Archive for June, 2009


[Ed. note: I decided to do Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker in lieu of his passing. The Adventures of the American Rabbit will be done next week, for Fourth of July weekend. I don’t plan this kind of thing. I apologize if this seems rushed.]

I kinda wish this is what he was like standing up against Death.

I kinda wish this is what he was like standing up against Death.


Directed by: Jerry Kramer, Jim Blashfeild, Colin Chilvers
Starring: Michael Jackson, Joe Pesci (!)
Screenplay by: Michael Jackson, David Newman

A poster on a website I frequent quite often poignantly suggested that, in the case of Michael Jackson, there be a middle ground. He waxed on elaborately, but a follow-up comment summed it up quite succinctly: “That was one fucked up dude, who made some great fucking music. I think each of those facts cannot eclipse the other. They just are.”

“They just are” is probably the hardest sentiment the human mind can comprehend. With our passion for searching for truth and explanations (an assessment I fully endorse by the way, especially for scientific purposes), we can’t simply grasp that someone can be both great in one aspect and odd in another, despite the fact people like that exist all around us (Ty Cobb, Eddie Murphy, hell, even Adolf Hitler). When it comes to people, I’ve learned that it’s really best to accept them and their behavior as “they just are” instead of trying to figure it out. (See: Citizen Kane).

Jackson was the king of pop and the prince of nightmares; he was a musical genius and a creepy celebrity figure; he choreographed breath-taking dance numbers and invoked questionable relationships with children. He did both, and far be it from us to try and reconcile the two, because honestly, no one can. The media can pop wise and speculate all they want; friends and family can gossip and book-write till the end of time; doctors and psychologists can “study” the stories and anecdotes of a child pop star growing up with a commanding father for years to come; but the whole truth is that he is who he is, and whatever he thought or felt is now forever gone.

NOSTALGIC LENS: Moonwalker is actually a series of vignettes, a compilation of music videos, original content, documentary reels, and concert footage. All I remember though, is the strange, overly long “Smooth Criminal” segment, complete with Jackson the Transformer, and strange clip of Michael out-dancing a rabbit. I can’t say I liked what I saw back then, but was strangely compelled by it nonetheless. It was almost as if a part of my childish mind said “this is stupid, but engaging.” Although when you’re young, you’ll watch anything.

DOES IT HOLD UP: I don’t even know anymore. I mean, to be honest, it’s a totally different movie now. Michael Jackson past away way too soon, and now we’re looking back at his work historically way too fast, instead of gradually. So I fear I may be seeing “meaning” in things that are meaningless. Still, you can’t help but get a sense that there is a message, something that Michael was trying to say beyond simply marketing his albums. Whether it was a broad, social message or a personal one… well, that’s debatable for sure.

The film begins with his song “Man in the Mirror,” a song that, in retrospect, may be a chilling introspective on his own personal demons. It’s a heartfelt song, truly sung with an undertone of remorse and passion that went beyond his usual persona. It was at this time that the seeds to Michael’s strange behavior were sewn; the nose job, the sudden marriage, the bleaching of the skin. When he sang about changing his ways, he wasn’t quite speaking metaphorically. He seemed to have a genuine passion for saving the world, or protecting it, clearly indicated by the random historical shorts of famous political, social, and civil figures. When he couldn’t, he focused on himself and elements he felt he could save, like children, or Beatles’ songs, or… the Elephant Man’s bones. He was a hippie version of Holden Caulfield, with money and fame to burn.

(NOTE: Most of the Moonwalker clips have been marked “not to embed” so you can follow along via the youtube host’s playlist.)

This is then followed by an amazing compilation of various songs he’s performed over the years, mixed with (at the time) high-end special effects and elaborate edits. Both parts are surprisingly good, if dated; but again, I’m watching this after the fact, and I can’t help but wonder if I would be as impressed with the clips if he was still around (I would say yes, if only because to hear the unique change in his sound and style is incredible in and of itself).

Ahh, then the humor comes in. A rendition of his “Bad” video performed by kids comes on. Now, although I don’t think he actually molested any kids, his affinity towards them was always weird. Overall people hate kids, or lack a passionate desire to be around them, so seeing Michael’s closeness to them, coupled with his VERY effeminate voice, is creepy. The kids performed well, though, and Michael isn’t in that section, so it isn’t too bad.

