Archive for February 2010
The third film produced by Walt Disney and his studio, Fantasia was completely different in terms of style: it was simply animation set to famous classical music pieces with no dialogue provided except by the host of the film, Deems Taylor, who just introduces and sets up the music and the animation that’s set to the music.
Fantasia started off from Walt Disney trying to create a cartoon starring Mickey Mouse that would be his comeback to the mainstream audience, since around the time, Mickey was losing popularity with movie audiences. As the animators were producing the cartoon that would eventually become “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, Leopold Stokowski suggested that Disney expand “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from a cartoon short into a concert feature along with several other animated sequences in the same kind of style of animation set to music. As “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” neared completion, the rest of Fantasia was produced in 1939, and released in theaters about a year later. Sadly, when it first debuted, Fantasia was met with mixed reactions, and failed to generate a large commercial audience, leaving the Disney Animation Studios in a financial crisis.
However, as time went on and Fantasia was re-released in theaters between 1946 to 1977, it was met with positive acclaim from critics. Today, despite the initial commercial failure, Fantasia is now considered a classic and one of the most popular films of all time.
The film is divided into roughly 8 segments, including an intermission. The first segment that starts Fantasia off is Johan Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, which simply starts off featuring colorful, stylized, and superimposed outlines of the orchestra performers. The piece then goes onto feature very abstract forms, shapes, and lines which keep in time with the flow of the music. Its goal isn’t so much as to tell a story as it just visualizes what one can picture in their mind from the music.
The second piece features music from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite”, while depicting the changing of the summer, fall, and winter seasons made by fairies and sprites, also features dance numbers performed by flowers (and even mushrooms) that depict the ethnic types of dance (the Chinese/ mushroom dance, the Russian flowers dance, etc.). It’s simply amazing how the Disney animators can give the cultural flair and personality to the flowers as they do their dance routines, as well as give them defining characteristics, as well as that the animation comes full circle with the fairies welcoming summer, and then turning autumn into winter.
The third animation piece, and perhaps the most famous of the set, is Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. Originally the animators wanted to have Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the leading role, but Disney saw this as Mickey Mouse’s comeback opportunity. The story follows Mickey as a bit of a lazy apprentice to a sorcerer named Yensid, stealing his master’s hat and commanding a broom to life so he can get his chore of fetching water done easier. However, as one can imagine, the situation gets out of hand, and soon Mickey finds himself with an army of sentient brooms concentrating on fetching water. Definitely a great comeback short for Mickey Mouse, the outfit that he wears in this cartoon is possibly one of his most iconic appearances as well.
The fourth animation, Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”, depicts a condensed version of how scientists believe the Earth was formed; from the Big Bang, to the first primordial creatures as they evolve into dinosaurs, until environmental conditions causes their extinction. On a personal note, this has always terrified me on a sort of a primal level; the music is very melancholic and nigh-Pagan-esque. The animation also contains scenes of pretty graphic violence, such as the climatic fight between a Stegosaurus and a Tyrannosaruus, and the depiction of dinosaurs dying from heat, exposure, and starvation. An interesting note is that Disney wanted to actually end the animation by showing a group of cavemen discovering fire and dancing happily, but executive meddling prevented that, and instead the animation ends on a down note, with a shot of a barren Earth as the sun sets.
After a much-needed lighthearted and humorous intermission, the next animation features Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6- “The Pastoral Symphony” depicted in a light-hearted, whimsical story featuring creatures of Greek myth such as centaurs/ centaurettes, fauns, unicorns, and winged horses gathering for a festival honoring Bacchus, the God of wine and festivities, only for Zeus to crash the party by causing a storm and throwing lightning bolts just for sport. The strongest aspect of this piece has to be the art and animation, which is so colorful and fluid; even looking at it about 70 years from now, the animation doesn’t look dated or jerky. The ending scene of the gods changing from sunset to night-time is probably the most sublime and beautiful endings I’ve seen, and it brings tears to my eyes even to this day. However, “The Pastoral Symphony” is probably the animation segment that has had the most controversy over time, mostly for a small scene depicting a racially stereotyped African American centaurette named Sunflower acting as a handmaiden, while also being part human-part donkey. The scenes depicting Sunflower have been edited with the camera panning and zooming to cut her out from the scene, though you can find the clip easily on YouTube.
