Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, July 31, 2015

Bangers n' Mash 70: The Predator Series

It's the end of the month. You know what that means? It's time for the second Bangers n' Mash episode of the month! To compliment our "Alien" episode back in June, we decided to do a "Predator" episode. Since it's a relatively short series, we went ahead and included the "Alien vs. Predator" films as well, in addition to discussing some of the related comic books, video games and toys. It's not a bad episode. Give it a listen!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Director Report Card: Don Bluth (2000)

11. Titan A.E.
Co-directed with Gary Goldman

After the success of “Anastasia,” Don Bluth had established Fox Animation Studio as a worthy adversary to the unstoppable Disney. Hoping to build on that success, Bluth and his team immediately went to work on a follow-up. “Anastasia” took certain cues from the Disney formula, with its musical, romantic story of a princess being pursued by a devious villain. Their next theatrical release would be in a radically different style: a sci-fi action/adventure that began with the destruction of Earth. The resulting film, “Titan A.E.,” was set to be a major release. There were the expected merchandising tie-ins, with toys, comics, and books. It was not to be. “Titan A.E.” was a notorious bomb, led to the destruction of Fox Animation Studio, and would be the end of Don Bluth’s career.

In the year 3028, Earth is targeted by a powerful alien race known as the Drej, creatures made of pure energy. The Drej succeed in destroying Earth, tossing humanity to the furthest reaches of the galaxy, despite the best efforts of scientist Sam Tucker. Tucker’s greatest invention, a ship called the Titan that could lead to the recreation of Earth, is lost after the destruction. 15 years later, Sam’s son Cale is seeked out by team of adventurers looking for the Titan. All the while, they are pursued by the Drej and undermined by the shaky loyalties within the ship.

During the early days of Bluth’s career as a feature filmmaker, he was known for pushing the envelope in terms of content. “The Secret of NIMH” was darker and more violent then anything Disney was making at the time. “The Land Before Time” had its edgier tone softened during post-production. This desire to add some maturity to American animation got lost during Bluth’s wilderness years in the nineties. Now with the backing of a major studio, the director was able to create a project unlike anything else he had handled before. “Titan A.E.” was rated PG but, if it had been live-action, easily would have gotten a PG-13. Earth is destroyed, ships are blown up, people are shot, and wounds bleed. At one point, a character has their neck snapped on-screen. There’s even some brief nudity. Moreover, the characters are cynical, uncertain, greedy, and disloyal. “Titan A.E.” has a tone closer to anime then what audience were used to seeing from American studios.

The film’s darker tone and edgier content may put it to closer to what was coming out of Japan then America. As far as visuals go, “Titan A.E.” still looks like a Don Bluth movie. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. As usual, the animation is gorgeous. Though characterized by darker visuals, with plenty of deep browns and blacks, the details are florid. The interior of the ships and satellite are fully painted and realized, creating a lived-in sense. The character animation is lively but realistic. As in “Anastasia,” the colors are bright and brilliant. The only down side of this is the typical Don Bluth-style designs are still usually cute, which contrasts badly with the film’s darker tone.

You’ll notice when I refer to the animation, I mean the traditional animation. Ever since “Thumbelina,” Bluth had made the habit of sneaking in some CGI for the occasional background object. The blend never truly worked but always made up such a small part of the film that it wasn’t worth commenting on. In “Titan A.E.,” the director doubles down on the amount of CG. All of the space ships in the film are brought to life with computer generated imagery. As this is a sci-fi story, there’s lots of scenes with space ships. It’s not just that the CGI hasn’t aged well in the last fifteen years. Mostly, it’s distracting, constantly cutting back and forth between the two styles. The characters never seem to take place in the same universe as the ships. Moreover, because of the then-limitations of the technology, the ships and other CGI elements lack the detail that the rest of the film has. This wouldn’t be an issue today but, back in the year 2000, hand-drawn animation was still far more capable of creating worlds and details then computers. The awkward combination makes “Titan A.E.” visually uneven.