Harmony, peace, hope—they are the themes through out this entire movie, even when quick, self-deprecating moments are shown. Following the “Bad” video, where child-Jackson waxes surprise at Bubbles wearing a Prince shirt (*WINK*), we’re treated to a Beatles-esque fan-chase scene. It’s cute, with claymation characters hot on the heels of the pop star, a clear reference to claymation sensations “The Raisins”. It’s somewhat creepy in the Uncanny Valley sense, but not that bad. To escape his obsessed clique, he dresses up as a bunny—out of ALL the possible choices available to him. Wait, what?

Anyway, we’re treated to another music video, “Speed Demon”. Now, retrospectively, this all may not make sense to a kid, since children are so comfortable in following a straightforward plot, so the compilation aspect of it may seem odd, or downright frightening. But as an adult, it makes sense, and the intention is more obvious. I got a genuine kick out of it, despite its old school ways and the fact that “Speed Demon” isn’t really that good of a song. (And one more thing—Michael Jackson would be the world’s WORST role-player. He powergames through out the entire movie. He can transform into anything! And so can his vehicle!). He then out-dances his bunny persona (WHAT?) in the world’s first “Bring It On” dance-off, and gets a ticket for it. I chuckled a bit at that. I mean, dancing? Illegal in the desert? How random—but then again, this is Michael we’re talking about.

More self-deprecating comes in my second-favorite song “Leave Me Alone”, a “Yellow Submarine” type video of visual metaphors of Jackson trying to deal with the press’s obsession over him. Again, this totally flies over you as a child but is much clearly presented now. Also, I love this song.

Now comes the part we all remember—the overly long, elaborate “Smooth Criminal” music video, where Michael the Powergamer, Kate, the cutie white girl, and two other kids discover a hamming-it-up Joe Pesci out to supply drugs to every kid in the universe. RIDICULOUS plot aside, it’s shot fairly well, with a way-too long chase sequence, and some nifty effects with Jackson transforming into a car, killer robot, and a spaceship. I suppose that these “transformations” could mean something, some outward expression or desire to “be” something else, but every time, he’s forced to change back to himself, to be himself, to “save” those around him in song and dance and fervor. Still, “Smooth Criminal” is my favorite MJ song, and it’s an amazing video, with some of the best dancing and choreography around (so good, in fact, that Michael was PISSED it didn’t win best music video at the MTV Awards that year).

Usually, this ends when Jackson flies away (a moment that’s hugely depressing now), but for the movie, he returns, and takes the kids into a concert for a final performance by him back in concert mode, singing “Come Together” (I had no idea he did a cover of this song!). It’s cool, but by the time this part comes around, the overly long “Smooth Criminal” part already wore you out, so you’re just running through the motions now.

IN A NUTSHELL: As a movie-movie, it’s not good, but as some sort of real insight into the man, music, and mysticism of Michael, it’s amazing. I want to say that somewhere in all this is the answer, that within this amazing effort of dancers, actors, writers, directors, producers, and editors, lies the hidden secret to the mind of that Man in the Mirror, that king of pop that ruled the 80s and ran strong in the 90s. But even if I were to watch this a million times, and “The Making of” video two million, there’s really no answer to it all. He was a powerful pop star and a horrible one; both a glorious figure addicted to the limelight and a tragic figure trying desperately to stay away from it. He was his best friend and his own worst enemy, his own enabler, his own killer. Maybe there is nothing beyond the facts we see; sometimes, “they just are” indeed.

RIP Michael.

July 6th: The Adventures of the American Rabbit
July 13th: The Great Mouse Detective



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Oh no you didgeri-didn't!

Oh no you didgeri-didn't!