The sixth animation, “Dance of the Hourse” focuses on a more humorous note in characters and story-line. The “dancers of the morning” are depicted as ostriches, hippos are the “dancers of the daytime”, elephants as “dancers of the evening”, and the “dancers of the night” are played by alligators; each group of dancers starts off with their own comical scenes and dances, which leads up to the lead alligator falls in love with the lead hippo. From there on, it goes completely into chaos, as all dancers ensue in a chaotic battle as to who will lead the dance, eventually deciding to all dance together.
Finally, the seventh and eighth animation pieces are probably the second-most famous pieces in Fantasia. To start off with probably the scariest and darkest piece out of the movie is Mussorkgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”. The animation takes place on Walpurgis Night (or “Devil’s Night”), with the demon lord Chernabog awaking and summoning ghosts, skeletons, demons, harpies, and other hellish creatures from a town. As he controls the actions and movements of the damned summoned creatures, as well as destroying them by just crushing them with his hands, he summons fire and lava to throw some in to, as well. It goes on to show the demons fly and dance around as Chernabog turns women spirits into filthy demonic animals before dropping them in the lava with a nightmarish grin on his face. However, the frightful merriment is interrupted by the Angelus bell, which causes Chernabog and the damned to retreat; which follows into the final piece, Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. As the piece begins, the camera retreats from Bald Mountain, to a procession of robed monks carrying lighted torches, following them through a forest, then through a gothic cathedral, finally out through a thicket of trees to reveal the sunrise as the film ends. This is probably one of the most sublime moments that Disney has ever created; from the transition from the nightmarish world of Bald Mountain, to the gentle, calming procession of “Ave Maria”. Both pieces usage of the color blue are quite striking in these, most specifically in “Ave Maria”, as it shows the gentle dawn approaching.
Honestly, one can’t really give their own personal opinion on this, as Fantasia was meant to have so many interpretations to each individual. However, I can personally say that I’m saddened that not many animators try and do animation projects such as these anymore; it’s quite amazing how the music and animation influence the whole setting and atmosphere of the movie, which is what Disney did strongly in Fantasia. It’s quite ironic how Fantasia is now revered as one of the greatest animated masterpieces today, despite being a failure when it came out. If you haven’t seen Fantasia, watch it. You won’t be disappointed.
I’ll start this out on a personal note: as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that legendary cartoon artist and animator Chuck Jones has become a huge inspiration for me. For some reason, everything about his style is instantly appealing; the way his characters are gestured and move, the facial expressions, and most importantly, the comedic timing. He worked on some of the most famous Looney Tunes shorts, such as What’s Opera, Doc?, One Froggy Evening, the Hunting Trilogy (which I will discuss for another time), and, the cartoon that I will be talking about today, Duck Amuck, which is probably one of the most iconic cartoons ever in animation.
Duck Amuck was directed by Chuck Jones, and was released in early 1953 as part of the Merrie Melodies series. Since its debut, it’s been voted #2 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by members in the field of animation, deemed “culturally significant” by the US Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1999, and even had a Nintendo DS game based on it.
The premise is simple: it seemingly begins with Daffy Duck starring in an Errol Flynn-esque Three Muskateers cartoon, only to find out that the background just fades out into a blank white background. From there on out, it’s a comedic, desperate struggle for Daffy Duck, as he’s constantly tormented by the main antagonist of the short, an unseen animator. The unseen animator constantly changes the location, art style, objects, perspective, and even Daffy himself by making him mute, then giving him inappropriate sound effects as a voice; and messing up his color scheme only to draw him as some sort of mutant alien creature (which has been parodied in other cartoons, such as The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, and Bart’s nightmare in The Simpsons’ Halloween special: Treehouse of Horror II).
