30 November 2010

BURLESQUE IS YET TO COME

There's been some chatter as to whether Burlesque is a bad enough movie to be good, which is sort of the wrong approach to take: I should like to claim on the contrary that Burlesque is good enough to be a good movie. It is, specifically, only as good as it has to be, and not one inch more; and it's the "once inch more" that separates perfectly satisfying, entertaining movies from great films. But expecting a great film from a picture titled Burlesque (or more to the point, from a Cher/Christina Aguilera vehicle titled Burlesque) would have been a folly, and the project does what it aims to do. There are, yes, ways that it could have done the same thing while being better, and at least one of these was never going to happen. But any judgment of Burlesque as a "bad movie" is necessarily a conceptual one, for it is on the whole a perfectly well-executed version of the concept.

It's a concept you've seen, by the way: poor girl from the sticks makes good in Los Angeles, while impressing the cynical old master, winning the cute boy, and fighting off the dreaded land snatch. Yes indeed, there is a shady real estate deal underpinning the thing that writer/director Steve Antin dares to call a "plot", and the happy resolution involves juggling the air rights over Sunset Blvd. - and not least of the film's problems is that the concept of "air rights" has no real place in a movie whose emphatically stated raison d'être is "Here be divas" - and generally speaking, if you are not able to correct predict every ebb and flow of of the narrative at least a half-hour in advance, then you are also probably not reading this review, because they don't get the internet in caves.

But then again, Antin does not presume that he is working with anything but the mustiest of backstage drama clichés, and bless him and his movie for being utterly devoid of shame. Burlesque is happy to rip-off every "girl from the country becomes a star" story to pre-date the cinema; to borrow from both Bob Fosse's film version of Cabaret and Sam Mendes's 1990s stage revival of same, so liberally that I stopped bothered trying to pay attention midway through the first song (even the font used in the credits, for Christ's sake!); to care not in the slightest degree about any of the narrative grinding, delighting in needlessly torturing the audience by stretching out the romantic subplot way beyond the point of reason, knowing that we know exactly where it's going. It does all these things not because Antin is lazy - indeed, to judge from the sheer number of camera set-ups he must have been heavily caffeinated (or more) for every second of the shoot - but because, I mean, come on: the goddamn title is Burlesque. Pastiche and copying and mucking about in the lowest-brow tropes possible is the very point of such an endeavor. A more solid story, told with more cunning and depth, could not have been the same movie, because at that point it would have been, I don't know, Coal Miner's Daughter in lacy lingerie, and it would have been almost respectable, and that's just wrong. A movie called Burlesque must be tacky and trashy. And lo! it is both of these things.

Essentially, there are two parts to the movie: the plot parts, which often suck and are boring, and the musical parts. I take that back, for there's even a third part: the dishy backstage melodrama in which Cher looks mildly bemused at this eager pop-tart trying to prove that she knows what's what (and well she might, being, after all, Cher), while Kristen Bell huffs and puffs and is ecstatically bitchy, getting one of the best withering put-down lines in recent memory, while being afforded many opportunities to act sloshed; and Stanley Tucci remains over here to the side, beatifically allowing his sensible dry wit to ground all of the whirling gargoyles in woman's form swirling about him, and making a tossed-off, even stupid joke about wearing a wig into one of the funniest mvie moments in 2010, and being non-threateningly gay. Among its many other acts of thievery, Burlesque transparently wants us to compare it to Showgirls, and it fails utterly to earn that comparison; but that's the ballpark of where we're at.

It's the "plotty" plot where the movie goes awry; when the biggest conflict in a script is wondering how long it shall take someone to observe that Cam Gigandet is prettier than Eric Dane, it is officially a conflict-free script. The interpersonal politics of Burlesque are hypnotically arbitrary, designed solely to bloat out a movie that really should have been aiming for the 90 minute mark, not 120; but whatever. Eventually, Christina and Gigandet make out, with him wearing a strategically low-riding towel, and all the women and gay men in the audience cheer, and the straight men in the audience- no, I don't even have a gag to cover how unlikely it is that there's a straight man watching Burlesque who wasn't paid to do it.

And that leaves the music: eight Christina songs and two Cher songs, which is a criminally insufficient use of Cher, though Antin knows that she's the real showstopper here, which is why her second number, a pretty darn good if not hugely specific barn-rattler called "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me", is the only aesthetically sedate part of the whole picture: just the singer, teal lighting, and a bit more editing than I'd have preferred - and for these reasons it is by far the best moment in the film. Christina's songs are a bit more "pop" than "burlesque", despite the ominpresence of the word "burlesque" in the titles - once used as a verb, no less! - but only an idiot would go about saying that she doesn't have a powerful voice. It is a voice with less personalty than Cher's doubtlessly. But that's not the same thing.

What Ms. Aguilera lacks, though... there are two types of reviews of her performance, the "I am shocked that she is such a good actress" group, and the "I am not shocked that she is not a good actress" group, and I belong to the latter. There's obviously a lot worse that things could be: she has nothing on the e. coli awfulness of Britney Spears in Crossroads. But let us just say that in a film that wasn't already awash with garish camp, her stiff, unnatural, and frankly uncharismatic performance wouldn't work at all, and it's hard not to side with Bell's angry eyes every time she looks at her rival. Besides, the 29-year-old Aguilera was maybe not the swellest choice to play an ingenue; she is as far as far can be from an old hag, but nor is she as fresh and bright and glowing as the script seems to want her to be. Then again, the ages of characters is plainly not a huge concern to Burlesque, which at one point seems to imply that Cher and Kristen Bell are near-contemporaries.

Anyway, the film is ludicrous and wildly unexceptional except when it is stealing everything it possibly can from Fosse, and has a shit script and the acting is all over the map. I still loved it, without irony. Because frankly, the film is almost totally without irony as well, and for something this breathtakingly artificial, a lack of irony is decidedly refreshing. Along with Step Up 3D, it is my least-guilty guilty pleasure of the year.

7/10

29 November 2010

DISNEY SUNDRIES: PRACTICALLY PERFECT IN EVERY WAY


"There's this guy who's utterly a banker, and he doesn't have time for his family, or for living, or anything. And Mary Poppins, she comes down from the clouds and shows him what's important. Fun. Flying kites. All that stuff... It's a cute movie. Maybe not everybody's thing, but, y'know... Dick Van Dyke's British accent defies belief. 'Hoh 'hits a jolly 'oliedye wiv yew, Mairee Pawpins!' Y'know. Cute."
-Neil Gaiman's Death, on Mary Poppins
Nearly every period of Disney's corporate history has been in some way a transition: from shorts to features; from lavish to cost-saving animation, from Walt Disney his successors; from girly musicals that everybody loves to boy-centered action movies that nearly everybody dislikes. One of the most significant transitions, perhaps even the most important time in Disney's evolution as a company, was the 1950s: when the studio began to wholeheartedly embrace live-action films and television, and the pace of new animation was slowed to a crawl; when Walt himself was too excited about his new theme park Disneyland to pay much attention at all to the movies coming out with his name attached.

Beginning with 1950's Treasure Island, the studio found it could make more money with less labor by focusing on movies without a trace of animation, and it took only a few years for this to explode in a brand new business model for Disney. Some numbers: between 1945 and 1949, Disney released 73 animated shorts, one live-action short and seven features, all of which were at least partially animated. From 1950-1954, they released 79 animated shorts, six live-action shorts, and ten features, of which only only three had any animation at all. From 1955-1959, they released a mere sixteen animated shorts - and in 1957 and 1958, they released no films at all starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, or Goofy, the first time this had happened since Mickey's 1928 debut - and 19 features, of which two were animated. Much of the animators' energy at this time was devoted to the hellish production of Sleeping Beauty, ultimately released in 1959, and the rest went to the creation of short sequences for the Disneyland television series.

It is maybe not entirely fair to say that the second half of the 1950s found Walt Disney Productions in a state of artistic crisis; but with Walt himself occupied with things other than moviemaking, the company was adrift and little of their output from that period was ever canonised, by Disney or audiences, as classic cinema. And as the 1960s began, Disney was clearly positioning itself as a producer of largely disposable family entertainment that, very occasionally, put out an animated movie.

Walt Disney's feelings on this change have never been made public; he was certainly not afraid of money, and he'd long since used up most of his artistic ambitions. But there must have been something deep within the man that looked with something less than pride at Johnny Tremain, The Absent-Minded Professor, Babes in Toyland, and a host of other perfectly decent, largely ephemeral family comedies and adventure pictures, for in the waning years of his life he committed himself to a new film project with an energy he had not devoted to anything but Disneyland in a decade or more.

