Thursday, December 13, 2012

MacGuffin

I'm sure there are few people that already know what I'm going to talk about just by reading the title of this post, but most won't. For the latter, a MacGuffin is a popular plot device used in movies to further the story. It can be an object, or even a goal that the characters in the movie strive to obtain or achieve. The nature of the MacGuffin may be ambiguous, generic, or completely unimportant to the plot. MacGuffin's can also be people and abstract things like victory, power, and love. The whole point of the MacGuffin is to be a strong motivation for the main characters. MacGuffin's tend to feature prominently in the first act of a film, then go away until the climax, but sometimes never do get mentioned or featured again. Multiple MacGuffin's in a plot are derisively known as plot coupons.


MacGuffin's were popularized in the 1930's by thriller extraordinaire, Alfred Hitchcock, but were in use long before that. The earliest known use of a MacGuffin type story element was the Sampo, a mysterious item that brought its owner good luck, in the 19th century Finnish epic, The Kalevela. In movies, it was used in many silent films, though they were called "weenies." The term was used by silent film actress Pearl White to describe any physical object that made the hero and villains chase after each other in her many films. I have no idea why she decided to call them "weenies," but I'm glad it didn't stick. Anyway, Hitchcock came up with the term while shooting his 1935 film, The 39 Steps and ended up using the MacGuffin in most of his other movies. He later explained how he came up with the name in an interview in the late 60's:

"It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?', and the other answers, 'Oh, that's a McGuffin'. The first one asks 'What's a McGuffin?' 'Well', the other man says, 'It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands'. The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands', and the other one answers, 'Well, then that's no McGuffin!' So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all."


Hitchcock had a very interesting view on MacGuffin's however, as he felt that they weren't important things in the story, and shouldn't be cared about by the audience. Directors like George Lucas have disagreed with this mindset and claim that the MacGuffin should be cared about just as much as the dueling heroes and villains. Some directors loathe using the MacGuffin at all, the most prevalent probably being Steven Spielberg. Spielberg, in response to the mixed reviews to Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull commented that he felt it was because people didn't like the MacGuffin in the film (the crystal skull) and that he never really liked using the MacGuffin. 


It's hard not to see a movie that doesn't have some sort of MacGuffin, but here are a few that stand out. Probably the most famous is the meaning of "Rosebud" in Citizen Kane. The whole movie revolves around this reporter trying to find out what Charles Foster Kane meant with his dying word of "Rosebud." Turns out it was the name of his sled. If you didn't know that spoiler than you've been living under a rock, because I'm pretty sure that was the second movie spoiler I had ever learned about as a kid, right behind Darth Vader being Luke's father. Another popular example of a MacGuffin in film is the titular Maltese Falcon. Probably one of my favorite noir films of all time, it shows how an object of no real relevance can cause a whole lot of problems. Another MacGuffin that people talk a lot about is the mysterious briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Nobody knows what's inside of it, but in the end it doesn't matter. All we need to know is that whatever is inside is something that is worth killing someone over. Tarantino made it clear that the audience doesn't need to know what the MacGuffin is to make the plot work, they just need to know that there is a MacGuffin. 


Other notable MacGuffin's include the rabbit's foot in Mission Impossible III, the Genesis device in the Star Trek movies, the holy grail in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and The DaVinci Code (apparently that's a popular one), the death star plans in Star Wars, the ark of the covenant in Raiders, the ring in Lord of the Rings, and unobtanium in Avatar. There are countless ones, and they aren't just used in movies. In TV there is, just to name a few, the intersect from Chuck, the Rambaldi device in Alias, and my personal favorite, the orb from The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. You may hate MacGuffin's or you may love them, but they will continue to be used as long as there are needlessly complicated stories to tell. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Alan Smithee

Every once in a while, a director is not so happy with a finished product and wants to distance themselves from it. But, sadly, their name is all over the movie. What to do? Well, luckily for directors that belong to the DGA, (Director's Guild of America) they can magically remove their name from the movie and replace it with another! There are plenty of names out there to choose from, but which one sounds so generic that no one will be the wiser? Well in 1968, that generic replacement name was "Alan Smithee," or "Allen Smithee." According to the DGA, a director may use the name Alan Smithee in lieu of their own, but there are a few rules. First off, the director must prove to the guild panel that they have completely lost creative control of their movie. This could be due to a troublesome actor or from other members of the crew. The second catch is that the director must never speak of the incident that led up to having their name replaced or ever admit to being the director of said film. Who thought of this anyway?

The DGA itself was the purveyor of this loophole. Before 1968, directors were unable to use pseudonyms. This is very much unlike the literary world where authors could use pseudonyms to get around publishing limits like Stephen King did with Richard Bachman, or get their books published in the man's world of science fiction as Alice Sheldon did with James Tiptree, Jr. Why deny directors that right? Well, the DGA wanted to keep producers from forcing pseudonyms onto directors, as it would damage the directors resume. It was also part of the DGA's policy to always credit the director, as it was their philosophy that the directors themselves were the  main creative force behind a movie. This all changed when Death of a Gunfighter was trying to be made. Robert Totten was the original director of the film, but he apparently wasn't working out for the lead actor, Richard Widmark, who wanted him gone. He got his way, as sometimes happens when you involve well known (at that time) actors. Totten was let go and Don Seigel took over the rest of the film. Seigel realized in post that Totten and himself had shot about an equal amount of used footage. This, along with the fact that Widmark had basically been calling the shots the whole time caused Seigel to take the case up with the DGA, since Totten's name couldn't be used as director, and Seigel refused to have his name on it. The DGA agreed that the film did not represent either the director's visions, so they had to come up with a solution.

They came up with using a general pseudonym for just such an occasion: "Al Smith." The board members then probably slapped themselves realizing how common the name was. "Al Smith" wouldn't work simply because it would be far too confusing for everyone. In fact, there already was an Al Smith in the movie business. So they decided to add a little and make it "Alan Smithee." Not too generic as to cause confusion, but just generic enough not to raise suspicion. The ploy worked, as critics praised Death of a Gunfighter and it's "new" director. The New York Times said that the film was "sharply directed by Allen Smithee who has an adroit facility for scanning faces and extracting sharp background detail." Even Roger Ebert was fooled, praising the director for "allowing the story to unfold naturally." The name was even added on retroactively to  movies like Fade-In, starring Burt Reynolds, and the television drama, The Indiscreet Mrs. Jarvis, starring Angela Lansbury. The name has been used on a bunch of films over the years, mostly ones you haven't heard of, but a few that you might have. The name can be used in all directing capacities, from movies, TV shows, music videos, comic books, and modified versions of movies (i.e. the versions that are shown on TV).