Director: Hendel Butoy, Mike Gabriel
Starring: Bob Newhart, Eva Gabor, George C. Scott, John Candy
Screenplay by: Jim Cox, Karey Kirkpatrick, Byron Simpson, Joe Ranft

The mice so nice that they’re doing it twice: Bernard and Miss Bianca return to the big screen after thirteen years out the rescuing game, this time down under in that wacky country/continent Australia. The Rescuers Down Under was Disney’s second movie in what is usually known as the Disney Renaissance era, beginning with The Little Mermaid and ending with Tarzan. It was also the only one to flop, only making 27 million in the box office. (I can’t seem to find a definitive budget on this film, but it seems to be 20 million according to Wikipedia, if you subtract the box office gross from the total revenue.)

Why? Well, at the time, Americans were obsessed with Macaulay Culkin and children seemed to delight in fighting off criminal scumbags; i.e., it was released along side Home Alone (future Childhood Revisited feature). Disney utilized a new digital animation process, called CAPS, and sent animators and researchers down to Australia to accurately portray the landscape. But it didn’t seem to matter all that much. While the 80s and 70s much enjoyed the success of little animal critters saving the day, the 90s and 00s preferred the appeal of “sexually” appealing princess alongside goofy sidekicks and handsome heroes. Which would certainly explain the success of Disney’s ‘Princess’ line; little preteen girls and their obsessions with shallow, mindless royal figures meeting prince charming and living happily ever after with absolutely no sense of self-preservation. Am I bitter? Damn right I am, because this movie was great!

NOSTALGIC LENS: Majestic. Of all the Disney animated films I’ve seen, this was the only one that I remember where the animation actually impressed me. Sure, I couldn’t actually put it into words at the time, but at some aesthetic level I knew that a lot of work was put into this movie. It’s obvious, even to an 8-year old, that drawing multiple angles and dynamics of a giant bird must have been hard as shit; too bad very few people actually take in the substance of the animated form.

DOES IT HOLD UP: By god, does it ever! But there are some awkward moments here and there, though.

I hope at some point this gets released on Blu-ray, because then one could really get to see the incredible animation at work. This movie is beautiful in ways I can’t even say. It’s so amazing, in fact, that I couldn’t help but think the animators were actually showing off. I’m not exactly joking here.

The early opening scene is clearly designed to be a jaw-dropping opus of animated glory, as Cody, our young protagonist, rescues the golden eagle Marahute and then goes on a four-minute thrill ride with her through the sky, across a river, through mountains and valleys, and just pretty much have all the fun a boy and his bird can have. (Sorry, Team Ico; Disney was doing this shit way before you thought it was cool.) But, as incredible as the sequence is, you really can’t help but think how unnecessary it is at the same time.

Part of the problem, I think, is we’re introduced way too early to this. In fact, a lot of stuff is awkwardly introduced way too fast. For example, Cody is immediately shown as some animal-savior, which is not exactly a mentality that kids can relate to. Also, while Penny’s ability to talk with animals was a perfect reflection of a lonely, friendless, orphan girl, Cody’s ability seems random, thrown in just to push the plot along. (They tried to emphasize his loneliness by mentioning his dead father, but considering he seems to be fine living at home with his mom, well-fed and well-taken care of, it’s really just a moot point).

And… uh, that boy can climb the shit out some wall-cliffs. What the hell?

Anyway, evil poacher Percival C. McLeach ends up capturing him to try and get him to divulge the location of Marahute. His capture gets relayed via computer-savvy mice to the Rescue Aid Society, where they’re like, “Oh, whatever, let’s just send Bernard and Miss Bianca after them, cause we got other stuff to do.” Oh, apparently going from janitor to USA representative requires the rescue of at least one (1) child. And Bernard has to interrupt his wedding proposal on Miss Bianca to fly all the way down under to save him.

It’s nice to hear John Candy’s voice again as Orville’s seagull brother Wilbur, who does a damn good job. All the really fun sequences involve him in some way or another. I’m very happy that I managed to find this clip, which shows a majority of the best scenes in the movie, and really awesome, detailed, close-up expressions of the talking mice, bird, and the kangaroo rat Aussie, Jake.

Man. That is beautiful. You really have to take it all in.

As far as villains go, McLeach (really? Mc-LEACH?) is probably the most underrated badass in villain history. Excellently voiced by George C. Scott, McLeach really displays a psychopathic disregard for everyone around him combined with a inflated view of himself. Subtle great moments include him singing a ditty as he prepares to toss Cody into a crocodile-filled river; talking to the radio about how smart he is; and my favorite, his bizarre need for proteins from eggs. The latter is particularly great since it comes from absolutely nowhere.

