Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (2004)

8. Hidalgo

I have no evidence to support this but I highly suspect that Joe Johnston has wanted to make a western his entire career. The western is certainly a genre that lines up with his love of pulp adventures, two-fisted action, and boyish enthusiasm. Of course, westerns aren't made as often these days as they once were and rarely as populist entertainment. Yet, around 2003, Disney decided to make a big budget adaptation of the adventures of turn-of-the-century trick rider and cowboy Frank Hopkins... Or, rather, his entirely fabricated stories about his own great deeds. Considering his history making old school-style adventure stories for the studios, it makes sense why Disney picked Johnston to direct “Hidalgo.” (The film would eventually be re-christened a Touchstone release.)

Frank Hopkins, a dispatch rider of the government with Sioux heritage, is a first-hand witness of the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Several years later, still traumatized by these events, Hopkins is working as a trick rider in Wild Bill's Wild West Show. Partnered with his faithful wild mustang Hidalgo, Hopkins is promoted as the world's greatest long-distance rider. A visiting assistant for an Arabian sheikh offers Hopkins a chance to prove this boast. Frank and Hidalgo are invited to compete in the Ocean of Fire, a three thousand mile endurance race across the harshest parts of the Najd desert. Frank and Hidalgo will not only have to face the challenges of the race but also their statuses as outsiders in a strange land.

By giving the horse top building, “Hidalgo” announces what kind of story it is. This is a film all about the special bond between a man and his horse. The titular mustang is not just any sort of pony. Early on, he drags an intoxicated Frank to his feet. The horse's whinnies and snorts are given extra doses of personality. More than once, Frank is thrusts into action specifically to protect or defend his horse. The film's final act has Frank giving his faithful steed its freedom and ensuring the survival of the wild Mustang breed. Due to this bond, the most stirring and successful scenes in “Hidalgo” are those that revolve around the hero riding like the wind on horseback. Such as the genuinely exciting climatic race to the finish.

Yet “Hidalgo” belongs to another, very old cinematic tradition. The film undeniably has a “Mighty Whitey” storyline. It's unavoidable. A white American guy goes to a foreign country, impresses or infuriates many of the native people, and manages to beat them at their own contest. He befriends a slave (as if an American has any room to talk on that subject) and humbles the Iranian opposition. He earns the love of an Arabian princess and grabs the respect of her Sheikh father. “Lawrence of Arabia” is an identifiable influence and the film admits as much, by casting Omar Sharif in a prominent supporting role.

And it's obvious that “Hidalgo” is not mean-spirited about this. The film desperately wants to be a multicultural story about sharing identities. The Sheikh, Frank discovers, is a huge lover of western penny novels. He even uses his knowledge of wild west legends to win some favor with the man. The romance he forms with the princess is one based in mutual respect, the two helping each other out when they need it. During the hardest part of the race, Frank pauses to save a rival from drowning in mud. Frank's native American heritage comes up repeatedly, painting him as a hero that is the result of merging cultures. The film's heart definitely seems to be in the right place...

But there's a problem. “Hidalgo” was released in 2004, not long after American forces invaded Iraq. So it's story of a white, American hero traveling to this exact same country can't help but have unfortunate connotations. In general, the film portrays Middle Eastern culture in a mildly lurid light. The film's primary villain is an Islamic extremist, who repeatedly refers to Hopkins as an infidel. At one point, our cowboy hero is tied up by the Sheikh and threatened with castration... For the crime of being in the same tent as the princess. Not to mention the buffoonish Arabic sidekick Frank is given upon joining the race. If this was a much older film, such exoticism and casual Islamophobic could be dismissed as a unpleasant but typical of the genre. By being released when it was, it gives “Hidalgo” some uncomfortable subtext. (Screenwriter John Fusco – whose other credits include the “Young Guns” movies and “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” so horse movies are kind of his thing – claims no deeper political meaning was intended.)

The film's treatment of Native Americans, sadly, isn't much better. It's very odd that “Hidalgo,” a light-hearted adventure movie, attempts to grapple with the traumatic weight of the massacre of the American Indian. That it chooses to tell this story through a white man's eyes is even weirder. The real Frank Hopkins claimed Laota ancestry which, like everything else that came out of his, was bullshit. The film runs with this, having Hopkins communicate with a sad, surviving Indian in the wild west show. (A performer that is booed and has stuff thrown at him every night.) At the end, once again, it falls on the white man to save the people of color. Most baffingly is a sequence where a near-death Frank, in the Iranian desert, has a vision of a Sioux spirit dance. Because why not throw a little Magic Indian mysticism into the stew too?

As very, very shaky as the film's politics potentially are, “Hidalgo” is still a highly entertaining adventure movie. In fact, it features some wonderfully orchestrated action sequences. Which is unsurprising, I suppose, considering Johnston's action credentials. A swordfight with desert bandits on a hot Middle Eastern night, which occurs while Hopkins is tied up and features a decapitated head plopping to the sands, feels like the swashbuckling sequence Johnston has waited his whole career to make. A race out of a desert city – which includes horseback riding, shoot-outs, racing, and bursting through fences – is another highlight. Fight scenes involving spears or taking place on the cracked, flat desert landscapes are all a wonder to look at.

In a general, “Hidalgo” is easily one of Johnston's prettiest movies. Cinematographer Shelly Johnson, returning from “Jurassic Park III,” creates many high contrast, painterly images. Such as an early dream sequence, prominently featuring Wild Bill and a black-and-gray crowd. Naturally, the windblown dunes and punishing heat of the Middle East desert presents many opportunities for gorgeous images of nature at its harshest. If its not the aforementioned muddy plains or the dusty camps, the film certainly captures the stoic beauty of the region. Johnston's camera gets right into the action scenes and he deploys that cool trick of the hero punching directly into the camera again.

And all of the neat theatricality of the action scenes come crashing down in one supremely silly moment that, for whatever reason, was on most of the movie posters. As you'd expect from a movie about a harsh horse race through the desert, there's a sandstorm sequence. Presumably because it wouldn't been prohibitively expensive and technically arduous to do so for real, CGI is used to create the sandstorm. And, it almost goes without saying, the scene has not aged well. The sight of the hero racing away from a giant CGI blob of sandy doom is neither exciting nor tense. It just looks goofy and bad. The film is lovably low-tech in many ways, causing this scene to stick out like a big, ugly, sore thumb. (Though, credit where its due, this CGI sandstorm does look slightly less rubbery and awful than the CGI sandstorm in “The Scorpion King,” released two years earlier.)

“Hidalgo's” status as throw-back entertainment might make its exact era hard to nail down. However, one element cements the film to 2004. This movie was made during the short-lived period, post-”Lord of the Rings,” when Hollywood wanted to make independent cinema mainstay  and character actor Viggo Mortensen into an A-list action hero. While Viggo seems like a weird choice for a western, he's actually pretty good as Hopkins. He has fun clowning around with the horse during his intoxicated scenes. He brings a respectable gravity to the scenes reflecting on the characters American Indian history. As for why Viggo would choose to star in a movie like this, considering his other roles as Aragorn and Alatriste, I'm guessing he's a fan of old school style adventure stories. He's clearly enjoying himself.

