Monday, March 5, 2018

The Shape of Water (2017)

"Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me.
Your presence fills my eyes with your love, 
it humbles my heart,for you are everywhere."

The Shape of Water is beautiful, touching, and celebrates the power of cinema while satirizing its oldest, most toxic tropes. Writer/director Guillermo del Toro's films are often visually spectacular, but The Shape of Water is one of his more thoughtful films (I haven't seen Pan Labyrinth, and yes, I know that makes me a horrible person). Dealing with themes of racism and the nature of social outcasts desperate for affection, The Shape of Water is sweetly romantic and hard-edged in all the best ways. The cast is stellar, the production design shines, and the story is full of unexpected little moments. It honestly has all the makings of a modern classic, and while the film's elevator pitch might sound off putting (what if the woman who always gets abducted by the Creature from the Black lagoon was... you know... into it?), it never feels like erotic Creature from the Black Lagoon fan fiction (even though it totally is, and I'm just fine with that).

The story follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman living in Baltimore in the early 1960s. Racial tensions are high and Cold War paranoia runs rampant around the country and at the government facility where she works as a janitor. Her African-American co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) are her closest friends, but romantically, she is alone and desperate for sexual affection. She also really likes hard boiled eggs and sweeping Hollywood movies. One day at the facility, Elisa discovers a half-man/half-fish creature captured from South America by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Elisa and the Creature form a loving bond, and before Strickland and a scientist named Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) have the chance to dissect and kill the creature, Elisa devises a plot to break him out.

The Shape of Water is simultaneously a celebration and a satire of Old Hollywood, incorporating and subverting the tropes of sci-fi, horror, and musicals of the time ( Elisa even lives above a movie theater, if you needed any doubts). When del Toro saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon as a boy, he wanted to see a successful romance between the Creature and the woman he loves. You can see why one could argue for this being Del Toro's excuse to make erotic monster fan fiction, because Elisa's affection for the monster (and his for her) are explicitly sexual in nature. But the film has a sweet center, and Elisa is a wonderfully-realized character (no small writing feat when she can't speak). While the film is not a direct tie-in the Universal series, foreknowledge of how the original stories go is beneficial: the slimy, aquatic monster from South America falls in love (or is just attracted to) a woman, who he promptly tries to abduct. She must be saved by the handsome white man, and the monster can be killed like all outcasts should. That's the most cynical reading of the plot I could muster, and none of that mean-spirited attitude is present in The Shape of Water. You should only satirize the things you love, and it's del Toro's love for the classics that allows him to so deftly turn their cliches on their heads.

Take the Strickland, for instance, who is the film's ostensible villain. He's the very essence of the white, heteronormative, successful family man, but he's faced with characters and situations that challenge his status as "the norm." He's all the things that make up the bland "heroes" of the films of the 1950s and early '60s, but as the film progresses, this clean facade breaks down to reveal a character defined by toxic masculinity, bloodthirstiness, materialism, and a superiority complex. The way he treats the creature, Zelda, and the intellectuals he works with make him despicable, and all his actions are justified by the Red Scare and the ideals of the time. None of this is done with much subtlety when it comes to some of the scripting (and lack of nuance tends to hold the film back in other areas as well), but Strickland and every major character are still complex and richly defined.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Besides Hawkins and Shannon, both giving extraordinary performances, we have Octavia Spencer charming us to death with her humor and emotion and Richard Jenkins doing the same. Both are playing characters who are societal outcasts like Elisa and the Creature, and who have to step up to be more than society tells them they can be. Their stories function as a parallel to the unusual romance that takes center stage. It helps that they have wonderful dialogue written by del Toro himself and Vanessa Taylor, which exhibits wit and earnestness that never leans too saccharine or too cynical. The film has a light heart most of the time, but the way the actors react to some of the darker moments really sells the danger, and even though the stakes are relatively small when we hit the climax, we care a hell of a lot.

Brining The Shape of Water up another level are its lovely technical accomplishments. Del Toro's film are often known for their visual splendors (in some cases, that's all they have going for them), but the production design, music, and cinematography give the film the feeling of a modern fairy tale for adults. There are oddly fitting (and unmistakably) French touches, like Alexandre Desplat's score, the casual use of nudity and sex, and the layer of romance applied to the whole bizarre situation. The characters and situations are rooted in reality, but Paul Austerberry's production design whisks us away to a mythical land defined by art deco and steampunk. The use of shots through water and underwater are also quite beautiful, and left me with more than a few instantly iconic images.The Creature itself, played by the brilliant Doug Jones, is brought to life via suit and make-up techniques and the results are absolutely breathtaking. While I believe CGI was applied to his eyes to give them more animation, the majority of his effects (including bioluminescence and gills that move on their own) are done in-camera. His design exhibits just enough handsome, human-like traits that you can buy into Elisa's attraction to him, and while I would have liked the film to explore his personality a bit more, their relationship is very winning.

The social commentary, the Hollywood sendups and homages, and the outstanding performances are all just dressing on a film that truly thrives because of its enormous heart. Speaking as a gay man, it can be difficult to find relatable love stories in Hollywood films, but The Shape of Water seems designed to appeal to the misfits and the outsiders; to the old-fashioned romantics as well as the trailblazers. It may very well be a groundbreaking film for the genre (whichever one you decide to slot it into), and I'd even say that it's an important one. It may be a bit on-the-nose with some of its ideas, and it covers a hell of a lot of ground, but its artistic merits are damn near transcendent.