“Titan A.E.” was obviously trying to show the public that animation just isn’t for kids. You’d think the movie’s grittier visual style, darker storyline, and edgier content would clue people in. Instead, the film also uses its soundtrack to establish its attitude. Aside from Graeme Revell’s relatively decent score, the soundtrack is full of what I guess you’d call alternative rock. It’s a weird mixture of nu metal, pop punk, Britrock, and even a little dance pop courtesy of Jamiroquai. The music is inserted constantly, all throughout the film. The music roots the futuristic film in a very dated time and place. It’s also distracting. It’s hard to take a chase seriously when that clown from Powerman 5000 is groaning on the soundtrack. Only twice does the music work in anyway. When Cale is introduced to his love interest Akima, the dreamy “Down to Earth” by Luscious Jackson plays, which establishes the right town. During the scene where Cale is finally allowed to fly the ship, “It’s My Turn to Fly” by The Urge plays, which is obviously on the nose but works fairly well with the scene. Mostly, the music takes the audience out of the story. And that’s coming from a huge Splashdown fan.

It had been a while before Don Bluth had directed anything you could call an action film, if he ever has. “Anastasia” had its share of exciting sequence though, so it's natural the filmmaker would want to expand on that. “Titan A.E.” features plenty of shooting and explosion. An early scene has the Drej chasing Korso and Cale through a ship, concluding with the escape pod exploding into space. Probably the best action scene has the Drej pursuing the heroes on a planet where balls of explosive gas float above the watery surface. Naturally, those volatile spheres come into play. Other action scenes are less effective. A sequence set in an atmosphere full of huge ice crystals is hampered badly by the plastic CGI effects. The close-quarter struggles and gun fights never feel like they have very high stakes. As it is in most every way, “Titan A.E.” is uneven as an action flick.

“Titan A.E.” attempts to deepen its story with the subplot about Cale’s father. Sam Tucker died when Earth was destroyed. He sent his son off on another spaceship, insuring his survival. Despite this, the boy resents the memory of his father, feeling like his promises of saving humanity were empty. Yet Korso, who knew Sam Tucker, constantly tells Sam how similar the two are. As the film goes on, and Cale learns more about the Titan project, he feels a renewed bond with his father. This is egged on during a scene where Cale bounds with some kids on a drifter colony, who also have a story about their father and his connection with Earth. By the end of the film, Cale has become a father of sorts too, when he helps re-create Earth. However, the theme never adds very much to the movie. But at least the film isn’t teaching kids a lesson about sharing or believing in themselves or anything.

Something worth liking about “Titan A.E.” is its array of alien creatures and cultures. Preed is an Akrennian, a spindly creature with a canine-like head and webbing between his arms. Stith is some sort of kangaroo, lizard, rat creature with oversized legs. Gune is a funny little creature, looking something like a shelless turtle or a bug-eyed toad. There’s plenty of odd creature and species glimpse in the crowds and supporting roles. Some of them resemble Earth creatures, like the bug-like chef or a horse-like prisoner, but others are stranger, alien-seeming critters. The best of which are the central threat, the Dreg. Beings of pure energy, who fly around in crystalline ships, they glow bright blue, moving with a mechanical gait, and have computer-like faces. An interesting, far-out sci-fi concept, the Drej are genuinely threatening and probably the most memorable thing about the film. The film gives us glimpse at the alien worlds, with their own cultures and barter systems. In this regard, “Titan A.E.” is good sci-fi.

As with “Anastasia,” “Titan A.E.” has an all-star voice cast. The cast is mostly solid with a few exceptions. It’s easy to imagine Matt Damon as Cale in a live-action “Titan A.E.” Working only with his voice, Damon does fine but occasionally sounds bored. Though it’s a bit hard to buy Drew Barrymore as Akima, an obviously Asian character, she is actually quite good in the part, imbuing a lot of strength and attitude. (Akima is also the most recent example of an inappropriately sexy female character in a Don Bluth cartoon, though it’s far less out of place in an edgier work like this.) Bill Pullman’s coarse baritone is nicely suited to Korso, a character with ambiguous loyalties. John Leguizamo affects a weird croak as Gune, which is strangely effective. Nathan Lane gets cast against type as the treacherous Preed and adapts surprisingly well to the part. Janeane Garofalo seems like another odd choice for Stith, the gunner. Instead of stretching herself, Garofalo adapts the alien to her established type. She even complains about grad school in one scene! Even supporting roles, like Cale’s dad or alien mentor Tek, are filled by recognizable voices, such as Ron Perlman and Tone Loc. Once again, Bluth and his team show a good ear for voices, even when it comes to name actors.