Also having a great time is Omar Sharif as the Sheikh Riyadh. While this is the kind of part Sharif played many times over his career, the stern and seemingly contemptuous foreign leader who eventually grows fond of the white hero, he certainly brings an undeniable flair to the part. Moreover, Sharif has solid chemistry with Mortensen, who is clearly in awe of the legendary actor. Said Yaghmaoui is wonderfully over-the-top as Prince Bin al Reeh, the movie's primary villain. It's exactly the kind of mustache swirling bad guy performance a movie like this needs. Even if their parts are brief, it's also nice to see actors like J.K. Simmons, Elizabeth Berridge, and Malcolm McDowell so perfectly cast as characters like Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and an effete British aristocrat.

Possibly due to the public-at-large's indifference to westerns or a silly controversy surrounding making a movie based so totally on bullshit, “Hidalgo” was another box office disappointment for Johnston. In honesty, it was kind of a weird project to get the greenlight in the first place, as its been a long time since people have lined up for an old school adventure story like this. Despite that, “Hidalgo” would win some good notices. Once again, Joe Johnston had nicely synthesized the pulpy adventures of another era to make a pleasant action flick. Its somewhat icky politics aside, “Hidalgo” is certainly an enjoyable experience. [Grade: B]

Monday, June 24, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (2001)

7. Jurassic Park III

During the early production of “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” for a minute it looked like Steven Spielberg might not direct the sequel. During this brief time, Joe Johnston expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for the project. When Spielberg inevitably took over the director’s chair, Steve made Johnston the promise that, if a third trip to Jurassic Park happened, he’d get the gig. Sure enough, when production started moving on “Jurassic Park III,” Johnston directed it. The film had a troubled shoot. The original script was abandoned weeks before filming began, forcing a new story to be cooked up quickly. Much of the film was shot without a final script. “Jurassic Park III” is a love-it or hate-it affair for fans, representing either the franchise’s nadir or a goofy pop corn muncher.

In the years since the original “Jurassic Park,” Alan Grant has grown a little bitter. He finds it difficult to muster enthusiasm for dinosaurs after almost being eaten by one. Meanwhile, the existence of dinosaurs on Isla Sorna – the second island explored in “The Lost World” – is well-known. In hopes of getting close to it while jet-skiing, a teenage boy and his guide disappears on the island. The boys’ divorced parents tricks Grant into taking them back to the island. Soon, they are stranded on Site B and being pursued by another batch of killer dinosaurs.

“Jurassic Park III” has a wildly different tone then either of the previous two “Jurassic Park” movies. Both features had plenty of humor in it. However, thrills and awesome sights took precedence. Part three, meanwhile, is an intentionally goofy flick. Early on, Grant has a day-dream about a raptor speaking with a human’s voice. The heroes have to dig a satellite phone out of a pile of dino scat. An attempt to contact Dr. Stattler with said phone is interrupted when her toddler son is distracted by Barney the Dinosaur playing on the TV. Part three has a light-hearted, goofy tone. While the first two films felt like major events, the third feels like a silly B-movie, with more absurd action, broader characters, and sillier comic relief.

The biggest example of “Jurassic Park III’s” B-movie roots is its brand new antagonist. Minutes after arriving on the island, a human by-stander is picked off by a spinosaurus. The spinosaurus is, indeed, the biggest theropod predator thus discovered. However, paleontologist theorize that it mostly ate fish. “Jurassic Park III’s” spinosaurus, meanwhile, is a determined killer that spends the entire movie chasing the heroes. A genuinely thrilling sequence has it rolling the fusillade of the airplane around, trying to get at the prey inside. Later, it drags the cage the humans are hiding inside into the water, another thrilling sequence. It smashes through a fence in pursuit of its queries and emerges from the waves in order to get at them. So the dinosaurs have evolved from partially plausible predators to movie monsters, pursuing their prey at all cost.

In order to establish that the spinosaurus is the biggest bad ass around, the creature duels – and quickly dispatches – the Tyrannosaurus Rex. While I am fine with the Spinosaurus’ goofery throughout the film, this is a bridge too far. We get it, movie. This new dinosaur is not to be fucked with. Sloppy writing like this is far from the only indication that this was a hastily written production. The lies that Kirby tells Grant, that he swallows without further evidence, seems unlikely. The sudden reappearance of a whistle mimicking the velociraptor’s cries is a blatant Chekov’s gun, set up early in the film. The resolution features a sudden, mostly unexplained rescue by the Navy. (Which was apparently inserted at the insistence of the Department of Defense.) So, yes, it is very evident that this movie didn't have an ending when filming began.

As ridiculous as the stuff involving the spinosaurus is, it’s actually not the silliest dinosaur related stuff in “JP3.” Does anyone else remember that episode of “The Critic” were they joked about the raptors getting smarter in the “Jurassic Park” sequels? In this one, they actually do get smarter. They yap at each other, communicating via shrieks and yelps. One scene has a velociraptor climbing a fence, in order to get at the humans on the other side. The most absurd moment is when the dinosaurs actually set a complex trap, snapping the bait human’s neck afterwards. Once again, this strains believablity, pushing the movie out of the realm of serious sci-fi/fantasy into goofy exploitation antics. I’m not sure how to feel about the lightly feathered new designs either, which strike an uneven balance between the scientific consensus of feathered dinosaurs and the Hollywood-preferred style of naked dinosaurs.

I’m not saying that “Jurassic Park III” isn’t thrilling. It’s actually full of fun, entertaining stuff. The raptors chase the family through a research facility, pretending to be hiding inside a glass tube. One genuinely clever moment is the reveal that the teenage boy has successfully been surviving on the island, when he tosses smoke grenades at the dinosaurs. Most importantly, “Jurassic Park III” finally devotes a set piece to the pteradons. While diving through a valley, the winged reptiles swoop in, attacking and biting. It’s probably the most genuinely thrilling sequence in the film. As a life-long pterodactyl fan, it’s just really, really cool to finally see them realized on-screen. (Another fan favorite dino, the ankylosaurs, also have a much more minor appearance.)

Joe Johnston’s direction matches the movie’s campy tone. “Jurassic Park III” was made before the revival of 3-D. At times, however, it feels like it was made for the format. Dinosaurs repeatedly leap towards the camera, snapping their jaws in the air. Johnston actually seems obsessed with shoving the dinosaur’s faces, along with swinging skulls and airplane wings, into the audience’s faces. However, Johnston does a good job of imitating Spielberg’s style. One of the few times the film slows down involves the humans floating on a boat and seeing a herd of plant-eaters on the shore. The camera soaks in the sight of the dinosaurs, their grandeur and sheer size. It’s a nice, quiet moment, even sort of touching.

Likewise, the special effects in “JP3” are fantastic. Well, let me clarify. The practical effects are phenomenal. The spinosaur is brought to life by a massive puppet that can snap its jaws and swivel its head with lightening speed. The velociraptors have especially expressive faces, tilting their heads and squinting their eyes. There’s even a giant probe pterodactyl head used at one point. All of this stuff, courtesy Stan Winston Studios, is great. The movie’s CGI, on the other hand, hasn’t aged as well. It doesn’t make any sense to me that the CGI in 1994’s original “Jurassic Park” holds up so well but the digital effects in the sequels are increasingly phony looking. When scene, where Alan Grant is diving below the CGI Spinosaurus’ tail, is especially fake looking.

