Friday, December 31, 2010

That's What I Like About You -- Ten Things I Liked from 2010

As we near the end of the year, you can bet your bukkit that the blogosphere, mainstream press, and entire internet in general will be cranking out Best Of The Year lists left and right. And because I’m so trendy and hip, I’ll throw my hat into the Best Of space as well. One minor setback, though: I haven’t seen enough great movies, heard enough great albums, or played enough great games to truly make a comprehensive list.

No matter. Because this is a blog (not only that, it’s my blog), the experiences are pertinent to me, so I can make a list of whatever I want, with whatever I want. Not only that, to make only one (1) list for a blog as diverse as Diversion 2.0 would be wasting its full potential, like Gary Coleman sleeping in Yao Ming’s bed. As such, I’m not going to make a list of the best films, albums, and games of 2010—goodness knows I haven’t seen enough of them. Instead, I’ll be more general: here (in no particular order) is my list of Ten Things I Liked in 2010.


Okay, I lied—THIS is probably my biggest Like (Facebook thumb and all) of 2010. Something about this movie resonated strongly with me, and I’ll do my best to recapture it within one or two paragraphs (I can’t go blowing my load before Our Feature Presentation catches up with this beauty). You’ve probably heard the premise already: Tangled is a Disney-fication of the Rapunzel story, complete with new songs by Alan Menkin and Glenn Slater, and a contemporary (though not snarky) sensibility. Perhaps you haven’t seen Tangled, but seen the ads instead. Eff ‘em. They’re for a different movie than the one I saw (three times and counting).

Tangled has several things going for it. First-off, it manages to be a CG movie without looking like something from Dreamworks and Pixar’s cutting room floor; the film is absolutely gorgeous in its character design, soft and warm in its backgrounds, and makes for a surprisingly-close fit with the rest of the canon (compared to, say, Bolt or Chicken Little). I also loved the movie’s sincerity—it’s becoming all-too easy to throw a fairy tale onscreen, then point and laugh at its idealism and old-fashioned-ness, and Tangled is not afraid to take its characters and situations seriously (not too seriously, but the movie never nudges the audience or expects them to be “in” on the joke). Lastly, it’s Zachary Levi, and who doesn’t love Zachary Levi?

Duck Lips Nation – Ke$ha - Canni/mal and Lady GaGa - The Fame Monster

Technically, The Fame Monster didn’t come out in 2010; it was released at the tail-end of November of last year. That said, it didn’t super explode in Helena until the following winter, and I never got any personal exposure to it until Jordyn got it for her birthday. Not only that, it makes a great companion piece to that other blond pop diva with a penchant for duck lips music, Ke$ha.

Both albums combine to make a one-two punch of synth-driven, dance hall music, though they go about them in totally different ways. GaGa is nothing but classy (well, weird too, but classy weird), while Ke$ha is nothing but trashy. What they have in common, though, is some stellar more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts production work (listen to the synth line on “Alejandro” and “Tik Tok” and how it interacts with the melody; you’ll see what I mean). Also, they’re both mini-LP’s that were brought out to satisfy demand for more music, and they’re both mostly killer, some filler. It’s certainly not the headiest music this year, but I can’t think of anything else I’d rather listen to in a dance floor setting.

Halo: Reach

Boy, this one snuck up on me. I’ve never been the biggest Halo fan, even though I’ve enjoyed the story (which is like saying that I’m not a huge fan of Hooters, despite their exceptionally tasty wings), so I didn’t expect to even purchase this game, let alone enjoy the crap out of it. I think the biggest thing this game has is a back-to-basics design philosophy. Bungie ditched about everything that was excessive about 2, 3, and ODST (that is to say, almost all of the gameplay advancements made in 2, 3, and ODST), and basically made a super tight, polished version of Halo: Combat Evolved.

Not only did Bungie play getback with Halo’s gameplay, they made a few positive improvements to the formula. The biggest addition is the inclusion of armor abilities, perk-like power-ups that are a fun addition in single player and a strategic necessity in multiplayer. Players can sprint out of danger, rain death from above in a jetpack, or lock their armor so that grenades (or tank rounds) bounce harmlessly off. The variety pushes the already-satisfying nature of the multiplayer to even greater heights, and the robust matchmaking had me coming back for a few weeks solid. Co-Op in the campaign was incredible, and the overall package is a good one. Bungie may not be making Halo games anymore, but they picked a hell of a game to usher themselves out with.

