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.