The third entry in the series seems to continues “The Lost World’s” interest in family. At the film’s beginning, Paul Kirby and Amanda Kirby are nearly divorced. Their relationship is cracking apart, not helped by Paul’s milquetoast attitudes. Their quest to find their son, however, brings them back together. The parents are cheerfully reunited with Eric. After finding their son, they reflect on why their relationship failed. After Amanda worries that Paul may have been eaten by the spinosaur, she cries out for him. As in part two, the movie attempts to awkwardly tie the dinosaurs in with the human subplot. The velociraptors’ pursuing their stolen eggs mirrors the Kirbys searching for their lost son. It doesn’t add much depth to the film.

Something that truly differentiates “Jurassic Park III” from “The Lost World” is the presence of Sam Neill. Absent last time, it is nice to have Dr. Grant back. The character is given a fairly routine character arc. Considering the events of the first film, Grant has gone from being a lover of dinosaurs to despising them. (He's ascertain that it's hard to like dinosaurs after one tries to eat you seems fair.) By the end of the film, after first-hand witnessing the intelligence and grace of these animals, that love is renewed. It's hard to tell how invested in the material Neill is. He nods and tells jokes throughout, seemingly having a good time. Yet, at other moments, he seems more like a cog in a massive machine, just going through the motions.

Dr. Grant's arc is the only routine piece of writing in the film. At the start of the film, Paul and Amanda Kirby are on the verge of divorce. Their relationship is straining and the disappearance of their son has pushed things even further to the breaking point. However, throughout this wild and dangerous adventure, they are reminded of why they care about each other again, their love renewed. If you've ever seen any disaster movie, you may recognize this extremely common concept. The cast, however, goes a long way towards patching over the routine writing. William H. Macy is playing an extremely William H. Macy type, a slightly pathetic guy that has lied about how important he is. Macy is, of course, excellent at embodying this type of role. Tea Leoni is similarly appealing as Amanda, especially once she's reunited with her son and her Mama Bear instincts kick in.

“Jurassic Park III” has the good sense to get out before we can think about it too much. Compared to the epic two hour-plus run times of the previous films, this one runs a slim 97 minutes.  Audiences clearly didn't mind the shorter run time. Despite largely negative reviews, “Jurassic Park III” grossed over 300 million dollars at the box office, becoming the ninth highest grossing film of the year. This was about half what “The Lost World” made, which about half of the original. That's probably why Universal rebooted the franchise a decade later. “Jurassic Park III” is silly as hell, and doesn’t compare much to the original, but “Jurassic Park III” is an entertaining flick. Despite its blockbuster budget and cutting edge special effects, the heart of a slick, goofy B-movie beats inside it. And that’s okay. [Grade: B]

Friday, June 21, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (1999) Part 2

6. The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Spring Break Adventure

Following the release of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” the Indiana Jones franchise went on a lengthy break. In order to keep interest in the character and his adventures going in-between films, George Lucas had an idea for a television series. Lucas decided to spin the show out of the opening sequence of “Last Crusade,” which focused on a teenage Indy's first adventure.  “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” would find its television home on ABC, starting in 1992. Lucas envisioned the show not just as entertainment but as education, so action-oriented episodes focused on teenage Indiana were followed by more informative episodes centered on a ten year old Indy. In both time periods, the future archaeologist would encounter many well-known figures and participate in historical events. Perhaps because of that educational focus, the series didn't attract the expected viewership. Combined with abnormally high production values, this would result in “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” being canceled after two short seasons.

This, however, was not the end of the series. Four television films would air on the Family Channel in-between 1994 and 1996. In 1999, the series would be released on home video. Because George Lucas just has to do everything his own odd way, the series would not receive a standard, episode-to-episode VHS release. Instead, the show would be edited into a set of twenty-two feature films. Each movie would be made up of material from two separate episodes. The framing sequences featuring a 93-year old Indiana in the modern day (Along with his now non-canon daughter and grandchildren) would be excised from these releases. A small amount of new footage would be shot to link the different segments. This format would be maintained with the eventual DVD release, which also added extensive historical documentaries to further nail home the show's status as edu-tainment.

Considering Joe Johnston got his start working on the special effects for “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” it's not surprising that he would also work on “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.” In-between making “The Rocketeer” and “The Pagemaster,” he would direct the sixth episode of the second season, “Princeton, February 1916.” This episode would comprise the first half of the sixth “Adventures of Young Indiana Jones” movie, “Spring Break Adventure.” So when that compilation film hit VHS in 1999, it would technically become Johnston's sixth feature film.

As the title indicates, the first segment takes place in 1916 in Princeton, New Jersey, when Henry "Indiana" Jones Jr. was sixteen years old. He is less preoccupied with adventuring and more interested in his girlfriend Nancy, daughter of novelist Edward Stratemeyer. Indy hopes to take Nancy to prom in her dad's car, a fancy Bugatti. This plan is cut short when the car's generator dies and, with Europe locked in World War I, it's impossible to get parts. That's when Indy decides to seek help from Thomas Edison's laboratory. This too goes awry where there's a break-in and an experimental electric motor is stolen. German spies are suspected to have snatched the motor. As Indy and Nancy investigated, they discover the perpetrator is far closer to home.

The second half of the film, “Mexico, March 1916,” has Indiana and his dad heading to Albuquerque, New Mexico, a state that was only a few years old at the time. Henry Jones Jr. and his cousin Frank take a weekend trip across the border in hopes of visiting a bordello. Instead, Indiana gets abducted by Pancho Villa's army when they raid the town. After befriending a Belgian member of the revolution, Indy's life is sparred. He even joins up with Villa's cause but quickly becomes disillusioned with it. Along the way, he meets an old enemy that he last encountered as just a boy in Egypt six years earlier.

As a longtime Indiana Jones fan, “Spring Break Adventure” is most interesting for the insight it gives us into Indy's mind before he became the two-fisted hero we all know. Amusingly enough, he wasn't too dissimilar to most teenagers. He was largely interested in girls, fast cars, and adrenaline. While sneaking around in a barn with Nancy, he attempts to get closer to her. Later, he heads into Mexico for the express purpose of getting laid. When we are used to seeing the character fight Nazis and chase after magical artifacts, there is a certain degree of novelty in seeing an Indiana Jones most concerned with driving his girlfriend to prom in a fancy car. Of course, Indy's adventure in Mexico molds him into more of the hero we know, as he learns the cost of war. He even picks up a whip, a fedora, and says something belongs in a museum, which puts far too fine a point on his transformation.

However, as has often been reported over the years,“Young Indiana Jones'” determination to be both educational and entertaining is frequently at odds with each other. The show goes to great lengths to insert historical figures into its narrative. During “Princeton, February 1916,” young Mr. Jones just happens to be dating the daughter of Edward Stratemeyer, whose “Tom Swift” novels inspire part of the plot. (In case you missed the reference, Edward's daughter is also named Nancy and she sleuths around.) Thomas Edison, his tendency to steal credit, the invention of an electric car, and the rivalry with the oil industry are also integrated into the story. Pancho Villa directly motivates the second episode, which also shoehorns in a cameo from a young General Patton. Indiana Jones sure did bump into a lot of historical figures. And it's a bit distracting.