This was Mary Poppins, released in 1964, a good 26 years after Walt had first approached British author P.L. Travers about adapting her then-new series of novels. Travers refused, fearing that Disney would sand the hard edges off of her brusque magical nanny, and inject a good dose of loosey-goosey Americanism into the project and since this is exactly what ended up happening, we can perhaps understand why she was so resistant to the producer's entreaties. In the '60s, however, Travers found herself without much money, and agreed to let Disney take a crack at the material as long as she could be involved in script development. This didn't last very long (Walt and the screenwriters were shockingly unreceptive to notes largely consisting of "make it less funny and not a musical"), and Travers despised the final product more than just about anyone else has ever despised the Disneyfication of their work; for the rest of her life she never stopped fighting the company's further efforts to make further use of her work, though just before her death in 1996, she outlined a number of strict rules for the development of the Mary Poppins stage musical.

Travers, who I'm sure was a lovely woman, adored by her family, was a fucking idiot.

Mary Poppins has often been suggested as Walt Disney's favorite amongst all the many films he produced in his 65 years of life; whether that's so, it certainly remains one of the best films ever produced by his company, indeed one of the best American films of the 1960s, just about the only film that can be idly compared to The Wizard of Oz as a masterpiece of family cinema, in terms of its technical ambition, emotional honesty, joyous energy, and glorious soundtrack (to me, Mary Poppins vies with only Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast and perhaps The Little Mermaid as having the best songs of any Disney feature). That it was far more special than just another Disney family movie is plain: it was the first film in 16 years to combine animation with live-action footage, it cost more than any Disney film not fully-animated ever had, it was fussed over more by its producer than anything his company had released since World War II. For its pains, Mary Poppins was nominated for 13 Oscars (an honor it shared, at the time, with only three films: Gone with the Wind and From Here to Eternity, as well as All About Eve, which held the record with 14), winning five; and it was the highest-grossing film of 1964.

Of course, none of these statistics argue to the film's quality; the film itself makes that argument. It is the single glowing moment of sheer unmixed genius in the long stretch of lightweight successes and dreary failures that made up nearly three whole decades of Disney's output in the '60s, '70s, and '80s; a fantasy of the most delicate touch and charming disposition, sweet and precious while being neither sickening nor cloying. It is the most persuasive of all the studio's many propaganda pieces arguing that the only thing you needed in life was family and a good attitude and the whole world will be yours. And all of its achievements are that much more impressive when we note that Mary Poppins is afflicted both with serviceable, uninspired direction by Robert Stevenson (a Disney mainstay at the time), and with a screenplay by Bill Walsh and Don Da Gradi that is, by every classical rule of structure and character, almost totally dysfunctional.

The latter point is the more surprising, perhaps, because it is absolutely unnoticeable if you're not looking, for the very good reason that the script works outstandingly well despite its infidelity to the usual forms. In its broadest aspect, Mary Poppins is unnervingly similar to that earlier example of Disney mixing animation and live-action, Song of the South: a distant parent (the mother there, the father here); an otherworldy parental figure who isn't the story's protagonist in any way, despite being the focal character; trips through animated worlds that are specifically presented as fantasies created by that magical figure; there are three fantasy setpieces; the conflict is resolved when the parent realises that nuclear familitude is more important than rules and an iron fist, and the magical otherparent recedes with no small amount of satisfied regret. Both movies are even best-known for a song based on a nonsense word! Now, there's obviously a lot more in the way of differences than there are similarities, and Song of the South is hardly complex enough to count even as a dry-run for Mary Poppins; but the two stories have a great deal more in common than Mary Poppins does with the later films Disney released, attempting to duplicate its success.

One of the primary differences is that Song of the South is wholly about the young hero Johnny, learning to be self-reliant and brave with the aid of the kindly Uncle Remus. The story is his arc entirely; his mother's change of heart is brought about because of his actions (if "getting gored by a bull" counts as an action). Mary Poppins is about... well, that's the whole thing. The story of the Banks family - father George (David Tomlinson), a banker, mother Winifred (Glynis Johns), a political activist, and the children Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber) - doesn't have a clear protagonist in the way that SotS is all about Johnny. Certainly, the magical nanny, Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews), who appears in the Banks's household to assume, with great temerity, management of the children's lives, isn't the protagonist: she's an object of nature, who changes not at all except in that when nobody but the audience is watching, she permits herself to feel things that she hides at all other times.

Consider this, though: for most of the 139-minute film, the action follows Mary Poppins and the children, through a series of playful adventures which mostly involve Poppins's old friend Bert (Dick Van Dyke), a jack-of-all-trades. These incidents do not "matter" to the conflict: Jane and Michael are excited and delighted by what they see, but they cannot really be said to learn anything about how to deal with their situation except in the most general possible way. After about two hours, of this, following an incident in which the children have caused a terrible situation for Mr. Banks, he has a heart-to-heart with Bert in which he slowly realises that Mary Poppins's indulgence in what he considers frivolity has brought more joy and meaning to his children than all of his loveless rules and precision ever have, and by the time he arrives at his bank to be fired, this has sunk in enough that he has decided to embrace the Poppins worldview, and as a direct result, is made both a better father and a more successful businessman.

Until this point, however, Mr. Banks has been largely a background figure, driving only the opening scenes and appearing in the interim to huff and puff about the nanny's curious ways. This sudden break, nearly at the end of a none-too-short movie, in which he suddenly becomes the film's prime mover and the only person who undergoes a genuine change, should be disastrous. It should - and does - mean that the film really doesn't possess a main character (I have little doubt the children get the most screentime, though Mary Poppins herself unquestionably makes the greatest impression). It also doesn't make the film an iota less successful. Not to argue from anecdote, but: in my life, I have almost certainly seen Mary Poppins in excess of 50 times - mostly as a child, but it remains to this very day one of the things I like to put on when I'm feeling unwell and need to be cheered and relaxed. And I have never, in all those years and all those viewings, ever noticed that prior to his conversion at the bank, George is a man in whom we have virtually no emotional investment whatsoever.

How does the film get around this? Mostly, I think, by thematic cohesion: as it is titled Mary Poppins, so is the film largely about the effect of Mary Poppins on other people: first she makes the children happy by example, then she makes Mr. Banks happy by the same example. It's a film about optimism and imagination, as presented by a sort of human avatar of those characteristics. The obvious & unfortunate side-effect of this reading is that it must deny Mary Poppins any sort of character or agency: she is an idea and concept and a metaphor, not a person, and this is unacceptable in the face of the stunning debut film performance of Julie Andrews (aggressively courted by Disney at the same time that Warner Bros. was shutting her out of its adaptation of My Fair Lady, on the grounds that she was "unknown"), a manifestly excellent combination of the subtle-

-the comic-

-the starchy-

-and the hauntingly humane.

Best, I guess, to embrace the tautology that Mary Poppins works because it works. Ask anyone who has fallen in love with it in the more than four decades since its premiere, and I image they'll all have much the same to say: it's happy, it makes you feel good, it promises that nobody is beyond hope, and it shows that wonderful things can happen in any setting. Perhaps it is thus the rare film whose development is primarily emotional over the course of the narrative, rather than driven by character or plot. Whatever the case, it is one of the few genuinely transporting movies that have been made: films which seem to cause the outside world to halt for a little while and replace it with a much happier and more appealing world of the filmmakers' choosing.

Oh such a world it is! Shot entirely indoors on soundstages not lit to look even slightly like actual exterior locations, Mary Poppins is nothing if not glaringly artificial. This only adds to its charm; it is a most lavish and lovingly detailed artifice, not a rinky-dink cheap one, and it feels not unlike taking a look inside a toybox version of London, or choose your own metaphor for fantasy and magical realist abstraction. The point being, the world of Mary Poppins looks to be the kind of place where things are a bit impossible to begin with, which makes the presence of a nanny who flies with the aid of an umbrella (that has a talking parrot-head handle, no less) fit in with the dreamlike state of the movie, rather than stand out as a difficult or alien element. It is the most important thing possible that we not find Mary Poppins alienating; she must seem like the most natural and lovable thing in a London of which she after all always remains in complete control. This is her world, not ours, in other words; and her world is a bit grand and stagey, it turns out.

Perversely, the very lack of truly great filmmaking is a boon to the film in this regard: Stevenson's lack of cunning and polish lends Mary Poppins an almost paradoxical feeling of being at once rough-hewn and slightly inept, even as it is beautiful and grand and ambitious. The genius of this - using "genius" advisedly, for I rather imagine it happened purely by accident - is that the film is both mammoth and friendly, never impoverished and thus insulting to its targeted family audience, but never demanding too much of them, either. It is a nigh-flawless blend of the need to be both good and simple - just look at the same year's My Fair Lady, in which George Cukor and team of top-shelf craftsmen made a musical that is quite sharp and polished (though, like Mary Poppins, a bit stagebound, and without the thematic justification), but a bit too starchy for its own good; My Fair Lady does not care if you like it, while Mary Poppins is as eager as possible for you to jump right in and fly a kite with the characters (for his well-aimed hackery, Stevenson was on the same Best Director slate as Stanley Kubrick with Dr. Strangelove, a situation that becomes more impossible the longer you hold it in your head. Both men lost to Cukor).

