Category Archives: Family Films

Meeting The Masters, And A Little Background On A Famous Sea Witch

IMG_1939

Today I had the privilege of meeting a couple of master animators.  The first was the great Tony Bancroft, director of Mulan, and supervising animator of Pumbaa, Kronk, among others.  It was a pleasure meeting him, and he has a great book I bought about Directing for Animation.  Tony is currently directing an animated feature with an idea involving Paul McCartney.  It’ll be interesting to see where that goes.  The other was animation master Dale Baer, who has been with Disney since the 1970’s.  One of my favorite Baer characters is Yzma from Emperor’s New Groove.  I tried to see if I could get a drawing of Yzma Kitty from him, but unfortunately he couldn’t remember how to draw her as a cat!  Oh well.  But the Yzma drawing I got was pretty cool.

The biggest pleasure I had though was meeting one of Disney’s great supervising animators, Ruben Aquino.

IMG_1941

Ruben is most well known for supervising the animation of Ursula in The Little Mermaid, and was also responsible for Adult Simba in The Lion King.  It was great to sit down and talk with him about Ursula, who as a child was one of my most feared Disney Villains.  During my talk with him, I said that for myself as a kid, Ursula was probably second to Stromboli in Pinocchio for being the scariest Disney Villain, to which he replied, “Thank you!  That’s quite a compliment for scariest villain!”  During production of The Little Mermaid, Ruben was the third supervising animator asked to tackle the character, which had been in development by two animators, Glen Keane and Rob Minkoff.  One of the inspirations for Ursula was the drag queen Divine, and the animators watched the featured John Waters film for inspiration of the character.  As for making her fat, Jeffrey Katzenberg originally wanted to make her skinny like Joan Collins, but it was the voices of some of the animators and the backing of Howard Ashman that making her fat also made her a bit funnier.  One of the interesting things about the character is that she’s quite inconsistent when it comes to staying on model.  I told Ruben it was one of the things I loved was getting to see which animators worked on Ursula based on the different styles, but Ruben mentioned that the inconsistency was one of the things that bothered him about the character, and his animation was probably the most on model.  But regardless of that he also mentioned it being the most fun character he ever worked on.

Below you can see some of the inconsistencies in the model based on the different animators that worked on her.  Sometimes she’s on model, sometimes her hair or teeth are too big.  Some animators are more broad and over the top, such as Kathy Zelinski, who animated Ursula casting her spells, as well as the great scene where she’s transformed from Vanessa back to herself and crawls towards the camera on the boat deck.  Great creepy stuff.

Unknown

images-1 images-2 images-3 images who-were-the-most-awesome-disney-villains-531158125-jan-11-2013-1-600x400

Although Ursula was my childhood terror, I couldn’t help but ask for a sketch of her from him, which he obliged in the drawing below.

IMG_1943

It was a great pleasure getting to talk with these guys.  Hopefully I’ll have more of these events coming up soon, and if I ever get the opportunity, I’d love to do an interview and sit down with one of these guys and talk about their careers.  That would be fun.

Aladdin (1992) Dir. John Musker and Ron Clements

Aladdin1  One of my all time, joyfully favorite animated films is ALADDIN, brought to us during the high point of the Disney Golden Age.  It’s a toss up for me between BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and ALADDIN as to which is my all time favorite.  I suppose I would consider them equally superior films, but ALADDIN I saw at least 5 times when it was out in the theaters.  One of the great things about this film is that it energized the comedy aspect of what Disney films could be, having been influenced by a lot of Warner Bros style humor.  It also contains one of the great Disney Villains, Jafar, who instantly became a classic when this film first came out.  It’s a good story well told, and thankfully this is one of the few films where they didn’t let Robin Williams write the film with his fast talking dialogue as the Genie.  There are some animated films featuring Williams that let him go a little to far with the improvisation, forgetting about the rest of the story.  It takes about 30 minutes before the Genie is actually introduced into the film, but thankfully the energy of the film is high and it keeps its sense of humor at an equal level to Williams performance.

Aladdin1.5

I have always admired this film for many reasons.  Its one of the few Disney films that really tries to break out of the tired doldrum Disney humor, which often in the past has been considered cute and charming, but not exactly funny.  ALADDIN as a film is a standout among all those films, as the comedy is full charged and well executed.  It’s got a unique style, and is one of the first films in awhile to break away from the 80’s Disney style and allow other styles to influence it.  In this case, it was Al Hirschfeld’s quality line drawing, full of pleasing round shapes that add to the Arabic style.  In an interesting twist, the villain Jafar is played opposite the rest of the cast, full of sharp angles to make him more threatening.