So how does “Princeton, February 1916” stack up as a Joe Johnston movie? The period setting and all the trappings certainly fit in with his boys' adventure style, which also lines up with the “Tom Swift” references. Despite mostly dealing with Indy's relationship with his girlfriend, the episode does feature some unexpectedly fun action beats. Such as Indiana sneaking into an oil factory and being chased while riding a bicycle, which concludes with a surprisingly graceful dive into a lake. The episode wraps up with fist fights, accusation of espionage, and an old-timey car chase. These are fun, decently assembled sequences. The break-in scene also features some of the effectively shadowy imagery we'd see Johnston also use in “The Pagemaster” and “Jumanji.”

The first half of  “Spring Break Adventure” stands alone just fine as its own story. The “Mexico, March 1916” half, directed by Michael Schultz, is less isolated. In fact, this part of the film was originally the second half of “Young Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Jackal,” the two hour pilot of the entire show. So it includes explicit references and connections to some other story that is otherwise not featured in this film. Apparently, the bad guy Indy runs into in Mexico killed a friend of his back in Egypt six years ago, while also stealing an ancient jackal-headed crown. Even more unusual, this VHS installment was apparently released before that part of the series, which would've made this even more difficult to follow. I don't know who made this decision but it sure feels like the kind of weird shit George Lucas would insist on.

However, “Mexico, March 1916” does make up for its narrative hiccups by being the more action-packed of the two episodes. While riding with Pancho Villa, Jones gets involved in a full-on military conflict. There's lots of shooting, machine gun fire, a daring train heist. It ends with a train crashing into a military encampment and exploding in a massive fireball. The climatic fight with the murderer has an entire building going up in flames. These are big stunts for a TV show from 1992! No wonder the series was too expensive for ABC. It's definitely entertaining to watch though. Schultz proves to be a decent action director, even if Indy himself seems to play a fairly small part in many of these sequences.

“The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” would be an early starring role for Sean Patrick Flannery. Flannery has a very loose resemblance to Harrison Ford, explaining why he was probably chosen for the part. Flannery makes for a decent lead. He has a likable, laid-back presence that makes him easy to watch while going on these adventures. Is he believable as a young version of the same character Ford made famous? Not exactly, as this hormonal and inexperienced person seems very different from the Indy we know.  But he probably did a lot of growing up before fighting the Nazis.

Flannery does resemble Indy as we know him more than Lloyd Owen resembles Sean Connery's Dr. Henry Jones Sr. Though Owen definitely nails the uptight part of his personality. The supporting cast includes a few other notable performers. Robyn Lively is cute and displays her own adventurous side as Nancy. Ronny Coutteure is colorful as Remy, the Belgian soldier Indy encounters while in Mexico. Mike Moroff plays Pancho Villa, putting a lot of spirit into Villa's various rousing speeches. I also couldn't help but notice a young Clark Gregg, better known as Agent Coulson, as an engineer working for Thomas Edison.

”Spring Break Adventure” ends with Indiana Jones getting ready to leave for Europe, where he'll become involved in World War I. It sure seems like Mr. Jones' 16th year was non-stop adventure. Watching as a “Indiana Jones” fan, “Spring Break Adventure” is mildly entertaining. Supposedly, it's one of the better installments in the series and is certainly less slow paced than some of the other episodes I've seen. The decision to cut up the series' episodes and edited them together is undoubtedly a distracting one. The film is of limited interest to Joe Johnston's fans, though you can see his trademarks in his episode. [Grade: B-]

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (1999) Part 1

5. October Sky

After directing four feature films focused just as much on special effects as actual story, it's evident that Joe Johnston was ready to try something different. For his next movie, he would make a movie that focused far less on CGI monkeys, giant globs of animated paint, or stop-motion insect. However, his fifth feature would have something in common with “The Rocketeer.” “October Sky” is also about rockets. The film would be adapted from “Rocket Boys,” the autobiographical novel by Homer Hickam. “October Sky” would win some of the best reviews of Johnston's career but was only a moderate success at the box office.

The year is 1957 and the Soviet Union has just launched Sputnik. This doesn't affect life in Coalwood, West Virginia much, a poor mining town in the southern part of the state. However, it changes the life of Homer Hickam. Son of a miner, Homer is immediately fascinated by the possibility of space travel. Recruiting a group of friends, Homer begins building home-made rockets in his backyard and around town. His father, who wants Homer to focus on his inevitable fate as a coal miner, disproves of his son's hobby. The rocket launches make Homer and his friends local celebrities. Soon, Homer starts to hope that the rockets could get him accepted to a state science fair, which could get him into a good college and out of Coalwood. But challenges await the boy.

“October Sky,” in many ways, is not an especially distinguished biographical drama. It hits most of the beats you'd expect from a film about dreamers trying to achieve the impossible while trapped in a dead end town. Hickam faces typical societal pressures. His dad, the school principal, and many of the townsfolk all repeatedly challenge his dream. The movie was released in February, so it presumably wasn't positioned as Oscar bait. Which is surprising because “October Sky” seems like it would fit right in with that crowd. It's an inspirational story based on fact, with flashy performances from actors playing real historical figures.

However, the film does earn a lot of good will with its setting. Yes, “October Sky” is set in my home state of West Virginia. Though I grew up in the Eastern Panhandle and Coalwood is in the southern part of the state, I can declare that the film nevertheless perfectly captures the unique local flavor of West Virginia. I absolutely recognize the sparse but reedy forest the characters live around, the small and dilapidated town that is often under a gray and dreary sky. This is what autumn in West Virginia is like. It's rare that I see my home state reflected in a film and it's even rarer to see it reflected accurately. So “October Sky” makes me smile for that reason alone.

In addition to accurately capturing a sense of place, “October Sky” also does a good job of capturing its time as well. By beginning with Sputnik 1's launch, the film cements its late fifties time frame. Interestingly enough, the paranoia of the Cold War era and the tension of the space race does not affect life in Coalwood very much. That's because rural West Virginia in the fifties wasn't a place people easily got out of. Further education was rare and all the townsfolk were destined to work in the mines. This wasn't without strife either, as union conflicts eventually explode into violence. It's a complicated world “October Sky” exists in.

Telling a more character-driven story for the first time in his career, “October Sky” presents new opportunities for Joe Johnston as a director. Visually, this is a strong looking film. All of “October Sky” is characterized by an especially autumnal warmth. The leaves on the ground are shades of brown and red, a gorgeous combination. Johnston begins the film with a montage of mine carts and other sights around Coalwood. These moments bring a dreary, cold feeling to much of the film, further establishing how desolate this location is for the people who live there. Johnston establishes a clear difference between the dark mines under the town and the dreams of the skies overhead.

The moments in “October Sky” that work the best for me revolve around the sense of fun and adventure Homer and his friends have while building their rockets. There's an amusing montage of their various successes and failures, many of the rocket launches ending in explosions. There's even a moment were they buy some moonshine, using the pure alcohol to make more effective rocket fuel. It's no surprise that Johnston excels at fast-paced sequences devoted to teenage boys making their own fun and having adventure, as the “boys' adventure” atmosphere is what has driven most of his movies up to this point.

