Posts Tagged Film

CHILDHOOD REVISITED – CATS DON’T DANCE

Cats Don't Dance Screenshot

Aren't only dogs supposed to do this?

Cats Don’t Dance – 1997

Director: Mark Dindal
Starring: Scott Bakula, Jasmine Guy, Natalie Cole
Screenplay by: Mark Dindal, Robert Lence, Roberts Gannaway, Cliff Ruby, others

The Netflix blurb described Cats Don’t Dance as a “nostalgic animated version of classic MGM musicals.” That got me pretty stoked. As a youngin’, I had failed to make that connection since, while I was aware of the existence of musicals, I didn’t quite grasp their impact and significance in the overall development of American cinema and stardom. Also, watching a non-Disney animated film is always a treat, since you get to experience different themes, ideas, and movements. And, let’s be honest: Disney wouldn’t have released a film like this with such a lame title. Cats Don’t Dance? Really? The furry version of White Men Can’t Jump? Not exactly the warmest sounding title around.

NOSTALGIC LENS: I remember going to see this film by myself. It looked like a fun and eccentric romp through some crazy sets, and it was. Just TOO eccentric. Everything was going so fast and moving in blurs, harsh cuts, and speedy camera tricks that I had no idea what was going on. I remember none of the songs or secondary characters, save for the big-ass butler and really, really stupid ending sequence that actually irritated me, even in terms of cartoon logic. I’ll save that complaint – if it still holds – for the write-up.

DOES IT HOLD UP: I’ll say this: Cats Don’t Dance was not intended for the big screen. It’s a film tailor-made for the small screen – for closer observation. How often do you hear that?

Cats was marketed as a simplistic kids film of colors and frantic movement, talking animals and an Animaniacs-like exaggeration of animation, which simply put, means it’ll keep kids quiet for an hour. The movie, however, is a brightly-rainbow’d homage to not only the MGM classic musical, but the original musical nature of the early black & white/Merrie Melodies era of sing-songy cartoons. It’s a historical piece – a pretty goddamn esoteric one, but the signs are all over the celluloid.

Of course, young kids wouldn’t get it. Of course, parents wouldn’t understand what the film was delineating. The only people that may have been aware of the film’s aesthetic ties may have been historical animation fans, but that requires a clear and free understanding and appreciation of the history of American animation (and film) of a specific time period of a specific genre. That’s a rather egregious disconnect. In that way, Cats Don’t Dance is a failure, since it does little to draw its audience in and clarify its intent.

However, if you ARE aware of all of this, Cats Don’t Dance is a fresh, glorious treat of frantic action, a ballsy film against the slow, straight-forwardness of Disney or Pixar films. It’s tale – homely cat Danny travels to Hollywood to make it as a big time dancer and singer – is so typically cliche of one-third of the plot of most musicals, but that’s the point. Its entertainment draws from the energy of songs that break out of no where, of speedy dance numbers that develop into visual pastiches of its medium, of physical gags no longer utilized save in Spongebob. Check out the first ten minutes:

The simplicity of the opening montage segues into a much more exciting music piece. It’s like we’re going backwards; “Now Our Time Has Come” is such a 90s “hope song,” but “Danny’s Intro” is a play to exploring that new Hollywood space, a Wizard of Oz-like ballad of early triumph. Hello, 50s.

As I mentioned, Cats Don’t Dance homages the animated musical shorts as well. Remember when animated figures would grab random objects in a junkyard or alley and make awesome impromptu music?

I can’t help but think about this notorious cartoon when thinking about this film:

(You may have heard this on a certain South Park episode. Also – my man Tex directed this classic.)

The movie is filled with moments like this, as well as surprisingly sharp jokes about the time period. Sure, some are groaners (Rats being offended by the line “I smell a rat”), but there are some nifty ones, like when antagonist Darla Dimple (an evil Shirley Temple clone) only bites off the heads of animal crackers in front of Danny. (Darla’s offer, though, excites him so much that he starts eating the crackers too. In fact, the entire sequence between Danny and Darla is a lot of fun.)