Aladdin3

Jafar has always been one of my favorite villains, and one of the reasons I like him so much is that, while he’s a dangerous threat, he also has an understated sense of humor.  By the end of the film when he goes power crazy, he hilariously starts going into puns.  “Things are unraveling fast now, boy!” (unravels the magic carpet) “Don’t toy with me!” (turns Abu into a Monkey Toy) “I’m just getting warmed up!” (breathes fire) etc. etc.  It’s great that he can be funny as well as equally threatening.  While he brings a serious tone to the film, he’s never too serious that you can’t relate to him.

But of course, one the greatest animation performances in this film is the Genie, masterfully animated by the great Eric Goldberg.  I was watching a documentary on the film, and one of the funny aspects they brought to the character was that the Genie was made Jewish, and the joyful underlying concept of the film is that it’s actually a buddy comedy between a Jew and an Arab.  Animation has never been more manic than with the character of the genie, whose constant transformations are hit with perfect timing.  I remember the first time I saw animation of the Genie in a trailer for Aladdin.  I knew the film was going to be amazing because I had never seen Disney animation go to the level of energy as they did with the Genie.  He’s a great classic character, and an all time great comic performance, both by Williams and Eric Goldberg’s animation team.

Aladdin2

The other thing I want to mention about this film is the music.  Not just the great songs by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, but the great score by Alan Menken, which is one of my favorite of the newer Disney films.  It’s funny how the same score is played as a lighter playful theme for Aladdin, as well as being made ominous for the villain, Jafar.  It’s definitely a classic Disney score.

I imagine the film ALADDIN is probably responsible for a lot of the more comedic animated films we have today, although these later films seem to lack something when it comes to storytelling.  ALADDIN in itself is a blessing in disguise when it comes to how joyously fun it is as a film.  This film did a lot for putting pop culture references, but it does so in a way that makes sense, because the Genie can travel through time.  He can do anything.  So a lot of the jokes he makes, Aladdin kind of shrugs off because he doesn’t get it.  but the rest of the film remains true to itself and it’s comedy and shows it can handle its own even without the aid of Robin Williams.

ALADDIN is a remarkable achievement in animation and story.  Up there with THE EMPERORS NEW GROOVE, it is probably one of the most fun out of the Disney line up of films.  It’s a definite classic and truly one of the great animated films of all time.

Checking In

BornyesterdayJust wanted to write a post and check in because I haven’t written anything for about a month now.  And it’s not that I don’t have anything to write about, I’ve just been busy with a personal project thats taken up much of my time.  But it’s worth it, and I think it’s going to turn into something really special.

In the meantime, I’ve been going to the movies and watching all sorts of films.  And to tell you the truth…I just haven’t been compelled to write about the movies I’ve seen this summer.  Most of them have been pretty disappointing, and I haven’t found that one film this summer to be extraordinary.  There definitely hasn’t been a LOOPER or a DREDD in the bunch, two late summer flicks that were extraordinary.  My last bastion of hope is with THE WORLDS END, which is due in theaters sometime next week.  I’m hoping Edgar Wright and his crew won’t let me down.  Among the films I’ve seen…there was ELYSIUM, which was blah.  It’s overblown message about class warfare and healthcare really just brings the film down.  I’m all for hard core science fiction, but this movie was just too serious for its own good.  And Jodie Foster…God…this is possibly the worst thing she’s ever done.  So bummed out.

On the classic movie front, I think I may have found a couple of films to go on my all time favorite movie list.  BORN YESTERDAY.  If anything, next to CLUELESS and ROMY AND MICHELLE’S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION, this may be my all time favorite dumb blonde movie.  Judy Holiday is hilarious as “Billie Dawn”, a young woman living with her wealthy and powerful boyfriend Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) who has congressmen in the palm of his hand.  Then there’s William Holden’s Paul Varrel, a reporter hired by Brock to help make Billie appear smarter to people in public.  However, through the course of her”makeover”, Billie start’s to wisen up to her boyfriend, and she learns that Harry is in fact a corrupt crook.  Crawford is also hilarious and the uncouth Harry, who is loud and brash and completely full of himself.  There’s a great scene as well where Billie and Harry are playing Gin Rummy that seems to pretty much define their relationship.  If anything, the game is one thing that Billie is really good at, as she gets into it with intense focused concentration.

There were a few other classics I really fell in love with, such as WESTWORLD and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE.  I wrote about both of these films over at This Is Infamous, the new website I’ve been writing for.  I have a couple of new article’s up, one about Brad Bird, and why did he leave the animation industry.  And What Happened To Classic Cartoon Villains? which was another article I had posted.  This is Infamous has been a great experience and an enjoyable site to write for.  I’ve had to spend time trying to come up with more articles and stories.  It’s been good practice for me as a writer, which I hope to carry with me as part of my creative arsenal.  Writing is not easy, and neither is making good storytelling.  But it’s a major part of my learning curve.