The name was supposed to be a secret though, only known to directors and other Hollywood types. This all fell apart when directors started opening their mouths when they weren't supposed to. Suddenly people started to realize that "Alan Smithee" was not a real person at all. It all ended when Arthur Hiller decided to direct a little movie called An Alan Smithee Movie: Burn Hollywood Burn. The movie was about a director, played by Eric Idle, who wanted to get his name removed from a movie, but his actual name was "Alan Smithee." In a tragic turn of irony, the film itself turned out to be directed by "Alan Smithee", as Arthur Hiller claimed to the DGA that his producer had interfered with the project. The movie did terrible in the box office and was universally panned causing unwanted attention to be focused on the pseudonym. The DGA officially retired "Alan Smithee" in 2000 with the last film with the pseudonym being Woman Wanted, a film that was actually directed by Kiefer Sutherland. Wonder why that didn't turn out? Another name has been made for dissatisfied directors, but we don't know what it is, as we aren't supposed to. "Alan Smithee" is still used on projects, but none of them are under the umbrella of the DGA. So, if you read about a movie with a tumultuous production and a mysterious new director, you may have stumbled onto the new "Alan Smithee."

Monday, October 22, 2012

Psycho

My first trek into a horror movie (and probably my last at the rate I'm going) is Psycho. If you haven't seen this movie and don't want it spoiled, then you probably shouldn't read this. It's a favorite horror movie of mine, and almost everybody has seen at least part of it. My earliest memories of this Hitchcock masterpiece came from Universal Studios Florida. They used to have this attraction there where you watched this short movie about all the different Alfred Hitchcock films and it showed the usual favorites: The Birds, Vertigo, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and-you guessed it-Psycho. Now, I didn't mind all the other footage, because to me it was just a bunch of old movies. I guess The Birds was a little unsettling, but it wasn't going to give me too many nightmares. Then, they played the shower scene from Psycho. Keep in mind, I was like seven or eight. I was traumatized. When you're a kid, one of the safest places is inside your bathtub/shower, and to see someone get stabbed to death inside a shower blew my mind. I liked scary stuff, but only because I knew it wasn't real. This was too real for me. I was super afraid of showering without the door locked for a long time. Any random noise would cause me to throw the curtain aside and prepare to fight...with...shampoo? Psycho was officially on my radar as a movie, and it was on the same trip that we saw the Bates motel. It was a replica of course, but it stood on the outskirts of the park until 1998 when they apparently tore it down. Seeing the footage, plus the hotel cemented it all in my mind. The hotel made it even more real for me since it was sitting right there in front of me, and if I bothered to go in there, I would be stabbed to death by an old woman! AAAHHHH! It wasn't even the first time I had seen the motel. America's Funniest People was a spin-off of America's Funniest Home Videos and ran for a couple of years in the early 90's. I can't find the footage, but for one of its openings it showed the Bates motel at the very end with the sound of thunder. I had always wondered what that creepy motel was from, and I found out that day at Universal Studios. Did I ever. I'm assuming that most or all of you have seen this movie, so I'm not going to bother with keeping the ending secret. You've literally had since the sixties to see this movie.

The movie Psycho is actually based off a book by the same name by Robert Bloch. Bloch published the book in 1959, and the movie came out in 1960, so you can see that Hitchcock wasted no time in getting this film made. The book was in turn based off of the serial killer Ed Gein. Both Gein and Norman Bates did their murders in a rural setting, both had deceased domineering mothers, had a room with a shrine dedicated to said domineering mother, and both dressed like women. When Hitchcock's production assistant read about the book, she showed it to Hitchcock, who proceeded to buy the rights to the film for $9,500 and told the production assistant to buy out as many bookstores of the book so as not to ruin the ending for movie-goers.  Paramount was not too thrilled about the prospects of the film and continually tried to prevent Hitchcock from making it. They told him it would cost too much, so he used a TV film crew from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. They said all their sound stages were being used, even though productions were in a known slump, and continued to say that the movie would cost too much. Hitchcock countered all this by saying that he would finance the movie himself, would film at Universal-International if Paramount would distribute, and he would also waive the director's fee of $250,000 for 60% ownership of the film negative. Paramount finally gave in. 

After receiving a dull treatment of the story from writer James Cavanaugh, Hitchcock met with proverbial newbie, Joseph Stefano. The meeting went well, and Stefano was hired as the writer of the screenplay. Hitchcock and Stefano changed a few things from the book. In the book, Bates was middle-aged, overweight, and more overtly unstable. On top of that, he was a drunk that had interest in the occult, and pornography. All these things were written out, partly due to the fact that they had cast Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, and he did not fit the book's description. The drunkenness was what brought on Bates' transformation into his mother in the novel, and so they had to re-thing that whole aspect. Probably the only other big change from the book was the way that Marion Crane dies. We all know that she dies in the shower by being stabbed to death, but in the book, she was beheaded in the shower. That's not even more terrifying is it?

Ever wonder why in the world that this movie is in black and white, even though the year is 1960 and color has been around for decades? This was another of Hitchcock's cost cutting maneuvers, but that wasn't the only reason. Besides admiring the black and white movie Les Diaboliques (left)and wanting the same feel, Hitchcock also wanted the film not to be too gory, as having a color movie with a stabbing may have been a little shocking at that time. The "blood" in the shower scene is famously chocolate syrup. Smart, huh? Another way that Hitchcock kept the film's cost down was by casting on a budget. He had gotten box office draws like Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, but both took the parts for a fraction of what they would of usually gotten paid. 

The whole production was shot at Revue Studios, the same location as his television show. The film retained a tight budget of a little under $807,000 and filming took place between November 11th, 1959 and February 1st, 1960. As you can see, Hitchcock was not fooling around. Not only did he not want the movie to cost too much, but he didn't want too many people to read the book before they saw his movie. Nearly the whole film was shot with 50 mm lenses on 35 mm cameras. This trick closely mimicked the human perspective, which further involved the audience. This movie was all about suspense, and Hitchcock used everything he knew to help pull off that uneasy feel. The iconic house from the film was based off a painting of Edward Hooper's called The House by the Railroad (pictured left). In my opinion, Hitchcock couldn't have picked a better house, as this is one of the creepiest houses of all time. When I think of a haunted house, I picture this place. Both Leigh and Perkins were allowed to interpret their characters how they felt and move in the same fashion, as long as it didn't involve moving the camera. An example of what liberties the actors took is Perkins having Bates constantly munch on candy corn. Hitchcock was apparently a practical joker, or a filming mastermind, but most likely both. He had different versions of the mother corpse made and would hide them in Leigh's dressing room closet. Leigh never did find out if it was to keep her on edge for the role, or to gauge her reaction thus finding out which one to use that would best scare the audience.