Why does Duck Amuck have this timeless feel to it? Why do none of the jokes never get old? It mostly has to do with Chuck Jones taking the concept of “breaking the 4th wall” and just having so much surreal experimentation and fun with it. The way that Daffy Duck responds to everything that the unseen animator does produces hilarious reactions and results. Chuck Jones even said that he was just having good-natured fun, showing the audience what boundaries he could push and transform Daffy into, yet at the same time, Daffy still retains his pompous, hot-headed personality regardless how much his appearance, voice or interactive environment changes. The ending with the cartoon, where it reveals that the unseen animator is actually Daffy’s buddy/ friendly rival, Bugs Bunny (who says one of his famous catchphrases, “Ain’t I a stinker?”) just adds to all of the weird hilarity that happens.
Two years later, Jones made a cartoon entitled Rabbit Rampage, which was a spiritual successor to Duck Amuck, as it featured Bugs Bunny this time as the victim of the unseen animator’s expense (who in the end turns out to be Elmer Fudd in one of the few cartoons where he actually outsmarts/ outwits Bugs Bunny). While still an interesting cartoon in its own right, it still doesn’t hold a candle to the original, and the best.
From around 1905 until around 1914, Winsor McCay’s comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland ran weekly in both the New York Herald and New York American newspapers. The underlying story was about a young boy named Nemo who would weekly venture through a dream, only at the last panel to wake up in or near his bed, and usually be comforted or scolded by one of his parents. The dreams weren’t always child-like fantasy though, since Little Nemo was written mainly for adults as well as children; some of the dreams Nemo experience involved places that were, according to Wikipedia, “dark, surreal, threatening, and even violent” especially in earlier strips, which mostly focused on Nemo waking up before “some mishap or disaster that seemed about to lead to serious injury or death, such as being crushed by giant mushrooms, being turned into a monkey, falling from a bridge, or gaining 90 years in age.” However surreal it was though, Little Nemo definitely appealed to an audience, but nowadays it’s mostly forgotten by the general audience.
However, in 1989, Tokyo Movie Shinsha released an animated movie based on the strips entitled Little Nemo in theaters. 3 years later, it was given an English dub and released in theaters as Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. During the production on the movie, animators such as Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyzaki were involved on the project, but both left due to differing views on how the film should’ve been, and were succeeded by Andy Gaskill and Yoshifumi Kondo. Even many animators from the Disney Studio including Ken Anderson and Leo Salkin worked on sequences, while Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, and Paul Julian contributed to the production.
Reception-wise, while Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland received positive reviews from publications such as the Washington Post, Variety, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe, it made about $407,695 with a total US gross of $1,368,000, and was considered a box office flop. However, to this day, the movie remains a cult classic and sold over 2 million copies when it went to video. Nowadays, the DVD is distributed by Echo Bridge Home Entertainment as a budget title, and can be easily bought online for around $6.99.
On a more personal note, when going through my “watch every animated film in the Kids Section of Blockbuster”, I came across the movie a few times, but never really thought to pick it up. However, the notion that the movie existed slipped back into my mind when we were talking about how Little Nemo was used as one of the first stop-motion color animations during the Roaring 20’s, so I decided to check it out. As both a fan of Japanese animated movies (such as the ones made by Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon) and animation in general, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland feels like a dream-like trip back to my childhood, with a very imaginative environment, a colorful cast of characters, and a simple but charming story.