“October Sky” also earns points for the complexity of Homer's relationship with his father. Homer Hickam and his dad frequently do not get along. His dad dismisses his interest in rockets, especially once one goes astray and lands in the mining town. Yet, for as often as they argue, Homer and his father find middle ground as well. Homer does admire his dad, as someone who can think straight in an emergency and saves people. During one pivotal moment, John Hickam protects one of Homer's friends from his abusive step-dad. After Homer works in the mines for a short period, excelling at it, the son earns his dad's respect. Yet they still have arguments, John still not understanding his son entirely.  Neither are right or wrong in these situations. The details are more difficult than that.

Further cementing “October Sky's” status as an “inspirational true story” drama is the way the script throws more and more inconveniences at Homer as he goes about his journey. When a fire is started near-by, his rockets are blamed. This brings both the local cops and the school down on Homer and his friends. From there, John Hickam is injured in a mining accident, forcing Homer to become the man of the house and work in the mines. This stuff at least makes sense within the story. It's when Homer goes to the Indianapolis science fair and has part of his display stolen that “October Sky's” drama starts to feel a little on the contrived side. I haven't read Hickam's book so, I don't know,  maybe it really did happen that way.

“October Sky” was an early leading role for Jake Gyllenhaal, predating even “Donnie Darko” and “Bubble Boy.” It's easy to see why Gyllenhaal would go onto a successful career. Jake not only resembles the teenage Hickam but he matches that boyish enthusiasm. The sheer look of joy on his face, when seeing Sputnik for the first time, is so believable that you buy every decision the character makes from that point onward. His arguments with his dad never seem overdone or hard-to-believe. His challenges and struggles read as relatable. It's a magnetic performance and a star-making turn.

It's important to “October Sky's” success that the trio of boys around Hickam are as believable and interesting as he is. Well, at the very least, the actors involved do a decent job. Chris Owen, perhaps better known as the Shermanator from “American Pie,” is perfectly nerdy as Quentin Wilson. Owen fulfills the expected nerdy character aspects but creates a more nuanced character too, especially once Homer sees his dilapidated home life. William Lee Scott and Chad Lindberg do fine in their parts as Roy Lee Cooke and Sherman O'Dell. At the very least, both performers put on pretty good West Virginian accents.

The other stand-out performance of the film is Chris Cooper. The film was released the same year as “American Beauty,” meaning Cooper was somewhat typecast as dysfunctional dads in 1999. (It's also not his only West Virginian mining movie, as he was also in “Matewan.”) Cooper is very good in the part, never loosing sight of John Hickam as a real person, whose stubborn personality goes hand-in-hand with his ethics. Cooper makes it clear he loves his son, even if he doesn't always understand him. Laura Dern also has a notable part as Miss Riley, the teacher how encourages Hickam to pursue his interest in rockets. If anyone is good at being inspiring and sweet, it's Dern. Yet Natalie Canerday as Elsie Hickam, Homer's mom, is probably my favorite supporting role in the film. She shows a quiet grit and determination in the face of her sometimes uncompromising husband.

”October Sky” received little attention in theaters but, let me tell you, West Virginians love this movie. In high school, anytime a science class of mine was having a movie day, this was what we were watching. A festival celebrating the film is held every year in the state, formerly in the real life Coalwood and now in near-by Beckly. I'm not surprised West Virginians are so eager to celebrate the film. Usually, when our state is in a movie, it's about inbred hillbillies or moth-people or some such thing. It's nice to have a middlebrow, appeasing, and generally successful drama to call our own. (The appreciation of the film seems to have spread elsewhere as well, as there's also now a stage musical version.) Certainly, it's a good film, well acted and beautifully photographed. Even if it's totally typical of its genre, unambitious in many ways. [Grade: B] 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

NO ENCORES: Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves (1997)

1. Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves
Director: Dean Cundey

As a cinematographer, Dean Cundey has had a long-running and very successful career. He started out working on low budget films like “The Witch Who Came from the Sea” or “The Human Tornado,” before being John Carpenter's D.P. on “Halloween.” He would go on to work on many of Carpenter's eighties classic before becoming Robert Zemeckis' cinematographer of choice, starting with “Romancing the Stone.” In 1993, Cundey would cement his status as one of the top names in his field after Spielberg picked him as Director of Photography on “Jurassic Park.” You'd think having a resume with huge blockbusters like that on it (not to mention “Roger Rabbit,” the “Back to the Future” series or “The Thing”) would make it easy for Cundey to transfer to directing. Yet his sole directorial credit remains 1997's “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves.”

In the mid-nineties, Disney was making a killing releasing direct-to-video sequels to their beloved animated films. The video market was flourishing at the time and the Mouse Factory was obviously very willing to take advantage of that. The films, much more cheaply produced than their theatrical counterparts, could capitalize on world-famous titles for maximum profits. Most of these DTV spin-offs were animated though. “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves” was conceived as a theatrical release but, seeing the success their video sector was having, Disney decided to pivot the film in that direction, making it the first live action direct-to-video sequel the studio would release. (That “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid” grossed considerably less than the original at the box office probably contributed to this idea as well.) A team of screenwriters, including “Mystery Science Theater 3000's” Joel Hodgeson, were brought into re-write the script for the now smaller budget. I don't know how or why Cundey would end up in the director's chair, considering he had nothing to do with the previous installments.

Eight years have passed since Wayne Szalinski blew up the baby. In that time, Nick and Amy have moved away form home, leaving now ten-year-old Adam as the only kid in the house. Wayne has opened a successful inventions lab with his previously unmentioned brother, Gordon. Their over-worked wives, Diane and Patti, are going on a weekend vacation, leaving the men to babysit the kids: Adam and Gordon's children, Jenny and Mitch. While the kids are out of the house, Wayne and Gordon start messing around with his shrink ray, which is being prepared to be inducted into the Smithsonian. The two men are shrunk and their wives, through a convoluted series of events, are soon microsized as well. Now the parents have to navigate the house while their kids run amok around them.

While the animated films of the Disney Renaissance were gorgeous, visually splendid experiences, the direct-to-video follow-ups were cheaply produced, usually with unimpressive animation on par with Disney's television productions. Considering that same formula is being applied here to a special effects-heavy series, it's not surprising that “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves” looks extremely cheap. But you would think Dean Cundey, an obviously talented cinematographer, would at least try to make the film look less cut-rate. The film is comparable to the TV movies that would soon be flooding the Disney Channel. The direction is flat, the colors are washed-out. There's even a TV style wipe transition in one scene. Cundey was not his own D.P., passing that title to Raymond Stella, a camera operator making his cinematography debut here. Stella, unsurprisingly, has mostly worked in TV and low-budget genre films since.

It's also no surprise that this cheap quality extends to the special effects. There are a number of key effect sequences in the film. The Szalinski parents use a fishing lure to repel out a window. They ride in a Hot Wheels car on an elaborate track and end up sailing down the laundry shoot. A bubble-blowing machine is awkwardly introduced into the story strictly so the characters can ride around in bubbles. While interesting conceptually, none of these sequences are convincingly realized. More often than not, they are reduced to the actors waving their arms around in front of an obvious green screen. The Hot Wheels scene, which goes on for far too long, is especially guilty of this. The scenes involving giant insects – such as a massive cockroach attack or the appearance of a friendly Daddy Long Legs – do not have the realism of the big bug scenes in the original.