Which is why the ending disappoints. Musicals, in general, seem to have weak, “JUST WRAP IT UP” type finales that’s all style and no substance. Whether Cats Don’t Dance played to that or not still doesn’t make it any better. Danny’s fight with big brute Max is exciting (and a marvel in animated form), but the ending sequence does nothing to build on that. Darla flicks a number of switches to try and ruin Danny and company’s final number, but it just makes it more awesome. It lacks the pluckiness of Danny’s earlier battle; none of the characters ‘fight’ through the chaos to deliver a great piece. Everything just works out. Ho-hum.

But for one hour, Cats Don’t Dance is a loose, whimsical, enjoyable film, a song/dance “cartoon-cartoon,” and not simply an animated live-action film. (The last animated film to employ such a free-sense of itself? The Emperor’s New Groove.) And it’s surprisingly relevant. Darla essentially screws Danny over; sure, Danny uses his skills and abilities to bounce back and win in the end, but he too had to do some sneaky shit to even earn that right (break into the theater of Darla’s movie premiere.) As much as we’d like to think that our abilities  should speak for themselves, unfortunately in this job market, we may have to get a bit dirty before starting the cleansing process.

IN A NUTSHELL: I found myself really drawn to this film, so much so that I wanted to watch it a second time almost immediately. Sure, it’s flawed, but it’s a movie that’s one of its kind; a film that aims to be more aesthetically informative and historically nostalgic. Does it work 100%? No. But it does make you pine for the days where you can sing-a, along with the moon-a and the June-a, and the spring-a. While avoiding an anvil or six.

EDIT: I should have mentioned that Gene Kelly himself worked as a consultant on the film before he past away, which clearly contributes to the show’s wonderful energy and dance numbers.

NEXT UP: Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY

Screenshot from Willy Wonka

Wonka and his infamous "pimp" cane.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – (1971)

Director: Mel Stuart
Starring: Gene Wilder, Jack Alberston, Peter Ostrum
Screenplay by: Roald Dahl, David Seltzer

(I apologize for the delays with the Childhood Revisited saga. It’s been a tough couple of months, and as I started working on 2 side projects, as well as providing the occasional write-up for Destructoid [along with the day job], which left me struggling to do weekly writeups. So while I won’t be getting back into the weekly C.R. reviews, I’ll try and provide one or two every month. No promises, as I also like to write about other things. :) )

I had the recent pleasure of watching The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was a lot more fun than I expected. And with my recent foray into all things animated, light, whimsical and fun, I thought it would be fitting to try re-watching Willy Wonka. (I wonder if I should review James and the Giant Peach at some point.) It was supposed to be a Valentine’s Day write-up, then an Easter one, but I missed all those dates, so now it’s simply a regular one. I’m a bit rusty with my analysis of these things, so forgive me if it seems a bit “off.”

NOSTALGIC LENS: Every so often, there’s a not-so-subtle push to rear kids via their (supposedly) most-loved passion: candy. This and books like The Chocolate Touch used thinly-veiled metaphors to teach lessons through the delight and, uh, power of confectionery. I liked candy, but didn’t LOVE it, so I pretty much tossed aside the lessons as pointless to me. As for the movie itself, I remembered bits and pieces, but nothing that stood out, save for the chocolate river scene. Oddly enough, the part that freaks people out the most – the psychedelic boat ride – was completely gone from my memory.

DOES IT HOLD UP: I love the 70s completely unironically – from its overall sense of fashion and style, to its endearing exuberance to its cheesy TV shows, lame game show concept, overwrought music, and “whatever” dance styles in vogue (the commitment to these entertainment styles is what makes them stand out). 70s films were, overall, of two types: deep in a bizarre sense, and comical in an ironic, detached sense. One of the reasons Star Wars stood out was that its blockbuster sensibilities was so novel and straightforward and played everything real.