Friday, February 16, 2018

Redline (2009)

Someone's having doubts, huh? 
Hell, I was just trying to keep this thing interesting. 
You're just a voice, pal! You don't know a damn thing about racing!

Japanese animation is and its permeation of American culture has always fascinated me. While I admit to only seeking out a handful of anime shows and films per year, the ones I discover tend to blow me away. This past year I discovered Redline, a magnificently drawn, exhilarating thrillride of a movie that deserves more attention in the animation-loving world. Make no mistake, the film is all style and very little substance. But what glorious style it has! The film is a sci-fi lover's dream come true, with imaginative alien designs, grittily-detailed worlds, and an incredible soundtrack that matches the film's exciting speed and video game-like sense of fun. In fact, it might be apt to compare Redline to a video game, because it exists as an experience, not so much as a coherent story with compelling character arcs. The film introduces us to many potentially great characters, but their stories feel somewhat incomplete.

In the far future, human beings and aliens alike compete in elaborate and dangerous races in high-tech cars, flying vehicles, and even transforming robots. A human with an impractically large pompadour named "Sweet" JP (Takuya Kimura, Patrick Seitz in the dub) barely makes it to the finish during the Yellowline race, which is a sort of a preliminary for the galaxy's most popular race, the Redline (I can only assume there were other color-lined races were before this, but we'll get to world-building problems later). Among the other contenders is a human named Sonoshee "Cherry Boy Hunter" McLaren (Yu Aoi, Michelle Ruff in the dub) who has been determined to win the Redline race her whole life. The race will take place on Roboworld against the wishes of its President (Kosei Hirota, David Lodge in the dub). The inhabitants of Roboworld are militant cyborgs who view the race as a plague upon society, and warn that they will kill the racers if they choose to continue. That's not stopping the contestants, who are primed to race no matter what. Among the racers gathered on Roboworld are a couple of bounty hunters, an insanely strong cyborg, some overly-sexualized pop stars, and blue gorilla-like alien cop. Meanwhile, JP's alien best friend and mechanic Frisbee (Tadanobu Asano, Liam O-Brien in the dub) is concerned with fixing the race for a mafia boss, to whom he owes money of course.

There are plenty of great ideas here to bolster the story, and the ensemble cast of characters are very well-established, but Redline isn't ultimately throws away a lot of potential. Little Deyzuna (Kenta Miyake, Derek Stephen Prince in the dub) is a highly emotional cyborg who joins the race to get back at his old comrade, who apparently left him behind during a war. He is consequently my favorite character; everything from his design to his personality to his tragic backstory begs for more details and more time given to the character's resolution, and a short epilogue might have been able to address this. Sadly, the film stops dead when the race ends. In fact, hardly any of the potential story points planted throughout the film have any kind of solid payoff, and the only resolution we do get is a half-baked love story that had hardly buildup. The ending is very frustrating because the characters really are fantastic, but as-presented, each is sadly one-dimensional (save perhaps for Sonoshee and Frisbee).

Problems with worldbuilding start from the ground up; is this an underground race or is it widely celebrated? The Roboworld president declares it illegal, but what power does he really have? The race is broadcast all over the galaxy, and people aspire to be in it, so is Roboworld the only place that has a problem with it? If so, why in the world would you have the race there?  And seriously, what was with the big, blobby, energy baby Funky Boy? Rather than smiling with glee at the madness just witnessed, I was left pondering these questions and wishing I'd gotten more development out of the ensemble cast. I also can't decide if Redline's portrayal of women is self-conscious and satirical in its over-sexualized nature or if fanservice is supposed to be just that (I'd like to think that BoiBoi and BosBos are parodies of sexualized anime women, but at one point, Sonoshee is topless watching them on TV, so who knows?).  In a lesser film, these issues might be deal-breakers, but here they're merely speedbumps. This isn't a political thriller, it's nothing but a sci-fi racing movie with some of the best racing scenes ever committed to the screen (my thirst for a deeper story be damned).

The aesthetics do a lot of the heavy lifting here, and the races really are the stuff of legend. Director Takeshi Koike brings everything to life with a heavy emphasis on hand-drawn animation; the vehicles, explosions, moving backgrounds, speed warping, etc. are all lovingly crafted and fluid, accentuated by pitch black shading that resembles the art of a graphic novel. In fact, much of Redline resembles a moving graphic novel, with its wonderfully-detailed characters and sharp, stylish backgrounds. I can't even begin to describe the amazing designs of the hundreds of aliens and cyborgs seen throughout the movie, which range from charming to disgusting to just plain adorable. There are things done here that CGI wouldn't be able to replicate, like JP's car warping when he fires off a speed boost, or a strange cutaway to a family of aliens watching TV that's drawn in a wildly different art style. Since the animation was handled by studio Madhouse (which also produced the incredible Paprika), I'd expect nothing less. Even when the film borders on sensory overload, the sense of excitement is never lost.