Hitchcock is known for his economical way of shooting, mostly coming from his lack of re-shooting scenes. A few were a bit hard to do the first time around. After Leigh's character is stabbed to death, there is a close up of her eye. This had to be re-shot several times because the water kept getting into her eye, making her blink. Another scene that proved difficult to master was the reveal of the dead mother. The swinging of the chair, plus Vera Miles' character hitting the bulb, plus a lens flare all proved to be hard to coordinate and took a great deal of shoots to get just right. Another signature of a Hitchcock film is an appearance by Hitchcock himself. It's like Stan Lee now, but instead of being in a bunch of superhero movies, Hitchcock was in a bunch of thrillers and murder mysteries. His cameo comes at the very beginning as a man outside of Marion Crane's office. Rumors are that he didn't want to distract people with his appearance later on in the film, but the real reason is that he wanted to be in the same shot as his daughter, who played one of Marion's colleagues.

OK, so let's talk about the shower scene. Being that it is perhaps one of the most well known movie scenes of all time, there are a lot of myths and legends about it. So, here are a few facts about the scene. The scene entailed 77 different camera angles and was mostly close-ups. Hitchcock originally wanted to have no music whatsoever during the scene or any motel scene, but composer Bernard Herrmann convinced him to use the sequence he had made for the scene. Afterward, Hitchcock was so impressed with how it enhanced the scene that he paid Herrmann almost double what he originally was going to. That's part of the freakiness of the whole scene! The sticcado notes from the string section just put you on edge! The music just goes hand in hand with stabbing motions now. Like I mentioned before, the blood in the scene was actually Bosco brand chocolate syrup. Why chocolate syrup? Well, it looks a lot like blood in black and white, and the density is better than the fake blood they used at the time. How did they make the stabbing sounds? Well, they took a knife, and stabbed....a casaba melon. Not nearly as frightening, but it gave the desired sound.

Now for a little bit of movie myths. Rumors spread that Leigh didn't stay in the shower during the whole scene and a body double was used for some of the closeups. Not true! Leigh was used for the whole scene and a body double was only used for when her character is wrapped in the shower curtain. Another myth is that to get a good enough scream from Leigh, Hitchcock had ice-cold water used from the shower. False! Leigh herself has stated that she had all the hot water she wanted for the scene, and that all the screams were in fact hers. There is also another rumor that Leigh was only told to stand in the shower, and was not told about her impeding murder. Support for this rumor comes from those who say Hitchcock wanted a genuine reaction from her. Why isn't this true, though? Leigh signed onto the film only after she read the whole novel, so she had to know what was going to happen. Perhaps the most insidious rumor about the scene came from graphic designer Saul Bass, who claimed that he directed the iconic scene, and not Hitchcock. There are people on both sides that swear on their mother's grave that one or the other directed the scene, so it's not entirely clear who really did. Knowing Hitchcock, a known perfectionist, it is very unlikely that he would have let another direct such an important part of his movie. The shower scene comes at an interesting time in the film. Leigh's character, who had embezzled money from a client and ran off with it, had finally decided to come clean and leave. Before she does, she decides to take a shower. The shower signifies the baptismal waters as she is cleansed of her sin. She is then brutally murdered after finally deciding to do the right thing. I can't help but think of a certain show called Lost. In it, each character has a ton of problems, and once those problems are solved, or once their lives come full circle, they end up dying. Redemption leads to death. Same thing for Leigh's character. She was feeling redeemed, then she was stabbed to death by a man wearing his mother's clothing. Odd and frightening. Leigh herself was afraid of showers for a very long time after filming the scene and only took them if she had to and made sure every window and door was locked tight. I don't blame her at all!

There was plenty of controversy surrounding the film. Psycho is a prime example of the type of film that came out in the 60's after the erosion of the Production Code. The Production Code, otherwise known as the Hays Code, was the system of censorship on movies. The reason the Production Code eventually faded away was the invention of the television. Television was causing people to not want to leave their houses. People didn't have to go to the theater to get entertainment. Television was under stricter censorship than movies were at the time, so in order to combat this new medium, movies gave audiences something TV wouldn't for a long time: sexuality, murder, and violence. The scenes with Marion and Sam in the same bed, and Marion in a bra was completely new to mainstream audiences. They'd never seen that sort of thing depicted on screen. Another scene that caused a mild controversy was Leigh's character flushing pieces of torn up paper down a toilet. Audiences had never heard a toilet flush, let alone seen a toilet flush on film or TV before. This may seem incredibly silly now, but at the time it was incredibly taboo. If Married...With Children had been made twenty-five years earlier I'm pretty sure there would have been riots. The censors tried their hardest to "clean-up" the film, but Hitchcock defended every last scene in his film. The only thing the censors succeeded in erasing from the film was a shot that showed the buttocks of Leigh's stand-in.

Hollywood has gone through its fair share of gimmicks, whether it's 3-D, vibrating seats that were installed for the showings of The Tingler, Smell-O-Vision for Scent of Mystery, and even Sensurround, which shook the theater itself for movies like Earthquake. All of these gimmicks have not lasted long, save for 3-D, which has grown popular yet again. Psycho employed a different gimmick. Hitchcock asked movie theaters not to let movie-goers enter the film if they were late. The movie depended on people being surprised by the fact that Leigh's character, the supposed main character, dies early in the film. Plus, Hitchcock didn't want people to miss Leigh in the movie, as she was one of the main draws. Though the movie theater owners objected at first, they realized after the first day of showings that it created even more hype for the film. Hitchcock also forbid Leigh and Perkins from doing any interviews, fearing that they may mistakenly give away plot points.

The gimmick and mystery of the film paid off, as the movie was adored by the public and became the biggest financial hit of Hitchcock's career making a little over $11 million dollars domestically (that's $82.5 million adjusted for inflation). That's pretty good considering he spent only $800,000 to make it. The movie had mixed reviews from critics, who were probably just mad that they couldn't get private screenings of the movie because of Hitchcock's refusal to ruin the movie by having critics give anything away beforehand. Some critics even went so far as to call it an ugly blot on an otherwise fantastic directing career, and a TV show padded to two hours. The great reaction from audiences caused a reevaluation by critics who have since labeled it as one of the best films ever made, horror/suspense or not. The film is often considered the first "slasher" film, as it was arguably one of the first that had a pscyho-killer that stabs people to death. This point can be argued by horror geeks, but I'm just saying that this is probably the first well-known horror movie with a stab-happy antagonist.