Hot Tub Time Machine

As you may recall, I enjoyed Hot Tub Time Machine when I first saw it back in March. I did not expect to enjoy it, and that is part of what made the movie great for me—pleasant surprises are not something that I can readily expect from the movie industry these days, though, like Tangled, the film’s marketing is markedly different from the finished product. It’s off-kilter self-awareness makes the movie much more fun and intelligent-seeming that it appears at first blush, and I still chuckle at some of the digression humor that takes place (“In what part of the asshole book does it say you can just screw your friends and do whatever you want?!” “Actually, I’m pretty sure that’d be in the asshole handbook.” “Yeah, like guidelines for being an asshole.” “Alright, point taken, my bad.”).

The movie has its share of problems (the beginning ten minutes is pretty rough, there are a set of (probably intentional) plot holes, and I am not a fan of Janice from Mean Girls’s faux-Zooey Deschanel character), but it’s a great movie for folks who like “college humor” (tits and beer and vomit) AND for folks who can muscle their way past that junk for the sake of a fun, nostalgic, off-beat comedy. I didn’t expect this to make my list, but after watching it three or four times on Blu-ray, I figured it merited inclusion.

Rock Band 3

As a Rock Band junkie for the past two years, this game's inclusion on my list was as certain as the sun rising in the East. Still, I'm pretty damn impressed with how the finished product turn out. Every niggling complaint I had with Rock Band 2 has been fixed, including some I didn't even know I had. The keyboard adds another option for my friends who like Rock Band but are intimidated by guitars and drums, and is a great alternative to my usual drummin' play style. The campaign has received an overhaul, replacing the usual song-tier structure with randomized sets of three-song challenges, making it even easier to accidentally let the time go and play for five hours straight (this actually happened).

The on-disc track selection is fantastic, with more variety than ever before (and less ham-fisted than other music games touting setlist "variety"), and the DLC library just keeps on growing. Now that Harmonix has been sold and the music genre sales have been declining, I'm a bit worried for the future of the music game. Still, if Harmonix can continue cranking out songs for me to buy from Xbox Live, I'll keep on playing Rock Band 3 until the disc wears out (or, more likely, my drumset gets too crappy to play on. Again).


I was unable to see this movie in theaters when it was first released—a real shame, as I can only image the kind of mind-screws that would have resulted from seeing this on a huge effing screen. I was able to catch it on Amazon Video On Demand, though, and was still very pleased with what I saw. Most satisfying about Inception is the idea of the movie: what if this is a dream, or a dream within a dream, or if we’re all in some guy’s Animus somewhere? The movie takes this idea and runs with it, throwing up convoluted dream-within-a-dream scenarios and inventing new ways to twist ideas that were delivered to the audience ten minutes prior. It’s a movie that’s a bit tough to swallow the first time around, but is well-worth watching twice (or more!).

More than just a good idea, Inception has a great execution as well. Casting is stellar; Leonardo DiCaprio continues to own every role that is given to him, Joseph Gordon Levitt gives an amusing, dorkily-charming turn as Leo’s cohort, Ken Watanabe plays a sublimely Ken Watanabe part, and Ellen Paige demonstrates a flair for action that certainly wasn’t on display in Juno. The film looks great, with brain-bending special effects that are as inventive as they are awesome (JGL’s gravity-defying fistfight in a hotel hallway springs immediately to mind). Inception sounds great too, with Hans Zimmer on the track for a Golden Globe-nominated score, though if you’ve seen The Dark Knight or played Modern Warfare 2, you’ve already heard a good deal of what this movie sounds like (dramatic cellos and foghorn-blasting brass). My internet connection wasn’t good enough to truly pimp the full experience of Inception, but I intend to rectify this with a Blu-ray rental in the very near future.

Daft Punk – Tron: Legacy soundtrack


Tron: Legacy created something of a stir on teh interwebs when it was show off earlier this (last?) year. Not only was Disney creating a sequel to a much-loved nostalgic classic from the 80’s, but they also had commissioned Daft Punk to create the soundtrack, an obvious choice, considering the electronic nature of both the movie and the group. While the movie hasn’t been a critical darling by any means (I think Rotten Tomatoes has it sitting at something like a 47%), it received almost universal praise for its score, and being curious about it, I picked it up one day on the Amazon MP3 store for about four bucks.