The large majority of Redline is incredible to look at, but also to listen to. The music by James Shimoji is pulse-pounding and intense, but oddly beautiful at the same time. It matches the gorgeous animation flawlessly, and incorporates hilarious little "theme songs" for most of the racers that are charming and fun (and helps to make up for their lack of character development). I watched the film in its original Japanese audio and the American dub, and the dub did it justice. It is, of course, incredibly sad that in the eight or so years since its release that it didn't inspire any other projects to follow in its hand-drawn footsteps (though its seven-year-long production and poor box office performance were likely not encouraging factors). Nonetheless, I'm grateful that it exists and that it seems to be gaining a small cult audience. I've said this before about my personal relationship with the Disney films of the 70s and 80s, but if there's one good thing that's come from the CGI overload we face from modern animated American films (and the ever-increasing digitalization of Japanese anime), it's that it forces us to look to the past for gems we might have missed. Redline is assuredly one of those gems.


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Batman and Harley Quinn (2017)

God help us

As an avid fan of the DC Animated Universe television shows, I was beyond excited when I saw that a new animated movie was coming out in its continuity. For the laymen in the audience, the DCAU consists of seven distinct series featuring the DC Comics superheroes, including Batman, Superman, the Justice League, and a few original characters. This fourteen-year-long series features some of the best screen versions of these characters, and the very fact that Batman and Harley Quinn exists is evidence of how beloved they still are today. Of course, whether the actual film in question is hard cannon is thankfully debatable, and I do mean thankfully; for if Batman and Harley Quinn does take place in the DCAU, then it's surely the lowest point of the entire franchise. What should have been a fun and breezy action comedy is nothing more than a dull, sleazy cartoon made for God only knows who. Despite being conceived by Bruce Timm (the architect behind the DCAU), the film's tone and sense of humor couldn't be further from the witty and sophisticated nature of the family-oriented shows that draws from. There are bright spots throughout throughout the film's scant hour and fifteen minutes, and I'll admit to laughing at quite a few in-jokes, but there are just too many insulting moments and ill-conceived concepts to declare the whole project as anything but a disappointing misfire.

We arrive in Gotham City, where Poison Ivy (Paget Brewster) and a plant-person called the Floronic Man (Kevin Michael Richardson) have teamed up to try and replicate the accident that created Swamp Thing (John DiMaggio), a different plant-person who was mutated after being doused in burning chemicals and jumping into a swamp. If they succeed, Poison Ivy and Floronic Man could contaminate the Earth's water supply and turn everyone into plant people, which in their twisted minds means saving the planet. Batman (Kevin Conroy) and former the Robin, Nightwing (Loren Lester), need help from the Joker's ex-sidekick and Poison Ivy's best friend Harley Quinn (Melissa Rauch) in order to find out where the evil duo are conducting their experiments. Harley seems to have changed her ways somewhat, trying to make ends meet by working in a Hooters-like restaurant where the women dress up as scantily-clad versions of female superheroes. She's reluctant to help Batman and Nightwing, but after realizing that Ivy's plan has the potential to kill every living thing on the planet, she agrees to help. Non-sequiturs ensue, including a trip to an evil henchmen-filled karaoke bar, leading to laughs and criginess along the way.

Right off the bat, the film's first misstep is Melissa Rauch replacing Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn. Her performance isn't necessarily bad, but it just does not suit the character. Tara Strong did well in the Arkham video game series, so I need to wonder why she couldn't voice her here. This is only worsened by how wonderful it is that the rest of the main characters are all voiced by their respective original actors (especially Loren Lester as Nightwing, who might just be the best he's ever been in the role). To a lesser extent, Kevin Michael Richardson is also miscast as the Floronic Man. Richardson is one of the all-time great voice actors (most well-known as Gantu from Lilo and Stitch), but there's a disconnect between the voice and face here that's hard to describe.

The second, and much more damning misstep, was the decision to go PG-13 with the content for the sake of it, not because the story would benefit from it. Sometimes restraint breeds greater creativity, and Bruce Timm and co-writer Jim Krieg were clearly given loose reigns when conceiving this film. It feels as though certain elements are there to show off the fact that this isn't airing on a kids' network, and that it's for "adults." Look! Harley's exposing her ass to Nightwing, who she's tied to a bed in quite the compromising position! Harley's shaking her tits around in the karaoke bar and constantly bending over seductively! FART JOKES! It's all in bad taste, and manifests as something like a male gaze-fueled fantasy featuring a hollowed-out version of one of the most beloved DC characters of all time. The DCAU is widely loved for pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable for an all-ages animated series (subtle innuendo, harder violence), but in trying to be more mature, this project is irritatingly immature.

The rather silly story could have worked to the film's benefit, but the horrendous pacing and B-grade animation quality only serve to make the film more boring than anything. Opening dialogue between Batman and a government agent is brutally stiff and unimaginatively staged, action throughout is fairly basic and packs little punch (despite some effective use of blood), and the occasional CGI is obtrusive. There's a nice moment where the original Batman theme music plays while the Batplane soars through the sky, but it's sullied by a bad 3D model of and jarring motion. The designs, however, are an absolute joy to see, especially when it comes to the henchmen karaoke bar scene. Gotham looks and feels like it did in the later episodes of the series, and just being back for the first time in eleven years was personally very rewarding.  However, that pacing really kills the mood; I'm talking about a film that spends two entire song's worth of time in that karaoke bar where little of consequence happens, but then it doesn't even bother to show its climax. Certain elements like Harley and Ivy's friendship, Batman helping Harley get a new job, and Nightwing and Harley's possible romantic relationship are all dropped with absolutely no resolution.