So you may have noticed that I didn't give a summary of the film. I really don't find this necessary, as most people have seen this movie just because of its notoriety. If you want a summary, read it on IMDB or Wikipedia, but I suggest watching the movie. Anyway, here are a few scenes that have always stuck with me. The whole first meeting between Norman and Marion is pretty unsettling. I don't know if it's just Norman or if its all the stuffed birds, but that whole scene just sets off all these warning bells in my head. Too bad Marion didn't hear the same warning bells. The peeping tom scene where Norman spies on Marion is just plain creepy. He literally created a peek-hole into one of the motel rooms. The shower scene goes without saying. The first time I saw Martin Balsam's Detective Arbogast get slashed across the face and fall down the stairs, I couldn't decide whether to laugh or pee my pants. It just looked like he was tap dancing down the stairs. I guess they didn't want to do a stunt double falling down the stairs so they just filmed him flailing around and made the background move. It still works, and it's pretty terrifying, but the tap dancing look makes me smile a little every time. The build up is what makes this scene work. He slowly walks up the stairs, and then you see the door at the top open ever so slightly. That's when you know. This guy is totally hosed. Then the strings music comes back and you just know that this guy is getting stabbed. The big reveal is another obvious one. The whole movie you think that Norman's mother is killing all these people, when in actuality it is Norman himself. Lila Crane has the misfortune of hiding in the same room that the mother is in, and then it's that slow reveal. The mother is long dead and looks surprisingly well. That being said, she still looks like a mummy and scared the hell out of me. The last scene I like in this film is in fact the last scene. It's so unsettling. It's just perfect. It's one of my favorite endings of all time. You'll just have to watch it to see for yourself. I'll just say that Anthony Perkins is a very good actor. Not just in this scene, but in the whole movie. I really should watch more movies he's in.

The movie has spawned many pretenders, as well as many sequels, mostly junk, and even a literal shot for shot remake in 1998 directed by Gus Van Sant and starring....Vince...Vaughn....as Norman Bates. Why Vince Vaughn? Why would you even think that's a good idea?! Vaughn is fine in comedies, but not trying to fill in the shoes of Anthony Perkins. Needless to say, Van Sant's movie was universally panned and proof Alfred Hitchcock was a genius. Anthony Perkins was the victim of type-casting from that point on, even reprising his role as Norman Bates for all three sequels. Janet Leigh was married to actor Tony Curtis for a time, and during that marriage gave birth to Jamie Lee Curtis. Jamie Lee Curtis would go on to star in the slasher film series Halloween, and even shared the screen with her mother in Halloween H20: 20 years later. Psycho was nominated for Best Director (Hitchcock), Best Supporting Actress (Leigh), Best Cinematography, and Best Art-Direction. It lost for all of them, but Leigh did win a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Psycho is one of those films that you almost have to watch every Halloween. It's just too much of a classic. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Disney's Winnie the Pooh

Disney went from spending over $250 million on Tangled and taking a huge risk, to spending $30 million on a movie they've basically made before based on a tried and true character. Disney's gamble may have paid off for Tangled, but it's obvious that they decided to go for a safe and cheap bet for their next film, Winnie the Pooh. Yes, one of the few sequels in the Disney canon and also one of the few package films. I say package film because it is a collection of stories instead of one linear tale. Production began on Winnie the Pooh way back in 2009 with John Lasseter announcing that they wanted to make a movie that would "transcend generations." Honestly, unless they made a movie with Mickey and the gang in it, Winnie the Pooh is probably the only character that they could use to technically do that. Winnie the Pooh has been around since the late twenties and Disney started making movies about the honey obsessed bear in 1966. Winnie the Pooh has also had TV shows on during the 80's like Welcome to Pooh Corner, and The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. I personally grew up watching the latter. They've even had Winnie the Pooh movies and TV shows in the 2000's. For being such an old character, Pooh bear is heavily ingrained in our culture. He may not be as popular as some other cartoon characters, Disney or not, but you can't go to a kid's store without seeing some sort of Winnie the Pooh merchandise. There's just something about that bear.   My point is that Lasseter knew what he was talking about when he wanted a movie that could transcend generations. Every generation that is alive has had a connection with this bear. This movie could easily be seen by anyone, no matter what age they are, which is what makes this movie such a safe bet.

My sister already went through the history of Winnie the Pooh in her post about The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, so I won't go into that again. So, unfortunately there is not much to say about this movie. It consists of the stories, "In Which Eeyore loses a tail, and Pooh finds one,""In which Piglet meets a Heffalump," and "In which Rabbit has a busy day and we learn what Christopher Robin does in the mornings." Hmmmm...don't know about that last one. All the stories are taken from A.A. Milne's books, so don't think these are some new-fangled stories Disney pulled out of nowhere. What's also nice is that they brought Burny Mattinson on board, a veteran Disney animator who played a big role in the 1974 film, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, Too.

OK, I'm going to tackle the voices now, and it's going to be a little more in depth than usual. Winnie the Pooh's characters have gone through many voice actors throughout the years, but there aren't even that many left from The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which disappoints me. Jim Cummings has been the voice of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger since 1988, though he shared voicing Tigger with Paul Winchell until 1999. These are the only characters that are voiced by the same person as the TV series I grew up with. Piglet is voiced by Travis Oates. Oates took over for John Fiedler when he died in 2005. Fiedler had done all of Piglet's voice work before that point. That makes me very sad. Oates doesn't do a bad job, he actually sounds a lot like Fielder. Tom Kenny, AKA the voice of Spongebob Squarepants voices Rabbit. The last voice of Rabbit, Ken Samson isn't dead or anything, Disney just decided not to have him do the voice. Which is terrible. I'm sorry, I love Tom Kenny and all, he's an excellent voice talent, but he isn't rabbit. Rabbit is far too goofy in this movie. Rabbit is supposed to be uptight and the "straight man" in the comic duo that he and Pooh encompass. Kenny gets his voice somewhat close to Samson's, but not enough for me, or anyone from my generation to know that it's someone completely different.

Along the same vein is Craig Ferguson as the voice of Owl. Andre Stojka has been Owl's voice since the eighties, but apparently Disney wanted someone fresher. Ferguson, like Oates, actually pulls off the voice very well, so it's not as noticeable that it's a different voice actor. Bud Luckey, who has mostly done voices for Pixar films, voices Eeyore, another substitute for a voice actor from the eighties series. Am I missing something? Was there some dispute between all the original cast members and Disney? Kanga and Christopher Robin have been voiced by a ton of people throughout the past three decades, so I don't care as much about the changes. Plus, Christopher Robin's voice sort of has to keep getting new voice actors. And nobody cares about Roo, so there. Acting as narrator to the stories is none other than John Cleese. This is awesome, and I don't need to say anything more about it. I'm sorry if it seems like I was a little nitpicky with the voice actor thing, but I loved The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh as a child, and to see most of the cast still around but not asked to voice their characters seems like blasphemy to me personally. I know it's stupid, but I like voice actors to stay the same if possible. I stopped watching Dexter's Lab because they changed the voice actor for Dexter. Couldn't stand it. Anyway, that's my rant, and I'm sticking to it. Hey...wait a minute...where the heck is Gopher!?

