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+]

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