It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting; rather than a dance-y, spacey record full of blips and bloops, Daft Punk took the best parts of The Dark Knight and Mass Effect’s soundtrack and sprinkled them with Thrice’s The Alchemy Index: Volume II (I will be very surprised if this was actually the thought process, rather than a short list of awesome things it reminded me of). The album is totally evocative of Tron and everything about it: the colors, the vibe, the sense of place are all completely and totally linked to the score, making it easy to get lost in the sound and imagine being… elsewhere.

You may be thinking, “Why does he care so much about a movie soundtrack?” I’m what you might call and avid film score-listener. You see, I work in an office, and music with lyrics can be very distracting, which is why my music-listening habits have consisted mostly of movie and video game soundtracks (Chrono Trigger and The Empire Strikes Back are always good calls in my book). Tron: Legacy’s soundtrack has many wonderful melodies, and there’s something about the cohesiveness of the album that makes it easy for me to focus on whatever I’m doing. That may not be a reason for you to go out and buy this one, but hopefully it’s enough to get you out to the movie theater and see and the music and the images from the movie interact with each other.

Modern Military FPS Multiplayer

Last year, when Modern Warfare 2 launched, I briefly considered getting the game—not only was the single player an awesome, satisfying experience (unlike certain recent entries to the series), the multiplayer was a super polished and very enjoyable experience. I didn’t get it, though, because I knew that I was getting Battlefield: Bad Company 2 when it came out during the following March, and I knew that I wouldn’t need two military FPS games. How very wrong I was.

My mistake was to suppose the two modes were identical because they both involved shooting at people with an M16. In reality, both games take a different (and equally satisfying) approach to multiplayer. Modern Warfare 2’s multiplayer (and, as an extension, Black Ops’ multiplayer, because they’re exactly the same) is rather twitch-based; you’re there to cap some dudes in ten minutes or less, and games are always fast, frantic, and quite pleasing. Bad Company 2’s multiplayer is a slower, more objective-based game for players more interested in working towards a team goal. What impresses me about the both of them is how well they complement each other—whenever I got bored of one, I would switch to the other, and vice versa. 2010 is the year I saw that modern shooters could co-exist, and my life can only be richer for it.

The Roots – How I Got Over

I’ve been a huge fan of The Roots since I first got The Tipping Point for my birthday back in 2004 (wow). That said, I’m much more of a fan of their early, jazzy-sounding stuff than their recent material. Albums like Phrenology, Game Theory, and Rising Down blaze trails for what a hip-hop group can sound like, but experimental, edgy music isn’t my largest bag. For this reason, How I Got Over is probably my favorite album from The Roots since Things Fall Apart; the album is a deft combination of old sounds with a new maturity. How I Got Over is loose without seeming scattershot, and the whole thing just feels better than their last few albums.

Not only is How I Got Over a personally vindicating album ("The sequel to one of my favorite albums ever! Hot damn!"), it's also just plain good. The jazzy, live sound of The Roots has never been more soulful, and while there are no club bangers to be found (see The Tipping Point for that), the whole package feels cohesive and wonderful. Black Thought's rhymes remain thoughtful without overstepping into bleakness, and ?uestlove and the rest of the guys create an atmosphere that starts mellow and grows progressively more hopeful; this is the only album I can think of that has a listening arc, and experiencing the changing mood and attitude is rewarding indeed. Plus, the album ends on a supremely fun note: "Web 20/20" is probably my favorite "battle rhyme" song of The Roots since "Web" in 2004, "Hustler" humorously uses an Auto-tuned baby cry as a beat sample (it's appropriate, though—the song's about being a not-irresponsible parent), and "The Fire" is a driving, inspiring piece of neo-soul that's bound to end up in a sports montage somewhere. Fans of hip-hop shouldn't miss this, and non-fans may want to give it a look anyway.

Of course, you can’t have your sweet without your sour (and folks just love ice-cold, snarky glasses of Haterade), so here are my top 5 disappointments of 2010.

