Archive for August, 2009


Mufasa/Aslan is about to f*ck your sh*t up.

Mufasa/Aslan is about to f*ck your sh*t up.

Jumanji – (1995)

Director: Joe Johnston
Starring: Robin Williams, Jonathan Hyde, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, Bebe Neuwrith
Screenplay by: Jonathan Hensleigh, Greg Taylor, Jim Strain

I always hated the portrayal of children in movies. Sure, I could accept the occasional precocious preteen with careful insight on love or romance—because, let’s face it, most rom-coms are stupid enough that even 6 year-olds can sprout out inane plot points to assist in linking romantic leads—but when it comes to all-out, life-or-death adventures, the amount of cheese inputted into young leads have always irked me. I don’t care if film is dealing with pirates, ninjas, wild animals, invisible goblins, or members of Scientology: no matter how old you are, if shit hits the fan, you’re going act like it.

Which brings me to this movie and my next one, The Goonies—two films that take wildly different approaches to portraying kids participating in dangerous situations beyond their control. A brief aside—my favorite R.L. Stein Goosebumps book was the first one, Welcome to the Dead House. Why? Well, of all the books in the series, that one had not only the children in danger of whatever supernatural element sought to kill them, but the parents as well. Other books played the inane, clichéd game of magical versions of “the Boy Who Cried Wolf,” leaving moronic preteens to save the day while mothers and fathers rolled their eyes at them and their “wild imaginations.”

Even as a child, these distinctions were clear to me, the reason of which will make sense as I re-watch these films. There’s a lot of contextual notions involved, so while this may be specific in my case, I still hope I can present a reasonable argument.

NOSTALGIC LENS: Jumanji, from what I remember, kicked ass. The silly premise made way for some awesome and scary situations, including a crazed hunter who’s after the Most Dangerous Game (children being a close second). Also, it had some pretty nifty CGI for animals and other crazy special effects. What won me over, though, was the full threat of the situation, of children AND adults being very nearly killed, but ultimately coming together to save the day. No brainacs or fat-but-lovable young’uns here.

DOES IT HOLD UP: Other than the special effects, which do not hold up well at all, Jumanji is pretty solid. In fact, I’m willing to say that the film is thoroughly awesome.

It’s a lot to swallow though, mainly because a lot of the plot is awkwardly divulged in what appears to be nonsensical ways. But for the most part, it comes together strongly by the end. And with enough serious chaos that threatens everyone’s life, even the background characters, it’s easy to ignore that awkwardness and get drawn into the action.

Even the story works to the movie’s favor: while there’s a little pointless filler here and there, most of it works very well to create some real childhood drama. In 1869, some kids with cheesy acting skills bury the Jumanji game (complete with one saying the “May God have mercy on his soul” cliché). In 1969, a troubled young boy named Alan is harassed by local kids, fights with his father, and all around has a shitty day. He finds Jumanji in a construction site (only kids can hear the drums from the game’s “aura”) and plays it with Sarah, a friend of his. He gets sucked into the game, and Sarah runs away from bats.

1995 rolls around, and Judy and Peter Shepherd, two siblings that lost their parents in a car crash, find the game (via the drums) and starts playing it, unleashing hell, but also attracting Alan and Sarah back to the real world, where the four of them work together to finish the game and make all the weird and crazy stuff go away forever.

For a movie made simply to market a board game (and not too well, either—Judy blurts out “there’s no skill involved”), the filmmakers put a ton of work into making some rather deep, disturbed, children characters, based on their downtrodden childhoods. Peter rocks the creepy silent treatment, while Judy pathologically lies to everyone. Sarah was in therapy for twenty-six years to CONVINCE herself she wasn’t crazy and everything that happened was imaginary. (It’s really sad, too, realizing that she essentially lost EVERYTHING trying to convince the world what happened). And Alan, who managed to stay alive within the jungles of Jumanji all this time, tries to regain his missed childhood but is forced again to jump into the realm of adulthood. Somewhere, child psychologists are masturbating.

