Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (20/50) -- Pinocchio (1940)

After Snow White and the Seven Dwarves made Walt Disney Studios a giant heaping truck full of money, Walt was excited to get started on his next follow-up project, and had about nine or ten different ideas of what he wanted to do. He kicked around nearly every single fairy tale and story heard of by the Western world (many of which he would eventually end up adapting) before finally settling on an 1883 novel by Carlo Collodi about a puppet brought to life. The plot was tweaked, the characters were refined, and after a good three years of toil, Pinocchio was released to American audiences on February 7, 1940.

Pinocchio, aside from Fantasia, would be the last time that Walt got truly, fully into every single facet of one of his films. In the following years, he would make suggestions, contribute ideas, and hold final say on all of his animated movies, but in Pinocchio, along with Snow White and Fantasia, Walt was involved in everything—character designs, script writes and rewrites, individual gags, everything. The result is one of the most lovingly crafted animated films seen on this side of the Pacific, and a film that grows better with age.

Generations of kids and adults have enjoyed Pinocchio, and it's not hard to see why.

Pinocchio (as you no doubt know already) is about the titular puppet and his quest to become a real boy. Carved by a kindly old man named Geppetto (Christian Rub) and brought to life by the Blue Fairy (Evelyn Venable), Pinocchio (Dickie Jones) is eager to try to become a real boy for his father, but often gets sidetracked and falls into temptation. At his side is Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards), a transient insect who is appointed by the Blue Fairy to help Pinocchio on the road to good behavior. Together, the two are sold to the gypsy puppet master Stromboli (Charles Judels), tricked into attending a horrid, child-transforming theme park, and swallowed by a whale. And you thought you had bad days…

Back in the early days of animation, before any suitable shortcuts were discovered, Disney animators did everything by hand. Every background, every small character movement, everything. It was fantastically expensive to do, but the result is that Pinocchio is one of the most gorgeously animated movies I’ve ever seen. Several times during my showing, I had to pause the film and marvel at the intricately designed clocks in Geppetto’s workshop, or the wondrously imagined sea floor during the film’s latter half. More than any film I’ve watched so far (except, perhaps, Fantasia), this is best seen on Blu-ray, for all of the hi-def goggling that ensues.

Pinocchio's animation is positively breathtaking, including several complicated and gorgeous tracking shots like this one.

More than just a technical achievement, though, Pinocchio is a wonderfully charming film, and filled to the brim with outstanding characters. The time invested in changing Pinocchio into a sympathetic protagonist (as opposed to the raging toolbox that he is in the original story) was well spent, as he has no problem carrying the brunt of the film’s emotional weight. The movie is also blessed with an excellent supporting cast, from the humongous, showy Stromboli (I love when he discovers he’s been paid with a slug, which he bends with his teeth), to the conniving, charismatic Foulfellow (Walter Catlett), to the loveable, fatherly Geppetto.

Even the now-clich├ęd Comic Supporting Animals are great, with Figaro the cat exuding the best, rascally traits of every kitten I’ve ever known, and Cleo the fish providing a nice splash of character (ba ha ha). My favorite, though, is Jiminy, who is an absolute riot through the whole picture, dropping throwaway gags left and right (“What would an actor want with a conscience, anyway?”), and Edwards showcasing some wonderful personality. All-in-all, I don’t think there’s one main or supporting character that I don’t like in Pinocchio.

Perhaps I've simply grown into Jiminy's vaudeville comic stylings, but I find him way funnier now than I did as a kid.

Musically, Pinocchio is pretty dang strong. There’s not a weak song on the whole soundtrack, and the movie’s main song, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” has become the anthem for the entire Disney company. “Give a Little Whistle” was a favorite of mine when I was a kid, with Jiminy’s playful banter with Geppetto’s various carvings. And though it gets stuck in my head far too easily, I’ve always enjoyed Foulfellow’s “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee,” partially because of my love for nonsense lyrics, but mostly because it’s catchy as hell.