I would be able to forgive the movie's unimpressive special effects or even its flat direction if the script was actually funny or clever. Sadly, it is not. The film's characters feel disconnected from those of the original. This version of Diane Szalinski is much bitchier than the one that previously existed. She constantly nags Wayne and seems more annoyed by his inventions than supportive of them. Wayne, meanwhile, is a far goofier character. He has a newfound fascination with what he calls a “Tiki Man,” a seven foot tall tribal statue that is a serious strain on their marriage. This is an actual plot point that drives much of the movie's story. And that he'd be willing to be so cavalier with the shrink ray, after what happened the last time he used it, strikes me as unlikely. Wayne was always eccentric but he's never been this childish before.

The writing in “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves” is fairly shitty in general. The movie gratuitously sets up everything that happens throughout in its first act. The first appearance of the Daddy Long Legs, a wedge being used to keep a car in place, Mitch having some sort of potassium defiance he must take medication for, are all gratuitously set-up. Many contrived story turns are made to ensure the story can operate the way it does. The moms coming back at the time they do, their car sliding out of view so the kids don't notice, the kids being out-of-the-house just as their parents are shrunk: All of these are unlikely events that happen strictly so the titular incident can occur.

The relationship between the kids and the parents are really hacky too. Adam wants to get into baseball, which is hard for his nerdy dad to understand. In the course of the story, Jenny invites an older boy to her improvised party. Later, she ends up rejecting his asshole advances. It's all very hamfisted and uninspired. I'm not really blaming Joel Hodgeson for this or even his co-writer Nell Scovell, who has also collaborated with Joel on a few other projects. (The wacky inventions in the film, like a device that translate dog's bark or a failed attempt to make road construction workers glow at night, are the only elements that feel like Joel's work.) Writer Karey Kirkpatrick, whose IMDb page includes a number of forgettable kid's movies, probably is more responsible for this lackluster stuff.

As of this writing, “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves” is Rick Moranis' final live action credit. He would go into semi-retirement to focus on rising his kids. You can see Moranis straining to save the dire material, trying to get some wacky laughs out of this. Stuart Pankin, as Wayne's brother Gordon, tries a similar approach but lacks Moranis' affability so it just comes off as ugly mugging. Eve Gordon plays Diane Szalinski in a very shrewish manner, lacking the sweetness that Marcia Strassman brought to the part. Of the parents, Robin Bartlett as Patti is probably the best. Bartlett actually brings a mildly amusing edge to some of her lines. Granted, this is not saying much but it counts for something in a weak film like this.

Let's talk about the kids. Bug Hall plays Adam. Hall's child star career would have him playing iconic characters like Alfafa, Eddie Munster, and, uh, Buster Stupid. Despite that, Hall does not strike the viewer as the most appealing performer here. It's probably because Adam is written as a fairly snotty and annoying character. (You would also think that time he rampage through Las Vegas as a toddler would come up more often than it does...) Jake Richardson as Mitch has a similar problem. He might be a decent actor but it's hard to tell here. Future “Smallville” star/sex cult trafficker Allison Mack plays Jenny. Mack shows a molecule of charisma in a badly written part that leans very heavily on snarky teen girl stereotypes. Mila Kunis has a bit part as one of her friends, by the way.

The “Honey” franchise would continue pass this point, though in unexpected ways. A pretty cool immersive attraction called “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience!” would play at Disneyland until 2010. A television series spin-off debuted the same year as this film and ran for three seasons. (Despite the title, it featured few shrinking-related adventures and instead focused on other wacky sci-fi shenanigans.) And now, just this year, a legacy sequel focusing on a now-adult Nick simply entitled “Shrunk” has been announced. Supposedly, Disney is hoping this will relaunch the franchise for their upcoming streaming service.

I use to watch all of the “Honey, I...” trilogy frequently as a kid. In fact, I can recall revisiting this one pretty often. The film can be credited with teaching an entire generation of kids that bananas are high in potassium, for one example of how popular it was on video. While the first two installments hold up alright, this cheapie sequel now plays as the disappointing cash-in it is. I don't know how that upcoming reboot will turn out but it'll have to work hard to be more disappointing than “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves.” One can't help but assume that Dean Cundy's decision not to direct again is directly linked to the lackluster quality of his one and only feature credit. [4/10]

Monday, June 17, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (1995)

4. Jumanji

In 1981, Chris Van Allsburg wrote and illustrated a 32-page children's book called “Jumanji.” It was a simple story about a magical, jungle-themed board game that brought dangerous animals into the kid's home. That probably doesn't seem like a very cinematic story but producer Peter Guber disagreed. After meeting Van Allsburg, Guber began to develop a film adaptation of “Jumanji.” Though Joe Johnston hadn't had a hit in a while, I guess having “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” on your resume – and showing a clear aptitude for effects-driven family films – meant something. Johnston would secure a starring role from Robin Willaims and “Jumanji” would become a big success, earning enough at the box office to be the seventh highest grossing film of 1995.

In 1869, two boys bury a mysterious box in the muddy grounds that will someday become Brantford, New Hampshire. One hundred years later, Alan Perrish – the bullied son of the town's leading employer, a shoe-factory owner – uncovers the box. It contains what appears to be a board game called Jumanji. Upon playing it with Sarah, a girl he likes, the board unleashes giant African bats on the house and sucks Alan inside. In 1995, orphans Judy and Peter are moving into the former Perrish home in the now impoverished Brantford. They discover Jumanji, thinking it's a simple board game. That's before they unleashes giant mosquitoes and a lion into the house. The same action returns Alan, now an adult who has grown up in a wild jungle. Realizing they must complete the game to undo this nightmare, they find the now adult Sarah and attempt to survive each new horror Jumanji unleashes.

With Van Allsburg's “Jumanji” having such a simplistic story, the makers of the cinematic “Jumanji” had to get creative. The trio of credited screenwriters realized the set-up could basically be a clothesline on which to hang a series of special effects sequence. This is essentially what “Jumanji” is, a collection of episodes devoted to what happens when various jungle animals and fantastical horrors are unleashed on a small New England town. This doesn't sound like an especially deep story and it isn't. However, “Jumanji” keeps barreling forward, moving the characters – and the audience with them – from one set-piece to the next. It's an exciting film that rarely slows down long enough for a viewer to notice how thin its script truly is.

What I really like about “Jumanji,” and what I might've responded to when watching the film as a child, is that it plays like a kid-friendly horror flick repeatedly throughout its run time. From its opening minutes, Johnston's film is playing with this style. The first scene is set during a rain storm at night, a pair of boys frantically trying to escape the thunderous drumming. From there, we have an attack involving wild bats. Huge mosquitoes swoop around and attempt to suck people's blood, resulting in multiple off-screen injuries. The sequence where a lion appears in the attic, its tail and paws crossing the keys of a piano, is surprisingly ominous. That horror-lite atmosphere peaks during a sequence when a group of creepy-crawly giant spiders attack our heroes. Johnston's direction, with its shot of bats ominously eeking in the dark or lions sneering out of an attic, is surprisingly tense at times.