Of course, being a PG movie with Robin Williams, most people aren’t paying attention to the intricate details of character development. They want to see if Williams’s stupidity is either genuinely funny or annoyingly so. As far as I’m concerned, Williams is rather constrained here, as well as he can be in a movie where a board game makes jungle dangers come to life. In fact, his childish antics adds an interesting layer of depth to a character forced to survive in a desert all this time, and still pines for his childhood and missed parents.

But again, when the proverbial dice is rolled, the shit hits the fan, and this entire town in New Hampshire is affected, not just the kids themselves, complete with full-scaled riots and looting – and as someone who lived in NH, I assure you, there aren’t this many people in any town, nor would they riot, LA style (apologizes – this is mostly clips from the movie, with Turkish subtitles – and TIVO):

Even the hunter, Van Pelt, although not wholly memorable, really ups the danger by his willingness (or lack of scruples) to shoot at kids. Real villains don’t have soft spots, ya’ll. (As a added note, Van Pelt is played by the same person that plays as Alan’s father. Another nice little bit of subtle symbolism there.)

So the four roll, run, roll, run, and so on, until the last turn, where not only does Williams face his fears (ie, his father), he takes them head on, wins the game, and reverts everything back to 1969, where the young Williams has a chance to make amends and change the future. Wow. It’s Terminator 2!

IN A NUTSHELL: Yeah, the acting isn’t top notch. And there’s this inexplicable expositional scene at the beginning where some homeless dude in the rundown Parish factory somehow explains everything that happened to Alan’s father after his disappearance. But the action is great, the emotions are genuine, and, goddammit, I’m willing to admit I teared up a little when the now-married Sarah and Alan met Peter and Judy (with their living parents) for the “real” first time at the end, sans any knowledge of what happened. For you see, when the stakes effect everyone, even the cheesiest dramatic moments seem real.

Stay tuned next week when I contrast this one with The Goonies!

August 31st: The Goonies
September 7th: Super Mario Bros. The Movie







An American Tail: Fievel Goes West – (1991)

Director: Phil Nibbelink, Simon Wells
Starring: Phillip Glasser, James Stewart, Dom DeLuise, John Cleese
Screenplay by: David Kirschner, Charles Swenson, Flint Dille

Goodbye, Don Bluth; hello… uh, someone not named Don Bluth! Due to creative differences between Bluth and Steven Spielberg, the latter was forced to rely on another former Disney animator, Phil Nibbelink, and the grandson of H.G. Wells, Simon Wells, to direct this sequel. Sounds like an odd combination to be sure; indeed, financially, this movie bombed at the box office.

Was it because it sucked? Probably, although it was also up against The Addams Family (future CHILDHOOD REVISITED feature) and Beauty and the Beast, so it didn’t exactly have an easy time during its theater run. Still, there does seem to be a small, cultural following, or more appropriate, a small, cultural appreciation of the movie. However, there seems to be another small following that dislikes the movie, due to the fact that it simply isn’t “Bluthian”. So, now it comes down to this: is this a good film or not? Does the first movie win this battle, or is this an example of the few times that the sequel wins the day? I shall decide, and my decision will be law.

NOSTALGIC LENS: I have to admit I enjoyed this movie more than the first one when I was young. The animation was quite lovely, and I adored the music in particular; unlike other animated films, where the songs seem forced in as a time-waster and Oscar bait, Fievel Goes West maintained an exciting energy with their songs that truly appealed to me—and this is from someone that tends to hate music in his movies. Overall, I had fun with it, which netted several rentals from my neighborhood video store.

DOES IT HOLD UP: Aside from the transitions, which neither movie does well in an capacity, I have to say this: everything that the first movie fails at the second one does well, and everything the second movie fails at the first movie does well.