Winnie the Pooh opened on July 15th 2011 and went on to gross a total of $33 million, only a little more than they spent to make the movie. It probably would have done better had it not been competing with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II. Oh well. I'm sure Disney didn't expect it to be a blockbuster hit. I'm sure they were happy it at least made them a little money. How did they make the movie so cheap in the first place? The fact that it's only an hour long helps. It was originally going to have five stories, but it was shortened to three. The length, incidentally, was about the only thing critics had a problem with. Critics praised the animation, the voicing, and the script. Critics also pointed out the ability for children and adults to enjoy the movie, which is a rare feat nowadays. I'm telling you, the generation gap is getting further and further apart. Critics likened it to a love letter to the old days of Disney animation and storytelling, and I have to agree with them. It's hand-drawn, animated by a veteran of past Winnie the Pooh films, and involves original stories from A.A. Milne. It's the complete antithesis to the current way of doing things. No original materials, all CGI, and all gimmicks like 3D. All this movie is is good storytelling, great characters, and great animation. And if that's not old fashioned Disney, then I don't know what is.

Well, that wraps up our look at the Disney Animated Canon. It took us a little bit longer than we thought, but we finally made it. Don't worry, we'll revisit Disney plenty of times and make a new post about new canon movies. Otherwise, it's on to other topics in the world of cinema. If there is something you want my sister or I to write about, drop us a comment or e-mail us. Thanks for reading!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Disney's Tangled

Tangled happens to be the first Disney animated film that I saw in theaters since The Emperor's New Groove, so I was kind of out of the game for awhile. Is it weird that out of all the films that were made between these movies that I chose a princess movie? Not at all. While some of the other films may be considered more manly, they sucked, and I knew it just by watching previews. I had a good feeling about Tangled ever since I watched the trailer for it, and I wasn't disappointed.  I'd like to think that I have a pretty good taste in movies, though that may be my conceited side coming out. Anyway, I think what also contributed to the long absence of Disney movie watching was the fact that I was in high school and the early years of college when most of the movies came out. Once I was in high school it wasn't cool to like Disney movies anymore, or like Pokemon, or a bunch of other things I was so used to at that point. So I stopped going. I remember being interested in seeing The Princess and the Frog, but for one reason or another I just didn't get around to it. I think that Tangled truly took Disney back to its 90's roots; having a princess movie based on a fairy tale, but also extremely funny. I have become nostalgic in my old age and seeing something more like the movies of my childhood really spoke to me. Like I said, I really liked the movie and consider it one of my favorites, not just because of the good story, but because it is probably one of the funniest Disney movies ever. Hercules, Aladdin, and The Emperor's New Groove are some of my favorite Disney movies, and the reason is because they are hilarious. I identify with comedic movies, give me a break! Was I a little surprised that Tangled was so funny? Yes, but I had an inkling that it would be much more than movies like Brother Bear or Home on the Range. Blech. I'm hoping that Disney is turning over a new leaf and this is what we can now expect from them.

Tangled is of course based off of the famous Brother's Grimm tale of Rapunzel. Grimm's tale coincidentally is somewhat based off of the French story Persinette, and the 10th century Persian story of Rudaba. In the story of Rapunzel, a couple live next to an enchantress, whose house and garden are walled off from the outside world. The wife feels that she is becoming pregnant, and at the same time begins to pine for a rapunzel plant that is growing in the enchantress' garden. Her husband decides to get her some of the plant and successfully breaks into the enchantress garden two nights in a row. On the third night, however, the enchantress catches the husband and accuses him of theft. He begs for mercy and the enchantress, named Dame Gothel, decides to be lenient. She will let him go, but all he has to do is give her the couple's child once it is born. Out of desperation the husband agrees and scampers back to his house. Once the baby is born, she is given to Dame Gothel and lives a solitary life there. Ironically, Dame Gothel names the baby Rapunzel, who eventually grows up to be the most beautiful child in the world, with long golden hair. Once Rapunzel reached her twelfth birthday, Dame Gothel locked her up in a solitary tower, with no door or stairs. All it had was one window and one room. When Dame Gothel wanted to visit Rapunzel, she would call out her name and ask her to let down her extremely long golden hair. Don't worry, she tied it around a hook first so she wasn't literally having some old hag's complete weight on her hair.

A prince is riding through the forest one day and hears Rapunzel's lovely singing, so he goes over to her tower to investigate. He quickly realizes that he won't be able to gain easy access to the tower so he comes back everyday to find out if there is a secret. He eventually sees the enchantress approach the the tower, thus finding out how to enter. Once the enchantress leaves, he calls out for Rapunzel to let down her hair. Apparently Rapunzel doesn't check to see who is climbing up, and is not at all concerned with the fact that whoever is calling her has a much deeper voice than the enchantress. The prince climbs up and surprises Rapunzel, quickly asking her to marry him. She agrees and they hatch a plan to help her escape. He will come back every night when the enchantress is not around and give her some silk so that she may make a ladder. Fool proof! Their plan doesn't work out, however, as she accidentally reveals that she is pregnant by saying absentmindedly that her dress is feeling tighter. Dame Gothel goes bananas and cuts off Rapunzel's hair. She then forces Rapunzel to climb down her detached hair and live in the woods. Geez, and you thought you'd be in trouble if you got pregnant at a young age. The prince comes back that night, not knowing of what transpired and calls out for Rapunzel to let down her hair. He climbs the hair like usual and lo and behold, it's not Rapunzel but some shriveled hag. After what I can only assume was a bunch of cackling and a few corny one-liners, she pushes the prince out the window, who falls onto some thorns, causing him to lose his eyesight (In some versions he falls out of surprise, and in others, when he falls, the detached hair falls with him, thus stranding the old woman in the tower). He wanders the forest, blind I might add, and I'm sure ran into his fair share of trees. Then he hears the most wonderful thing in the world, the sound of Rapunzel's singing. He follows the singing to her and her twins whom she had apparently given birth to recently. Wait a minute...how long was she in the woods? How long was he wondering blindly? Months? Oh man, this is weird! They embrace and her tears magically heal his eyes. They run off to his kingdom and live happily ever after. So...happy ending, right? What's the moral supposed to be? Don't steal plants? Always ask your realtor if an enchantress lives close by? Be good at hiding your pregnancy? Tangled doesn't exactly follow the same story line  Sure there's the enchantress that steals Rapunzel, and the man that saves her, but this is not a prince, but a thief. And, in this version, her hair is magic. It heals people and makes them young, which is why the enchantress is so interested in her.

Tangled was in production for about six years and went through a few changes along the way, the most notorious being the name of the film. When the idea first came up to do a Rapunzel story, Disney called it "Rapunzel Unbraided." Not bad, but not exactly good. It was quickly changed to just Rapunzel. It would have probably stayed with that title had The Princess and the Frog did better in the box office. Apparently $270 million worldwide was not good enough for Disney and they considered The Princess and the Frog to be a little bit of a letdown. Who was the culprit? Girls. Disney had spent all the money on a princess movie and all that saw it were a bunch of girls! Or so they believed. Guys apparently didn't go to see The Princess and the Frog, so Disney decided to change the focus of their next movie. Instead of calling it Rapunzel, they would call it...oh I don't know, I'm just spit-balling here....Tangled! Yeah, that's the ticket! Disney announced that they were changing the name to Tangled and people started to call shenanigans on them. Justin Chang of Variety claimed it was about the same as The Little Mermaid changing its name to "Beached." Disney was also  accused of sexism, among other things. To put it plainly, people weren't too happy about the change. What's the name of the movie now? That's right, it's still Tangled, which means Disney didn't give a crap about what people thought about them. The directors of the film, Nathan Greno and Byron Howard,  defended the name change by saying it was a marketing decision. The film was about Rapunzel and Flynn Rider, therefore it should be given a title that didn't put one character above the other. They likened it to calling Toy Story, "Buzz Lightyear."