Of course, as fun as it is, Pinocchio is far from an empty, harmless lark, and is painted with many dark corners in addition to its bright ones. Pinocchio’s faceoff with Stromboli turns sour fairly fast, with the big guy shouting and brandishing threats at our puppet pal, and the ensuing rain adds a bit of bleakness, though Jiminy helps take the edge off (“C’mon son, buck up. Be cheerful. Like me”). Monstro the whale is a huge, hulking mass of teeth and blubber, with a Sauron-esque eye and an incredible tenacity for chasing down what it wants. By far the most terrifying scene, though, is the sequence where Pinocchio’s friend Lampwick transforms into a donkey—the scene is done as a slow reveal, with Lampwick losing control and eventually changing through silhouette (his final cries are still as chilling to me now as when I first watched this movie 17 years ago). The dark patches don’t necessarily make the film “better” for having them, but the dynamics between the dark and the light help create a more balanced experience than many films aimed at the family.

A mass of teeth and blubber, Monstro is a nigh-unstoppable force that's a far cry from, say, Rumpelstiltskin.

If I had to harbor one complaint with Pinocchio, it’s with the episodic structure of the narrative. There’s not much of an overarching plot to the film, other than that Pinocchio wants to become a real boy, and some may get turned off by the seemingly-random occurrences that our little wooden protagonist has to work through. This is probably the most piddly complaint you could lodge against this movie (unless you are also turned off by what a blatant Deus Ex Machina the Blue Fairy is), and it does almost nothing to inhibit my enjoyment of Pinocchio.

Many films in the Disney Animated Features canon are trumpeted as “classics” (Robin Hood, anyone?), but Pinocchio totally and unabashedly deserves the title, as well as all of the accolades it’s been showered with in the 71 years since its release. One of the most wonderful examples of a family film for each and every member of the family, Pinocchio deserves a spot on DVD shelves everywhere.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. “When You Wish Upon a Star”
  2. “Give A Little Whistle”
  3. “Hi Diddle-Dee-Dee”

Favorite scene:

  • Pinocchio and Geppetto escape from Monstro

Favorite character:

  • Jiminy Cricket

The Jar Jar:

  • Lampwick

How I Watched It

As I mentioned above, I watched Pinocchio on Blu-ray, the second film in Disney’s Animated Feature library to get the hi-def treatment. Unfortunately, Disney is putting this film (along with Snow White and Fantasia) back in the Vault on April 30th, giving you few precious days to secure a new copy (though I imagine it’ll kick around on Amazon for a couple weeks before becoming super-inflated like most out-of-print classics). I’d recommend snapping it up, too, because Pinocchio on Blu-ray is a real treat.

Let’s assume for a moment we already know it looks spectacular in full 1080p (and does it ever!); the colors are bright, the detail is amazingly intricate, and the whole package is one big visual feast. Instead, let’s focus on the two discs of extras (including the main film’s disc). On the first disc is an audio commentary from Leonard Maltin, animator Eric Goldberg, and Disney historian J.B. Kaufman. I haven’t listened to it yet, though I did rather enjoy their commentary for Sleeping Beauty, and I assume it follows suit. Pinocchio also offers DisneyView, a mode that adds scene-specific art to the black bars surrounding Pinocchio’s 1.33:1 screen (I rather like it, if only because the bars make me feel like I’m “wasting” the space on my TV), as well a pop-up trivia track called Pinocchio’s Matter of Facts.

The second disc offers a whole host of supplementary goodies (as well as the usual Fun & Games bollocks offered on Disney DVDs and Blu-rays). Of greatest interest is the Making Of Pinocchio featurette: No Stings Attached. Part of the reason I love the Platinum line (which this film was the last member of before Disney switched over to the Diamond line) is because of the supremely thorough Making Of segments created for the releases, and No Strings Attached ranks somewhere near the top for me. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but at a good four minutes shy of an hour, No Strings has plenty of content for enquiring minds who wish to know about Pinocchio’s production. There are also several deleted scenes, live-action test footage, and a few other shorts on different aspects of production, all of which would surely be interesting if I had time to watch them. Pinocchio is a fine release on Blu-ray, and you would do well to snatch it up before it’s gone.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Blu-Balled: It's in the Game -- Tron (1982)

Before its animation branch got its act together in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, and well before it discovered tweeners in the early-2000’s, Disney’s main bread and butter was live-action tent pole movies. Not all were successful, but many were interesting, and later became mainstays on The Disney Channel (again, before Disney discovered tweeners). One such movie was Tron, an 80’s cult classic that has since gained a following among nerds and a very expensive sequel.