From a nostalgic standpoint, I can see why I would watch this movie so often as a child; however, it’s hard not to notice its flaws. The most glaring one is the sound. Fievel, our main character, again, fluctuates wildly in tone and delivery, as if recorded from two wildly different sound studios. Mama Mousekewitz sounds completely different from the first movie (despite being voiced by the same person), and some of the minor character voices are just all over the place. The odd thing is that the voice work is genuinely good; even Jimmy Stewart, who Spielberg personally coached, did a decent job. It just seems more like when the dubbing was placed, the recordists never bothered to fine-tune all of it—just some, but not all.

The story, plot-wise, is actually quite similar to the first one. A mouse family, disappointed with the life they currently live in America, grabs an opportunity to take a trip out West to start anew. Tone-wise, however, Fievel Goes West utilizes a wackier, somewhat sillier execution of events, which works perfectly sometimes, and falls short during other moments. As I mentioned previously, Bluth’s animation is not that clean nor strong; but he at the very least somehow manages to create an atmosphere, an overarching “sense” that works. Such a feeling, however, doesn’t exist here; instead, this movie reminds me a bit of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and its penchant for goofy moments among serious ones, minus Zemeckis’ careful control.

Let’s look at the movie’s opening scenes:

It’s surprisingly strong for something so loose. The individual cuts here are somewhat smoother and more coherent than the first one, and the slow disintegration of Fievel’s fantasy is strangely potent. In fact, the opening scene and the final scenes of the movie are incredibly well done, invoking a more genuine movie-specific atmosphere over that broad Bluthian feel.

It’s not a feeling that lasts long though:

(Note about sound: at 4:22, that sure cannot be Glasser. Or maybe it is, after a good swift kick in the balls).

The chaos here is sloppy and random, and once again, Fievel’s youthful bravery seems unbalanced. He challenges the giant cat to a fight, only to realize he bit off more than he can chew. But, er, shouldn’t he have realized that beforehand? It’s not like that children’s desire to fight King Kong suddenly goes away after realizing how big the ape is. Hell, the size tends to get kids to want to fight him MORE. (Stupidly, or course, but all the same). Oh, and apparently the hat that Papa gave Fievel in the first movie can turn inside out in a cowboy hat. In Soviet Russia, cowboy hat wears your hat? I got nothing.

Chaos is not this movie’s strong suit. Tiger in particular has a number of incidents where he runs into dog after dog after dog; aside from the fact that the dogs aren’t anthropomorphized like the cats or mice (something that always grinds my gears in animated works), the over-wrought efforts to make it crazy just come off overbearing and goofy. It’s worth a chuckle but ultimately what could have been funny just falls flat.

However, there is one very, very bright spot: John Cleese as Cat R. Waul. He’s absolutely gold in this movie, if you can tell by the second clip. His causally delivered commands and his British-to-Southern drawl are hilarious; and it only gets better from there. He draws a line between idealized sophistication and animalistic instinct, but neither goes into the extreme, like say, Ratigan from The Great Mouse Detective, which works beautifully here.

Waul’s plan ultimately delves into talking the mice to move out West, where they will be manipulated not only to build the town, but also to be blindly ensnared in a mousetrap, to be made into mouseburgers. Yum. Fievel finds out (thanks to his indomitable desire to run into the nearest dangerous situation), but falls of the train thanks to Chula the spider (a IMMENSELY forgettable character if I ever saw one. Not even John Lovitz, who voiced the arachnid terribly, could make him stand out.). Fievel lost in the desert is actually a nice couple of scenes; you really feel bad for the little guy, despite the fact that it’s essentially his own fault.

There’s also a few enduring moments with Tanya, Fievel’s sister. She longs for the stage but her voice is not appreciated by New Yorkers; but out West, Cat R. Waul is absolutely enamored by it (“Dreams to Dream” I think is a better song than “Somewhere Out There,” but it may be because it’s sung better here.) He convinces Miss Kitty (the female cat from the first clip) to prep her for the stage; Tanya breaks out and performs an amazing choreographed version of “The Girl I Left Behind”, and wows the audience and herself. There’s a theme of solidarity here, of cats and mice working together; and while Waul exploits it in order to ultimately eat them, Kitty and Tiger seems to genuinely believe in the idea. Tanya also in times learns about the artificiality of fame. Or something—that lesson doesn’t come off that clearly.