Another reason to like “Jumanji” is that a lot of creativity is on display. The writers of the film have fun with the concept of transporting a jungle adventure into a suburban town. The creatures on display aren't just lions, elephants, and rhinos. Though we never see the Jumanji that exist inside the game board, it's clearly not a normal African jungle. Rather, it's a fantastical nightmare version of a jungle. Aside from the giant insects, the game also brings creeping vines that shoot venomous barbs into our world. That sequence concludes with a giant, Audrey II-style bud that is especially neat. Later, those vines transform the Perrish house into a foggy jungle. When a monsoon is summoned, water floods the house. When quicksand is summoned, Alan sinks into the floors.

It is easy to see why Joe Johnston was attracted to this job. This was another opportunity to balance gee-whiz adventure with cutting edge special effects. The effects are unquestionably the star of “Jumanji.” Lots of elaborate puppetry and animatronics are employed. The evil creeping vines are my favorite, an excellent example of a long overlooked and rarely well executed horror movie premise. A moment where the vines grab a police car and snap it in half is especially impressive. The giant spiders are also fantastically brought to life, their skittering and slimy appearance enough to send arachnophobes into a panic. Honestly, the alligators that appear in the monsoon sequence might genuinely be the scariest creatures in the film though, all fearsome sweeping tales and massive snapping jaws. The film sacrifices the absolute realism of the lion to give the elaborate puppet some personality, in the form an amusingly expressive face. seamlessly interacting with the actors.

However, “Jumanji's” commitment to cutting edge effects also means it features some of 1995's best CGI. Granted, some of these effects have aged better than others. The mosquitoes look pretty cool and even interact well with their surroundings, especially in the scene where they attack the kids while hiding inside a car. However, other elements are less convincing. The floor turning to quicksand looks pretty cheesy. The animals in the stampede obviously do not pass muster. The hyper-violent and mischievous monkeys look terrible. Their jagged fur does not look real. Neither do their faces, which are so artificial looking as to be unintentionally unnerving. I wish the film hadn't made these critters the stars of so many scenes. I will give the CGI team credit for giving the simian terrors some personality. There's a cute moment when the leader of the monkey troop tells the others to disperse in different directions.

Even though Johnston seems most focused on the special effects, “Jumanji” does attempt to include some sappy Spielberg-ian themes. “Jumanji's” scope includes the entire town of Brantford. When Alan disappears in the sixties, everyone assumes his dad killed him. This causes the shoe factory to close down, which causes the entire town's economy to collapse. In a cartoonish touch, huge stretches of the town are occupied solely by the homeless. Yet Alan's relationship with his dad takes precedence over the Decline of the Small Town. The father only believes confrontation can resolve problems and doesn't want Alan to be weak. Later, Alan finds himself attempting to pass this approach on to Peter, which he immediately regrets. (It's no mistake that the thing from “Jumanji” Alan fears the most is a Great White Hunter played by the same actor as his dad.) By the end, the town is saved and the Daddy Issues are put to rest. It seems pretty out of place, is my point.

Also out of place, at least some of the times, is the humor. The jokes in “Jumanji” that work the best are the ones that arise out of the characters' interactions. The way Judy spins wild yarns about her parents' death to anyone who will listen. Or Alan reacting to the modern world after leaving Jumanji behind. However, too often the jokes in “Jumanji” are overly gimmicky, winking too hard at the camera. More than once, something wacky happens on-screen – monkeys drive by on a police motorcycle, for one example – and a character has a smart-ass comment about it. An extended sequence in a ransacked shopping center is overly broad and wacky, featuring some random “Home Alone” style booby traps. One scene even has a character breaking the fourth wall with a look into the camera. It's a little overdone and takes me out of the movie.

Oddly, Robin Williams is not the main source of comic relief in the film. Williams actually restrains his trademark manic energy throughout most of the movie. Save for his earliest scenes, where Robin tears through the town in wildman clothes, he's mostly reacting in quietly terrified fear or bemusement to what happens around him. Which isn't to say Williams doesn't get some laughs in. He performs some very small but extremely funny moments here and there. Such as his reaction to being sucked into the house's floorboards, or when he tries to schoo a giant spider away with just his breath. Despite being less frenzied than usual, Robin Williams is still ideally cast as an overgrown kid in a man's body.

Judy and Peter have their own arc too, the kids coming to terms with their parents' untimely deaths over the course of their adventure. It's another one of the film's forced-in emotional beats. However, the talented actors in the part help salvage that. A young Kristen Dunst plays Judy. Though she's mostly there to react to special effects, Dunst's sense of humor and ability to depict both wide-eyed wonder and sarcastic cynicism makes Judy into more of a character. Peter is played by Bradley Pierce – who also voiced Tails in “Sonic SatAM” which is, ya know, very important to me – and also does a good job. The kid spends about half the movie under extensive make-up, after the board game punishing him for cheating by turning him into a monkey humanoid. It could've been easy for the kid to act under that but he succeeds.

When I nit-pick about actors in the film making dry comments about something wacky that just happened on-screen, I'm mostly complaining about Bonnie Hunt as the adult Sarah. This is no fault of Hunt, who actually gives a solid performance. In the scenes conveying panic, such as when Alan re-appears for the first time in twenty-five years, invalidating all the years of therapy she underwent, are very good. She also has decent chemistry with Willaims, when the two get to bickering. David Alan Grier has a thankless job as the film's straight man, the cop who is constantly battered around by the film's crazy events. Grier at least gets laughs out of it though. Jonathan Hyde is Van Pelt, the big game hunter and the film's human antagonist. Hyde clearly enjoys hamming it up at the unhinged Victorian stereotype. It's to the film's credit that the character isn't made into a goofy joke but allowed to remain intimidating.

”Jumanji” was a frequent presence in my childhood VHS player. I was so fond of the film, that I actually wrote up a detailed description of a video game adaptation for the Sega Genesis, with levels and boss battles based on the various incidents in the film. (This is a testament to my childhood nerdiness though I'm really surprised the film wasn't actually made into a 16-bit platformer, as it has all the elements necessary.) While that didn't exist, there were a few spin-offs. An animated series ran from 1996 to 1999. Despite ugly character designs, it was a well-written and fascinatingly bizarre show. Naturally, there was a real “Jumanji” board game created. I had it as a kid and was disappointed by how convoluted the rules were. More films would eventually follow as well. As for the original, it's no masterpiece and is a fairly shallow film in many ways. Yet it's fun too and fun counts for a lot. [Grade: B]

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (1994)

3. The Pagemaster
Co-directed with Maurice Hunt

The Disney Renascence of the late eighties and early nineties showed that feature length cartoons could be popular with audiences. Sometimes, they could even score Best Picture nominations. Many studios would rush to replicate this success, creating what animation historians call the Toon Boom. The decade of my childhood saw a number of animated films filling theaters. Few of them were box office hits and many were mistaken for Disney productions anyway.  One of the more curious Toon Boom offspring was “The Pagemaster,” a combination of live action and animation. Joe Johnston would direct the live action scenes while Maurice Hunt is credited with directing the animation. Like many cartoons of the time and type, “The Pagemaster” would fail to find an audience in theaters before being enjoyed by many more kids on home video.

Ten year old Richard Tyler is afraid of everything. Due to his chronic fears of injuries, he won't play with the other kids. Thus, he has no friends. His dad sends Richard off to the hardware store to grab some nails. After being caught in a sudden thunderstorm, he takes shelter in a library. After slipping and hitting his head, he awakens in a fantasy world where books and the characters inside them come to life. An entity known as the Pagemaster urges Richard to seek out the Exit. He teams up with the personifications of the Adventure, Fantasy, and Horror genres, journeying through their corresponding worlds on the way to the Exit. 