Now, let's get to those bright spots already. The "let's push the limits" jokes may tend to fall flat, but the in-jokes for DCAU fans are downright hilarious. A joke about Nightwing's horrible mullet from the series, a vocal cameo from one of the Justice League Unlimited members, and the expansion of the world by including Swamp Thing are just some of the better ideas thrown into this slog. There's also a really clever reference to Seduction of the Innocent, a real-world book that nearly ruined the comics industry in the 1950s. The Harley and Ivy friendship also works pretty well too, which is a shame since it gets pushed so far into the background. There's also an amusing post-credit scene I almost missed, which is ends the film on a much higher note, and sometimes you get those glimpses of the original magic of the series. I just wanted to see more.

I desperately wanted to like Batman and Harley Quinn, but it does so much disservice to fans of the original series and doesn't offer anything good enough to let it stand on its own. It's sloppily written, dull, and sleazy in equal measure, and only offers moments of fun to make it watchable at all. The voice cast gives it their all, but without the great Andrea Romano's guiding directorial hand, there's nothing special about the performances. I love that the character designs were painstakingly recreated, and character and action animation is fine. However, episodes of Justice League from fifteen years ago look better. It's been said in interviews that Warner Bros. was only interested in doing this movie because Harley Quinn was featured prominently in the live-action Suicide Squad movie, designed to ride that wave of popularity. If that's what caused the resulting attitude shift in Harley's character, then I still have faith that Bruce Timm could make another, much better, continuation of the DCAU. But if this is what he thinks fans want, maybe it's best to let it live in the past, and I suppose that's alright too.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Black Cauldron (1985)

Few Disney movies have interested me as much as The Black Cauldron, speaking strictly from a behind-the-scenes standpoint.  From its notoriously troubled production history to its colossal failure at the box office in 1985, I find myself fascinated by its relative obscurity. This was a movie that began pre-production in 1973; a full twelve years before it would see the light of cinema screens.  An inexperienced staff, constant rewrites, and a sense that Disney had lost its magic touch caused many talented animators (including Don Bluth and Tim Burton) to leave the studio over the course of production.  Once the film was nearly completed, it was a struggle to market.  The production team intended to create a dark fantasy for teens, but then-new CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted to sell the film to kids and families (just like nearly all Disney films had been up to that point).  There were instances of death, gore, and frightening images the likes of which had never been attempted in Disney animation.  So commenced the film's editing: twelve minutes of finished animation were cut; unprecedented and financially unwise in the world of hand-drawn animation.

So, what happened when it finally arrived in theaters?  Well, let's just say it made less money than that year's The Care Bears Movie.  Yeesh.  The film was such a disaster that the company has all but disowned it.   It didn't even get a VHS release until 1998; thirteen freakin' years later!  It also has the distinction of being the only non-wartime Disney film unreleased on Blu-Ray, and with no plans by studio to do so.  I'd kill for a quality documentary on the full making of The Black Cauldron, but 2009's Waking Sleeping Beauty does a very good job detailing the changing of the guard at the Disney studio during the '80s.  It's a great watch if you're interested in the history of Disney animation.

The film itself is obviously ambitious, and often times very beautiful, but it's not one for the ages.  The story focuses on a teenage boy named Taran (Grant Bardsley), an assistant pig-keeper in the Medieval, magical land of Prydain.  He longs to be a warrior (as he states outright multiple times), and one day, he gets his chance.  The evil Horned King (John Hurt), a skull-faced demon man, seeks the mythical powers of the Black Cauldron, which has the power to raise an unstoppable undead army.  The pig that Taran takes care of is named Hen Wen, but it's no ordinary pig; she has psychic powers, and can detect where the Black Cauldron is hidden.  Once the Horned King finds out about this (somehow), he sends his dragon creatures out to capture her.  Taran, having been tasked with protecting Hen Wen, journeys to the Horned King's spooky castle to rescue her.  Along the way, he meets a furry little creature named Gurgi (John Byner), who is clearly hungry, lonely, and a little insane.  While there, he runs into other prisoners, including Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan) and a minstrel named Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne) with a magic harp.  After making their escape from the legions of grotesque guards, led by the king's lackey Creeper (Phil Fondacaro), and discovering a magic sword, the trio must find the Cauldron before the Horned King and save Prydain.

I have no real issues with the film's plot.  On paper, it's a straightforward Medieval fantasy adventure story, and one with a lot of potential.  However, in execution, the writing leaves a lot to be desired.  Constant plot holes pop up, including one that the late, great film critic Gene Siskel pointed out in 1985; when the characters get Hen Wen back, and need to find out where the Black Cauldron is before the Horned King, why not just use her to find out where it is?  Wasn't that the reason he wanted her in the first place?  The lead characters are also vanilla as hell, all without backstories or meaningful relationships to each other.  Taran's dialogue is so irritatingly on-the-nose, and his voice actor is, quite frankly, rather annoying.  Eilonwy (not too crazy about the names either) is called "Princess," but of what exactly?  How did she end up a prisoner?  Where is her kingdom?  She does a magic spell in one scene, but then never brings it up again! Prydain is an especially under-developed world.  We never see any villages, never get a glimpse at the war that's supposedly raging on, and the only magical community we encounter are some fairies in a cave underground.  These are things that I doubt the twelve minutes of deleted footage would have fixed.