I’ve been thinking about how much has changed for me over the last year.  For those who don’t know, I have been a mental health patient.  One of the struggles I’ve had to deal with was being on some heavy medication, which all but took away my creative drawing ability. The one thing I found I had left that I could still do was write.  Even though I didn’t always know what I would write about, I kept doing it anyway as a way for me to push forward.  Things have changed for me now, and I am on a much better medication that gives me freedom to be open and creative.  My attitude about life has been different over the last few years as well, and this run I’ve been through feels like going through the fire.  And I’ve survived.

There’s going to be a lot of things happening with me in the next year or so, and some of it I can’t wait to share with you when the time is right.  Life changes are always interesting and never easy at the same time.  It’s like being reborn, in a sense, and you begin to enter a new field where your destiny awaits you.  What is that destiny?  It’s the new life you manifest for yourself.  The life that begins in the imagination and lives in your dreams.  What you put out the universe will bring back to you.  That really is the interesting part.  And somehow inside, even if were not always not consciously aware of it, we know inside the things we want most.  Sometimes the universe surprises us with an opportunity that leads us to where we really want to be.  It’s our choices in life and our openness to accepting new things that helps us shape and evolve ourselves.  For awhile I felt my life was on the verge of complete disaster.  But that changed over time.  We are at the beginning of a new age, and things are sure to get better, but only to those willing and ready to accept them.

In a little over a week, I will be attending Cinecon, Hollywood’s largest classic film festival at the Grahman’s Egyptian Theater.  It’s a great event, and I will be seeing some terrific films and writing about them as I did with my article from last year.  I hope you will be able to come, it’s from August 29th to September 2.  There are some great surprises.  I mentioned before that last years biggest surprise was getting to see a lost John Ford film called UPSTREAM, which premiered for the first time in over 80 years at Cinecon.  And it was a fantastic film too.  I highly recommend anyone to come and check it out.

That’s it for now.  I have some downtime in the next few weeks, which will mean more writing for me, so hopefully you will see more of what I have in store for you.  Take care.

Turbo (2013) Dir. David Soren

Turbo2

As I said with my Croods review, I’ve been more and more impressed with the quality of films coming out of Dreamworks for the last few years.  They’re not all hits, but few of them have been downright terrible.  In my mind, they have been doing far superior work than Pixar, which has been a continuous decline in terms of creating engaging characters and storytelling.  Turbo is a cute, charming story, with some great visuals, and an exciting third act race.  It’s not always as hilarious as it could be, but the characters are enjoyable to watch and overall it’s just a really fun time.

Turbo, from Dreamworks Animation

One of the major aspects of the movie that works is the relationship between the pair of brothers in the film, the snails Theo (Turbo) and Chet, and Hispanic human brothers Tito and Angelo.  One of course is a dreamer while the other is a realist, trying to keep the other grounded in the reality of their situation.  One needs to get over their a snail, not a race car, and the other needs to live with the fact that they sell tacos, not enrolling snails in the Indy 500.  Which dreamer has the craziest dream?  Who knows, but it’s clear that Turbo and Tito are made for each other the moment they meet.  Turbo wants to be fast, despite his snail life, and dreams of racing all the time.  He especially admires his racing idol Guy Gang’e, the world champion racer at the Indy 500.  Turbo winds up getting his wish, when stuck on a car in a street race, he gets sucked into the engine, gets nitroed up in a special fluid, and gains the power of super speed.  In some aspects he gets literally turned into a racing car, with headlights (his eyes), backing lights, a car alarm, and blasting radio.  Gotta love it when someone’s not afraid to take some cartoon license.  Tito’s dream is to enter his new snail pal Turbo into the Indy 500, with the help of raising cash from other businesses in their outdoor mall plaza.

If I had any gripes with the film, it’s just one I have about animated films in general, in that  I sometimes wish these movies could be a lot funnier.  Not in a way that abandons kids with the humor, but I sometimes get the feeling that there could be so much more potential from the comedy, as opposed to characters just verbally cracking jokes.  It’s animation after all, and there should be the potential for far more physical comedy, especially for a movie about a speedy snail.  It’s the things we come to expect from animated films today…more talking and less action, and it’s something I hope to one day see change.