Even with a capable cast, the characters of “Titan A.E.” never feel especially nuanced. The eventual betrayals of Korso and Preed come out of nowhere. Korso’s motivation for betraying all of mankind is especially underwritten. He says it's for money but the Drej don’t seem to have any understanding of cash. Despite being good people, Stith and Gund continue to work with Korso even after he’s revealed as a villain. The Drej’s motivation for wiping out humanity is also kept intentionally vague. They fear our “potential,” which makes destroying our planet seem like slightly like an overreaction. The romance between Cale and Akima seems to happen simply because the main hero and the hot girl have to get together. Their chemistry is strictly manufactured. Two characters are seemingly killed off before returning in clumsy, ill-explained ways. Well, Akima’s death cheat is clumsy. Gund’s survival flat-out isn’t explained. One scene he’s near death, the next he’s fine. For all its attempts to be a more mature film, “Titan A.E.’s’ characterization still feels very shallow at times.

All of its uneven qualities aside, “Titan A.E.” at least builds towards a solid conclusion. Separate from their team, Akima and Cale rebuilds a ship from scrap, which is a fun montage. The reveal of what exactly the Titan can do pays off, when the heroes discovers tubes of genetic codes. Alliances are made and broken. Betrayals are revealed. Cale and his team make a last stand against the Drej, resulting in at least one redemptive sacrifice. The way the Drej are defeated is also clever, though even a kid is likely to see it coming. Apparently Joss Whedon did some work on the screenplay, which explains the jokey pre-credits scene where Cale dubs the New Earth “Bob.”

The disastrous box office performance of “Titan A.E.” not only killed Fox Animation Studios and Don Bluth’s career, it was a further sign that traditional animation was on its way out. In a few years time, hand-drawn animation would have no place in theaters, totally overshadowed by CGI. Or maybe the mainstream public had no interest in science-fiction cartoons. Disney’s similarly themed “Treasure Planet” would be release two years later and also bomb spectacularly. Though undercooked at times, and hindered by some unusual creative decisions, “Titan A.E.” isn’t exactly bad either. It deserved a better box office performance, at the very least, and its not surprising that the film has developed a following of sorts. It’s neither a high point nor a low point for the director. [Grade: B-]

With the failure of "Titan A.E.," the dissolution of Fox Animation Studios, and the public's continued indifference to traditional animation, it would appear that Don Bluth's career is over. You still hear the occasional rumble about a "Dragon's Lair" movie, but it seems unlikely that will ever be realized. In 2009, Bluth and Gary Goldman were credited with directing a short called "Gift of the Hoopoe," despite not actually directing it. With hand-drawn theatrical animation hibernating, if not outright extinct, Bluth seems to occupy himself these days by directing plays. Despite his wildly uneven career, it's still a bummer that Don Bluth has so totally disappeared from the film world. Maybe he should hook up with those crazy folks in Europe and Japan. Or maybe he's happy to be retired. Either way, the classics he directed are likely to continue to endure.

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]

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Director Report Card: Don Bluth (1994) Part 2

7. A Troll in Central Park
Co-directed with Gary Goldman

Despite the box office failure of “Thumbelina,” Media Assets continued to provide Don Bluth and his production team with funds. His next film, “A Troll in Central Park,” had been in development since 1990. Production on the movie started as early as '91, when Bluth would loose some of his animation team to Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Seeing his attempt to emulate Disney with “Thumbelina” fail, perhaps Bluth was eager to return to his own ideas. The resulting film was shelved until 1994, where it was barely released. “A Troll in Central Park” is an uneven mixture of saccharine kids’ stuff and some of that darker Don Bluth weirdness.