Yeah... this happens...

However, once you know that so much violence was excised from the movie, you can plainly see where it might have helped make things more interesting.  The undead army has a whole lot of buildup, but they are defeated before they can even cross the bridge out of the castle.  Letting the  their lost scenes of menace (which included slicing a man's throat and dissolving a man in mist) might have scared the crap out of young kids, but the film would have at least set itself apart from other Disney movies by deciding to "go there."  What results is a film that feels somewhat neutered.  Alas, a number of scary images do still remain, all of which are much appreciated (and apparently did scare the crap out of the few children who grew up with this movie).

Style over substance is clearly what the film excels at anyway; it's gorgeously animated.  Especially judging by the standards of animation in the '80s, it's downright groundbreaking.  The scratchy look of Xerography is replaced by a sharper style achieved with the slicker APT (Animation Photo Transfer) process.  To my knowledge, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company, and The Little Mermaid are the only films to ever use the process, before all cleanup and coloring was done in the computer.  I have a real soft spot for this style, which has the charm of ink and paint cells but also the smoothness of digital finishing.  It's the best of both worlds, and it's sad there will likely never be another film made this way.

Given the withdrawals I'm currently experiencing with the lack of any American hand-drawn animated films as of late, The Black Cauldron delivered tenfold on that front.  The dark backgrounds are stunningly detailed, the character animation showcases the talents of the new team of animators, and the effects animation is beautiful.  The most impressive bits involve the Horned King, with his slow, methodical movements and his genuinely terrifying design (even if his face is a bit inconsistent throughout).  The fairies are also marvelously conceived... glowing and swarming around the main characters, looking just about flawless.  It's a real shame the film isn't available in high-definition.  My only gripe involves a scene where Taran and Gurgi stand on a mountaintop with pink clouds behind them, which are clearly live-action.  It blends very poorly, and is the only noticeable spot where the ambition exceeded the animators' reach.  I do, however, kind of love Elmer Bernstein's score, which mixes a sort of '50s sci-fi sound with bombastic orchestrals.

The Black Cauldron's biggest flaw is its lack of heart.  Spoiler alert, but Gurgi supposedly sacrifices himself at the end, and it's meant to be a tear-jerking moment.  I'm a sucker for getting choked up during Disney movies, but I felt absolutely nothing for this furry little creature sporting Geppetto's mustache.  There isn't enough character interaction, chemistry, or meat to anything that happens; too much is told and not shown.  Lloyd Alexander, the author of the original books, stated that he thought it was an enjoyable movie but had virtually no resemblance to his work.  Perhaps it was twelve years of grueling work, producers not knowing the audience, or trying to follow dark fantasy trends that are to blame.  Disney wanted to tap into that (previously untappable for them) "teenage boy" market, and unfortunately, the film is a failure in that regard.  But as a curiosity, swept under the rug by its creators?  An anomaly; truly unlike anything out there, animated in my favorite style?  With a fascinating history and mysteriously missing scenes of graphic violence?  I couldn't ask for anything more.


Creepiness rating: 8 undead Cauldron-born warriors out of 10

Friday, September 8, 2017

Oliver & Company (1988)

Hey man, if this is torture, chain me to the wall.

After the minor success that was 1986's The Great Mouse Detective, Disney's animation department was given a new lease on life.  CEO Michael Eisner and chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg enacted a highly ambitious policy, one that planned for the studio to release one animated film per year.  That kind of workflow was unprecedented since the Golden Age, but it was this push for quality and quantity in equal amounts that soon lead to the Disney Renaissance.  So in 1988, Oliver & Company was the first of these "one a year" projects, and despite being a hit in theaters (even bigger than its Bluth rival The Land Before Time), it was received with lukewarm fanfare and is nothing but a forgotten footnote today.  I have more affinity for Oliver & Company than it deserves, but something about the uber-80s New York feel is so charming.  The voice over talent is really solid, and the content pushes that G rating in the same ways The Great Mouse Detective did.  I would never try to convince anyone that Oliver & Company is an underrated masterpiece, or that it holds a candle to Disney's best work, but there's a certain likability to the characters, setting, and music that makes it all work.

The story features a little neglected kitten named Oliver (Joey Lawrence) as he tries to make his way through the means streets of New York City.  Along the way, he meets a streetwise dog named Dodger (Billy Joel), who is the epitome of cool.  He wears sunglasses, walks with a swagger, and just plain doesn't give a shit.  He even sings a song about it.  Oliver follows him home where to where his "gang" hangs out, among which are the likes of a feisty chihuahua named Tito (Cheech Marin) and thespian bulldog named Francis (Roscoe Lee Browne).  The dogs are owned by Fagin (Dom DeLuise), a borderline homeless man who owes a huge sum of money to a gangster named Sykes (Robert Loggia).  He can't feed himself, yet he tries his best to provide for his dogs (mostly by training them to be pickpockets of sorts).  On his first day out petty thieving, Oliver ends up in the car of a rich little girl named Jenny (Natalie Gregory), who promptly adopts him.  He runs into some resistance at Jenny's place in the form of her pedigree poodle Georgette (Bette Midler), who can't fathom sharing the spotlight with a mangy kitten.