I suppose my only other complaint about the film was the need to make Guy Gang’e into a villain.  I’m not surprised they did this because there really isn’t anyone else playing as a main antagonist, but I think it’s worth pointing out that not all animated films need a villain.  In the race in the third act, Gang’e doesn’t really do anything “bad” to get in Turbo’s way…well, with the exception of trying to stomp on him to keep him from winning at the last minute.  But that’s also out of desperation.  The majority of the obstacles come from the race itself as Turbo has to keep from getting run over among other things.  Even though Gang’e is an antagonist because he’s racing against Turbo, it doesn’t mean he has to be a bad guy.  This is similar to the problem I had with “Rise of the Guardians” where the Boogyman was made evil and shown a lack of compassion for his situation by the heroes at the end of the movie.  I sometimes think it would be better and more constructive to show kids that antagonist characters aren’t inherently evil, but that they are people who are hurt or have problems like anyone else.  Making them one sided villains doesn’t give you anything to identify with, and it’s something most American animated films should change, giving us villains that have other sides to them and may not necessarily be bad.

Turbo is an entertaining ride, with some great enjoyable characters.  The visuals and racing sequences are fantastic and entertaining.  It’s not the greatest movie ever, but it’s a fun enjoyable ride that can be enjoyed by adults and kids of all ages.

Batman: The Movie (1966) Dir. Leslie H. Martinson

Batman1 There’s nothing like having a joyous revisit to the comic, tounge in cheek world of the 1960’s Batman.  I’ve always loved the original TV show, and the stellar cast of famous movie stars playing the caped crusaders most notorious villains.  The hokiness and cheeseball aspects add to the fun, and now here we have one of the great joys of silly cinema, Batman: The Movie!

It’s funny looking at this movie today because compared to TV shows that are blown up in budget for major theatrical releases, Batman: The Movie doesn’t feel nearly as big, but more like a more expensive episode of the TV series.  But I think that works in the movies favor, in a time when there was no concern to make a Batman movie epic, even for the cheesy 60’s TV series, but the amount of fun the show brings is the same as what’s brought to the big screen.  The big aspects of the film are the fact that Batman’s 4 major villains, The Joker, Catwoman, The Penguin, and The Riddler have joined forces to use a dehydrating machine to reduce U.N. officials to dust and take over the world!  Mwahahahaha.  Along with them are their henchmen, who shout “Yo-ho” after every command, while traveling in the Penguins supersized Penguin shaped submarine.  As silly as the film is, I actually found some of the model and effects work to be impressive, even though they were cartoonified to the max.  The villains, particularly the Penguin, steal the show, but what’s great about the old Batman series is that everyone is brimming to life with personality and character.  Even smaller supporting roles such as Commissioner Gordon and Alfred have their moment in the spotlight.  Batman is given some great comic material, downplaying everything with a “goofy seriousness”.  My favorite scene in the film is when Batman is trying to get rid of a lit bomb, and he runs through the public streets trying to get rid of it.  Everywhere he turns there’s nuns, school children playing, he tries to throw it in the pier and there’s a group of ducklings, until finally he turns to the camera and says “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”  Oh so true.

Batman2

One of my other favorite bits in the film were the times when the heroes were deducing the villains next move:  “But wait! It happened at sea. See? C for Catwoman.” “An exploding shark … was pulling my leg.” “The Joker! It all led to a sinister riddle. Riddle -er. Riddler?”  And you gotta hand it to Robin for his instantanious deductive reasoning and solving riddles.  There’s also a great gag where Batman is in the elevator and reads 7 different languages for the UP button.  Then of course the talked about gag with the porpoise that dives in front of an exploding missile saving their lives.  It’s all great stuff.

It’s funny to see how Batman plays on two different levels, one where kids can take it absolutely seriously, and adults who can enjoy it for the comedy.  Because part of the magic with Batman is how it takes itself completely seriously in the midst of it’s absolute silliness.  There may never be a show or a movie like it ever again, but Batman: The Movie is one of a kind, and it’s great fun for everybody.

Moviecappa One Year Anniversary!!

0Barnaby

Hot damn!  Moviecappa is One year old!  I missed it by two days, it was actually on May 10th, 2012 that I first started this site.  I for one am very grateful that I have kept this site going for that long.  I started this site because I have always had running commentary in my head when I go to the movies as well as when I see what goes on in the industry.  It’s a place for me to talk about why I think the movies are important, and what we can do to see them get better.  It’s also been my vision that this could be a place for filmmakers to come and talk about movies, and discuss the thing we want most out of them:  good storytelling.  This site was created out of passion, and I hope to see more discussion and bigger things to come for this site in the future.  If you have been an ongoing reader of the site, thank you so much for coming back and for your support!  Greater things are yet to come!  So stay tuned!

