Saturday, June 15, 2019
Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (1994)
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.
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.
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.
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.)