Where the film triumphs is in the details: the candy-colored set design, the impressively precise editing by Cotton Warburton that manages to hide all of the seams of the film's visual effects without bringing the slightest attention to the fact that it's doing so, and those effects themselves: for Mary Poppins is truly one of the most impressive special-effects driven movies of all time, adjusted for the advances made in technology since then. Oh, it's reprehensibly easy to stand here in the CGI age and find even the finest effects in Mary Poppins to be anything but ageless - for they are certainly not perfect. When Mary Poppins perches an awkwardly mechanical robin on her finger (as unconvincing a robot bird as the monstrosity that ends Blue Velvet, 22 years later), it is unlikely that anyone now will find themselves supposing that it's a real animal - and I am sure they didn't in 1964. Because the film has a certain way of admitting to its technical limitations and then breezing by them; the energy of the performances and the bright, maddeningly tuneful songs that keep the film at a peppy high do not allow us to focus on the evilest problems of the movie. The robin convinces me because Julie Andrews and the Sherman brothers are telling me that it is a robin, and they are both so certain and earnest that I would feel mortified to disagree with them.

One can say little about either the performances or the songs that has not been said: Andrews is legendary in the role, and her adult co-stars have nothing to be ashamed of: Van Dyke, notwithstanding his infamous accent (which he was well aware of, and frankly I defy anybody not to allow that it's charmingly cheesy rather than annoying), is at the height of his abilities as a physical comic performer, with a rubber face and rubber body that well suit the absurdities of the roles he plays (his reaction to Mary's implied refusal to even remotely think of him as a romantic partner in the song "Jolly Holiday" is extraordinary. The ever-underrated Tomlinson is at his very best - the climactic firing scene upon which the hole movie hinges works almost solely because of his ability to convincingly transition from mortal fear to that giddy high that comes when you realise that you've got nothing to lose and it's not as bad as you thought, on the strength of a barbarically corny joke - and Johns, given a self-contradicting and somewhat arbitrary character (quick: does the film approve of her role as a suffragette? If you're certain of your answer, you're smarter than I), at least manages to play Mrs. Banks as a human being and not a cartoon.

As for the songs! There's a good reason why "Feed the Birds" was the song that Walt Disney always listened to when he needed a cry: its soaring chorale, a secular hymn if ever one was written, plus the gentle grace of its lyrics, provides for one of the most overwhelmingly moving musical moments in cinema, and if Richard and Robert Sherman had no other songs to their credit, they would be all-time geniuses. But there's not a single clinker in the batch, though I doubt that I am alone in finding that I often drift during the lullaby "Stay Awake", for the wrong reasons (it was going to be cut, until Andrews refused to take the role without it). Still, that leaves a lot to adore: the dry sarcasm inherent in "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" ("When you deposit tuppence in a bank account / Soon you'll see / That it blooms into credit of a generous amount / Semiannually!"), the activity of "Step in Time", the joy of "Let's Go Fly a Kite", the sheer unbridled bigness of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious".* The Oscar-winning "Chim-Chim-Cheree" is probably not the best number in the film, but it provides an elegant throughline for the film's music - and before Alan Menken entered the picture, did any Disney film have anything remotely as musically sophisticated as the underscore to Mary Poppins? Just the use of "Chim-Chim-Cheree" and "A Spoonful of Sugar" as character motifs is sufficient to make it one of the more intelligently-scored mainstream Hollywood films of the 1960s.

Since the alleged reason I am reviewing this film - "I love it, and it's great" is not a good reason, apparently - is because it contains some animation, I should probably at least mention the "Jolly Holiday" sequence; though it is, in truth, not terribly exceptional. The aesthetic of Disney animation after One Hundred and One Dalmatians in 1961 had become very graphic, linear and, though I don't really want to use this word, cheap. The animals in Mary Poppins do not in any way challenge this aesthetic (in the way that the animation in So Dear to My Heart was sometimes very experimental by Disney standards), although the backgrounds - both the ones composited in, and the ones the actors stood in front of - are subtle, handsome reminders that this is a chalk world. Really, though, while the degree of interaction between the actors and the drawings is probably more ambitious than it ever had been, it's kind of strange to note that, as far as convincingly marrying the two levels of film together, the technology had not advanced much since Song of the South: it still looks like those penguins are pasted "above" Mary and Bert.

Still, the character design of the humans in the sequence is about as appealing as anything Disney did throughout the 190s: amusing caricatures that would have been unacceptable as protagonists or major characters in an animated narrative are quite good enough for their quick appearance here. And the ludicrously straitlaced depiction of the English countryside - unlike the rest of the Americanised setting, it's obvious that Disney was being pawky here - is gaudy enough to be fun. Even if the Irish fox fretting about "redcoats" is a bit more queasy-making than silly.

Mary Poppins, the last great film of Walt Disney's career, would also be the last truly sincere Disney film in many years: depending on the level of cynicism you have regarding the 1990s films, it is perhaps the last sincere Disney film ever. It is a labor of love made by a man who as basically crapping money by the early 1960s, a precious rare combination of honest storytelling and ready commercial promise that remains arguably the most uncommon film of all: a big damn blockbuster with a deeply moving and emotionally honest heart. That some people do not love Mary Poppins is perhaps evident from the many parodies it has kicked off over the years; though no doubt even some of those parodies are born of affection. Mary Poppins is all innocence and optimism, unpopular positions in a postmodern age, but I find its resolute inability to descend into kitsch, camp, or treacly, annoying sentiment, instead remaining a witty, fleet entertainment, to be the finest proof that has ever existed that, for all his shadiness as a businessman and ethical lapses, Walt Disney was one of the greatest humanists in American movie history, and that when his company was at its best, none could compete with its sweet, unforced uplift and cheer. And Mary Poppins finds Walt Disney Productions at its absolute best.

25 November 2010

DISNEY ANIMATION: IT'S WARM AND REAL AND BRIGHT

In the dark days of the early Aughts, when Disney animation was at its lowest ebb since the 1970s with critical and commercial washouts like Atlantis: The Lost Empire dragging the brand name down into the muck, everybody had an idea to save the company. Throw out Michael Eisner; re-commit to the most beautiful possible traditional animation; get the hell away from traditional animation; copy DreamWorks and Pixar; stake out a third way as far as possible from those companies; all in all, things were in the kind of chaotic panic that only the nightmarish disintegration of an iconic film studio could bring about.

Into all this confusion, legendary animator Glen Keane - the first member of the Disney Renaissance generation to attain superstar status, as early as his amazing work animating the bear in The Fox and the Hound in 1981 - went to his bosses with the most obvious idea ever: the films that people LOVE, the ones that first leap to mind when the word "Disney" is spoken, are the fairy tale movies. Every time a new Atlantis or Emperor's New Groove came out, that was the sigh of a significant portion of the audience and critical community: what Disney does best are folkloric princess stories, and why oh why don't they adapt another one? Keane's idea was glamorously simple: make another fairy tale movie.

Of course, it's a canard that Disney = fairy tales. Though the count depends on how you define "folklore", and even "based on", it's nevertheless impossible to plausibly defend more than about a third of the Disney features as based on folklore, and some of the most historically popular - Dumbo, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Lion King - are the farthest removed from that alleged Disney ideal. But nonetheless, Keane came at the executives with a solid enough concept - not just "make a fairy tale movie", but "make a movie based on Rapunzel, the most prominent Grimm story we haven't touched"- that he got the go-ahead to take the film into active development; it would be his first film as director. With one single proviso: Rapunzel Unbraided, as it was then called an irreverent, ironic adaptation in the Shrek vein, had to be a CGI picture. Sorry. But didn't you hear, we're killing traditional animation?

Unconvinced but willing to try, Keane - whose work in Treasure Planet on John Silver was the most innovative marriage of two generations of animation technology ever accomplished - gathered a symposium of 50 animators, partisans of both the computer and the paper pad, in April, 2003, and they discussed in detail the positive and negative aspects of what each technology offered. The end result left Keane feeling comfortable that CG animation had great storytelling potential, that it was not different from hand-drawn animation as he'd feared, and that Disney had computer-savvy artists who could create imagery with the impressionistic softness of painting and the environmental depth of a computer game. He committed himself to making Rapunzel Unbraided as a marriage of the two disciplines: the most advanced technology with the design mentality and expressiveness of pencils and pens.

A happy ending for all, except that in 2003, when this discussion happened, the technology needed to achieve Keane's vision didn't exist; and if it was ever going to exist, Walt Disney Feature Animation had to invent it. Which they did, and the years stretched on with Rapunzel Unbraided always popping up in stories about Disney's future even as films like Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons and Bolt came and went. Many changes happened: Keane was joined as director by animator Dean Wellins in 2007, and in 2008 they stepped down for story artist Nathan Greno and animator/writer Byron Howard; Keane stayed on to executive produce alongside new Disney poo-bah John Lasseter, while Wellins moved on to other projects. The snarky Shrek tone was diluted in every subsequent draft. Rapunzel Unbraided became simply Rapunzel, and its presumed company-saving resurrection of the classic Disney fairy tale princess got sniped when The Princess and the Frog zipped in and out of development and brought back the traditionally-style animated feature.