Clash of the Titans

Clash of the Titans was my reverse Hot Tub Time Machine. I didn’t grow up watching the original film (it’s sitting in my Netflix Instant Queue as we speak), nor did I have any notions of what ought to happen in this movie. In fact, I only had one expectation: fun, and my expectations went grossly unmet. That’s right, a movie where Sam Worthington beats the snot out of Greek deities couldn’t find the time or effort to be enjoyable. Shame, really, because the pieces were there, what with a solid cast (Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, the drool-worthy Gemma Arterton), some competent special effects, and a premise that all but promises a good, campy time at the movies (it’s called “Clash of the Titans,” after all). Sadly, this wasn’t too be at all.

Modern Military FPS Single Player

Speaking of unnecessary grimness ruining an experience, let’s chat about the single player campaigns for this year’s FPS juggernauts (Halo: Reach excluded). My lack of enjoyment towards the single player component for these games (in particular, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops) was almost directly proportional to how much fun I had in multiplayer. For some, this isn’t a big deal; I have a few friends that, to my knowledge, never even touched the single player of either games. Pour moi, however, I couldn’t help but feel that I only got half a game. Remember, I bought the first Bad Company for the single player—which, I realize, is akin to buying a CD to admire the liner notes—and loved every second of it. Imagine my disappointment when I dived in, expecting to start leveling buildings for the sheer, unadultered hell of it, only to discover that the game had been reduced to a corridor shooter. All of the freedom, levity, and inventiveness that made the first game a hit with me had been stripped away. Dear readers, it was a feeling of deep, deep suck.

Black Ops had a different problem. Rather, it had the same problem, but in a different way. The tiger-tight pacing that made Modern Warfare 2 a total breathless thrill ride was relaxed, giving the player more room to breathe and increased opportunities to get a peek at the man behind the curtain. The balls-out, explosive, over-the-top antics of Modern Warfare 2 was reminiscent of The Rock; the slow pace, psychological happenings, and late-game twist of Black Ops was reminiscent of The Village. One of these things is not like the other. Granted, there were definitely some moments that worked (I’d say the first quarter of the game is the best, right before the Battle of Khe Sahn), but the whole thing was uneven, frustrating, and not especially thrilling overall.


This one was more my mistake than the movie’s. I don’t think Kick-Ass’s marketing belies its level of violence, twisted sense of humor, and general different attitude—I simply wasn’t prepared for it. I’m a bit of a wuss when it comes to cinema ultra-violence; I sympathize with the characters too much, so reveling in the pain, death, and gore of regular human beings (especially when it’s obviously timed as a joke) doesn’t necessarily sit so well with me. I had the same problem with Kill Bill: it was an acute sensation that everyone in the movie theater was having a better time than me. I walked out halfway through and didn’t look back.

Katy Perry

2010 was a red letter year for drunk b@%#$ music, and I was pretty satisfied overall. There was one artist, however, who, throughout the summer, was all up in my ear (talkin’ a whole bunch of s@%# that I ain’t tryna hear). She’s been a thorn in my side every since she kissed a girl and liked iii-iiit, and she came out swinging this year, annoying Natasha Bedingfield-esque singing and wasted Snoop Dogg collaborations in check. Again, this one was probably my fault: I gave myself false hope that “Hot And Cold” marked a newer, more enjoyable direction from ol’ Kitchen Patrol. No dice.

Amber Pacific – Virtues

Amber Pacific has been a group that I have wanted to like for many years. They have respectable talent, high energy, and a debut EP that showcased great potential. Their first full-length, The Possibility and the Promise, was a decent effort, but still felt like it could have been just that much better. Unfortunately for me, they’ve dropped further and further off of my radar with each passing year, presumably because I’m becoming further and further away from being sixteen years old. I was disappointed with their second record, and swore never to be fooled again.

Earlier this year, I stumbled across an ad for Amber Pacific’s new album, Virtues. Still suspicious, I visited the band’s Myspace page and sampled the lead single, and from that I made a few discoveries. The lead singer had been replaced with what sounded like the guy from Billy Talent, but the energy was still kickin’. I was feeling young and reckless, so I decided to impulse-buy the album, just to be pleasantly surprised when the album turned out to be pretty good. That was a terrible decision.

Amber Pacific hasn’t been the best group in the world for me, but at least their past records were distinct-sounding, which can be tough to do in the ever-growing power-pop community. Virtues, though, sounds like EVERY NO NAME BAND THAT HAS EVER FRIENDED YOU ON MYSPACE. The lyrics are wack, the songs are all in the same key, and the whole affair just sounds tired. Perhaps someday I’ll get to know and appreciate this album, but until then, I’ll just grimace at it whenever I pass it in my CD wallet.