When I say, "makes it all work," I don't mean that the film works in the ways the creators intended it.  The very idea of taking Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist and making it "hip and edgy" while throwing talking animals into the mix is gimmicky as hell.  But it's so unironically committed to that gimmick that it's actually kind of charming, albeit in a "so bad it's good" kind of way.  Narratively, the film is overstuffed with characters and subplots; Oliver barely feels like the main character in his own story.  I would have much preferred the film to focus on Dodger and Oliver's relationship and eschew the other dog characters (save for Tito, who steals the show with ease).  It seems like the emotional crux of the film should have hinged on Oliver making a choice between living a carefree but tough life on the streets and a safer, pampered existence on Fifth Avenue.  But the film is more concerned with slapstick humor and Fagin coming up with the money to pay off Sykes, which might have made a fine movie all on its own.  Instead, these two plots share the film's 75-minute runtime, stuffing it with side characters that exist mostly for their one-note jokes.

The hand-drawn animation really shows the next generation of Disney animators having tons of fun and pushing the limits of what animation could do at the time.  The character animation is full of energy, perhaps not capturing the animal nuance seen in Lady and the Tramp, but pushes for more cartoonish, broad emotions.  A little Looney Tunes-style comedy never hurt anyone, and the visual jokes work a lot better than the written ones.  The scenes between Fagin and Sykes are dark and stylish; anything to do with Sykes is really striking and memorable.  His menacing sneers, imposing size, and perpetual cloud of cigar smoke make him a visually memorable villain, if not necessarily a great character.  Like The Great Mouse Detective, he CG animation used on objects and vehicles throughout the film is achieved by animating the objects, printing them out on paper, and combining the hand-drawn characters by photographing it all on hand-painted cels.  The result is seamless blending, allowing Dodger to strut through a New York City full of moving parts and helping make the climactic chase scene through a subway tunnel more visceral.  I can't say anything reaches the levels of Mouse Detective's clocktower scene, but a particular shot of Dodger jumping on cars in traffic makes the city feel so alive and captures the feeling of being there.

The original songs are a bit of a mixed bag.  I actually kind of love "Once Upon a Time in New York City" and "Why Should I Worry," but "Perfect Isn't Easy" and "Streets of Gold" are bland and forgettable, and I actively hate the saccharine "Good Company" and the "Why Should I Worry" reprise.  So unfortunately from my perspective, the songs get worse as the film goes on.  "Why Should I Worry" has some of that "so bad it's good," qualities about it, as the song really pushes how cool Dodger is and how amazing his life is.  That being said, it's a really catchy song and the animation is at it's best here.  It would be a better moment if this was setting up a character dynamic between Dodger and Oliver that pays off at some point, like Dodger's question, "Why should I worry?" gets answered in the form of him becoming a pseudo-big brother.  But, as the horrendous hodgepodge of a reprise lets you know at the end, these dogs still don't give a shit, and why should they?  It's incredible what a giant leap forward The Little Mermaid would be musically only one year later, when Alan Menken and Howard Ashman teamed up to write some of Disney's all-time best songs.

I can always appreciate a little darkness in my animated Disney movies, and Oliver certainly has a bit of that.  The ending chase scene is surprisingly brutal; a dog gets electrocuted when he hits the third rail, and Sykes's death, while left mostly up to the imagination, is still surprisingly intense.  I've read that the film was initially intended to be much edgier; Oliver's parents would be murdered by Sykes's dobermans at the start, and the subsequent story would focus on Oliver's revenge.  Sounds a bit more interesting, no?  With a bit less forced sweetness in the Jenny relationship, less side characters, and more character development from Oliver and Dodger, this movie might have been great.  Some moments of heart do manage to shine during Oliver & Company, the best of which is probably when Fagin reads a bedtime story to his dogs, who are clearly all he has in the world.  The opening scene of Oliver being the last kitten in a "free kittens" box left sitting out in the rain is also kind of a heartbreaking moment.  So depending on who you are, the buckets of '80s cheese and charm alone might just make it worth the watch.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

For the past several years, I've been having hand-drawn animation withdrawals.  In particular, I've been lamenting the hibernation of Disney animation as of late; with no planned 2D projects in the works for the next several years, it sadly seems that I can't look to the future to get my fix.  So to the past it is!  As a child of the '90s, I grew up with the Renaissance greats and have watched them to death.  I've seen the Golden Age stuff more times than I can count.  So finally, I've decided to catch all the theatrically-released Disney films I've never seen from the '70s, '80s, and '90s.  On my journey thus far, I've "discovered" Robin HoodA Goofy Movie, The Rescuers, and The Rescuers Down Under for the first time, and watched Oliver and Company for the first time in many years.  However, I think my favorite of these discoveries is the first Clements/Musker production: the Sherlock Holmes homage, The Great Mouse Detective.  Not only was the film itself a joy to find, but I've come to appreciate what its modest success in 1986 meant for Disney's animation department (and subsequently, would mean for the animation industry as a whole).