The main plot of the film involves Nemo and his best friend, a flying squirrel named Icarus, being visited in the night-time by a very tall man named Professor Genius and a little girl clown named Bonbon. They present Nemo with a royal invitation from the ruler of Slumberland, King Morphius, to come to his kingdom and be the playmate of the King’s daughter, Princess Camille. As Nemo and the crew arrive in Slumberland, King Morphius becomes immediately fond of Nemo and entrusts him with the Golden Key, which can open any sort of door in Slumberland. However, the King gives Nemo specific orders not to open the door which has a symbol that looks just like the key’s handle: a sinister-looking dragon. Later on, as Nemo meets Princess Camille and ventures around Slumberland with her, he’s immediately hurried by the Professor to begin his surprise schooling in preparation for Nemo’s duties as the future Prince of Slumberland. When the teachers are finished with schooling Nemo in just about everything, Nemo becomes sidetracked by a trickster named Flip, who takes Nemo along with him to cause mischief throughout Slumberland. After some juvenile mischief-making, Flip and Nemo stumble across the ominous door that King Morphius warned about. Despite Nemo having second thoughts about the whole thing, Flip nonchalantly opens the door. However, it turns out that the door is actually a portal to Nightmareland, a sinister and evil place which is also the home of King Morphius’ enemy, the Nightmare King. During a celebration party, the Nightmare King attacks and captures the King, so now it’s up to Nemo to defeat the Nightmares, rescue the King, and correct his broken promise.
The plot is very simplistic, almost like a tale right out of a children’s book of fairy tales, as it has the mystical element of Nemo slipping into his dreams and waking up in his bed, and a transition from cheerful, lighthearted fun in the first half into a dark and somewhat even terrifying journey when Nemo and co. enter Nightmareland. While the climax might be a bit anticlimactic and the story very baseline and extremely easy to follow to a lot of older viewers, it nevertheless carries a sense of charm and dream-like whimsy.
Character-wise, they all carry a sense of adorable charm, and their personalities, while simple, are quite enjoyable to watch. Nemo especially, because he acts like a typical 8 year old kid. He has a bad habit of sneaking pies before bedtime; he’s reluctant to go to Slumberland at first but after eating cookies from the Princess, he quickly accepts; the whole Nightmare incident is caused by his curiosity and following Flip, whom he was warned about. Still, Nemo is only a very naive kid, and realizes the disaster he accidentally caused, and matures just a little in his quest to save the King and Slumberland.
For a movie that has been made in the late 80’s/ early 90’s, the animation is very beautiful and colorful. Every aspect of the environment is extremely creative, from the many dream-like and vibrantly colorful areas around Slumberland, to the creepy, twisted, and cave/ swamp-like areas of Nightmareland, the color and animation still looks fantastic, despite the fact that it’s around 20 years old or so.
I would greatly recommend Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland to anybody who didn’t see it, anyone who’s a fan of Japanese animation/ animation in general, or if you sort of remember watching it in the past, seeing it for nostalgia’s sake. It’s a very sweet, charming movie, and you won’t regret getting whisked away into its dream-like wonder.
What can honestly be said about Don Bluth, a former animator for Disney as well as the creator of a few animated films himself? During the 1980’s after his departure from Disney’s animation studio, Bluth went on to make movies such as An American Tale, The Land Before Time, and what many consider to be his masterpiece, The Secret of NIMH, and actually prospered during a time whereas Disney was in both a financial and creative slump. His movies differed greatly from the usual standard Disney, mainly because he didn’t stick to copying from the Disney Formula when he first started out. Compared to a typical Disney plot where the main character had light-hearted fun,then a conflict came, but the character resolves it and lives happily ever after, Bluth’s plot and story-lines were a lot more mature-themed as well as having a very dark and threatening atmosphere or environment threatening the protagonist. Despite the protagonist reaching a happy ending at the end of the films, they arguably go through a great deal of pain and sacrifice, but become a smarter person as well.
However, during the early 90’s, Disney was back in full swing of making animated box office hits during what many people call the “Disney Renaissance”, and Bluth fell on hard times when it came to finances, movie development, and quality. This became apparent when his newest animated movie at the time, Rock-A-Doodle, was released in theaters on April 3 1992, as it signaled that not only was Bluth dethroned from his position in the 1980’s, but also that he would continue this downward spiral throughout the 90’s (despite having good success with the 1997 release of Anastasia, only to plummet back down in 2000 with the commercial failure of the now cult hit, Titan A.E.).