There’s also a couple of very mediocre-to-stupid scenes involving mirages, Tiger confused as a god by Indian mice, and a montage of Tiger learning how to be a tough dog by a Wylie Burp, voiced by the late James Stewart (man, it’s unfortunate that so many older actors pass away after voicing a cartoon character). Still, it “works” somehow, especially in the context of a young Fievel trying to desperately convince everyone of the danger, but no one believing him. I can understand that feeling; and that concept — of children and their relationship to real, genuine threats (and the adults that will/won’t listen) — segues perfectly into my next two movies.

IN A NUTSHELL: Other then adoring Cat R. Waul for the most part, I can’t really say this movie was that good. Neither the first one nor the second one wowed me in any way. They’re the same, but different, and it’s really hard to judge them in relation to each other. Both films have really great moments and really terrible ones; both have great technical aspects and shitty ones. If forced to choose, I’d have to say I’d prefer Fievel Goes West, if only because of the charismatic villain and the somewhat catchier music (although to be honest, it isn’t as good as I remember it).

August 31st: Jumanji
September 7th: The Goonies


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Burn, Baby, Burn.

Burn, Baby, Burn.

An American Tail – (1986)

Director: Don Bluth
Starring: Phillip Glasser, Nehemiah Persoff, Dom DeLuise,, John Finnegan
Screenplay by: David Kirschner, Judy Freudberg, Tony Geiss

Don Bluth is a god among animators. I’m not sure why; I’m not an animator. I’m not even an artist. My intuition is that Bluth, who worked for Disney on The Rescuers, managed to escape the clutches of the Disney Corporation and begin his own animation studio, which made slightly darker, more serious toned films that ran counter to Disney’s family fare. It’s the ultimate success story I suppose; however, there is a line I often think about when Bluth is mentioned. To paraphrase: “Don Bluth makes the best films to ever go bankrupt.”

Remember, now: back in the early 90s and 80s, animation was hand-drawn (sort of) and while Disney remained king in the medium, Amblin and 20th Century Fox both tried to knock the juggernaut down a few pegs. While The Land Before Time (future CHILDHOOD REVISITED feature) managed to beat, say, Oliver and Company, his other films (Rock-A-Doodle and A Troll in Central Park, anyone?) failed miserably. You can’t win them all.

But at one point he and his studio were riding high; his second movie, An American Tail, made 84 million worldwide. Not bad for a person who cribbed notes from his earlier Disney work, huh? But, does it still hold up in this day and age?

NOSTALGIC LENS: “Papa! Papa!” Yeah, I remember a lot of this being yelled around, but nothing much else. I know that song “Somewhere Out There” was a hit, or something, and the hideous song “There Are No Cats in America” song as well. As for the details of this movie, I can’t recall a single one.

DOES IT HOLD UP: In the credits, Bluth not only directed this, he also designed and story-boarded it. I do wonder how that session went? “So, we have this, and this, and…. Well, something-something, I don’t know– then cut to the next scene.”

I’m sorry to admit that this movie, unfortunately, doesn’t hold up that well at all. Part of the issue, it seems to me, is that Bluth put a lot of stake on what I would call “animation of moments,” where his animation styles tend to reflect mood, atmosphere, and tone over fluidity, continuity, and coherent storytelling. In other words, the guy’s perfect for experiment, independent films; but for a theatrical release? I can’t give him the benefit of the doubt.

I sense the approaching stampede of animators and artists typing furiously at the comment section, probably with a lot of curse words in there. To which I reply: at the very least, I do understand why Bluth is so admired. He does portray mood, atmosphere, and tone very, very well; how else can I explain that, while not enjoying the actual story told in the movie, I was genuinely choked up at the end when Fievel finds his family (if you think that’s a SPOILER, then you have no idea on how movies work.)