Does The Great Mouse Detective have the greatest story ever?  I wouldn't say so, but it's spritely and fun enough to make up for it.  The film opens with a somewhat disturbing kidnapping of a young girl's father by a disfigured bat.  There's tonal dissonance right from the opening title card, as cheerful music bounces along while the ground is still wet with the young girl's tears.  I should mention that these are mouse people, and that all the characters are anthropomorphic mice, rats, and other small creatures, scurrying about London in 1897.  The now parentless mouse girl, named Olivia Flaversham (Susanne Pollatschek), needs an ace detective to find out who took her father and why.  She seeks out the famed Basil of Baker Street (Barrie Ingham) to solve the mystery, bumping into Dr. Dawson (Val Bettin), a former soldier, along the way.  When Basil and Dawson meet, there's an obvious Holmes/Dr. Watson dynamic that works surprisingly well.  Basil can determine exactly who a person is by the minute details of objects they own, scents they carry, and mannerisms they exhibit (just like the "real" Sherlock Holmes, who incidentally lives directly above him). Basil has no interest in helping Olivia find her father, that is until he realizes that taking the case could help him take down his arch rival, Ratigan.

Ratigan is a fantastic villain.  Hammy, sinister, funny, and voiced by the late, great Vincent Price, Ratigan always elevates the movie when he's onscreen.  I won't spoil the mystery plot (for those that haven't seen this thirty-year-old film), but I will say that it's a touch silly and clashes with the more grounded tone the rest of the film carries.  But it hardly matters, because Ratigan is so enthusiastic about it.  He's cruel to his subordinates, killing one in the middle of his vanity song by having his obese cat Felicia (Frank Welker) devour them at the ring of a bell.  The rest of the character interactions are great, with the strong personalities of Basil, Dawson, Olivia, Ratigan and his bat henchman Fidget (Candy Candido) bouncing off each other and clashing throughout the story.  I do wish that there had been a more emotional bond formed between Basil and Olivia, but there's still some solid character development.  The Basil/Dawson dynamic, however, is spot on.

A few things irk me about Aside from the aforementioned goofiness of the villain plot, there's also a sense that this is the first in a series of adventures for Basil and Dr. Dawson, which of course never came to fruition and probably was probably never supposed to.  The end result is a little unsatisfying given how much of the film is devoted to exposition and peeking into this mouse's-eye-view of London without letting us fully explore it.  There's a scene where Basil and Dawson disguise themselves as gruff sailors and head to a seedy bar called The Rat Trap, which is full of dynamic characters.  There's a full song and dance number that appears to function as an introduction for a new character, but when it's over, she's never seen again. What a waste!  It feels like the first episode of a television series, wherein we meet characters and see locations briefly that will be important later on, but this is all we get.  At least it's all aided by a score from Henry Mancini (who created the Pink Panther theme).  It's very fun and playful, taking me back to a time when action/adventure movies had warm, memorable music.  For some perspective, I recognized a specific theme from a Great Mouse Detective trailer that would play before a Disney movie I had on VHS over twenty years ago.

Now this is all well and good, but I came here for the animation, so how does it hold up?  Well, tremendously well, I'd say.  The character animation is what grabs you from the start, with Glen Keane's work on Ratigan emerging as the clear standout (though Basil's mannerisms are delightfully energetic). The backgrounds never reach the meticulous heights of the Golden Era (a scene that echoes the dozens of clocks in Pinocchio calls attention to his), but they do capture the foggy, dreamy, and dark atmosphere of 1800s London.  I would have liked to see more shading on the characters, which might have helped bring out even more of that atmosphere (plus, you know, it just looks more dynamic).  It's also kind of a shock to my 2010s eyes to see so many Disney characters casually smoking cigarettes and pipes, drinking beer, and firing real guns.  It's more edgy than the typical animated family film, and I love every ounce of that.

Speaking of which, the climax featuring the internal gears of Big Ben is surprisingly intense, aided by some of the best computer animation mixed with hand-drawn characters I've ever seen.  See, the trick back then was to animate something like the gears from all the angles you want in the computer, print every frame out on REAL paper, color them with REAL ink and paint, then composite them with the hand-drawn characters on REAL celluloid, who are inked and painted the same way.  The result is animation that blends together better than digitally-composited elements ever could.  Although the Deep Canvas effect from something like Tarzan is more versatile, the eye still senses that there's a disconnect between the CG objects and the hand-animated ones.  But that Big Ben chase?  It's visceral, exciting, full of striking visuals, and it all looks seamless.

Don Bluth had left the Walt Disney company by this point (and coincidentally released his own mouse-centric film An American Tail the very same year), and while The Great Mouse Detective certainly has its own charm, I have no doubt that the story would hit harder emotionally if he'd been involved.  After the financial travesty that was The Black Cauldron, all Disney needed The Great Mouse Detective to do was not bomb horribly.  The company got its wish; the film made a little money, and more importantly, gave the incentive for the studio to continue with its animation department.  While The Little Mermaid takes all the credit for reviving Disney animation (and rightfully so), it would have never gotten that chance had Detective been yet another major failure.  The film itself is a slight thing; by all accounts cute and a bit padded despite its short runtime, but thankfully it doesn't play things too safe.  I actually wish Disney had turned this into a film series (it bizarrely never got one of those godawful direct-to-video sequels, despite being tailor-made for them).  It works as a good introduction to Sherlock Holmes, looks great, and has the scene-chewing Ratigan to keep things entertaining.  I still wish Disney was making new hand-drawn theatrical content, but if it means I can discover hidden gems like this one, then I guess that's not so bad.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 (2017)

There are two types of beings in the universe...
Those who dance, and those who do not.