There’s an interesting subplot that includes Jake trying to muscle in on Miss Bianca, creating some jealous friction between Jake and Bernard. (Too bad this doesn’t go anywhere. We see scenes where Bernard shows his smarts, quick thinking, and balls, but the jealousy stuff is wrapped up too nicely. But hey, it’s Disney.) There’s also another nice but pointless set of scene where a trapped Cody befriend some other captive animals, and they have goofy asides to each other, and Frank the frilled-lizard acts straight-up retarded in an insane escape attempt/conflict between him and Joanna, Mcleach’s evil pet goanna lizard. It fails miserably, doesn’t incite much laughter, and worse of all, they’re completely forgotten about by the end of the film. Were they rescued too? The world may never know.

Also, one other thing I noticed about this movie: Bianca doesn’t do ANYTHING. She belittles Bernard a lot, much like the first movie, but at least in the first one she managed do actually do some work. Here, she’s completely worthless, leaving Jake and Bernard to do most of the difficult stuff as she’s strung along. She was a trick in the first movie, but here, she’s a trick squared.

All that aside, though, this movie was a lot of fun. While The Rescuers played perfectly into the seventies styles of cinematic aesthetics, The Rescuers Down Under worked perfectly towards nineties filmic sensibilities, with a slightly tighter screenplay and an animation style that works wonderfully for today.

IN A NUTSHELL: Like I mentioned in the previous entry, I don’t want people to think my nitpicks indicate any ill-will towards this movie. I loved this film a lot, and even early on, I started to tear up a little due to how stunning everything looked. Still, there are those slightly groan-inducing moments, but nothing mind-numbing. I truly wish that one day Disney would go back to exploring the world of the tiny animals.

June 29th: The Adventures of the American Rabbit
July 6th: The Great Mouse Detective


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Don't tell me you aren't turned on, too. This is the internet, after all.

Don't tell me you aren't turned on, too. This is the internet, after all.


Director: John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman, Art Stevens
Starring: Bob Newhart, Eva Gabor, Geraldine Page
Screenplay by: Larry Clemmons, Ken Anderson, Frank Thomas, et. al

We do so love it when little critters try to do big things. Whether it’s mice saving children, rodents taking over the world, or chipmunks stopping evil scientists, there is an almost universal appeal of the underdog (undermouse?) success story, especially in animated, anthropomorphic form. I need not say that stories like these give us faith and hope for ourselves when, within our lives, we are faced with insurmountable odds. And in times like these, with a faltering economy and dangerous global landscape all around us, maybe faith in the little guy is exactly what we need.

The Rescuers was the first posthumous-Walt Disney animated film to be released, and was a huge success, even outselling Star Wars in some parts of Europe. At this time, many original Disney animators were growing old and soon to be moving on, while a young, bright-eyed Don Bluth arrived to learn a thing or two about that drawing thingamajig. Combined original and re-release returns total 48 million dollars at the box office. Surely with that much talent and critical acclaim, this movie still holds up. Right?

NOSTALGIC LENS: I remember the Rescue Aid Society song, and even began singing the song last week. I remember the ending involving a wacky fireworks display, and the flying via a seagull. Overall, I remember enjoying it, but never really loved the movie as much as my nostalgic lens would have me believe. In other words, I have no inclination to say, “Remember when animated movies used to be GOOD?” in reference to movies like this.

DOES IT HOLD UP: YES. And yet, no. Hmm, this requires some explanation.

Cinema from the late sixties and seventies is a unique breed; more geared toward strong, stylistic aesthetics and visual impact (Panned zooms! Muted colors!) over tightly coherent stories and intricate character development. Now, it may be asking a bit much to receive a strong story from an animated film and nine different writers, but compared to other Disney films, the story here seems to be more a means to an end—a beautifully animated film—over making a tight screenplay. The celluloid beat the written page.

That makes me sound harsh, but I truly mean that in the nicest way possible. As great as this movie gets (and at times this movie is GREAT), minor flaws here and there stand out so much, storywise. I feel like a coach trying to get one hundred percent talent out of potential player only giving ninety percent. You love what you’re getting, but you know you could have gotten much more.