The film has a very unique animation style due to the fact that it incorporates the best parts of both CGI and traditional hand-drawn animation. Yes, It is a CGI film, but the look of it is modeled after the look of oil paintings on canvas. The Rococo paintings of French artist Jean-Honore Fragonard, particularly The Swing, were used as reference for the film's artistic style, a style described as lush and romantic. To create the impression of a painting, non-photorealistic rendering was used. Think of cel-shaded animation, like what they used in Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. On top of the stellar animation, the movie also had some pretty good music. I'm glad Disney is trying to keep this new trend going. The score of the film was done by who else by Alan Menken, and the lyrics done by Glenn Slater. Menken decided to have a mix of medieval music and 1960's folk rock to give the movie a broad appeal. So there are a few songs that stand out in the movie, like "I See the Light," "When Will My Life Begin," and "I've Got a Dream." Since Mandy Moore does the voice of Rapunzel, and Zachary Levi does Rider, they sang their own songs. Not too often that the voice actors are able to pull off the singing too, but they deliver. I knew Levi could sing, but I didn't know he could sing that well. While the songs are by no means on the level as any in Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, they are still excellent and sure to please.

This movie doesn't really have a large cast of characters, and the ones it does have aren't voiced by famous people for the most part. Like I mentioned before, you have the very talented Mandy Moore (A Walk To Remember) as Rapunzel, and Zachary Levi (Chuck) as Flynn Rider. They are beyond perfect for their roles.  Maybe even more so for Zachery Levi. I may just love him from his role on Chuck, but I think he was most of the reason the movie was so funny (him, Pascal, and Maximus the horse. Note to Disney: Horses are funny. I don't know why, but they are. That includes winged ones.) Donna Murphy (The King and I) voices Mother Gothel, the villianness of the story. She's also great in the movie, with her highlight being her song "Mother Knows Best." These three were not the original choices for the roles, however. At the very beginning, it was planned that Kristen Chenoweth would voice Rapunzel, Dan Fogler voice Rider, and Grey DeLisle voice Mother Gothel. For whatever reason, Disney decided to go a little bit younger, and hipper, and went with the current cast. Other well known actors in the movie include Brad Garrett (Everybody Loves Raymond), Ron Perlman (Hellboy) and Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development), all of whom play thugs at the Snuggly Duckling Inn.

Tangled was released on my birthday, November 24th in 2010 and earned a whopping $11.9 million on that Wednesday, breaking the record for a pre-Thanksgiving release. It went on to gross $590 million worldwide, against a $260 million budget. Tangled still stands as the most expensive animated movie ever made, and the second most expensive movie ever. Disney really put themselves on the line with this one, and thank God it paid off. With its gross, it is the second highest grossing Disney movie, only behind The Lion King. Critics loved the film, saying that though it may not be the best Disney film ever, it is still visually stunning, and a thoroughly entertaining edition to Disney's canon. Most criticism was leveled at the unmemorable songs and the perceived marketing ploy of the name change.

Tangled is a worthy addition to the Disney canon in my opinion, and I believe on of the modern classics. It may not be Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, but that's not really what people want these days. They want humor, and action in their movies. Tangled has tons of it, and I think that boys and girls can like the movie. Sure, the name change thing was probably done to get boys interested, but you can hardly blame Disney. If a name change was all that stood in the way of an extra $300 million, you bet they would do it. So we are very close to the end of my history of the Disney canon. All there is left is Winnie the Pooh, which I can guarantee will be a short one, then Wreck-It-Ralph, which has yet to come out.  After that I will move on to other movie topics, so I hope my Disney readers are not too disappointed.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Disney's The Princess and the Frog

For Disney's 49th animated film, The Princess and the Frog , Disney went back to their roots. Fooling around with Computer Animation for several years, John Lasseter decided since Disney owned Pixar, it was time to bring back the classic look of hand-drawn animation for it's new fairy tale. This was a dream come true, especially for all the traditional animators that were laid off in 2003 after the switch over to CGI. They were all sought out and rehired to do their magic. Now when I say that Disney was going back to its roots, I wasn't kidding. Here we have a classically animated movie, a fairy-tale adaptation, and a Broadway style musical. There is something else that is special about this movie, however. It happens to be the first Disney animated film featuring an African-American princess and the first to have an African-American as a main character. Don't get me wrong, there have been black characters in Disney movies, though all have been in the last fifteen years. I'm not counting animal representations of black people such as the crows in Dumbo or Sebastian in The Little Mermaid. Does it seem a little odd that it took Disney so long to have a black main character? Seems weird to me too. If you look at all the Disney princesses, you have a white black-haired character, two white blonde-haired characters, one white brunette character, one Asian, one Middle-Eastern, one Ginger, and one Native-American. Now, for a race that is so connected with our history, and with so many stories involving African-Americans, I just don't see why Disney never got around to having black main characters. Perhaps Disney was too afraid in the early days and all the way through the Civil Rights movement, and maybe even in the last few decades they were afraid of causing controversy. Apparently Disney got over whatever was keeping them from it, and now we finally have an African-American Princess in Tiana.

OK, so enough about the race issue. Actually we'll have to touch on it again in a little bit, so I just completely lied. Anyway, this movie is sort of an amalgamation of two fairy-tales, The Frog Prince, and The Frog Princess. The Frog Prince is written by those fun-loving Grimm Brothers, so you can expect something crazy is going to happen to someone. In the tale, a spoiled princess reluctantly befriends a frog that she meets at a well. She accidentally drops a golden ball into the well and weeps because of it. A frog comes up from the well and offers to get the ball for the princess, but will only do it if she lets him be her companion. She agrees, thinking he won't be able to follow her, and waits as the frog gets the ball for her. Once he brought the ball up, she snatched it away and ran as fast as she could. The frog begged her to wait up, but she only ran faster. Back at her castle, the princess was constantly bothered by the frog who continually knocked on the door and asked to be let in. It was only after her father demanded that she follow her obligation that she let the frog in and let him sit at the table with her and eat. This did not make her happy at all. The frog then asked to go up to her room with her and lay in her silk bed. Again she protested, but the king made her follow her obligation. She then went about setting him in a corner in her room and tried to go to sleep. It was not to be, as the frog jumped onto the bed and demanded that he sleep there with her, or he would tell her father. This was too much. She picked up the frog and threw him against the wall. It was at that moment that the frog transformed into a handsome prince. Then they got married with the king's blessings. The end. Yep, no real lesson to that one. Or if there is one, it's that you should take your problems and promptly throw them against a wall. If he left her at the end, it would have been that you should always keep your promises, but that didn't happen. Ugh. I'm so confused! There have been many different versions of this tale however, with the most popular that a kiss would make the frog turn into a prince.