This damn Marvel Cinematic Universe.  So many films to keep track of, it's a wonder it works at all.  The model seems functional enough; release origin stories and team-ups regularly, each one expanding the universe in some way, setting up future films while also telling internally satisfying stories.  The first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) movie is the crowning example of this; a great cast of characters, a fun McGuffin-centric adventure story in space, a killer soundtrack, and some of the best comedy writing in the whole of the MCU.  It was, however, lightning in a bottle.  So many things went uncharacteristically right at once, and I was absolutely certain that it couldn't be repeated.  I assumed a sequel would focus on trying to replicate that same lightning, and would be a vastly inferior film as a result.  Written and Directed by James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 is, thankfully, a worthy sequel to the first.  It may not be as light on its feet, but it gets points for coming close.

You "Earthers" have hang-ups...

We regroup with the Guardians by way of an action scene set to the tune of Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Sky," wherein the regrown Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) dances his little heart out as the others struggle to take down a tentacled monster.  Midway through this sequence, I knew I was in good hands.  The film centers around Peter Quill / Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) as he meets a god-like alien named Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be his father.  The group is skeptical, especially Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who has feelings for Quill but can't process them due to the horrific childhood she shared with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan).  All the while, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) steals highly valuable batteries from an exceptionally snobby race of golden-skinned aliens, which puts the Guardians on the run from Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his crew, who were hired to capture them.  While on Ego's planet, the group meets Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who is something of a servant to Ego and has empathic powers that Drax (Dave Bautista), having learned to embrace humor and joy, finds endlessly amusing.

I've never felt such humor...

The script finds a very good balance of tone, keeping the humor character-driven and never pulling punches with its darker material.  One scene in particular, which involves Rocket, Baby Groot, and Yondu slaughtering dozens of people set to Jay and the Americans' "Come a Little Bit Closer," is probably the most darkly humorous scene in the whole MCU.  I welcome it, to be sure, but the casual violence, if often bloodless, does become numbing after a while.  This doesn't prevent the finale from reaching some high emotional points, and even managed to eek a surprise tear out of me, but some of the action goes on a bit too long and loses its sense of tension.  The plot is relatively thin, as it was with the first film, but there are enough twists and turns to keep things interesting.  The point of this series isn't necessarily to tell a complicated story, but to let us spend time with these characters.  Volume 2 excels at that.

We can jack up our prices if we're two-time galaxy savers!

I appreciated the visual inventiveness of the film; rather than generic space battles or typical 2010s future designs, we are treated to drones remotely piloted by machines that resemble 80s arcade games, the painterly planet created by Ego, and countless alien designs that are distinctive and full of character.  In fact, I was often frustrated that the film favored close-ups, obscuring the gorgeous production design and relegating the hard work of the make-up artists to fuzzy background details.  We've given the characters plenty of time to breathe and become developed, now we need to do the same for the world-building.  The practical effects are stunning, but they're far and few in-between; CGI is king here, and it has inconsistent results.  The designs are stellar, but the actual rendering of much of the animation isn't quite as sharp as it was in the first film.  Rocket, in particular, felt so tangible last time but now tends to float a bit more.  This is, of course, nitpicky as hell and hardly dethrones him from being my favorite character.  Plus, look at all the color! This is a movie that's not afraid to be pretty.

Die, spaceship!

The soundtrack continues to be an important part of what makes these movies so much fun (and good God, after Suicide Squad I can really appreciate when it's done right).  "Brandy" actually becomes an important metaphor for the main villain, and in a surprising turn of events, I really liked the way the villain was handled.  It could have been better;  there was a moment where the film squanders the potential for an "Evil Star-Lord," but the matter resolves too quickly.  But compared to the villains from the first film?  This is ten times better.  Yondu and Nebula walk a nice tightrope between being villains and heroes throughout the film, and their development is handled excellently.  Performances from the cast are generally great, especially when it comes to the comedic beats, but I think Pratt struggles a bit toward the end with what's supposed to be a dramatic moment (and I can't confirm this, but I do believe CGI tears were added to his eyes for added effect, which does not sit right with me at all).

Nobody has any tape...

While the comedy can be on par with the original, there are still duds here and there. Thankfully, the film moves fast enough to make you laugh again (and forget that the "Kurt Russell says he has to pee" joke even happened).  That's partially why this sequel isn't quite as nimble as the first; a few more jokes feel forced, the effects are a bit more cartoonish, and the pacing could be better.  Otherwise it's a good time; it's got a great soundtrack, tons of 80s nostalgic references (the PacMan scene had me dying), great use of color, surprising violence to go along with its charm (Baby Groot is so cute... Holy shit, he just killed a guy!), and good character development.  It's probably the strongest series in the MCU, maybe besides the Captain America movies, and I eagerly await Volume 3.

We are Groot.