First, the good: the animation is gorgeous. Lush, detailed backgrounds; excellent human models; smooth, tight animation and fluid movements—the great Disney animators really went all out with this one, and it shows. It’s like watching a famous painting by Da Vinci in motion. The voice work is pretty excellent, too: Bob Newhart’s stuttering and stammering as Bernard the janitor mouse and Eva Gabor’s sultry but determined line readings as Miss Bianca are complete opposites but complement each other so well. Even the side characters are excellent: Orville the seagull, Rufus the cat, Penny the orphan girl, Medusa the villain—clearly the actors and actresses really enjoyed their work.

And the music is, quite possibly, the best music from any animated film, ever. It hasn’t been pop-culturally destroyed like “A Whole New World” and it doesn’t pander itself better than it actually is like “Colors of the Wind”. Instead, it perfectly balances the lush animations and filmic moments, fitting together like the perfect puzzle. The flight sequence with Orville as “Tomorrow is Another Day” plays is hypnotically exquisite (Note this isn’t the actual clip from the movie, just an mp3 of the song played over the scene): The Song (sorry, the youtube poster disabled embedded videos).

The incredible intro scene is amazing as well, foregoing the smooth animations and concentrating on a montage of chalk-like pictures as “The Journey” plays:

Now, watch that opening scene again. Penny runs out and drops the bottle into the water. But…. Where did that bottle come from? She clearly is not holding it a few seconds earlier.

That’s where my nit-picks come from (and yes, I fully admit they are nit-picks). The movie has a number of these awkward moments. They are small, slight, and most likely wholly forgettable, but they are there. Early in the film, for example, Miss Bianca and Bernard try to take a shortcut through the zoo, but due to scary lions, end up taking the long way. Other than a tiny (har-har) character moment, the scene seems superfluous. Other “meh” moments include The Swamp Brigade, who pretty much appear from thin air and rush in to save the day, which is something that might as well have been played against “Yakety-Sax”. Evinrude, the dragonfly engine and clear precursor to Zipper in “”Rescue Rangers” has a random flight encounter with bats, which is not really tense… just there. Interesting and wonderful animation, but it seems shoehorned in to me. Again, I don’t mean this as a bad thing. Just merely to point it out.

I REALLY hate over-thinking the intricate plot details of the movie, which involves an evil pawn shop owner named Madame Medusa, who kidnaps an orphan girl from New York and sends her down to what I assume is Louisiana, to find a special jewel in a pirate cave (I mean, Florida is closer). Miss Bianca, bless her bleeding, Hungarian heart, opts to save her, and because she likes her men clumsy and superstitious, chooses Bernard to go with her. It’s interesting to see the subtle growth of Bernard, who seems to push past his bouts of paranoia and do some pretty brave things. Bianca, however, is what us black folk would call a “trick”: she would talk crazy shit in a bar and antagonize everyone, and then send her “boyfriend” to take care of it. And, sadly, women like that never change.

One more point: I do like the implied social elements of the missing children dilemma, in how some missing children from well-to-do families are plastered all over the news, while the missing poor children are essentially shrugged off. An upset Penny cries over not being adopted because she wasn’t pretty enough; Rufus tries to reassure her, but I can’t help but think that there’s an air of truth to this very sad statement the creators wanted to convey (also, the implication that Penny can understand the animals is a nice touch—a poignant reflection of her state by giving her the ability to only befriend animals). It’s only AFTER Penny returns with an expensive diamond and becomes newsworthy is she adopted. It’s suspect, and maybe not intentional; but with Bluth involved, you never know.

IN A NUTSHELL: Please don’t get the wrong idea. I LOVED watching this movie. It looked great, sounded great, and almost made me cry. The little things that I pointed will not take you out the movie at all. (If you said I pointed those things out to fill two-and-a-half pages, I probably wouldn’t argue!) But, again, with all the wonderful experiences this movie musters, you just wish, deep down inside, that they tightened the bolts on a beautifully made ship.

June 22nd: The Rescuers Down Under
June 29th: The Adventures of the American Rabbit


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