. Kenneth Mars, and his gravelly voice, adds some nice sadistic glee to Professor Screweyes. Martin Short, as the sole non-evil clown (if such a thing exist) in the professor’s employ, brings the expected level of manic energy to the part. But what about Walter Cronkite as Neweyes? Cronkite’s voice is world famous but he’s not exactly an actor. Neither is Julia Child as Dr. Bleeb, the kindly paleontologist who assist the dinosaurs. Even Jay Leno – who voices Vorb, Neweyes’ floating alien side-kick, and has maybe six lines of dialogue - is not really an actor per say. The weirdest thing about this non-voice-actor voice cast? They’re all pretty good! The film seemed to have a strong idea of what it wanted its' characters to sound like and rolled with it.

Though not really a musical, the film still features one song, “Roll Back the Rock,” a goofy, catchy number written by Thomas Dolby. James Horner contributes another gorgeous score, which is surprisingly deep and meloncholey for a kid’s film. “We’re Back! A Dinosaur Story” had a highly marketable premise, a blockbuster cast, and all the expected media tie-ins, like toys, a video game, and a decapitated balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Despite this, the movie bombed in theaters. As with many cartoons, it found its audience on video, who have come to embrace this uneven but oddly satisfying bit of animation. It’s not exactly a classic but the film has just enough strangeness to make it memorable and just enough emotion to make it likable. [7/10]