The second tale that The Princess and the Frog takes its story from is The Frog Princess. In this story, written by E.D. Baker in 2002, a princess of a fake country is told that she must marry her most hated enemy, thus she runs away and meets a prince that has been turned into a frog. The prince explains that a witch has turned him into a frog and that if she kisses him, he'll be turned back. She does, and she ends up turning into a frog instead. Whodauthunkit! Together, they attempt to find the witch and turn themselves back into humans again. Now, this version sounds a lot like The Princess and the Frog, so it's obvious that most of the subject matter has been taken from the Baker novel. However, the Baker novel is undoubtedly inspired by The Frog Prince, so it's hard to say that The Princess and the Frog is only based off the Baker novel.

The Princess and the Frog is another film directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. Musker and Clements had directed such Disney classics as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules, but had left the company in 2005 after the CGI wave hit. Lasseter personally went and asked them to please direct this film, saying they could do it in any animation style they wished (CGI or hand-drawn). Luckily for us, they agreed and took on the film. The funny thing is that the idea for a Frog Prince style story was being knocked around by both Disney and Pixar in the mid 2000's, and when Disney bought Pixar, it made sense that they would combine their ideas into one big story. It was as early as 2006 that Disney had a name for the film, The Frog Princess, but the name wouldn't stick.


The name, along with some songs and early concepts were presented to the public in early 2007 and to Disney surprise, caused a minor controversy. African-Americans called foul on some of the characters, the location, and concepts
of the film. The original name for the main character was going to be "Maddy," but African-Americans felt it was too close to the derogatory term "mammy." They also found the occupation of the main character, that of a chambermaid, as being stereotypical and belittling. The fact that "Maddy's" love interest was not African-American also caused a minor stir. People didn't like that New Orleans was the setting, considering Hurricane Katrina had just happened, they didn't like that an African-American Witch Doctor was the villain, and even the French found the title to be a slur against them. OK, so a lot of people had problems with the film. Disney isn't exactly new to controversy, as they've seen it with most films they've done that involve minorities. So maybe this is why they put off a film with African-Americans. I'm not sure, as I couldn't find any article that shed any light on the reasons why Disney waited so long. All I can say is that sometimes Disney can be a teensy bit stereotypical in their representations. To address these complaints, Disney changed the name of the film to The Princess and the Frog, "Maddy" was changed to Tiana, her occupation became a waitress, and Oprah Winfrey was hired on as a consultant.
The animation of the film is a little bit different from previous hand-drawn films, as the CAPS system was too outdated and couldn't be realistically used for the film. Disney turned to Toon Boom Animation for a new system and what they got was Harmony. Think of Harmony as CAPS but a bigger, better version. Harmony is in use for the whole film, save Tiana's dream sequence. That takes on an art-deco graphic style based on the art of Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas. The character animation was done on paper, then was scanned directly into Photoshop. It was then enhanced to affect the appearance of painted strokes and fills, and combined with backgrounds, using Adobe After Effects. Musker and Clements had decided from the beginning that they wanted to go with a style like Lady and the the Tramp. Lasseter himself declared that the film was the pinnacle of Disney's style. The city look of Lady and the Tramp would also be the inspiration for the look of the city of New Orleans in the film, while the landscape of Bambi inspired the bayou scenes.

The main character, Tiana, ended up being the hardest voice to find for the crew. Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, and Tyra Banks were all considered for the part at one time or another. Keys even went as far as calling the studio herself about the role. Ultimately, the role went to Jennifer Hudson's co-star from Dreamgirls, Anika Rose. Tiana is a waitress that longs to own her own restaurant, and because of her aspirations, doesn't have time for romance. That in itself is not very typical of a Disney princess (though she isn't a princess quite yet). Bruno Campos (Nip/Tuck) voices the ne'er-do-well and playboy turned frog Prince Naveen. Naveen is basically the complete opposite of Tiana. Tiana is all responsibility, and Naveen is cast out from his rich kingdom because he wants to have no responsibility. That's why he is more than happy to run around in New Or leans and just have a good time. That is, until he is turned into a frog for being...well...himself. Naveen is of an ambiguous ethnicity, because the country he hails from is make believe! Yes, Maldonia is not a real country, please don't consult your globe to try and prove me wrong. So, the prince is neither white or black, instead putting him in the Eurasian area, but sounding awfully French. I think Disney did this on purpose, and I can see why. Making him an ambiguous ethnicity is the only way to keep people from griping about the male lead.

Michael-Leon Wooley (Dreamgirls) voices Louis, the trumpet-playing, jazz-loving gator. Louis is named after the famous jazz trumpet player Louis Armstrong, and wants nothing more than to be in a band like humans. The band that Louis ultimately plays in, Firefly Five plus Lou, is a reference to the Dixieland band Firehouse Five plus Two which consisted of Disney animators. Jim Cummings (Winnie-the-Pooh) voices the Cajun firefly Ray. Ray is an interesting character due to his infatuation with the evening star, which he calls Evangeline. This is a reference the the Longfellow poem, "Evangeline, a Tale of Acadie," which tells the story of a girl trying to find her lost love. The poem is held dear by Louisiana descendants of the Acadians, or Cajuns. The "star" that Ray calls Evangeline is not a star at all, but the planet Venus. Venus is the Roman goddess of love. Keith David (The
Chronicles of Riddick) voices Dr. Facilier, aka The Shadow Man, who acts as the silver-tongued villain of the film. Bruce W. Smith, the supervising animator of Dr. Facilier, referred to the character as a "lovechild" of Cruella de Vil and Captain Hook. Gross! Facilier incidentally looks an awful lot like the Voodoo god of magic, ancestor worship, and death, Baron Samedi. Baron Samedi is often described as being very thin, wearing a top hat and tuxedo, and having a skull face. People still have a problem with the character, but for different reasons. Christians were upset by the Voodoo aspects of the film, while non-Christians didn't like that Voodoo was portrayed as a type of magic and not a religion. Oh well. You can't please everyone. Other voices in the film include John Goodman as "Big Daddy," Terrence Howard as Tiana's father that dies in WWI, and Oprah Winfrey as Tiana's mother.