TheCaineMutinyIMG_0700AB3gaslight3pinocchio4jamesfinlaysonpublicityheadshotdragon1

A Monster In Paris clip

I may have to check this movie out and see if it’s worth recommending. I watched this clip below, and the animation on the angel singer is just extraordinary. Just incredible, beautifully subtle movements. Whoever animated this section is just a master. Now I’m very interested!

Toy Story (1995) Dir. John Lasseter

TS1

I took a great class yesterday from Marshall Vandruff, a terrific artist and teacher. The class was a Visual Storytelling Analysis of the film Toy Story, where we went through the entire film, stopping after each sequence and discussing the story structure and emotional line of the film. It was an absolutely terrific seminar. I wanted to talk a little bit about Toy Story as a film in general, because it really is such a great, well told story.  This is a film where the story was allowed to be what it should have been.  There was a tremendous amount of searching to find the film this would eventually become, but this movie turned out to be the ultimate game changer for animation.  What’s even more astounding is that this film does not feel dated in the slightest.  While the animation and visuals would technically be considered “primitive” to what CG films can do know, Toy Story was still approached with a wonderful artistic eye, and the visuals are still just as wonderful and aesthetically pleasing to the eye as it was when it first premiered.

I was 14 when Toy Story first came out.  From what I do remember about seeing the film, I remember how much I liked it although I didn’t know the impact it would have that one day CG would completely take over the animation field.  I never saw myself wanting to go into a career in CG after this, but I saw it as the use of a different medium.  The story was great, and the film itself was a lot of fun.  There was one particular scene that hit me pretty hard when I first saw it, and still today it’s my favorite scene in the whole film.  It’s basically the fall of Buzz Lightyear when he discovers that he’s not a space ranger, just “an insignificant stupid little toy”.  It’s his fall from grace and his discovery that the world was never what he imagined it would be.  The scene I refer to in this is where Buzz and Woody are talking in the middle of the night at Sid’s house and Woody is trying to get Buzz to help him escape.  Buzz just sits their alone with his sad line, “I can’t help.  I can’t help anybody.”  It’s been a few years since I’ve watched this film, but yesterday as I watched the film I couldn’t help but be moved to tears by this sequence.  Not in a heavy depressed way, but as the scene plays out, the two of them have reached a penultimate moment where they couldn’t get any lower and two guys that were once enemies finally reach common ground.  It’s a beautiful scene.  And when Buzz finally sees the words “Andy” on his shoe and gets the message that there is a new, better life for him out there, you see a character that finds bliss in that moment.

There’s a lot of great visual storytelling devices in this movie.  I’ve always liked the opening sequence with Andy playing with his toys.  The camera is always kept at the Toy’s point of view, even though they are in “play mode”, meaning they don’t move.  When we’re introduced to Woody, who appears to us as just an ordinary toy, the camera keeps everything so that we see what he sees in his head, from going down the stair railing to spinning in the chair with Andy.  One of the interesting things that was pointed out when I was in the class was an idea that started out as a cliche joke and goes on to become an important part of the story.  The scene starts with the army men going to investigate the new birthday presents Andy is getting.  After one of them gets crushed, the wounded soldier shouts out “Go on without me!” to which the Army captain returns and says, “A good soldier never leaves a man behind!”  This theme is echoed through to the final sequence in the film, where twice Woody and Buzz make self sacrifices for each other.  For instance, the first time Buzz is caught in a fence as the moving van is leaving, and he shouts to Woody, “Go on, I’ll catch up”, to which Woody who is right at his moment of victory, decides to jump down and help Buzz.  Then the second time it happens, Woody’s leg is caught in the dogs mouth and he cries out to Buzz, “Take care of Andy for me!”, to which Buzz shouts No! and jumps on the dog, pulling up and snapping its eyelids.

TS2

From a structural standpoint it was interesting to see how so many different elements are set up and paid off later in the movie.  The story structure of this film is a solid as they come.  The sequels were never quite the same when it came to this film, and one of the things I enjoyed about this film was Mr. Potato Head, who is much more of a smart ass, and while he’s not a villain, he is a bit more of an antagonist figure here.  A part of it is that he’s somewhat jealous of Woody’s position as Andy’s favorite toy, and manages to convince the other toys not to let Woody come back to them after what he did to Buzz.  While Potato Head makes some good points, at the same time, you can’t help but feel his motives are a little ulterior even if he’s not conscieous about what he’s doing.  There’s a part of him that already wants Woody to go away anyway, just because Woody decided to be self-proclaimed leader of the toys.  Potato head even gets a bit of comeuppance at the end of the film when the race car flies into him and his body parts scatter all over the place.  And then of course, he gets a happy ending when he finally gets Ms. Potato Head!