There you have it, my highs and lows of the year. Have you had any movies, albums, or games that made/broke your year? Sound off in the comments! I'd love to get some suggestions for things I missed and should check out, or perhaps things I should keep on avoiding. You have the floor, dear readers. Happy 2011!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Our Feature Presentation (7/50) -- Robin Hood (1973)

Nostalgia is a fickle mother. She can make good movies great and mediocre movies tolerable (or even make me want to re-watch Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers: The Movie. Yeah, I went there). On the reverse of this is what I call "reverse nostalgia." Reverse nostalgia is an irrational hatred for aspects of a movie I didn’t like as a kid, often focused toward the little, insignificant stuff. I've discussed reverse nostalgia at length in the Bluthanized entry for Rock-A-Doodle, but the same concepts can be applied to today's entry: Robin Hood.

Robin Hood was made during a time when Disney was fully, unabashedly, inarguably in the can. Walt was dead, the studio had shifted to predominantly live action, and execs had no idea how to run the bloody company. From this period, we get classics like Pete's Dragon, Hot Lead and Cold Feet, and a slew of inoffensive, unremarkable "kid’s movies," which I'm using in every pejorative sense that I can. Like its contemporaries, Robin Hood was not created to stand beside Disney's canon of titans; it was a money-making movie, pure and simple.

To say that Robin Hood is exceptionally mediocre is to say that Hannibal Lector is exceptionally quirky. In my own personal experience, I would have to put this as the absolute nadir of my Disney-watching experience growing up, though that didn’t stop me from watching it entirely too-often during my days as a kid. I’ve no doubt that there are other, worse films that were put out during the Disney Dark Ages, for there are several that I still have to see, but I will say that Robin Hood suffers from a bit of reverse-nostalgia on my part, and I’m probably going to be pretty hard on it as a result.

Spoiler alert: this one hasn't held up so well.

Our tale kicks off with a storybook opening, where we read a paragraph or two about Robin Hood, and his exploits during the Third Crusade in England: robbing the rich, giving to the poor, and trying his best not to impersonate Errol Flynn too closely. We meet Alan-a-Dale (Roger Miller), our rooster minstrel who informs us that “we here in the animal kingdom” have their own version of the story, and that “this is what really happened” (uh huh). After this introduction comes the opening credits, which serves the purpose of introducing the cast and their anthropomorphic animal forms (“A Bear,” the movie helpfully labels Little John, who is obviously a carry-over from The Jungle Book’s Baloo).

The movie then moves into its Not Plot, which is to say that stuff kinda just happens from here on out. There’s not really a narrative arc, character development, or any sort of central conflict outside of “Robin Hood is a good guy, Prince John is a bad guy, and the Sheriff is from southern Arkansas.” There’s a tepid love plot between Robin Hood and Maid Marian, but it’s pushed under the rug for the entire second half of the movie. I’m not expecting a blow-by-blow interpretation of the Robin Hood mythos, but the whole story smacks of a screenwriter who saw The Adventures of Robin Hood when he was eight, but couldn’t remember much of the actual goings-on in the movie.

There are a few exciting moments, but the movie generally congeals rather than develops.

You’ve no doubt heard the grinding sound of the ax I have with this movie. Perhaps I’m being more cruel to than this movie merits (and, to be fair, I would rather watch it than something like A Troll in Central Park), but something about this film just gets under my skin. Everything from the lazy plot, to the kid-pandering nature of the flick, to the general air that the movie could care less that it is disposable kiddie tripe makes this film a bitter pill to swallow.

This movie was created during the Xerography period of Disney animation, which I described in my The Great Mouse Detective entry. While Mouse looked reasonably clean, however, Robin Hood looks like DMX’s voice covered in sand paper (rough); the line thickness is pretty inconsistent, the colors are muted and drab, and there are small wrinkles and extra lines everywhere. Robin Hood is pretty expressive, and Prince John does have some fun facial animations, but, on the whole, the movie just looks cheap.

Like other Disney films from this time period, the animated is literally sketchy-looking.