The grimmest effect that The Princess and the Frog had on Rapunzel's fortunes, however, was not to steal its thunder - as the rebirth of 2-D animation, it probably had the greater moral claim to bringing back the princess film anyway. Sadly, TPatF did only middling box-office at best, snuffing the 2-D Renaissance in its cradle, and the executives had one explanation for why: the word "Princess". The all-important preteen boys didn't want to see a girl movie, went the thinking; and it's sad to wonder if they might be right (the two highest-grossing Disney films of the 1990s, after all, were Aladdin and The Lion King). So Rapunzel was re-named again; this time given the unpromisingly sterile name Tangled, under which it was finally released. By the beginning of 2010, months before the film's committed starting date, it was too late to massively rejigger the plot - which was as old-school as any Disney film had been since the early '90s - but the admen did their very best to pretend they had, stressing the film's male lead and all the snotty modernist humor they could take out of context in what were surely among the most ill-considered and inappropriate trailers in several years.

For Tangled, the all-important 50th feature released by Walt Disney Animation Studios - a fact it proudly trumpets in gigantic text that fills up the screen during the leader - is in not the slightest way an attempt to run from the tradition of the Disney fairy tale, like it had seemed from every one of the gruesome ads; though it is true that it is a film looking both forwards and backwards, this is solely in terms of technology and aesthetic. In narrative terms, Tangled couldn't be more of a self-satisfied throwback if it tried, adding a breezy sense of contemporary humor (but not at all in the smirky, insincere manner of Chicken Little doing its best DreamWorks impersonation) to a story that is so utterly steeped in Disney lore that a dedicated viewer could probably trace almost every single plot element backwards to some place in the canon.

It makes for a fascinating companion piece with The Princess and the Frog, which is tonally more like a classic Disney film, but has a great deal of fun messing with the tropes governing the form; while Tangled, despite its loose, jokey aimlessness (that makes a not-wholly-earned dive toward achingly sincere romance and then pronounced horror in the rushed final 20 or so minutes), is such a typical Disney film in every other respect that it seemed even as I was watching it for the first time that I'd already seen it and was merely revisiting it now in a spirit of nostalgia. A wicked hag, Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) is hoarding the power of a magic flower all to herself, when the king's guards take it in the hope of curing the queen during a difficult pregnancy. That means the magic is now in the little girl, whose hair glows and grows at a scary pace from the day she is born, which is why Gothel steals the girl and locks her in the top room of a tower in a hidden glen, keeping the youth-granting power of the hair all to her evil self.

Shortly before her 18th birthday, the girl Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) sings an "I Want" song to her toy-ready animal companion, a chameleon named Pascal, in which we find that she just wants to leave the tower once, to see the floating lights that appear every year (this is the kingdom's tribute to the missing princess. Gothel comes along to sing the cloying, seductively cruel villain song, in which she lays out the thicket of lies which have kept Rapunzel in her thrall. Elsewhere, a vagabond rogue named Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi) is hiding from the palace guards, and the surpassing determined guard horse Maximus, and his flight takes him right to Rapunzel's tower. After beating the young man into a coma, Rapunzel realises that he's her ticket to that one night of the floating lights, if only she can trick Gothel into leaving for a few days. The story pretty much takes care of itself from there, although there is at least one musical number that I was genuinely not expecting, whatsoever, the "comic routine involving burly men and fey sight gags" song that I hope becomes a new Disney tradition, ideally beginning with next year's Winnie-the-Pooh.

Of course, this pronounced lack of narrative freshness is a feature, not a bug: Tangled doesn't work because of the specifics of its story, or even of its characters (Rapunzel is no more specific than any other yearning Disney heroine, while Flynn is an infinitely blander variant of the charming hero-thief played by, among others, his namesake Errol Flynn), but because of the enthusiasm and commitment with which it knows that it's a Disney fantasy. Tangled is a fun movie, and even more than it is fun, it is joyous: an almost unnerving lack of cynical distance pervades every moment, beginning almost as soon as the plot properly begins with the first of Alan Menken and Glenn Slater's rock-inflected songs, a bright ditty called "When Will My Life Begin" (the "I Want" song) that doesn't rank among the truly great Disney tunes - it's not a patch on its obvious precursor, "Part of Your World" - but gets the action kicked out of the gate with marvelous energy, with Menken returning to the thing he does best three years after putting his name to the functional but sleepy tunes from the Disney princess parody/homage Enchanted. The song also plunges us headfirst into the movie's humor; mustn't forget the humor. After all, it's as a comedy that Tangled is perhaps the rarest: relying not on the knowing wink-wink gags of Shrek and Enchanted, movies that invite the audience to laugh for being smarter than the audience; nor the barrel-scraping tedium of most family-friendly humor, in which oblique references to shitting are the height of wit. It's a movie that is funny simply by being funny, which seems more and more bold to me the more I sit and think about it. How else to describe the decidedly un-hip approach taken by these lyrics, which open that song:
Seven AM, the usual morning line-up
Start on the chores, and sweep till the floor's all clean
Polish and wax, do laundry and mop and shine up
Sweep again
And by then
It's, like, seven-fifteen
The good-natured shrug of that final line -and the unexpected "like" - is playful without being above the characters, the scenario, or the viewer; and that's the dominant mode of comedy throughout the film, whether in the bantery dialogue that stands in for a relationship between Rapunzel and Flynn, or in the pantomime and mugging expressions of Pascal and Maximus - the former of whom is as appealing and charismatic as any Disney sidekick animal designed for the toy stores has been since the early 1990s. Without being silly, clever, or sarcastic, Tangled is simply damn pleasant and "up"; a completely guileless comedy, and when was the last time one of those was attempted?

There is, of course, a problematic flip side to all of this, which is that Tangled sort of lacks thematic depth or psychological insight. It succeeds so extremely well at being sincere while not taking itself seriously that things go off the rails during the passages when it's supposed to be sincere and urgently meaningful, as for example the de rigeur love subplot, which is marked by an appropriately soaring ballad (much the most anonymous and disposable song in the movie), and lots of sensitive glances and such, and it's not that I didn't want Rapunzel and Flynn to get together, really, but since it was so obvious and pre-determined that they would, it didn't seem fair that the movie had to get all serious and not-lighthearted comedy about it. On the positive side, the love ballad is paired with a sequence in which the two lovers are surrounded by a sky full of floating paper lanterns, one of the moments where Greno and Howard and the animators show off exactly what CG animation can do that traditional animation really can't, in the process creating one of the most singularly beautiful passages in the history of the American animated picture.

Or, take the matter of Mother Gothel: an excellently broad personality whose bored evilness is in its own was as psychologically scary as anything any Disney villain has ever attempted (she doesn't just treat Rapunzel like crap in the manner of wicked stepmothers throughout history: she actually claims to be Rapunzel's birth mother, largely because it delights her to be manipulative), given arguably the film's best songs in the trilling pair of "Mother Knows Best" and its reprise, numbers in which her venality dances with lyricism, performed by a magnificent find in Donna Murphy, a Broadway icon, or so I am told by those in the know, who gives unquestionably the best performance in the film, swinging from swooning faux-sincerity to thin-lipped nastiness in the space of a syllable or two, and generally being just as large and hammy and fake as the character demands. Gothel should by all rights be one of the new best Disney villains ever; but it's really, really hard to take her as a legitimate threat, even at her most intense, despite the efforts of the animators to convince us by lighting her with glaring whites and foul greens. Her attempts to control Rapunzel, based as they are solely on lies, are plainly going to disintegrate the moment Rapunzel gets a sniff of the truth; and her final scene is as bland and routine as any Disney villain's climax has ever been. Just a year before Tangled, The Princess and the Frog gave us a bad guy with the blend of caricature and deadliness that Gothel ought to possess, in Dr. Facilier; so it's not like they didn't know how to do it.

(In fact, the entire story of Tangled might well be "just a hint less than The Princess and the Frog: Rapunzel is less distinct and interesting than Tiana, Flynn has the same jerk-to-hero arc that Naveen does, but it's slicker and less convincing; the Ruritanian setting is a disappointing follow-up to a fairy-tale New Orleans; Menken and Slater's songs aren't as wide-ranging or as evocative as Randy Newman's - a controversial claim to make, I don't doubt, but "Down in New Orleans", "Friends on the Other Side", "Ma Belle Evangeline", "Dig a Little Deeper": all of them explore the film's world with greater curiosity and sense of place than "When Does My Life Begin (Reprise 1)", "When Does My Life Begin (Reprise 2)", "Mother Knows Best (Reprise)", or the infinitely bland love song "I See the Light". Though Menken's amazing score, combining Medieval motifs with standard adventure cues and some pop notes on the edges, far outpaces Newman's anonymous incidental music in TPatF).