TS3

I’ve always had problems with the sequels for this film, because to me the idea of the toys getting replaced because their masters grew up or moved on…for some reason that story was never important to me.  It’s almost like it comes to a shock to all the toys that their master is going to grow up, when I think if every toy before hand had to deal with this, you’d think toys would have some plan or initiative on what to do when they had to move on to another master.  You’d think instead of “holding on” to each other, that one day they would split up and move on to other people, and one day eventually end up in the trash pile.  But that’s just what their existence is.  It seems like they’re not okay with the idea of dying or moving on.  I was more interested in the first Toy Story because it dealt with the toys dealing with ordinary problems that we can relate to as people.  The jealousy of a new toy coming into the picture when Buzz arrives, which angers Woody, is very human and a story we can all relate to when somebody comes into our lives we didn’t ask for and we don’t know how to deal when that person comes in with newer or more impressive ideas than the old toy.  Some of the aspects we talked about in this film were the metaphors about how the space race came in during the 60’s and took over when before every kid was interested in cowboys and Indians and then suddenly everyone was into space and astronauts.  All of this helps to build on a great rivalry with the characters.

Toy Story will always be one of Pixar’s greatest triumphs.  The story is so solid as well because the filmmakers had no choice but to go in that direction.  They had to accept and allow the story to unfold and be what it wanted to be.  It’s disappointing to me that the rest of the Pixar films (at least everything after The Incredibles) couldn’t be as on par and allow their films to bloom in the way that Toy Story does.  It’s just a great solid film, and one of my favorite animated films ever made.

TS4

The Croods (2013) Dir. Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco

Croods001

I’ve always liked Chris Sanders as an artist, but I have never been a huge fan of his films.  I like them, I’m just not flat out in love with them or anything.  Lilo and Stitch is a good film.  But I don’t always know whether its done any justice being under the Disney label.  It’s a little weird, which is fun, but I feel like it could have unleashed so much more, which just ends up making it moderately enjoyable.  As for How To Train Your Dragon, again, it’s a good movie.  But my feeling is that the film is a little too on the nose with it’s subject matter.  It’s kind of “Dragons 101” for anyone who wants to know more about their dragon.  In some ways, I almost wish it could have been a little less obvious.  For instance, I kind of wanted to see some boys with some girl dragons and vise versa, not simply seeing the dragons mimic everything about the characters personalities.  Part of the thing is seeing the dragons tell us aspects about the human character we don’t see on the surface.  We get some aspects of that in the film.  But overall the concept just didn’t blow me over.

Which leads me to The Croods.

I didn’t expect too much out of the film, at least at first.  But ever so slowly it started to grow on me.  I was amused at the funny introduction where the characters would “hunt” in what ended up being a kind of prehistoric football game with the whole family trying to work together to get an egg from a massive prehistoric bird.  I was a little worried at first because the main characters Eep and Grug seemed like yet another angsty teenage daughter story dealing with an overbearing father, which is so commonplace in animated films.  The one thing that was different about this film though, was the movie turned out to be more about Grug going on a journey to overcome his reliance on fear to stay alive.  I have to say that once the film got underway and the characters started off on their adventure, I completely fell in love with The Croods.  There is just incredible imagination at work here, with the wonderful and whimsical character designs for the creatures that inhabit this world.  The funny thing is that the monsters are so cute and equally terrifying at the same time!  Not terrifying in a way that’s going to frighten children, but they’re enough of a threat to keep you going with the characters, as they search for this uncharted world called “To Morrow”.

Croods1

The main reason this movie worked so well on me was the simpleness and uncomplicated nature of the story.  It’s very lighthearted and fast paced.  While I was left concerned for the characters safety, I never felt that we really needed to see any of the characters die to make this more engaging.  It never loses its sense of fun and it never takes itself too seriously.  It gently seems to poke fun at the overused father/daughter storylines we keep seeing in animated films, where Grug basically enforces that anything fun, anything that leads to curiosity leads to DEATH!  I didn’t think I was going to like Nicholas Cage being the voice for an animated character and didn’t believe his voice would be too monotone for animation.  I was wrong, and he does a wonderful job bringing Grug to life as a character, and between the voice work and the animation, he becomes a great, emotional, and well rounded character.