The relationship between film and the written word has always been somewhat competitive. No matter how much literature inspires movie, people will complain that things watched on a screen rots your brain while stuff read on the page makes you smarter. “The Pagemaster” is another one of those films that somewhat awkwardly attempts to peacefully correlate the two mediums. It's a movie about the joys of reading books, which is kind of funny. Richard has no particularly strong feelings about books to begin with but he learns about how magical reading can be through his adventure. In turn, the film clearly hopes, the kids in the audience will have their eyes opened to the magic of books. Already being a reader by the time I saw “The Pagemaster,” I have no idea if this worked. However, the film was clearly made with some love and care towards the written word.

“Reading is fun” is not the only message “The Pagemaster” hoped to impose on its young viewers. At story's beginning, Richard is basically a coward, with more neurotic fears than any kid should have. Over the course of his adventure, he discovers his own courage. He protects his friends, stands up to people and things that frighten him, and faces his own failures. This is a much more standard kid's movie moral, as lots of children's media is about bravery and such. Some credit must be given to Macaulay Culkin. He gives Richard enough personality and a sense of humor, keeping the kid from coming off like an obnoxious wienie.

Calling “The Pagemaster” a Joe Johnston movie is probably slightly misleading. With most of the movie being animation, he probably didn't work very long on it. However, Johnston does make his framing device count. He creates probably his most visually rich movie thus far. The idyllic, Spielbergian suburban setting is brought to life in rich detail. Several scenes are set during a thunderstorm, meaning Johnston takes advantage of the nighttime shadows and the flashing lightening in the sky. When Richard hits his head and slips into the animated world, Johnston even employs a neat trick of the camera spinning around his unconscious head. It's pretty neat and shows his visual palette growing.

Perhaps the director was drawing his cues from the animation that makes up most of the movie. One of the benefits of the Toon Boom was a lot of money being poured into animation. Which resulted in a number of visually gorgeous motion pictures like “The Pagemaster.” The painted backgrounds are so pretty. The animation is lively. Mostly, the film makes a great use of color. When Dr. Jekyll transforms into Mr. Hyde during the horror segment, crazy greens and blues wash on-screen. During Moby Dick's appearance, dark reds and blacks fill up the viewer's eyes. There's a lot of cute and clever touches in the design work as well, as the spines of books make up various parts of the landscapes. It's a nice looking film.

Building the film around three separate genre-themed adventures is a smart way to keep “The Pagemaster's” story moving quickly. Naturally, when I was a kid and now, the horror sequence is my favorite. Seeing a spooky mansion, covered with gargoyles and ominous vines, brought to life in such vivid animation is a real treat. The interior of Dr. Jekyll's home is characterized by strange chemicals bubbling in glass tubes and flickering flames. While the scene isn't scary, not even when I was a kid, the sequences are nicely spooky. Hyde's transformation, his fatal fall into a hole in the floor, and the appearance of several ghosts are pretty dang cool. “The Pagemaster's” horror sequence could be a good introductory course to would-be young horror fans.

The film probably peaks early in this scene. The adventure sequence, largely devoted to an adaptation of “Treasure Island,” is probably my least favorite of the movie's three episodes. There are things to recommend about it. Moby Dick's appearance or sharks gathering in choppy water are decently thrilling. The scene ends on a decent note, with Richard standing up to Long John Silver. However, far too much of the sequence is devoted to cartoon pirates being used for goofy comic relief. A sequence devoted to deciphering a treasure map is especially embarrassing. The scene also ends on a belabored note, with an extended epilogue devoted to Adventure and Horror
learning to be friends.

If “The Pagemaster” has a serious flaw, it's that the film's comic relief leans a bit too hard on the wacky side of things. Adventure is a boastful pirate who does things like get sprayed with a burst of water or zapped into dressing in drag. Horror is a pathetic gothic grotesque, which would be endearing on its own right. However, Horror is prone to goofy outbursts of physical comedy which aren't especially amusing. Fantasy is sometimes characterized as a Sassy Black Woman, which is significantly less funny than the movie hopes it would've been. During these moments, when “The Pagemaster” is really aiming for the kiddie crowd, is when the film is at its weakest.

If the Adventure episode is the film's weakest, things do perk back up for the concluding Fantasy segment. Most of the sequence is devoted to fighting a dragon and, yeah, that's pretty cool. The dragon is another expressive character, the giant fire-breather becoming intimidating through his body language and angry eyes. When the heroes leap on a flying carpet, it leads to an exciting mid-air chase. There's even some especially creative touches here, such as when Richard uses Jack's Beanstalk to escape from the dragon's gullet. While the sequence lacks a specific literary reference – there's a few nursery rhyme characters but the dragon doesn't seem to be from any specific story – that centered the other two episodes, it does wrap the film up on a decent note.

While modern animation can be overly dependent on celebrity voice work, “The Pagemaster” has a pretty good balance of known names and professional voice actors. The central trio of Horror, Adventure, and Fantasy are voiced by Frank Welker, Patrick Stewart, and Whoopi Goldberg. Stewart disguising his traditionally Shakespearean delivery to play a comical pirate, talking in a typical comical pirate voice, is a nice change of pace. You can tell the actor enjoyed hamming it up in the part. Goldberg certainly brings that Whoopi-esque vest and zigour to Fantasy, even if the character is a little grating at times. Welker, one of the most experienced voice actors in the industry, makes Horror a lovably pathetic creation. All three of the books are, if nothing else, entertaining presences.

Besides Culkin, the only actor to appear in both the animated and live action scenes is Christopher Lloyd. In the wrap-around sequence, Lloyd is Mr. Dewey, the enthusiastic librarian that introduces Richard to the world of reading. In the cartoon scenes, he is the titular Pagemaster, some sort of god-like entity representative of all literature. Lloyd excels in both parts, having a good time being theatrical as the libraian while being more mythic and wise as the Pagemaster. Leonard Nimoy voices both Jekyll and Hyde, bringing diginity and a sense of caution to the prior part and being effectively unhinged in the later. Another veteran voice performer, Jim Cummings, voices Long John Silver. Cummings has voiced plenty of characters like this before but he's pretty good at it, so it's no problem at all. (If you think the internet let it go unnoticed that many of the film's actors have appeared in the “Star Trek” universe, you severely underestimate the internet's collective nerdiness.)

The behind-the-scene story of “The Pagemaster” has a little more intrigue than the actual film. Production on the film was supposedly quite disorganized, scenes being cut well into production which is unusual for animation. (An excised moment from the Horror episode, involving Frankenstein's monster, even appeared in some of the trailers.) Before the release, producer David Kirschner sued to claim sole ownership of the film's story, essentially screwing original screenwriter David Casci out of credit. Largely due to the Writer's Guide of America not covering animated films, this court case would result in the most expensive investigation in the WGA's existence at that point. Sounds like a lot of trouble for a movie that didn't even gross 20 million dollars in the U.S. By not means a masterpiece, “The Pagemaster” is still a movie I enjoy... I must, as this is the second time I've reviewed it. [Grade: B-]