Here me out, though. Check out the opening scene.

A couple of things to note: the awkward editing of the first scene inside the house; the laziness of the triple animation of the Russian cats at 6:12 – 6:15 (not to mention why the Cossacks would bring cats with them as well), Fievel’s insane, sudden boldness to try to drive the cats away by banging on pots and pans. A lot of things are wrong here. Like, you’d think every mouse in 1885 Russia would be adequately scared of insane, violent cats. And don’t tell me that Fievel’s just being brave and naïve; if that’s the case, then Anne Frank would have came down from that attic and just whipped some Nazi ass. Also, the cut from their burning house to the boat scene is glaring; while the shot in my chosen screenshot is damn good, the cut itself is sudden. Were they always planning to go to America or was the move forced on them? It may sound like I’m nitpicking, but nitpicking is derived from a weak screenplay in the first place.

Beyond that, though, Fievel isn’t just a curious kid with an uncontrolled sense of adventure; he’s actually kinda retarded. The scene after this has him curious to see big fish (versus the herring in the barrels), so he purposely looses his hat to run out on the deck in the middle of a HUGE STORM. The scene is set up so awkwardly that instead of looking like unbridled curiosity gone wrong, it comes of as just a conglomeration of bad parenting, moronic childish behavior, and an abundance of no-one-giving-a-shit-itis. It’s a tricky ground to be sure; you have to try and play the metaphorical game, to reflect both the close-knit family element that immigrants created on the boat versus the “every man for themselves” ideal that also purveyed in that era. Here, it comes off as neither, which just appears to be a sad, sad excuse to get Fievel lost.

While talking to aspiring animators, it’s interesting to note how many of them love Bluth but also mention how they can’t tell a good story. Well, it’s certainly clear why. Fievel can’t tell time but his favorite book is The Brothers Karamazov. These are the kind of things you need to watch out for, folks.

But I digress. More awkward moments abound in this movie, including a bit scene where a fooled Fievel is conned into working for some brutish mouse (the job itself is never made clear); so, Fievel just escapes. That’s it. It really does happen just like that—and something-something, I don’t know– cut to the next scene. The set of scenes after Fievel and Tiger’s musical number is goddamn atrocious; again, something-something I don’t know. I never noticed the importance of segues before; now I know. Transitions are important. Also, the sound cues are pretty bad. I couldn’t tell the difference between the score itself and an important cue in the middle of the movie—which lost me so much that I had to rewind it and re-watch it two more times to understand what happened.

But I’m harping so much on the bad that I should mention some of the good. The character models are nice—if a bit jerky and inconsistent. The voices are a delight and fit well, and I enjoyed some the character themselves; especially a drunken Honest John (oh, yeah, he’s Scottish), a overly friendly Tiger (voiced by a RIP Dom DeLuise) and Tony “da New Yoik o’phan” is nice if wholly underdeveloped. The music isn’t great but it’s not horrible: hell, “Never Say Never” is a nice song and it works pretty well animated (On the importance of segues, please note 0:49.):

And yet, even despite all this, including the myriad of asinine plot points I haven’t been able to touch upon, I still found myself smiling, laughing, and really feeling for Fievel’s predicament. (Give credit to voice artist, Glasser, for sure.) The last ten minutes are heart-wrenching and beautiful, and pretty much worth the mediocrity that comes before it.

IN A NUTSHELL: I was hoping to be genuinely surprised by this movie, given my older sensibilities, but alas, I was actually disappointed. Don Bluth clearly utilized a number of Disney-esque styles, movements, and animation tips and techniques but missed out on the storytelling lessons. I have no problem with the darker, deeper story told here; I just wish it were told well. It comes off more like a comic than a movie; but again, some parts are great, and for that, it should be commended.

August 24th: An American Tail: Fievel Goes West
August 31st: Jumanji


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