The subterranean world of the trolls is a dark, gloomy place where happiness, flowers, and light have been outlawed by Queen Gnorga. This is a problem for Stanley, an upbeat troll with a magical green thumb that allows him to create singing flowers. His love of greenery gets Stanly exiled from the troll world to New York City, where he ends up in Central Park. There, he encounters Gus and Rosie, two young kids with problems of their own. Realizing his punishment is not severe enough, Gnorga pursues Stanley to the human world.

In the eighties, Don Bluth made cartoons that certainly featured cute, funny, light-hearted elements. However, these elements were usually tempered by an interior maturity or at least some dramatic danger. Even his lesser films had some weird shit happening in them. With “Thumbelina,” the director’s quest for financial success had him making kinder, gentler flicks. “A Troll in Central Park” may be Bluth’s most sickeningly cute movie yet. The main characters are toddlers. The film exists in a magical world of singing flowers, happy trolls, and fulfilled dreams. The first half of the movie is overwhelmed by a sense of softness. The stakes are low, at least at first. Most of the film lacks any danger or dramatic tension. It feels like the experienced director was aiming directly for the pre-school crowd.

“Thumbelina” barely had a plot, more or less being a loose series of character encounters. “A Troll in Central Park” has only slightly more story. Stanley is expelled. Gus and Rosie stumble upon his lair while exploring the park. The three spent what feels like the next hour frolicking inside the troll’s magical hiding place. Occasionally, Gnorga will peer in at the characters, attempting to impend them somehow. It’s not until its last half-hour that “A Troll in Central Park” gains any sort of story momentum at all. At the very least, the film is not as boring as “Thumbelina,” as there’s usually something mildly interesting happening at any point.

“A Troll in Central Park” has a surprisingly small cast of characters. There are only ten voice actors listed in the end credits. This isn’t an issue. However, when every single named character is annoying, that is an issue. Stanley is so sickeningly upbeat that he grates. Before the end, we discovers that he’s a coward, unwilling to face danger. Gnorga and her sidekick Llort are loud and shrill. Rosie is a toddler, who speaks in gibberish and crying. Worst yet is Gus. Gus is a bratty little boy. He’s annoyed because his hard working parents are too busy to play with him. He yells at his sister and grouses at his mom and dad. He runs away from home, kidnapping his little sister. Even after meeting Stanley, he mostly bitches and groans. Gus is so obnoxious that the villains agree he’s rather troll-like, transforming him into one of the mythical critters. Even Gus’ character design is unappealing, with his freckled face, buckteeth, and spiky hair.

The animation in “Thumbelina” had many of the Don Bluth elements but somehow seemed flat and unimpressive. For all its flaws, “A Troll in Central Park” is at least pretty. The backgrounds are detailed and verdant. The troll underworld is especially neat looking, with its winding stone staircases and gothic statues. Two sequences stand out. The first comes when Gus transforms his toy boat into a speed boat, racing through a psychedelic swirl of colors, before ending up on the ocean. There, he’s pursued by a battle ship, which is vividly animated. The last act features an exciting race through the paths of Central Park, the images spinning around. The character animation is also a step up over the bland work in “Thumbelina.” The characters are life-like and energetic, moving believably and interestingly. So the movie has that going for it.

What is it with kids’ entertainment preaching cheesy, empty platitudes? “A Troll in Central Park” has four obvious, easy morals. Something that was commonly seen in 90s kids’ media was the technically neglectful parent. Gus and Rosie’s dad is a lawyer and provides them with a spacious Manhattan home. However, the hard work that provides them with that home also keeps him from fulfilling every little plea his kid has. Maybe kids’ cartoons should emphasize that food on the plate is a little more important then a Sunday at the park. Meanwhile, there’s a message of loving your siblings, as Gus comes to appreciate his somewhat annoying baby sister. Stanley instructs the kids to follow their dreams. Later, the troll learns to believe in himself, overcoming his fear to face his adversary. Is that enough happy lessons, movie?