The whole idea behind Rock-A-Doodle and its origins dates back to when Bluth was still working at Disney’s animation studio. Originally, the idea was to create an animated movie that would crossover the fables of Chanticleer the Rooster and Reynard the Fox. However, Walt Disney personally rejected the idea, and the concept was put into limbo. According to Wikipedia, in the late 1980’s, Bluth proposed the the idea of the animated Chanticleer movie, but wanted make the movie a live action/ animation hybrid in an attempt to capitalize on the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Sadly, Rock-A-Doodle was not well-recieved by either critics or audiences, making only roughly $11.6 million dollars and leading to the bankruptcy of Sullivan Bluth Studios.
To a 6 year old, however, Rock-A-Doodle was one of those animated movies that your mother picked up at Blockbuster to keep you entertained during a snow day; you’d watch it maybe 3 or 4 times during the rental period, but once it was returned, you promptly forgot about it. However, thanks to the Internet I managed to find a complete upload of the whole movie. The purpose of this was to revisit my childhood, remove the “Nostalgia Goggles” (as I personally thought this movie was wonderful as a child), and watch Rock-A-Doodle with the perspective of not only a fan of animated movies, but a fan of Don Bluths’ movies.
Well, I suppose I should just give a brief overview of the plot first. It begins with Chanticleer crowing/ singing a song to make the sun rise. All of the animals adore and look up to Chanticleer because they believe that his crowing brings the sun up, just like in the fable. However, after getting attacked by another rooster sent by the evil Grand Duke of Owls, Chanticleer, despite winning, forgets to crow but the sun rises anyway. The animals discover the Chanticleer is a fake and drive him out of the farm, causing a continuous rainstorm and the Grand Duke to reign terror over the farm. However, it turns out that this is simply just a story being told by a mother to our main character of the story, Edmond, whose family is attempting to hold down a huge flood from destroying their farm. As his family struggle against the flood, Edmond calls out for Chanticleer’s help, but is instead visited by the Grand Duke, who explains about his evil plan and turns Edmond into a cartoon kitten with his magical breath. Luckily, Edmond is saved by Patou the dog and all the other farm animals. It turns out that Chanticleer’s crowing did bring the sun up, so they now have to find him to stop the rain. Edmond teams up with Patou, a magpie named Snipes, and a mouse named Peepers, and they travel to The City to find Chanticleer while being pursued by the Grand Duke’s owl henchmen. But it turns out that Chanticleer has actually become a huge, Elvis-like singing sensation! How are Edmond and the gang going to get Chanticleer to stop the Grand Duke’s plan of eternal rain?
This plot has been compared to the “movie equivalent of ‘Mad Libs’ (The Nostalgia Critic, “Rock-A-Doodle review.” March 17, 2009)”, and it’s not really hard to see why. However, the very “out there” plot-line is not the movie’s biggest weakness, it’s the continuity. If you re-read the small synopsis, you’ll notice that while it seems that Chanticleer’s crowing didn’t bring the sun up, it turns out that suddenly he does make the sun rise, hence why Edmond and co. need to find Chanticleer and bring him back. This just begs the question: why did the sun rise up without him crowing that one time? Was it all just a ruse concocted by the Grand Duke? Did the sun happen to come in at an earlier time than usual? Or, as the Nostalgia Critic (a reviewer of shows and movies that the target audience used to watch back in the day) put it, did “God get bored and wanted to screw around with the rooster, so one day he decided to play yo-yo with the sun”? It’s never explained, and leaves a huge, gaping plot hole that is pretty much the metaphorical albatross around this movie’s neck.
Another aspect that severely cheapens the plot as a whole is the narration. Yes, there is a narrator in this movie, more specifically it’s Patou the dog (played by the late Phil Harris, who you might know as Baloo the Bear from The Jungle Book; I don’t know what to say about that fact that this was his last film role) who explains every single thing that’s either going on or what’s going to happen later in the movie, rather than being subtle or letting the audience figure it out for themselves. This in turn, basically ruins any tension or plot twist that could be considered interesting to the story, and makes it into a “Connect the Dots” puzzle with only 2 dots. This is also done through most of the movie’s musical numbers, sometimes even interrupting the song in the process, almost as if they were ashamed of the songs, or if they figured we couldn’t understand what was going on in the scene. I honestly even think programs like Barney the Dinosaur and Arthur don’t talk down to their audience like this movie did. It feels like I was talked down to like I didn’t have the mental capacity or understanding to figure out that this character was falling in love with that character, or the fact that Chanticleer was closer than Edmond and co. thought.