Sonically, the movie fairs somewhat better, but not much. The music is a slight and, while it does provide a bit of atmosphere, it’s almost immediately forgettable (at least, beyond that stupid “DA DA DA DAAAA!” fanfare). The songs are placed pretty unevenly throughout; there are four songs in the whole movie, and three of them happen within about eight minutes of each other. They’re also pretty weak—“Love” is a sleepy, soft rock ballad that could only have come out of the early 70’s, “The Phony King of England” is a jaunty, up-tempo song with some sing-talky bits from Little John, and both Alan-a-Dale songs manage to mostly (but not entirely) waste Roger Miller’s considerable talents. In fact, the only song with any mainstream penetration isn’t an actual song, but some scatting from the opening credits sequence; this scatting was sampled, sped up, and turned into the now-infamous “Hamster Dance.

Vocal performances are pretty underwhelming for the most part. Brian Bedford’s Robin Hood does a reasonably good job of being expressive and enthusiastic, even if the voices he uses while disguised sound exactly the same. Prince John is a character I’ve always had affection for (particularly since I played him in a production of “The Lion in Winter”), and Pat Ustinov chews the scenery and twirls his mustache nicely in the role. Phil Harris chooses to continue riding the Baloo role that made him famous in The Jungle Book, though his Hep Cat-isms feel out of place in Norman England, and come off as rather dated in 2010. The rest of the supporting cast is just aggravating; Sir Hiss is a simpering, annoying crony, Lady Cluckie’s Scottish brogue is obnoxious, and I want to personally backhand each and every child who was involved with Skippy and his gang of insufferable sidekicks.

All of the children characters are pretty insufferable, but this one in particular is something awful.

This movie also contains a fair bit of asset-reuse. No doubt done to save costs, there are several points where the movie reuses bits of animation (Prince John lifts a 2x4 in the same way he lifts a mirror, all of the guards run and move in the same manner, and there are several identical shots of a crowd celebrating and whistling), turning one late-movie chase sequence into something out of Scooby-Doo. Several lines of dialogue are also reused, though the results are less inconspicuous than the animation reuse (to me, at least; when Prince John yells “Hiss! You’re never around when I need you!” in the same exact tone as he did once before, it’s enough for me to sit up and take notice).

The movie probably isn’t as bad as I’m making it sound, and it’s certainly less offensively-bad than other movies in the children’s film space (I’d sooner watch the entirety of Robin Hood than the trailer for Yogi Bear), but this movie just gets my dander up. I’ll be interested to see other films from this era, and whether or not they live up to the bar of cheapness that this film sets. For their sake, and mine, I hope not.

Top Three Songs:

  1. “Oo-De-Lally”
  2. “Love”
  3. “Not in Nottingham”

Favorite Character:

  • · Prince John / Alan-a-Dale (I’m cheating and adding Alan to this list; he has a pretty tiny part, and I enjoy the timbre of Roger Miller’s voice)

Favorite scene:

  • · Robin Hood and Little John’s inaugural fleecing of Prince John

The Jar Jar:

  • · Sir Hiss

How I Watched It

I waited entirely too long to purchase this DVD from Amazon after last entry, so that’ll teach me. At any rate, here we have the “Most Wanted” edition of Robin Hood, which is the one you will find on store shelves. Compared to its older, out of print edition, “Most Wanted” has made a few improvements.

First and foremost, the picture on the movie has been cropped from 1.33:1 to 1.78:1—the upshot is that a movie that was formerly in fullscreen has been chopped to fit widescreen TVs. Losing a bit of space on the top and the bottom of the picture seems like a big deal, but the movie never seems like it’s “missing” anything; if you have a widescreen TV, this one’s a no-brainer. Furthermore, the picture has received a considerable bump in quality (according to the folks at The colors are present, clear, and lack the weird de-saturation that was present in my The Great Mouse Detective DVD.

There are also a few bonus features on the DVD, though I would emphasize the “few” part of this comment. There’s a sketched-out alternate ending (which is pretty blah), a sing-along portion, and an old black and white Mickey Mouse short. All-in-all, it’s pretty anemic. If you have a widescreen TV, definitely go with this release. If you’re going to be watching it on fullscreen, you may consider this one anyway—the colors look better, and it’s more readily available.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Our Feature Presentation (6/50) -- Saludos Amigos (1942)

Disney films, like the members of Destiny’s Child, are not created equal. History has lauded films like The Little Mermaid, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Beauty and the Beast as timeless classics, and they will continue to have their praises sung for the better part of forever. Others, not so much. Just as some films are preordained to eternally live in the annuls of history, there are just as many that are recalled, er, not so fondly (or at least fitfully so; chances are, you will find more people extolling the virtues of Aladdin than, say, Oliver & Company).