All the characters in The Croods are a joy to watch.  I loved Guy, the cave man who gets all the ideas, and introduces them to fire.  Grugs scenes are also hilarious when he tries to be like Guy and come up with inventions of his own, including “shades”, and then his invention of the “snapshot”, by covering his face in mud, then slamming his face against a rock for the imprint.  Every character has their moment.  What I also loved about The Croods as a family is that they are just hilariously weird and completely zany at times, partially due to the fact that they’re one of the only families left on the face of the earth.  The only character I wish had more development was Grug’s wife Ugga, who is played just a little too straight.  I almost wish there could have been room to give her some more zany attitude and fun like the rest of the family, but part of the problem too is that she kind of fades into the background at times.

Part of the adventure of the film is how the family slowly but surly steps away from Grugs over protective way of life and starts discovering new ways of living in this uncharted world.  Living in caves finally starts becoming unappealing to them, much to Grugs frustrations.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie was where the family gets split up in a canyon and everyone has to find their way out and come up with their own creative method to survive.  Everyone succeeds, except Grug, who is trapped and can’t get through based on his reliance of fear.  It’s not until the final scene, where Grug is ultimately tested when left alone to his own devices, he makes the flight to free himself.

One of the characters that stalks The Croods is a large Saber-tooth cat.  The cat is funny while also being a good threat to our heroes.  But the best scene in the film is towards the climax, where Grug is left alone and the cat stalks him in the caves.  Grug runs for his life holding a torch and being chased by the cat.  At one point the torch goes out leaving him in pitch blackness, and Grug blows frantically on the torch to get the flame back.  As the flame comes back, we also see the cat blowing on the flame trying to get it back as well!  The cat is afraid of the dark!  I died laughing at this moment because it became clear to me what the Saber-tooth cat was for Grug.  The cat is Grug’s dragon.  In this sudden twist, the two of them find each other, and the cat whose been chasing him the entire movie, no longer wants to chase him and doesn’t want to be alone in the dark.  Like Grug.  It was just a lovely, sweet moment.

Croods2

The movie almost never deviates from its light comical tone.  In some ways the movie kind of reminded me a bit of The Emperor’s New Groove, a movie that also isn’t meant to be taken seriously by any means.  It’s great to see cartoons like this, because a lot of times when the story gets heavy handed and serious, it looses its focus as a cartoon and loses its spirit of fun that we just want to embrace with certain films.  I just wanted more of the zany fun that The Croods provided, and it rarely ever lets itself get dragged down with heavy story material.  What helps too is that the story was co-written by Monty Python genius John Cleese, and once I found that out at the end credits, I could see the Pythonesque humor scattered all over the film.

The Croods is a joy to watch, and one of my very favorite animated films to come out in a long time.  I have to say that this is probably my favorite of all Chris Sanders films, because it’s a chance to see his weird side completely unleashed.  The animation is terrific, the visuals are stunning, and overall, this is just a really really fun film.  By all means, go see it while its still in a theater!

Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013) Dir. Sam Raimi

OZ

I’m not sure how exactly to judge a film like Oz: The Great and Powerful.  The movie is pretty much everything I expected it to be.  There were no real genuine surprises.  It’s everything that you would expect from a film that is basically meant to set itself up as a franchise for more Oz movies, making The Wizard of Oz now into a kind of Lord of the Rings Epic, only setting up everything that would be so familiar to us from what we know about Oz, and never deviating towards any new or interesting concepts.

One of my personal favorite Oz films was Disney’s Return to Oz, which came out it 1985.  It’s extraordinary.  Not only that, it’s also frightening as hell, with truly terrifying villains (The Wheelers, Mombi, The Nome King), and a dark gritty world.  Yet it’s everything I feel an Oz film should be.  Heck the original Wizard of Oz from 1939 and the Wicked Witch of The West is one of the greatest and scariest villains of anyone’s childhood.  With Oz:  The Great and Powerful, if there was anything that disappointed me more about the film, it was that complete lack of darkness that, to me, has always been the underbelly of the Oz movies.  The witches in this film are not scary.  Neither are the flying monkeys, or the green faced guards.  When the transformation occurs for The Wicked Witch of the West, for some reason they didn’t bother to change Mila Kunis’ voice.  They still kept her somewhat pretty.  In the back of my mind I kept thinking…this is supposed to be the thing of nightmares?  When Evanora makes her transformation into the Witch of the East, that was the only time I got any sense of fear because she actually looked like a terrifying witch!  It’s ironic that Raimi never explored this dark side considering he’s responsible for The Evil Dead films.  The Evanora witch at the end reminded me of one of Raimi’s creepy witch characters from those films.  But “Oz” never gives any thought to exploring the dark side of the Baum books, which to me shows the greatest misunderstanding for what theses stories are supposed to be about.