Which brings me to my next problem that I had with this review: the characters are not compelling. At all. When I think back to the older Don Bluth films, I can remember sharing the fear with Mrs. Brisby in The Secret of NIMH, was concerned for her as she tried figuring out the truth being NIMH, the connection to her husband, and hoped that she could get her family moved to safety. In An American Tale, I cheered when Fievel and the other mice worked together and drove the evil cats away from New York, and cried when Fievel just about gave up trying to find his parents. With Edmond while he was a cartoon cat? I honestly just wanted him to shut up. This is mostly because Edmond’s actor, Toby Scott Ganger doesn’t have that much acting experience (save for a guest-star appearance on the sitcom Cheers and a few Disney Sing-A-Long videos); his main goal is to prove that he’s “a big boy” and not afraid of the Grand Duke, but any time that he opens his mouth and says these kinds of lines, it comes across as being annoying, whining, and bratty. Added to this is that fact that Edmond also has a lisp that give him an Elmer Fudd speech impediment, which I guess was supposed to sound endearing, but it just adds to his annoying personality, as well as make his dialogue very muddled and hard to hear.
The other animals that make up the rag-tag gang to save Chanticleer aren’t that much better when it comes to personality and development either, save for Patou, who despite being Mr. Exposition in the movie, is quite friendly and reasonable as the Straight Man of the group. However, the designated “Jerk” of the group, Snipes the magpie (played by Eddie Deezen, who played Dexter’s rival Mandark in Dexter’s Laboratory) is nothing but a jerk who would rather be eating city food than finding Chanticleer and saving the farm and their fellow friends, as well as the fact that he also exists sorely to make snide, sexist remarks to Peepers about “staying in the kitchen, be a mouse-wife and make cheese”. Peepers the mouse (played by Sandy Duncan, who was Tod’s love interest Vixey in Disney’s The Fox and the Hound and Queen Uberta in The Swan Princess) is just the designated “smart character”, though I personally never saw her do anything smart throughout the movie, save for her piloting a convenient plane whose model and design she just happened to know how to pilot. Chanticleer (played by country singer Glen Campell) isn’t much of a character to write about, and although Christopher Plummer (Charles Muntz, Up) admittedly make the Grand Duke a bombastic villain, his performance is not really saying much.
The animation is also extremely sub-par for a Don Bluth film. The colors are very muddled and dark, and not in the good, typical way of Don Bluth’s color palette; as this just sharply contrasts with the supposed cheery, colorful environment of the movie. Also, for a film made in 1992, when compared to other animated movies made around the time such as Disney’s Aladdin and Fox’s Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, the production values of Rock-A-Doodle look remarkably cheap.
In conclusion, it’s quite sad to see an interesting animation creator such as Don Bluth fall so hard in such a very short amount of time by animated movie standards. When looking back on his earlier films such as The Secret of NIMH, An American Tale, even All Dogs Go To Heaven (which many consider his last greatest work), and comparing them to Rock-A-Doodle, there’s just something that makes you wonder, “Where did Don Bluth go wrong, and why?” Perhaps the best guess is that he cracked under the Disney Renaissance, and for the rest of the 90’s just continued into a downward spiral of futility. Whatever the reason though, Rock-A-Doodle is thankfully overlooked and outright stated by fans of Don Bluth that it doesn’t exist, and for very good reasons. With a plot that has crater-sized holes, characters that you can’t bring yourself to care about no matter how much danger they’re in, and ugly, muddled, underdeveloped art, it’s not quite surprising that people cite Rock-A-Doodle as Don Bluth’s worst movie that he’s ever made.
…Though I’ve heard that The Pebble and the Penguin would beg to differ about that…