Today’s entry occupies a third, and entirely smaller, category: Disney films that are forgotten about completely. It’s not that they’re bad or anything, more like they’re just unremarkable enough to elicit neither a positive or negative reaction. In other words, they’re just kinda there.

Saludos Amigos is the first in the line of Disney “package films,” films that were produced during the 1940’s in an effort to keep Walt Disney Studios’ head above water. Much of the studios’ time was spent making propaganda cartoons for the U.S. government, and the lack of resources and staff (many in the animation department had been drafted) made the production of lavishly animated films like Bambi or Pinocchio nigh unto impossible. Walt, however, did the next best thing he could: he took pre-existing shorts and ideas that were too slight to make into full films and stapled them together into movies. From this we get titles like Fun and Fancy Free, Make Mine Music, and, yes, Saludos Amigos.

Ta-da! Keeping the Nazis at bay while making a bit of money on the side.

Not so much a film as it is a travelogue, Saludos Amigos is a tour of South America (with the Nazis attempting to establish good relations on this side of the Atlantic, Roosevelt had Disney visit as part of the Good Neighbor policy; the policy was considered a success, as the Axis was never able to establish a port in either Central or South America). The movie follows Walt and a team of animators as they visit different towns, eat exotic foods and listen to exotic music, and make sketches of the locals (in live action, I might add). The movie then segues into one of four different animated shorts, then the animators move on to another region of South America, and the cycle continues.

You may be thinking now how dull this film sounds. In a way, you’re right. Saludos Amigos contains no plot, no conflict, no narrative at all, save for the concept that Walt and the gang are on a tour of South America. As such, it doesn’t make for a riveting night at the movies. However, there’s something about this movie that is slightly appealing to me, and I’ll try to touch on why exactly this is, because, quite frankly, I don’t really understand it myself.

Perhaps I was raised on too many early-Disney Channel programs on travel in the Disney shorts, but I mildly enjoyed this one.

I’ll start with the shorts. As I mentioned earlier, Saludos Amigos is a vehicle for Disney animated shorts, and we get some good ones here. The first is a Donald Duck short on Lake Titicaca, with Donald sailing on the lake, riding a llama across a suspension bridge, and visiting the (hilariously non-PC-but-it’s-the-forties-so-everybody’s-racially-insensitive-drawn) locals. It’s a typical Donald Duck cartoon, and since I rather like the character, I had a good time.

The next is about a family of mail planes (Walt visits a podunk town in the mountains, where mail has to be delivered through a treacherous mountain pass), and centers on the smallest plane, Pedro, making his first major delivery. The journey is a perilous one, with Pedro fighting through weather, poor visibility, and some big fricking demon mountain (whose name I can neither recall, nor pronounce) who makes life hard for him. It’s surprisingly harrowing, and there are a few bits near the end where it legitimately seems like Pedro will not make his journey home in one piece; even at a time when Walt is releasing table scraps instead of movies, his timing and sense of direction in an eight-minute short like this is admirable.

This little guy reminds me of the main character from the Tex Avery cartoon "Little Johnny Jet." But squishier.

The third short is on the South American gaucho, as portrayed by Goofy in a cartoon that is “How To…” in all but name. As with most “How To” shorts, this one has Goofy attempting to follow along with the narrator’s descriptions of the way a gaucho lives (roping a horse, eating by a campfire, bola-ing an ostrich, etc). Like Donald’s cartoon, I enjoyed this one almost out of principle (my love for this series is so great that I convinced my dad to buy tickets to National Treasure: Book of Secrets specifically to watch the “How To Hook Up Your Home Theater” short at the beginning; afterwards, we theater-hopped into Juno, which was the movie we actually went to see).