Tron has a fairly complicated and meander-y plot, but here’s the long and short of it: while digging around his old employer’s computer files, Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is transported to cyberspace by the Master Control Program, an ornery AI who is basically intent on world domination. Once inside, Flynn must work with Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), a security program, and Yori (Cindy Morgan), a testing program, to defeat the MCP and get back to reality.

I find Tron to be immensely appealing, but not for traditional, “This movie is good” reasons. Tron was released in 1982, and almost everything about this film is steeped in 80’s movie –isms, from the general look of the film (a grainy, almost modern appearance common in many other flicks of the time) to the “Gee whiz, we’re making a movie!” attitude that permeates most of my favorite 80’s entertainment. Perhaps I’m simply weary of so many grim, “serious” takes on popular entertainment, or the uber-hip, modern school of film-making, but Tron simply wants to try something new, and I’d be a damn cold b@%#$ if I gave it a rap on the knuckles for its desire to be different.

Dudes who wear hockey helmets and glow-y leotards while playing Ultimate Frisbee. Eh, I'll take it.

You can’t discuss Tron without also discussing the special effects, and Tron is a real feast for the eyes. Even if the effects have aged significantly since its initial release in 1982 (and believe me, they have), the film’s look is so startlingly different that it’s easy to take the primitive effects at face value; you get the impression that the movie is supposed look that way, deliberately like it’s inside of a computer. The characters all have an otherworldly glow to them, and all look as if they were filmed in black and white, giving even the most mundane of scenes a trippy and compelling visual style. Buying the film on Blu-ray only accentuates the “OMG PRETTY!” level of an already-gorgeous movie.

The acting is split down the middle. Boxleitner and Morgan are kinda wooden, but charitable fans could explain that Tron and Yori are programs, and aren’t capable of fully human emotions (uh huh). On the other hand, I do enjoy Jeff Bridges as a hotshot, nerdy guy who loves coding as much as he loves video games. The biggest star of the film, though, is Warner, who uses his wonderfully unctuous, British dialect to give his character, Sark, an effortlessly villainous edge. Warner also plays the Master Control Program, though his voice is digitally lowered, Talkboy-style.

Warner also plays "The Lobe" on the old WB series Freakazoid. If you haven't seen it, please open another tab and add it to your Netflix queue now.

Make no mistake, Tron is definitely not what you’d call a Great Movie. Tron’s plot takes quite a while to get going, setting up several story-important details, but mostly trudging around. Even when the movie finally enters The Grid, the computer setting where most of the film takes place, much of the action is rather unevenly paced, alternating between special effects-driven set piece scenes and awkward bits of dialogue.

Still, for what it is, Tron is a fun, if slow, bit of 80’s nostalgia for evenings that require 80’s nostalgia. It’s not the most exciting film available on Blu-ray, but for fans of 80’s flicks or for those that remember when The Disney Channel actually used to play old Disney shorts, Tron is a worthwhile purchase.

Blu-ray Breakdown:

Where purchased: Target in Bozeman

How much: $20 (first week special)

Favorite character: Sark

Favorite scene: Flynn, Tron, and RAM race the Lightcycles

Rating: ***/****


Friday, April 8, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (19/50) -- Hercules (1997)

The 90’s, as anyone can tell you, was a snarky, snarky time. Sitcoms like Married… With Children and Friends threw around sarcastic quips from every angle, and even children’s series like Animaniacs couldn’t help but feature dry jokes and retorts. In this way, Hercules undeniably a product of the 90’s: the humor rests largely on wisecracks and one-liners, and its many pop culture references (yes, it has pop culture references) place it firmly during the second Clinton administration. That said, Hercules, while quite dated in places, has aged better than most mid-90’s snark, and still makes for an entertaining film.

