Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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]

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