With “A Troll in Central Park,” Bluth and his team had the oppretunity to explore something rarely seen on-screen. An animated film set in the world of Scandinavian mythology, with its hideous trolls and other freaky monsters. The trolls of “A Troll in Central Park” are not the giant creatures that turn to stone when exposed to sunlight. Instead, they’re closer to the trolls with the funny hair, big eyes, and weirdly unisex bodies. At the very least, the magic spells of the film are sort of interesting. Watching Stanley sprout flowers, or riding the boat through a village in his imagination, provide some memorable images.

In his earliest movies, Bluth created genuinely threatening bad guys. Jenner in “The Secret of NIMH” was a cold-blooded killer and a sociopath. The Sharptooth in “The Land Before Time” was an incredibly dangerous, violent predator. Even Carface in “All Dogs Go to Heaven” and the Duke in “Rock-A-Doodle” meant the heroes serious harm. In “A Troll in Central Park,” Queen Gnorga and King Llort are goofballs. Gnorga rides around on her servants backs, mincing in a fashion that I think is meant to be comedic. Llort, meanwhile, is totally incompetent. He’s frequently gnawed on by his mate’s pet dog and never contributes much anything useful. By skewing so hard towards the kindergarten set, Bluth lost villains that were frightening or even interesting.

That’s how “A Troll in Central Park” is for most of its run time. In its last third, the film makes a hard turn into Bluth-ian weirdness, suddenly doubling down on the darkness that didn’t exist before hand. Gnorga casts a spell over Central Park, turning it into a wasteland, full of red ground and twisting stone paths. The evil trolls pursue the kids on tricycles, swinging swords. The camera focuses on Gnorga’s ugly, twitching face, an off-putting sight. For the first time, the characters seem in real danger. The film even flirts with killing off two characters. Rosie, the little girl who can’t even talk yet, stumbles off a cliff. She’s rescued but, for all of a minute, the film acts as if the two year old is dead. A few minutes later, the villains’ machinations turns Stanley to stone. The film sticks to this longer, acting as if its cutesy title character may be really dead. Naturally, Stanley comes back to life, in a lame death cheat. Still, it tried. If “A Troll in Central Park” has stuck to this darker tone throughout the entirety of its run time, it would have been a far more watchable experience.

Two of Bluth’s best films, “The Secret of NIMH” and “The Land Before Time,” are decidedly not musicals. By this point in his career, song and dance numbers were required elements of Bluth’s movies. None of the music in “A Troll in Central Park” is especially memorable. “Queen of Mean,” Gnorga’s introductory number, has a more rock n’ roll-syle back beat, providing it with a little energy. The lyrics are entirely inane though. Similarly, “Absolutely Green,” Stanley’s main theme, has a slightly pretty melody. Once again, the lyrics are sickeningly sweet. “Welcome to My World” doesn’t rate very high either. None of the songs actively annoy like in “Thumbelina,” which I guess is a step up.

There are a few Bluth regulars in the voice cast. Dom DeLuise voices Stanley, this being his last collaboration with the director. DeLuise’s doofy charm is well suited to the part but he’s not giving much chance to express himself. In what would also be his last appearance in a Bluth film, Charles Nelson Reilly plays another buffoonish sidekick to the bad guy. King Llort makes me pine for the comparatively nuanced work Reilly did in “All Dogs Go to Heaven” and “Rock-A-Doodle.” Cloris Leachman voices Gnorga and at least seems to be having a good time. In a pair of utterly bizarre cameos, respected thespian Jonathan Pierce and Disney veteran Haily Mills voice Gus and Rosie’s parents. Why the movie got recognizable talent for such tiny roles, I don’t know.

“A Troll in Central Park” would be extraordinarily unsuccessful at the box office. It’s limited release would gross only 71,268 dollars against a 23 million dollar budget. The pathetic gross would make the film the biggest failure of Bluth’s career. Critically, the film fared no better. Even the nostalgia market, the internet crowd that builds up movies like this, trashes the film. As a child, I rented it once and never felt the need to return to it. Even Bluth himself admitted the film was a failure. Truthfully, the film is not quite that bad. It’s uneven, odd, and produces many eye-rolls with its silly, sweet tone. Yet it’s never boring and the animation remains of a high quality. Those things count for something, right? [Grade: C]