Still, while Tangled lacks something in dramatic and tonal consistency, and thematic heft, it shares this trait with a number of other Disney movies; it also makes up for it just by failing entirely to be the horror show promised by the trailers. And it makes up for it even more by being a triumphant achievement of CG animation, the film where WDAS has finally matched in 3-D their best work in 2-D; by moreover being the first film ever produced by a studio other than Pixar to match that company's incredible control of imagery that began to peak in 2003 with Finding Nemo and has never stopped. One could put it this way: Tangled pays of the promise of the Disney/Pixar merger by taking on the one hand the technical aptitude of Pixar, the uncanny attention paid to the littlest things and the perfect execution of all the smallest details, with Disney's house style and design mentality. Rapunzel herself is one of the closest copies of Ariel from The Little Mermaid that the studio has ever braved, no small feat considering how much of Ariel there has been in the design of nearly every subsequent protagonist. Since the movie is so overwhelmingly Glen Keane's - he was one of the character designers, and one of the supervising animators (frustratingly, the animation team is not identified by character in the film's credits, making it a mystery for the ages what exactly Keane or anyone else supervised), and Ariel was one of his great successes. He might not have directed it, but the movie owes a great debt to his animation style.

But Tangled isn't a old-fashioned Disney movie with new-fangled techniques just because of the character design. All the guiding principles of the film's visuals are much in keeping with Disney's traditions, a mixture of realism and the otherworldly best exemplified by the crazily ambitious design of Sleeping Beauty. It is in this way that the film makes its most definitive break with Pixar; for Tangled is not photo-realistic in the way that Pixar films tend to be, and it took a great amount of work to get the film to look as unrealistic as it is - the years of tech development that stretched the film's pre-production over a decade were largely devoted to finding new ways to give the backgrounds the texture of oil paintings - a huge step forward from the 3-D painting technology Deep Canvas that premiered to such acclaim in 1999's Tarzan - to giving the characters an impossible "glow", an internal illumination that has nothing to do with realism and everything to do with painterly nuance, to making Rapunzel's thirty yards of hair move not with fidelity to physics but out of the need to explore character and emotion.

In a nutshell, Tangled looks about 80% like every other CG animated film out there, about 15% like the platonic ideal of a Disney Renaissance princess film, and that leaves 5% to make up all the difference in the world: it seems familiar in every possible way, and still the film as an X-factor that leaves it looking like no other movie in history. As the numerically all-important 50th Disney feature, it ranks among the very top of that list in terms of pushing the medium forward into new places that could not have been imagined five years ago; as worthy as successor the groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as anything has ever been. It is a damned shame that the script attached this this great technical and artistic achievement couldn't have been stronger, less effervescent and more consistent; that the songs could have been brilliant instead of awfully good and catchy; that the villain's robust villain could have exploded, rather than being muted by the film around her. But still, a pretty good Disney film is, well, a pretty good Disney film, and Tangled looks amazing enough to make up for much greater flaws. It is a more-than-fine addition to the Disney family, conservative in all the right ways and adventurous when it should be. Of course I, like all of us, wish it were an instant classic; but there's nothing wrong with being a gleeful entertainment, and it's certainly good enough to make me eager to see what Walt Disney Animation Studios can do with the next 50.

24 November 2010

TANGLED UP IN PURPLE

Circumstances, Jerry, beyond the uh... acts of God, have forced me to put off my Bolt review for a few days (let alone the other things I'd planned on putting together this week). I shall not, however, let that stop me from, this evening or tomorrow morning, writing my review of the 50th Disney animated feature, Tangled.

Until that can happen, let me say this: ignore the trailers for this movie. They lie - desperately. They do not merely suggest that it's a different movie than it is, they suggest it's exactly the opposite movie than it is. Nor do they do justice to its seductive and beautiful animation. I hope whoever okayed the marketing for this film is shot and fired, in that order.

23 November 2010

DISNEY ANIMATION: THE FUTURE IS WHAT EVERYTHING'S ABOUT

An earlier version of this review can be found here.

By the end of 2005, Walt Disney Feature Animation was undeniably playing the obnoxious kid brother to Pixar Animation Studios, the company whose films had out-grossed WDFA every single year that they both released a film. Notwithstanding the reasonable success of Chicken Little, which grossed less than any Pixar film in history, even the ones that were almost a decade old, Disney knew it was licked, and in the face of Steve Jobs's intractable refusal to sign back up for another seven-picture deal of jolly abuse by the Mouse House, offered a staggeringly generous deal. Disney would buy Pixar outright, and in exchange, would put into writing their willingness to maintain a complete lack of editorial control - that is, as long as Pixar kept cranking out movies as critically acclaimed and as profitable as they had been, they could keep running themselves without Disney poking and asserting authority. In addition to guaranteeing Pixar a revenue stream and distributor, the deal made Steve Jobs the largest shareholder of Disney stock and a member of the board of directors; while John Lasseter would be promoted from Executive Vice President of Pixar to the new position of Chief Creative Officer, overseeing all animated production being done by by Pixar or by WDFA, which was at this time renamed Walt Disney Animation Studios, and given a nifty logo incorporating footage from the breakthrough Mickey Mouse short Steamboat Willie.

Most famously, Lasseter's new godhood resulted in the resurrection of the officially deceased traditional animation wing, resulting in 2009's triumphant The Princess and the Frog. It is not as frequently observed that Lasseter immediately flexed his muscles on Disney's CGI features then in development, making certain that there would be no more Chicken Littles, and for that he can be forgiven all other things; let there be Cars 3 and A Bug's Life 2 and Finding Nemo Again if that is what must happen, but for standing athwart the history of Disney animation and saying, "Stop", Lasseter has forever earned a free pass from me.

The first project he turned to was an adaptation of William Joyce's 1990 picture book A Day with Wilbur Robinson. At an early screening of the work in progress, he found no end of tiny problems, the most significant of which was the film's weak, unthreatening villain; he gave the film's director Stephen Anderson his notes, and by the time that the film saw release as Meet the Robinsons about a year later, more than half of the material had been scrapped and redone.

Whether those changes ended up saving the film is rather hard to say. Failing to pass $100 million at the box office, it charmed audiences less than Chicken Little apparently did, and this despite a far more robust 3-D roll-out than that film had (in fact, Robinsons was Disney's first film built from the ground up to take advantage of the new RealD technology) and earned less than half of the same year's Ratatouille, which was itself counted something of a minor disappointment for Pixar; but Robinsons enjoyed sturdier reviews than Chicken Little - not remotely up to the standard of Disney's various golden ages, but sturdy.

It still doesn't take much bravery to suggest that the film is a bit dodgy, though it improves quite a bit with distance. Reviewing it at the time of its release, I breezily asserted that the only merit it had was its showy 3-D (this was in the days before such things were ubiquitous to the point of being profoundly disgusting), and had done with it. Upon re-watching it three years later, I was humbled to find that, on the contrary, there was a good bit to recommend it and 3-D was emphatically not one of the reasons: in fact, the added dimensionality and spectacle serves if anything to wreck one of the best things about the movie, which is its colorful, imaginative design. With objects floating here and there in all planes, it's much harder to actually pay attention to how lovingly everything has been crafted, and the notorious tendency of 3-D glasses to darken and desaturate the image means that all the visual buoyancy which is the film's most appealing trait was squashed.

So consider me altogether grateful that I was obliged to give Meet the Robinsons a second chance, because, if it is not "successful" in certain important ways - I stand by my initial assessment that the middle is terrifyingly manic - it's awfully lovely. It is not as garish as Chicken Little, though it is just as colorful; and the overall design mentality proudly looks to the past, in the service of creating a vision of the future that feels like it came out in the 1940s, not the 2000s.

The story begins in fine Disney fashion, with an earnest and quirky orphan, Lewis (initially voiced by David Hansen, with the post-Lasseter additions voiced by Jordan Fry), whose desire to find a new family doesn't quite outweigh his desire to become a great inventor; apparently the boy's desire to impress prospective parents with his fantastic gadgets has the effect of scaring them off instead. Drawing near to his 13th birthday, Lewis has essentially given up hope, but in a misguided attempt to comfort him, the orphanage owner Mildred (Angela Bassett) inspires the boy to create a memory scanner, which will allow him to review his own newborn impressions of his birth mother, in the hope of finding her.