Willy Wonka makes great use of the latter aesthetic, being such a whimsical, devil-may-care type of film. I’ve never read the original novel, but even I can gather how much it deviated from it. (Apparently Dahl hated it.) It’s a musical, yes, but even through its melodies and comedy, the film just breaks from its original narrative not only for song cues, but for random gags attributed to a specific point in the story. It’s two insane stories in one: a international assault-search for golden tickets in Wonka bars, and a tour of Wonka’s eccentric factory with goofy yet semi-dark consequences, and during each section, we’re treated to almost variety-show-like moments that seem to take in the full extent of filmic styles of the time. The separate beats seem off but are remarkably held together by a strong and coherent style, a fun cast, and a catchy batch of tunes.

This ten minute clip is the perfect epitome to showcase what I mean. The slightly awkward “child in the chocolate” part is undermined by goofy faces and Wonka’s witticisms – which is then undermined again when he is sucked up the tube into god-knows-where. Scary? Not for long – a goofy whistle and a Oompah Loompah song calms the nerves and teaches you a quiet lesson, kiddies. That’s fine. And then it’s a boat ride into a drug-fueled TUNNEL OF HORROR, because why not?

Then it’s back to the fun stuff.

Willy Wonka is a huge risk of a film, because there’s no reason for anything to happen the way it does. There no need for the music numbers, or the side jokes, or the abject weird tunnel scene or any number of visual elements; nor is Wonka supposed to be a laureate of classic literature and poetry. But it’s there. And if there’s one thing that the internet has taught me, it’s that if you’re going to do something for no reason, you might as well do it amazingly, like if you were to, oh, let’s say, do a live-action version of the song “After Today” from A Goofy Movie.

Of course, not all of it is random, and I’m happy to say that the parts that do matter are just as great as the parts that don’t. Gene Wilder is a great Wonka, that perfect mystery of a character who’s both carefree and careless, who carries the film during ever dark and light moment with nary a concern in the world. All the children were surprisingly great, even being mostly one note, although I will give special mention to Veruca Salt, played by Julie Dawn Cole, for being such a great spoiled brat and really owning the character. The set design and cinematography is exquisite, the gags still hold up, and the music is exceedingly endearing: tell me you don’t want to sing along to “Pure Imagination”:

Still, its dated aesthetic is still apparent, and as I mentioned earlier, certain gags come off a bit stilted and awkward. (And that ending is so tacked on and rushed that it’s really disappointing). But overall, its enjoyable and, unlike other musicals, the songs aren’t way too long.

IN A NUTSHELL: Want makes this movie truly work is that, despite its visual datedness, it’s still really a delight and would definitely hold up for children today (which I couldn’t quite say for something like The Goonies or Wizard of Oz.) It’s emphasis on kids and their behavior, against the backdrop of sugary goodness (which will NEVER grow old) makes Willy Wonka a particularly, yet truly, timeless classic.

NEXT FILM: Cats Don’t Dance

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Joe Murray, Betty Boop, and Free-Range Animation

Rocko's Modern Life picture

I really empathize with Joe Murray.

The creator of Rocko’s Modern Life debuted his titular cartoon on Nickelodeon right as the true face of the internet began to take form; the geekiest among us refer to it as “Eternal September.” While the fresh-faced newcomers to the “World Wide Web” aggressively staked their claim in chat rooms and Usenet boards, Murray was simply content to create a funny, wacky show that pushed boundaries once in a while. The boundary-pushing was merely an afterthought, though; and it took a while before Nickelodeon’s network executives became wise to the game, and seriously curtailed the consistent attempts at crude and gross humor. It’s obvious how the show seemed to calm down its more grotesque elements as the seasons went along: bits with brain removal; board games involving “monkeys” and “whacking paddles;” Heffer, a steer, being milked into what is clearly sexual orgasm – all these seem to disappear towards the latter episodes.