Last is a short called “Aquarela do Brasil,” which has parrot Jose Carioca (the green parrot with the cigar) showing Donald Duck around Brazil. The whole thing is set to a samba, and was, for my money, a bit boring—nothing comic or interesting happens, apart from… no, it’s basically devoid of the things I usually like in a Donald Duck cartoon. The beginning of the short is pretty interesting from an animation perspective, though; it starts with an off-screen artist painting the backgrounds “Duck Amuck”-style, and there are some pretty cool moments where the paint drips into other drawings and creates new drawings. Of the other three, though, this is the one I liked the least.

After the interesting and colorful opener, your enjoyment of this short will rest solely on your predilection for samba and rapid-fire Portuguese.

Between these shorts are live-action shots of Walt and El Grupo visiting different towns, trying out different cultural practices (dances, food,etc), and drawing things. The shots are bright, vibrant, and look pretty good, with lots of greens and browns. The sketches the artists make also act as lead-ins for the shorts (we see early drawings of the villagers, and in the case of Pedro the plane, the narrator explicitly talks out the thought process of how the character was invented), making for a nice contrast between the concept and the finished product.

As far as films that are educational go, I rather appreciate this movie’s approach to presenting South America. You see, Saludos Amigos was created before the notion of pandering to kid demographics had entered studio heads (this probably also wasn’t a “kid’s film” when it came out either), so it doesn’t try to talk down to the audience to encourage understanding. I know that “it’s presented like seventh grade Social Studies” is a bit of a weird complement, but the movie doesn’t have a jaunty, “learning is fun!” sort of attitude, and I like the Saludos better for it. Besides, the cartoons demonstrate literally everything that was talked about during the live-action parts, so there’s really no harm in spacing out between the cartoons, if that’s your thing.

There are a few moments where we watch an animator sketch an object or person, which is pretty sweet.

This won’t be a film that I dig out when I need cheering-up, but I still thought it was good, in a modest sort of way. Granted, the straight-forward, slightly dry approach to the material will definitely be off-putting to some, but as something pedestrian and undemanding (which is the best way to enjoy this film), it works—the movie is what it is, and there are some interesting tidbits about 1940’s American perceptions of South America sprinkled in between the cartoons.

Top Three Songs:

  1. “Saludos Amigos”
  2. "Tico Tico No Fubá"
  3. "Aquarela do Brasil"

Favorite Character:

  • Donald Duck (does he count? Who cares?)

Favorite scene:

  • The “Lake Titicaca” short

The Jar Jar:

  • Jose Carioca (this character has literally zero appeal to me, other than that he is a fine shade of green)

How I Watched It:

I was in Helena this weekend, and during some downtime, I watched this on my friend Jordyn of Popped Density’s VHS copy. Yes, that’s right, VHS. There is a DVD copy floating around on Amazon (packaged with its follow-up, The Three Caballeros), but I watched the VHS version, so I’m going to talk about the VHS version, doggonnit!

The film begins, as all tapes do, with previews (seriously, they’re part of the tape-watching experience)! The ads are for Disney Gold Collection (the edition that this particular copy of Saludos was released on), The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, The Tigger Movie, Discover Spot, and (“Where magic lives online!”). Nothing super epic like the entire “Colors of the Wind” sequence from The Lion King’s VHS, but at least they’re not for anything super dated like “Lizzie MacGuire” or “Even Stevens” (though the one is pretty hilarious). There’s also the presence of a certain catchphrase you may have heard of.

This was viewed on some Sony 25” (model number withheld because it’s not really worth it), and the colors, picture quality, and viewing experience in general are about as serviceable as watching a tape on an SDTV can be. Here’s one thing that home theater-philes and Best Buy employees would rather you forget: VHS look exceptionally similar (and in some cases, damn near identical) to DVDs when viewed on a regular TV. Of course, in this day and age of Sony Bravia and Xbox 360, it’s easy to get caught up in the gadgets and forget the virtues of tapes (heck, I made a big to-do about Bolt on Blu-ray a few posts ago, remember?), but they don’t quite deserve all of the demonization they’ve gotten from gadget snobs.

As with several latter-day VHS releases, Saludos Amigos has a “stay tuned after movie for bonus content” extra: “South of the Border with Disney,” which is a look at Walt’s trip down to South America, and acts as a quasi-behind the scenes documentary. You’ll have to hear about it from someone else, though; I didn’t watch it for this review. However, considering that Walt and El Grupo is finally out on DVD, you’re probably better off Netflix-ing that, rather than watching this featurette.