This invention is Lewis's contribution to the local science fair, and on the day that he's ready to make his grand debut, two odd visitors show up: a manic teen boy named Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman), and a gangly, pale-faced fellow in a bowler hat (director Stephen Anderson, doing double duty only when the difficulty in casting the role threatened to delay production). Both of these individuals are apparently from the future, and they've both come to this date because of the science fair: the Bowler Hat Guy wants to ruin Lewis's invention and claim it as his own, while Wilbur wants to make absolutely certain that the presentation works, and that Lewis captures the attention of Dr. Krunklehorn (Laurie Metcalf), a hyper-stimulated representative of Inventco. Apparently Lewis's invention is a major turning point in the development of the future, and these two opposing forces have very different ideas as to what the future should look like.

Lewis will have none of it until Wilbur proves his story, by revealing his flying time machine and taking the boy to Wilbur's own present (it's nowhere stated onscreen, but the film is meant to take place in 2007 and 2037). Things go badly, and Wilbur wrecks the craft, temporarily stranding Lewis in the wrong time; but it's not so terrible as all that, because Lewis thus gets to meet the whole crazy Robinson family, living in a big house of kid-friendly surrealism. Much to the dismay of Wilbur and his robot helper Carl (Harland Williams), the only other person who knows that one of the time machines was stolen, that Lewis is from the past, or that the space-time continuum is in danger, the Robinsons eagerly welcome Lewis as one of their own. There are, of course, complications, in that the Bowler Hat Guy, and his sentient, robotic bowler hat, have returned to 2037 to finish what they couldn't do in 2007: steal Lewis's idea and utterly disgrace him. And that leads into the chain of expected and necessary plot connections, for it is a time travel movie, and if it doesn't have an airtight story of 4th-dimensional mechanics - which Meet the Robinsons most unabashedly does not - then it's duty-bound to instead present all sorts of contrived throughlines between the two periods, the better to wow us with amazement.

That's yet to come, and for a surprisingly large chunk of its running time, Robinsons does absolutely nothing else besides spend time with its wacky titular family. I like to imagine that this is the part of the film making up that 40% that Lasseter left alone, and further, that he left it alone because he didn't have the energy to deal with it. For it's kind of awful, in the way of the most idiotic, unpleasant kinds of children's entertainment. There are flashes of genuine humor - despite myself, I giggle rather too hard at the joke where grandpa Bud Robinson (also Stephen Anderson) blithely reveals that "baking cookies" is the family's euphemism for disco dancing, and the mid-film recap in which Wilbur gives Lewis a pop quiz on the tortured relationships among the Robinsons is a corker of screwball banter, sold by Singerman's rat-a-tat delivery, of all things (not at all bad for a 15-year-old; too bad that he's dropped out of filmmaking since then).

Those flashes are just that, though, flashes, and their surroundings are a seemingly endless feel of hyper jokes played at the level of a toddler hopped up on Pixy Stix. It's not that the jokes aren't funny per se: the inherent notion of a man whose domineering wife is a puppet kind of works, as does the casting of Adam West as an Adam Westian intergalatic pizza delivery man. There's a whole bit with a tyrannosaurus rex that has a pretty nifty punchline, and some genuinely delightful visual jokes peppered throughout. It's just that film is so concerned with being up, Up, UP! all the time, ratcheting the energy higher with every new scene, that it's hard to keep pace with even the funniest jokes. It's enough to make the legendarily high-pitched opening sequences of Moulin Rouge! look sedate in comparison.

And even that doesn't take into account the number of jokes that are miserable failures on the face of it, either those too stupid and lame to be anything but a committee-produced attempt at distracting children, or the ones which are just weird and out-of-place. In terms of the latter, I am particularly thinking of a strange, dismally unfunny moment when the Robinson's spaghetti dinner turns into a parody of a badly-dubbed kung fu movie, complete with grainy, desaturated "film stock". How this fits into the film's marketing scheme I cannot possibly begin to say; it suggests nothing so much as late-night viewing of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 during the story drafting stages.

But that's just the middle: all told, only about half of the film is dreadfully manic. True, much of what's left over is pablum (even for a story about a plucky, tow-headed orphan, this is awfully gooey stuff, particularly in the way-too-neat ending). Frankly, Lewis isn't much of a protagonist: he's active only in that he is intelligent, but spends virtually all of the film being done to, gawking at all of the wonderful things he sees in the future. He is, in this respect, a vessel for the audience. Just not a terribly good one.

There are still some truly wonderful bits and pieces on the edges, though. The Bowler Hat Guy, though woefully incapable as a villain (if this is the more threatening version of the character, I shudder to think what he must have looked like at first), is a strangely appealing, bumbling antagonist. Mentally undernourished and wholly reliant on his mechanical hat, whom he fondly calls "Doris", he is even a sad figure, particularly once we are given to hear his backstory; meanwhile, his awkward, pathetic attempts at villainy are the most consistent source of humor in the movie, even if it is humor oddly out of place with the urgent zaniness seen elsewhere. This mismatch of humorous tones, which are also mismatched with the sentimental parts, remains one of Robinsons's greatest flaws: it can't seem to make up its mind about what kind of movie it wants to be, and to what audience. But this is not Bowler Hat Guy's fault; his sad-sack awfulness rises above the limitations of his vehicle.

By the time the movie makes a lumbering, explicit grab for treacly earnest, ending with a moderately appropriate Walt Disney quote, it's hard to take it seriously, even though it is utterly, guilelessly sincere, competing only with Lilo & Stitch out of all the studio's films of the'00s in terms of how much it wears its heart on its sleeve. Sincerity is not a good enough substitute for actual merit, unfortunately, and while its whiz-bang vision of the future would fit in very well with Walt's pie-eyed optimism (expressed in such Utopian visions as his idealised dream of EPCOT that has very little to do with the theme park which opened under that name 15 years after his death), it's terribly slight, and not enough to support a whole feature.

Even so: it's a darn pretty movie, with an aesthetic every bit as complete as Chicken Little (where the unified aesthetic was the only good thing about the whole project), while significantly more mature and ambitious. If nothing else, there's the film's simple but effective use of color gradations to sort amongst its three time periods: from the sepia-toned period of Lewis's infancy, the foundational moments of his personal myth-

-to the muted, warm colors of the present, the most realistic of the three settings, but touched by gauzy, painterly touch-

-to the day-glo future, where every color pops so much it almost burns.

Again, this is not the most original or insightful way of using three distinct sets of imagery to make a narrative point; but it works, and it's a lot more impressive than anything going on in Chicken Little.

While the future scenes are the pushiest and most attention-getting, they're not alone in being rather well-crafted. There are a number of shots in 2007 that are quite delicate and beautiful, creating a city that feels like an amalgam of the whole 20th Century in its lines and graphic elements. One of my favorite parts of the design is the subtle weaving of emotional hints into the sets; there's a lot of foreshadowing done this way, but there are also moments, such as this, after Lewis has just alienated his latest potential parents, and a billboard in the distance (the upper right, specifically), quietly mocks him with the word "Mother".

Of course, the future scenes are quite impressive, design throwbacks that feel effective in no small part because of how thoroughly the "present" sequences have left us untethered to any particular time period - in the same way that Lewis's city has a certain aura of contemporary timelessness mired in the pre-WWII years, and in the way that the whole "orphan" scenario feels oddly archaic, so does the future world feel a lot more like a pulp comic from half a century before the movie is ostensibly set. It's a tribute to that long-ago time when sci-fi was an innocent genre, bright and scrubbed and shiny and inexplicably art deco. Since the whole movie is ultimately set up as a love letter to Walt Disney's sense of boyish wonder, it's probably easiest to sum it up: this is a Disneyfied vision of progress stuck in what people hoped for back in the 1950s.

This isn't a problem; it's actually kind of restfully appealing, although I can't say how it works for the film's ostensible target audience, kids who wouldn't know '50s pulp if it pulled a ray gun on them.

There's a dark side to the plasticky retro look of the design, though, which is the plasticky retro look of the characters. They're all a bit rubbery and stiff, and most of them have impossible rigid hair. It's reminiscent of the earliest Pixar films, when they were working the kinks out, or the side characters in some DreamWorks pictures, given little attention by the animators simply in the interests of time and money. But these are meant to be our protagonists, and they're deeply unsettling and artificial-looking, and given how little work the screenplay does the make them sympathetic, this proves to be fatal to Meet the Robinsons, which can be as shiny as it wants but never resolves the problem of telling a middling story with shrill energy and repellent characters.

Overall, however, Meet the Robinsons was a step in the right direction. It fails in many ways; but it fails in no way quite as hideously as Chicken Little. It looks better, it's not as vengefully inane, and the bland pop songs of the earlier film are replaced by mediocre originals by a slumming Rufus Wainwright. Disney animation wasn't out of the woods, but it no longer looked like a wounded animal that had to be put out of its misery, just in time for the company's third consecutive attempt to get CGI right; and the third time, as they say, would be the charm.

22 November 2010

POTTER'S FIELD

The decision to cut the seventh and final Harry Potter novel into two parts for its film adaptation was a damn bad choice, made for obvious financial reasons despite the filmmaker's urgent, repetitive insistence that it was because of that book's "density". A transparently stupid claim: the book was already sick with padding, relative to the three books that preceded it, and every one of those was turned into a fleet, terrifically engaging adventure movie.