Truth be told, moments like that were far and few in between. But as the show was wrapping up, the INTERNET, with its uncanny love of all things gross, weird, and disturbing, hailed Rocko’s Modern Life as some brilliant takedown of the man and the state of animation as they knew it. It was Invader Zim before Invader Zim was Invader Zim (a cartoon I will be discussing very, very soon).

Don’t get me wrong. Rocko’s Modern Life was definitely a brilliant show, but hardly because of how clever it got away with its shady humor. (FYI, as far as I’m concerned, shady humor is simply humor with a dirty face. I don’t care how much blood, sex, or violence is involved, as long as its funny.) Rocko’s Modern Life was brilliant in its classical embrace and subversion of animation styles and tropes not witnessed since the 1930s, the early days of Betty Boop. Many claim that Ren and Stimpy had a strong influence on Rocko’s Modern Life (like so many modern cartoons), but Max Fleischer’s style has a larger hand in the visual aesthetic and physical gags. That bizarre curvature to Rocko’s world seems to be a callback to the “roundness” and “bounce” of classic black and white animation, and a number of the jokes emphasized that free-range style where objects, literally, come alive – a style that many viewers are disturbed by, mainly because they aren’t quite used to it.

This “free-range” animation should not be confused with Surreal Animation, although they are closely related. Surreal Animation, like the paintings of Dali or the films of Bunuel, emphasize dream-like, or altered states, which, to put it bluntly, pretty much asked its viewers to be high. Free-range animation had no such obligation (although its clear that being high is perfectly acceptable); it simply understood and embraced the full activity of animation, and sought to really ANIMATE the fame, in every possible sense of the word.

Betty Boop is a great example of this. Betty Boop, Max Fleischer’s darling creation in the 1930s, was the masculine epitome of idealized femininity: sweet, innocent, “sexy,” and consistently happy. No matter that the nation was hugely in debt and a global threat loomed over the horizon, Boop’s happy-go-lucky temperament was always intact. The important thing, however, is that Boop did not exist in a world that paralleled our Depression-addled society. Betty’s world was just as happy and free-range as her personality, so much so that it seemed physically designed to curry to her favor. The world would “come alive,” at will, at random, if to assist in helping Boop in anyway it could.

And so, we would see statues and flows anthropomorphize themselves temporarily to console, dance with, or otherwise chat with Boop as she went through her trials and tribulations. She bounced, and the world bounced with her; she cried, and so did everyone else. The animated world of Boop had no limits, and it’s something of a lost art to play so fast and loose with the medium itself.

Rocko’s Modern Life did, albeit in a different fashion. While Boop’s world was idealistically optimistic towards her overall happiness, Rocko’s world was cruel, mean, and crass. One of my favorite gags involved Rocko, while on a skiing trip, choking a bush in anger that was in his way. The trees around him come alive and proceed to attack him in retaliation. But the gag doesn’t end there. When Rocko ends up in the hospital by the end of the episode, the nurse in the lobby directs the same trees to his room (she confuses them for Rocko’s parents). It’s such an amazing gag, and it’s only now that I’ve begun thinking about the joke’s structure.

Rocko’s world was a free expanse of living-at-will objects: trees protecting its own, vacuum cleaners coming alive and eating people, chairs wanting to be sat upon. It’s VERY weird – uncanny even – without a general understand of, or at least exposure to, classic Fleischer animation.

You can see the departure from the free-range to the traditional in Camp Lazlo, a much more streamlined, character-based cartoon. The internet didn’t have its grossed out, surrealist, and/or free-ranged oddness, so it chalked up Camp Lazlo to generic lameness. The humor, however, was still as great as Rocko’s Modern Life was, just more or less regulated to character-based gags than medium-based. Still, I adored Camp Lazlo and truly wished the world did as well.

Most modern cartoons are indeed influenced by Ren and Stimpy, and while that’s to be expected, I have to admit that Murray’s attempt to utilize animation tropes not used since the 30s is rather admirable… and ballsy. Murray has a great sense of comedic time and visual wit, and he uses it excellently, whether he utilizes this free-range animation style or not. Check out a clip from his new, upcoming short.

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