Hercules starts with a bold narration (from Charlton Heston, no less) about the heroes of ancient Greece, and how the greatest of the entire pantheon was the mighty Hercules. The voiceover is interrupted by the Muses (five gospel-singin’ women who act as this film's version of the Chorus), who assert that they can tell the story in a more entertaining fashion. The Muses spin a tale of Hercules, born with much fanfare to Zeus (Rip Torn) and Hera (Samantha Eggar) as Olympus’ new God. Not everyone is chuffed at the little guy’s appearance, though, as Hades (James Woods) shows up to voice his disapproval of the new boy and his general lot in life (indeed, his first appearance reminds me of Maleficent’s first scene in Sleeping Beauty).

I always like to pretend the middle one's Beyonce.

Hades has a plot to overthrow the gods and reign over Olympus, but he needs to have Hercules out of the picture in order for the plan to work. Hades sends his two lackeys, Pain and Panic (Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer) to kidnap Hercules, turn him mortal, and put him out of commission. P&P go two for three, but aren’t able to seal the deal on the young boy’s demise, and while Hercules survives the ordeal, he isn’t allowed to rejoin his parents, because only gods can enter Olympus. Hercules is found and adopted by an elderly farming couple (Jonathan and Martha Kent, no doubt), and the only mark of the young god’s Olympian origin is his incredible strength, a leftover from P&P’s botched attempt at infanticide.

Hercules (Josh Keaton) grows up awkward and outcast, derided by others as a “freak” because of his unnaturally strength (he also often breaks whatever is around him). After a particularly disastrous trip to the agora, Hercules sets out to find his real parents, and eventually learns of his divine parentage. Zeus is overjoyed that Herc has discovered his real family, but informs him that he needs to become a hero in order to reclaim his godliness (hint: start at cleanliness). Hercules seeks out Philoctetes, a Mickey Goldmill-esque trainer of ancient epic heroes (“Odysseus, Perseus, Theseus, a lotta ‘yeuses’.”), and in no time at all (though enough for his voice to change to Tate Donovan’s), Herc is ship-shape and ready for action. With help from the flying horse Pegasus and the lovely Megara (Susan Egan), Hercules sets out to become a hero and restore his place on Olympus.

Part of the fun is watching Hercules overcome his initial dorky-isms.

A casual glance at the plot summary reveals that the film is not a blow-by-blow retelling of the Heracles myth. Duh. The myth is grim, dark, violent, and tragic (like its contemporaries), and wouldn’t suit a Disney picture at all; like “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” or “The Little Mermaid” before it, Hercules would see its source material altered to suit the film. Good thing too, I say—as big a fan as I am of Greek mythology, I will acquiesce that the Heracles myth as it is most often told wouldn’t lend itself well to film in general, let alone a musical from the Disney Renaissance. What the film does do is include several sly winks and references to the actual myth, such as Hercules taming the three-headed dog Cerberus or blinding a Cyclops with fire. It’s this attention to detail that lets the audience know that, yes, the filmmakers did their research and, no, they don’t care that, in the myth, Hercules actually kills Megara and their children in a fit of Hera-driven rage.

Hercules is good, but not great. Many of the elements of the movie are reasonably pleasing, but never reach the height of other films from the era (which is a cheap complaint to make, but Herc has The Hunchback of Notre Dame on one side of it and Mulan on the other, and I’ll be damned if it’s not hard to make comparisons). That said, it is a member of the Renaissance, and possesses several memorable qualities, and even if the finished product is uneven, it’s still reasonably distinctive.

Definitely not perfect, but there's a lot to like about Hercules.

First are Hercules’s visuals. Informed, I guess, by Grecian statues and artwork, Hercules has a unique art style that works… most of the time. More often than not, the angular nature of the characters and extra lines on the backgrounds give the film a quirky visual appeal, but the movie occasionally segues into overly-busy, most noticeable with the periphery characters (the group of five from Thebes, the discus-playing teenagers, Pain & Panic, etc.). The movie does make good use of color (especially on Mt. Olympus, where the many-colored gods remind me of a bag of Skittles), but this only adds to the busyness.