But here we are with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, the adaptation of the most tedious parts of J.K. Rowling's fairly tedious novel (sorry to all the Potter faithful, but it's not remotely in the same league as the best books in the series), and it is, shockingly, a bit tedious. The biggest shock is that it's not more tedious: though, on its own, it's the worst film in the series since the first two, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, ghastly drab things that choked for any air or hint of life under the hand of anti-visionary Chris Columbus, it's still a reasonably entertaining fantasy picture, albeit one that would have been well-served with a running time much shorter than its endless 146 minutes, which are at once not long enough to give Rowling's doorstop all the room it needs to breathe (though it is internally coherent more than most if not all of the preceding Harry Potter films), and too bloated with self-indulgence for a narrative that moves this slowly.

So: following the events of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is without a mentor, a protector, or a safe place at his beloved Hogwarts, and as the new film begins, he is going underground with the aide of a whole mess of protectors. Meanwhile, he and his dear friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) are prepared to go even deeper underground, moving across Britain to find the remaining Horcruxes, the evil objects in which the evil wizard Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has stored his evil soul. Where in the hell the Horcruxes might be, what to do with them, and how to stay safe in a perilous world where Voldemort's Death Eaters - the wizards as have gone bad - are in control of the Ministry of Magic; these are questions much on the teens' minds, but there's little time to consider the answers in the midst of all the moving from place to place and hiding in the woods and leaping on any little clue that comes their way.

Though the film is, essentially, the second part of a trilogy, and thus starts without a beginning and ends without a conclusion, writer Steve Kloves (who has adapted six of the seven films in the series) does a yeoman's job of structuring the narrative so that Deathly Hallows 1 does function as a story, more or less; in contrast to something like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which is virtually incoherent considered as an individual movie. Not that Deathly Hallows 1 feels tremendously resolved in and of itself; it spends no time setting things up for anybody who hasn' seen the first six movies, while the main conflict is no closer to completion at the end of the movie than at the beginning. But by cutting things off right where he does, Kloves was able to introduce a fake secondary conflict, and end right after that conflict is resolved, allowing the movie to at least have something approximating a climax and falling action.

But it doesn't help him solve the bigger problem of the movie, which is that far, far too much of the action consists of three kids in a tent, having no idea what to do, and being scared. It died on the page, and if it does not quite die as badly in the screen, it is mostly because the film is pretty and the young actors, whose performances across the seven films have been erratic and inconsistent (though Grint has, on the whole, been the most solid, and Radcliffe the least), are quite convincing as a trio worn down by stress, responsibility, and evil magic, and what reads as endless pages of bitchery and whining plays here as tension and character drama. Still, Deathly Hallows 1 has a lot more time than incident, and most of the time is filled with reams and reams of exposition; in this the film is better able to tell a story than any of the preceding films, all of which relied to some extent on the viewer's knowledge of the books, though those films made up for it with headlong action and energy, which the stultifying Deathly Hallows 1 generally lacks.

Director David Yates, making his third Potter film, seems to suffer from this: though he was never exactly a visionary director, there was a clipped, sensible effectiveness to his work in Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix that kept those films easy to watch, even when the tone went elegiac on us, as it often did in Half-Blood Prince. Deathly Hallows 1 blasts straight past "elegiac" and ends up at "funereal", with Yates finding new and ever more delicate ways to stress the profound loss experienced by our heroes at every turn. "We're alone", says Hermione in one scene, and the fade to black that follows her line is as menacingly nihilistic as anything in a Bergman film. The mood suits the content, and gives the film a certain heft that befits the penultimate entry in a decade-long movie series; but it does nothing for its value as entertainment, nor does it make two and a half hours feel any shorter.

That said, Eduardo Serra's cinematography (he is now the sixth man to shoot a Potter film) captures this funereal tone with characteristic elegance: it is the most colorless film in the series by far, and not just because of the numerous scenes set in a snowy forest - a location Yates and Serra render with breathtaking severity - but because of the blanched-out greys that are Serra's chief palette. It is a sterner, harsher movie than the series has seen before, as strained and bleached as a corpse. Not as beautiful nor as controlled as Bruno Delbonnel's work in Half-Blood Prince nor Slawomir Idziak's Order of the Phoenix, for how could it be? - but Serra continues the series' recent tradition of truly excellent cinematography, even if his work is brilliant largely because of how unsentimental and discomfiting it is, and for that reason less likely to win awards than e.g. Delbonnel's delightfully unexpected Oscar nomination.

Along with Serra, the one man who does the most to raise the movie above its wordy, endless script is production designer Stuart Craig, who has worked on Potter and nothing but since 2001, but hasn't for some time had the chance this film gave him: freed from the tyranny of Hogwarts, where every other film has taken place in part or in full, he at last got to start from scratch, and responds with a wonderful cavalcade of new ideas. His evocation of the Ministry of Magic is absolutely jaw-dropping, a fantasy world grounded in real-world thinking, built according to an unstated but obvious internal logic, shiny and austere; and then on the other hand there is his Godric's Hollow, a silent, close country town, with an delightfully ghost story-ish abandoned old house serving as focal point. It's his best work since the first movie, when he got to create this lavish world in the first place.

Other than the visuals, however, the film is mostly more of the same, only less so: Alexandre Desplat's music fulfills his curse of writing one bland, hack score for every excellent, unexpected one (which was, this year, The Ghost Writer) and the less said about the actors, the better: other than Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson, along with Fiennes, who gets far more to do here than in his other tiny appearances in the series, it's mostly a whole string of cameos by the small army of great British actors who have populated this series throughout: Bill Nighy joins the fun in a role that he apparently took because of the relish with which he rolls the words "Harry Pott-tah" around in his mouth - and does virtually nothing else before dying offscreen - and Rhys Ifans actually gets a decent amount of screentime as a quirky, paranoid publisher; while recurring actors like David Thewlis, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton, Miranda Richardson, and Warwick Davis get to pop up and wave hi at the camera, while Maggie Smith and Emma Thompson don't appear at all, and Michael Gambon's only new footage is as a dead body. Even Alan Rickman's Snape, always one of the most reliable parts of the movies, barely registers.

That said, there's very little wrong with the film that isn't a conceptual issue stretching back to the novel itself; still, I wish that Yates and company had spent a bit less time with Harry and Hermione dancing to Nick Cave (in a risible scene that is half-played for comedy, half for pathos which never, ever shows up), and a bit more trying to push the story forward a bit faster. Still, they've left off at just the right moment to make sure that the next and final chapter will be virtually non-stop action. Which doesn't help Deathly Hallows 1 much at all, but I suspect it will wear well. It was never meant to be a stand-alone movie, after all.

6/10 (now)
7/10 (predicted re-rating after Part 2 opens)
6/10 (actual rating after Part 2 opened)

21 November 2010

DISNEY SUNDRIES: WATCHA DO WITH WATCHA GOT

The next several decades of undying controversy notwithstanding, the 1946 release Song of the South was a game-changing project for Walt Disney Productions: it was not just a more than fair box-office hit, it was one of the few films that company released between 1942 and 1950 for which that can honestly be said. While the animated package films struggled sometimes just to turn a profit, SotS revealed that the much faster more cost-effective art of live-action filmmaking might be a better route to telling some of the stories Walt was so eager to push into theaters. Indeed, SotS had not yet been completed when the producer selected his next live-action project, Sterling North's 1943 children's novel Midnight and Jeremiah. Seeing in this quiet tale of life in the rural Midwest in 1903 an echo of his own childhood in Marceline, Missouri, Disney was eager for So Dear to My Heart - for that was the title he and his storymen gave to their adaptation of the material - to represent a new paradigm for his art.

Unfortunately for his dreams, his distributors at RKO Radio Pictures were incredibly nervous at the idea of a Disney production that didn't have any any animation at all (bearing in mind that his two most protracted experiments with live-action to that point, SotS and 1941's The Reluctant Dragon, had come under no small amount of criticism for the relative lack of animation, it being the implication that Disney's imagination was only valuable insofar as it was hand-drawn), and early in 1946, So Dear to My Heart was retooled somewhat, to add in a few musical animated numbers. The degree to which the writers' hearts were in this task can be readily measured by considering that the plot of the film would change in not the smallest detail if the animated sequences and everything presented within them were removed entirely, though at that point it would barely clear 70 minutes and only barely meet the definition of a "feature". On the other hand, the animators and designers assigned to the project - several important figures such as Les Clark, Milt Kahl, Mary Blair, and others, all under the direction of Hamilton Luske - were clearly more energised than their colleagues; the animated sequences in SDtMH, though brief, are among the most innovative of Disney's post-war history.