This is pretty much the essence of what comes from setting up a completely safe franchise film.  The story, not surprisingly, has absolutely nothing to say about itself.  It throws in some stuff about Oz, who starts out as a charlatan, but really wants to be a good person, making himself a combination of Houdini and Thomas Edison.  At the beginning of the film, it doesn’t make a lot of sense why he has to act the part of being a charlatan, because he’s actually a really good magician.  He does an incredible act in the Kansas carnival, and its surprising that nobody at all really takes him seriously.  With the act that he does, you’d think he would be the headliner for the whole carnival, because it’s really that good.  Franco does a decent job playing Oz, but there was something about his performance that just felt too modernized for me.  I didn’t believe he could have been somebody out of the early 1900’s.  Even though it’s clear to us he’s supposed to obnoxious and kind of a pain in the ass, I felt like didn’t get enough indications in the beginning about his sweeter side.  This is supposed to be Oz when he’s younger, but it’s hard not to compare him in some ways to Frank Morgan, who is also a bit of a trickster and charlatan as well, but he also has a sense of compassion for other people in the early Professor Marvel scenes, like when he wants to help Dorothy go back to her Auntie Em.  I didn’t understand this need for Oz to have to prove to people he was “good” or why he needed convincing in himself.  I’m not sure why the film didn’t make him out to be more of a really bad magician, which I thought was kind of the point in The Wizard of Oz.  Remember his line? :  “I’m a very good man, but just a very bad wizard.”

Oz’s quest to “find himself” is an illusion because that’s essentially what franchise filmmaking is all about…giving the impression the film is about some kind of moral or lesson the character has to learn, when the true reason for the film is making it as grandiose a spectacle as possible, giving us pretty visuals, a couple of cute sidekicks, not so scary villains who wants to take over the world, something about a prophecy, establishing a heroic group of characters, and by the end setting itself up for more films.  The thing you have to remember too about the original Wizard of Oz was that it was not a hit at the box office.  It was actually considered a failure and didn’t find success with audiences until it started appearing on television, and finally video years later and people started to see and accept what an incredible story it really was.  The original story resonates with all of us…because what that film is really about is finding your way home to yourself.  That theme is what encompasses the entire original movie, and while it has spectacular visuals just like this new Oz film, the theme holds out more than anything and The Wizard of Oz never loses sight of what it is supposed to be.  When Disney made The Return to Oz, it took the story to another level, taking Dorothy deeper into more frightening aspects of her psychology.  The destruction of Oz represents her crumbling psyche into insanity.  It’s brilliant.  Ironically, someone felt they should do a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, but whoever made that decision doesn’t understand one crucial aspect to the story:  Oz is nobody else’s world except Dorothy’s.  It’s kind of like we’re entering somebodies dream world without the actual dreamer being present.  Oz is Dorothy’s world.  Not Oz The Great and Powerful’s.  Oz represents the wonderful place inside yourself.  So what is it supposed to mean for Franco’s Oz, who comes to this place but nobody tells him he can ever go back home?  He’s trapped there, and what’s interesting is that he never struggles with the notion that he might want to leave and go back to his old life.  Even if he finds out how great his is to these new batch of people, he has no chance to go back home and prove himself to the people of Kansas.

But like I said, this is a franchise film, which is not a film that’s supposed to be about something, but instead inducing as much spectacle as possible into the film to please movie fans and get them to want to come back for more.  Oz: The Great and Powerful isn’t about anything other than that.  If we were clued into the fact that we’re in Dorothy’s world without Dorothy being present, the whole concept would shatter.  Already to me it’s the reason this film can never do justice to itself because it introduces a setup to something that was never really meant to have a setup to begin with since its a part of somebody else’s imagination.  It’s a film with little to no real imagination, relying strictly on those familiar aspects of the Oz story so the audience can play a guessing game with it: “Oh…that’s supposed to be the poppy fields…that’s supposed to be the witch of the East/West/North…There’s the scarecrow!  But he’s not alive.  I wonder how they will make him alive in the next film?”  Yet these are all questions that never really needed answering to begin with.

To be honest, I didn’t hate the film, but the movie just never convinced me it needed to exist.  It didn’t really surprise me that I couldn’t find a reason for it being here.  But it almost would have made more sense if the story fell into the realm of satire, or allowed itself to just be intentionally goofy.  Sam Raimi has a great knack for comedy, but here the gags just all fall flat.  We have no investment in the characters, and the film won’t rise above its own concept and allow itself to be more silly and fun…or even scary.  It’s just completely Disneyfied and completely inoffensive.  I wasn’t bored by the movie, but after awhile I just found that it really had nothing going for it, and a concept that doesn’t make much of any sense to begin with.