Hercules is also arguably Disney’s most “Dreamworks” film to date. I mentioned earlier the use of pop culture references, and if you thought that Aladdin went overboard by including Arsenio Hall, you will be struck dumb by the film’s reference to a then-current American Express commercial, or Hercules’ brand of footwear called “Air Herc.” I could go on. Fortunately, and unlike Dreamworks until very recently, Hercules never loses sight of its heart, resulting in a sense of humor that, while dated, still holds up reasonably well under scrutiny, if only because the snark is never more caustic than it needs to be.

Yep, they went there.

One thing Hercules does have is an impeccable voice cast. Rip Torn’s deep, booming voice gives Zeus a decidedly Big Cheese bravado, though he also supplies a nice, encouraging father feel (which the real Zeus probably couldn’t produce if his thunderbolt depended on it). Susan Egan’s performance as Meg reminds me significantly of Rosalind Russell, with her low key zingers and dry delivery—she turns Meg from a potentially banal Love Interest character into a wonderfully witty match for Hercules’ heroism. Phil is about as amusing as you would expect from the phrase “Danny DeVito plays a talking goat,” using his “two words” bit to great effect.

The real standout of the cast, though, is James Woods. Hades’ constant quips and throwaways (“You look like a fate worse than death”) make him a riot to watch, but Woods is able to throw and underlying menace into his performance, giving the impression that the guy is constantly bubbling under. In fact, the only “weak link” is Tate Donovan, and he’s not even that weak; he manages to play both sides of the security fence, alternately convincing as a mighty hero and a guy who just wants to be accepted. In the face of his supporting cast, though, he gets overwhelmed.

Woods clips along at a mile a minute, and leaves me in stitches every time.

Hercules is criminally underrated by nearly everyone when it comes to its music. Let it be said that Alan Menkin performs well when he’s wearing hats: he won an Academy Award while wearing his Calypso hat during The Little Mermaid, and another one for the Middle East/40’s Big Band hat he wore for Aladdin. Hercules gives him a Baptist Gospel Choir hat to wear, and the results are tasty, lead primarily by the Muses. The songs are energetic, fast, and fun, the best being “Zero to Hero” and “The Gospel Truth.” The character-sung songs are pretty good too, with Phil’s “One Last Hope” being the only dud. “I Can Go the Distance” is one of my favorite Disney Yearning Songs, and Meg’s doo-wop-influenced “I Won’t Say I’m in Love” works as both a character moment for Meg and a catchy little ditty. Menkin’s score is rousing and makes great use of themes, but what did you expect?

The package adds up to a movie that, while not the best that Disney has to offer, is still one of the better comedies in the canon. No one will argue that it’s art, but Hercules has all the potential for a great Movie Night film, where you can revel at the McDonalds “Over 5 Billion Served” reference, and remember what it was like in the 90’s when Disney could do no wrong.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. “I Can Go the Distance”
  2. “Zero to Hero”
  3. “I Won’t Say I’m in Love”

Favorite scene:

  • Herc vs. the Hydra, part II

Favorite character:

  • Hades

The Jar Jar:

  • Pain & Panic (like the Tweedles, they function as a unit)

How I Watched It

During this retrospective, I’ve looked at several old, out-of-print editions that were later replaced by shinier, newer versions. Hercules is in dire need of one of these upgrades, judging by the DVD I viewed it on (which I picked up brand new from Amazon). The picture is presented in 4:3, non-anamorphic widescreen, which is rather undesirable for folks with widescreen TVs, and the picture quality could use a facelift. I didn’t bother to turn on the surround sound once I realized that the menu looked like it was made in iDVD, but I imagine the movie’s sound, like the picture, is fairly unremarkable.

Hercules has an odd set of extras. The first is a small, cheerleader-y Making Of featurette, which lasts all of six minutes and provides precious little substance; there are some chats with the voice cast, and it’s fun to watch the gospel choir perform in a studio setting, but there’s not much here to work with. Next is a music video of Ricky Martin singing the Spanish (!) version of “I Can Go the Distance,” and last is a set of Movie Recommendations, which is a series of stills advertising The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, or other such sundries. Of the movies I’ve looked at so far, Hercules cries the loudest for a newer version; call it the Zero To Hero edition or whatever you want, but let me have it, and soon!