One of those sequences, though it hardly meets the typical definition of "animation", essentially opens the movie: after the camera tracks in to a dusty old scrapbook in an attic, the famous multiplane camera takes us into and through the pages of that scrapbook, in one of the most ambitious series of shots the studio had then attempted. Through greeting cards and across landscapes that shift and flow as easily as nature, this vies with the legendary "Ave Maria" shots in Fantasia for complexity, and if the movie consisted of nothing but this sequence, that would still make it worth at least a peak. It is easy to note that the package films made little use of the difficult, expensive multiplane technique; I had been inclined to blame the need to produce those films fast and cheap, but now I wonder if there's another part to the answer: the opening of SDtMH took all the energies of the multiplane operators between 1946 and 1948 (no, I don't actually think this).



This mesmerising, technically jaw-dropping journy into the the past sets us in the fictional Fulton Corners, Indiana (played by the distinctly non-Indianan landscape of the San Joaquin Valley), in the spring of 1903. Little Jeremiah Kincaid (Bobby Driscoll) is ecstatic that the nationally famous racehorse Dan Patch is stopping by, and the reflected stardom of the animal is enough to get him thinking about raising his own colt. His grandmother (Beulah Bondi) will have nothing to do with horses, and thus Jerry settles on a decent enough back-up: the little black lamb that was just born to one of his grandmother's sheep, the runty twin of a mismatched set. With a little TLC, Jerry knows that he can get the sheep beautiful enough to compete in that summer's county fair, and in this he is encouraged and helped by his uncle Hiram Douglas (Burl Ives, at the very start of his career in movies), and Tildy (Luana Patten), a little girl who is probably Jerry's cousin (familial relationships are difficult to parse out: we have to intuit that Jerry's parents are dead, while Tildy's parents are alive, and never seen, though she is certainly not Hiram's daughter). Opposing Jerry, Hiram, and Tildy, is Grandma's implacably beatific Protestant Christianity, in which desiring anything but God's will to be done in all things is proof that you are going straight to Hell, Jeremiah.

Okay, not that blood & thundery, but it is an exceedingly Christian film, by the standards of 1948, when the film premiered, or today. That extends to its resolute lack of overt conflict: almost the entirety of the film consists of Grandma Kincaid gently giving in to Jerry's whims and turning a blind eye to the destruction wreaked by the black lamb - Danny, named in honor of the horse - while fretting that in so doing, she's allowing him to drift away from God, contrasted with Hiram's attempts to sweet-talk the old lady into dropping her steadfast opposition to the fair, which she views as a frivolous waste of the precious money that comes to the family as a privilege, not a right. Beyond that - which is tenuous to support even a 79-minute family film - So Dear to My Heart is nothing more or less than a love letter to Walt Disney's well-expressed ideas of Americana, where nothing in the whole of history was ever better than the life a child in the Midwest in the early 20th Century, which by stunning coincidence happened to be exactly the life Disney himself led. Indeed, certain elements of the set design in the movie were based on his own memories, most notably the Kincaid barn, which Walt ended up installing in his own backyard. To the end of his days, it was a retreat where he could go when the pressures of being a studio head and the manager of the largest theme park in the world got to be too daunting.

That sweet anecdote reveals quite a lot about the film itself, which is one of the most aggressively nostalgic things Walt ever put his name to; years before Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. gave a concrete physical form to his conviction that life had been going to hell ever since the 1910s, So Dear to My Heart argues the exact same thing in celluloid form. Not just that, of course; and the robust conservatism that on the one hand informs every inch of the mise en scène and the film's glowing recreation of a tiny Indiana town that never existed, is not itself reflected in the story, though for a long time it seems that it will be. In fact, Jerry grows a lot from his refusal to stick by his grandmother's authoritarian refusal to try new things, and her relationship with God is revealed, in the end, to be a good deal more flexible than her iron-clad rules of behavior would have implied. This is not seen at all as hypocrisy, as it would have been, and often had been, in a John Ford movie on the same themes (in some ways, So Dear to My Heart plays as a much straighter-edge variation on How Green Was My Valley a Valentine to small town life that nevertheless found room to allow that small towns have their petty problems). It's just part of the sweet pageant of nostalgia that is the movie's whole being.

I won't lie, I found it all a bit tiresome. Movies that make arguments like, "God, how much better in every conceivable way life used to be, before modern things" don't hold much water for me, unless they are also glorious masterpieces of cinema, like the politically suspect, but audaciously entertaining Meet Me in St. Louis. So Dear to My Heart, in its otherwise admirable desire to be as generous and approachable as possible, is compelled to be too simple to have any kind of real aesthetic bite - Disney continued his weird trend of hiring generally anonymous men to direct his life action films, this time handing the reins to Harold Schuster, whose greatest claim to fame is undoubtedly that he edited F.W. Murnau's Sunrise and 4 Devils, and when your second-most famous credit is on a movie best known for having been lost decades ago, you can be safely considered an historical nobody. Luckily, then, that once again, the cinematographer was someone of particular note: Winton C. Hoch returned from The Reluctant Dragon, still one of the most important Technicolor artists of his generation. And if his work in SDtMH is not as bold and different as Gregg Toland's in Song of the South, at the very least he makes the colors sing, and emphasises the warm fuzziness that was the film's purpose without spilling into saccharine sentiment.



It is not enough to save the film from its own worst impulses; but it at least ensures that while So Dear to My Heart is suffocatingly cozy, it comes by it honestly. Not that I think Walt Disney's rose-colored love of the past was dishonest; but it could be and often was a great deal more cloying than this. Driscoll and Patten are still both obnoxiously precious - Driscoll far less so than in Song of the South - but Bondi, given the role that is certainly the most bland and warm and reassuring in the film, manages to redeem the character's fluffy edges by playing her with the typical Bondian combination of genuine warmth and significant prickliness. It's a performance the actress could have done in her sleep by 1948, but the film needs it.

As for the animated sequences: there are three, besides that multiplane opener, each tied to a song, and each expressing Jerry's self-comforting fantasy at a particular moment, in the form of a Wise Old Owl (Ken Carson) giving him advice. These moments, as I mentioned, are easily snipped from the plot as a whole, and the songs do not make up for it: they are insipid and twee, exactly what you'd expect from a kids' musical in 1948. The only good song, in fact, is Ives's "Lavender Blue", which was an Oscar nominee despite being a re-working of a 17th Century English folk song (it was the first major hit of the folk singer's career - his "crossover single", as I am certain they did not call it in the '40s).

The animation, however, is stunning; disposable as they are, these sequences are the very best parts of the movie. Even the least of these, a short interlude to bring us to the fair, is not without interest, as the animators found ways of using reflections and silhouettes distorted in balloons to give the recognisable fairgoing adventures seem nearly Surrealist.

It's the other sequences, though, where the film shines. The first, an upbeat "pep yourself up" number called "It's Watcha Do with Watcha Got", opens normally enough, with a simple cel-animated owl haranguing a cartoon lamb; but as the owl and lamb bound across Jerry's scrapbook, the animation takes an unexpected turn for mixed media.


And in a brief illustration of the David and Goliath story, it stumbles into a kind of expressive, dramatic visual not typical of Disney, at any point in its history.

Better still is "Stick-To-It-Ivity", a ghastly jingle grace by a truly stunning collection of images that are breathtakingly unlike the Disney norm, though none of them are truly original (some of the package films and Silly Symphonies had performed similar experiments): but still, the use of shading, of texture, and of non-realistic lines are powerful stuff, visually, proof that even if Walt wanted So Dear to My Heart to be a sweet, uplifting lark, somebody on his staff wanted it to be an attempt to do something truly creative in a way the studio hadn't been able to for more than half a decade. These are not images that should accompany a brainless anthem like "Stick-To-It-Ivity" (not even when it bizarrely name-drops every child's favorite hero, Robert the Bruce) but if that's the price I have to pay, then I'll pay it.




Hell, I'll even agree to overlook the incredibly obvious steal of some animation from Fantasia, a barbarically obvious lift even given Disney's open willingness to rifle through its archives for material - only the numerous appearances of that damn quail from Bambi can compete.

Fantasia: "Pastoral Symphony"

So Dear to My Heart, "Stick-To-It-Ivity"

A few minutes of amazing animation cannot save a feature, though, and audiences in 1949 - the year of the film's general release - apparently felt the same; the film slid through theaters making only a ripple in the box office, and fell into obscurity almost immediately, despite long remaining one of Walt's favorite pictures from his studio. The film's most lasting legacy is probably its inspiration for some of the architecture in Disneyland; it does not represent a tremendously significant step from Song of the South, the first predominately live-action Disney feature, to 1950's Treasure Island, the first entirely live-action Disney feature; it's probably not even as significant as the live-action Disney short Seal Island, the first in the True Life Adventures series, released the same year. It's simply an attempt to stay alive, and not a completely worthless one; though Disney's tendency towards flattening history in the name of warm fuzzies was arguably never this soporific, and for that reason I guess it has a certain place of prominence.