The movie went up for a bunch of awards, including best animated feature and best song at The Academy Awards, but lost to Up and Crazy Heart, respectively. Speaking of best song, this movie had some pretty good music. Randy Newman, who had done the music for most of the Pixar films but not any Disney animated ones, created the score for The Princess and the Frog, giving it a dixieland and jazz feel. With Newman tackling the score, and Alan Menken doing the songwriting, the movie has a pretty good soundtrack. And that's what Disney really needs is a animated film with a memorable soundtrack. Everybody remembers the songs from The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and countless other films that used songs in their movies. What the movies in the 2000's and scattered others from the 70's and 80's are missing is the music. The music helps people keep fond memories of the film and adds a fun flair to the movie. Animation is more accepting of the Broadway style of music, as it seems kind of campy to see people randomly break into songs in live action movies. Sure, there are some, but showtunes are meant for the part of the populace that like going to musicals. Most live action musicals aren't as highly regarded as animated ones. There are exceptions, don't get me wrong, but not too many. Anyway, one last note is that this is one of the few Disney movies (Beauty and the Beast being one of the more recent ones) that the people who are voicing the characters are also the ones that are singing for them too. What does this prove? Well, apparently a lot of voice actors can't sing!

The film first premiered in a limited capacity in New York and L.A. in late November of 2009. That was followed shortly after by a wide release on December 11th, a date that was chosen instead of Christmas, since Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (*shudder*) came out the same day and Disney didn't want to compete with it. The film ended up grossing a worldwide total of over $267 million and definitively making a profit from its $105 million budget. While it was much more successful than the more recent hand-drawn movies, it was not even close to such films as The Lion King or Aladdin from the heyday of the Disney Renaissance. Critics welcomed the return of the hand-drawn Disney animation and for the most part gave the movie glowing reviews. Many critics pointed towards the old format as what made the film so good, namely, good old-fashioned animation, good story, and good songs. Any negativity was directed towards the subject matter, mainly the voodoo parts and various concepts in the movie. Thanks to the success of the film, Disney decided to green-light a hand-drawn film every two years, which so far they've done. Anne and I consider this to be the new era of Disney, since it seems like they are finally finding their way back to what Walt Disney wanted for the animation studio. Will this last? Well, we really don't know since we are hardly into this new decade, but there are plenty of stories out there, and we're pretty confident that Disney will be making films for a very long time. So, now that they've done a film about African-Americans, how about one about the Latino population? Saludos Amigos! and The Three Caballeros don't count!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Disney's Bolt

Disney had a hit with Chicken Little, and a subdued one with Meet the Robinsons. It was time for them to hit it out of the park, and that meant carrying a good gross and a good critical reception. The last time they were able to do that was Lilo & Stitch. So, who better to step up to the plate than Lilo & Stitch director, Chris Sanders. Sanders came up with a original story called American Dog about a TV dog named Henry who gets lost in the Nevada desert and has to team up with an one-eyed cat and a radioactive rabbit, both of whom want a home, to get back to his owners, all while thinking that he is still on television. John Lasseter is creative manager now for Disney and unlike with Meet the Robinsons, he is there from the beginning of this film. Sanders presented the film to him in the form of early cuts and Lasseter, like with the early cut of Meet the Robinsons, was not impressed. Lasseter, along with other directors from Disney and Pixar gave him a few points to work on. Sanders resisted the changes being made to his film and was subsequently replaced by Chris Williams and Byron Howard. The team tackling the film was then given eighteen months to complete the film instead of the customary four years. That's a ton of pressure on the team, and we'll see if it worked out for Disney later in the post.

The name of the movie was changed to Bolt, as was the main characters name, and a few tweaks were made to Sanders' story. The main character dog would still be a TV star, but would think it had super powers for most of the film. Bolt thinks that the girl in the show, his actual owner Penny, is being kidnapped, so he tries to rescue her, only to be accidentally sent to New York City in a box. He meets not a one-eyed cat, but a two-eyed one, although this cat is probably much more narcissistic than the original one, and instead of a radioactive rabbit, he meets a star-struck hamster in a rolling ball. It's just a little bit different from Sanders' story, but I can see how these changes were a little better than the original. At least for the general public. I would have loved to see a radioactive rabbit as a main character in a Disney film.

Bolt tackles a few different issues. Bolt kind of represents the naivety in all of us. Bolt believes that he has special powers, and that all of life is this dramatic and magical place. It's only when he meets Mittens the cat that he begins to be clued into the fact that he is in fact normal, and life is not as magical as he thought it is. Mittens the cat represents the pessimistic and more realistic side of humanity. She never for a second believes that Bolt is anything special and goes out of her way to try and convince Bolt of that fact. She even tries to convince Bolt that his owner, Penny, no longer loves him and has replaced him. We come to find out that Mittens was abandoned by her owner, leading her to become bitter and prone to raining on others parade. Rhino the hamster is the TV obsessed portion of our population. The funny thing is that even though he is pretty diluted himself, he provides the most worth in the trio and is the voice of reason and optimism. I cannot help but draw many comparisons between this movie and all three of the Toy Story movies. In the first movie you have Buzz Lightyear who is completely convinced that he is a Space Ranger. It takes failure for him to realize that he is in fact just a toy, but the pessimistic Woody doesn't exactly help matters out for him. I find Woody and Buzz's relationship to be eerily similar to Bolt's and Mitten's. In Toy Story 2, Jessie is abandoned by her owner which leads to trust issues, and in Toy Story 3, Lots- O'-Huggin' Bear is also abandoned by his owner and realizes that he has been replaced. He spends the rest of the movie seeking to convince others that they are not wanted by their past owners. So a lot of funny similarities between Bolt and the Toy Story series.

Unlike the last two films in the Disney canon, Bolt was made in 3-D in the first place, and didn't have it added after the fact. CGI films just seem simpler to make. I just always assumed that they didn't need hand-drawn pictures to guide their work since they had computers, but in fact, the crew for the movie depended heavily on the hand-drawn storyboards for inspiration and guidance. A lot of work went into making certain aspects look believable. One such aspect is the look of Rhino moving in his plastic ball. The animators bought a real life hamster named Doink and filmed it fro m beneath as it walked on a sheet o f Plexiglas. To make the scenery seem more realistic, the crew went out to the different spots in the film, just like in the olden days! The scenes in the trailer park in Ohio, the San Francisco docks, the New York street s, and the building of Las Vegas are all based off of real locations and structures. The animators were further influenced by the paintings of Edward Hooper and early seventies movies when they tackled the film's visual look. Anne and I don't really see it, but apparently it's there.

Bolt has another one of those "All-Star Casts." Playing the main character we have John Travolta (Pulp Fiction), who I honestly just can't get used to hearing as Bolt. It just seems weird! But it still works, apparently! Chloe Grace Moretz (Dark Shadows) voiced the younger version of Penny, though she had done all the voice work for the character before Disney replaced her with Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana and other stuff I don't care about). I feel a little bad for Moretz, but she's seems to be doing OK for herself now. I'm sure Disney completely flipped their gourd when they realized they could get Miley Cyrus to voice one of the main characters. Like, seriously, their eyes turned into dollar signs and everything. Playing the "villain," Dr. Calico, is none other than Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange). I like this casting, as McDowell has the right voice for a menacing character. Other famous actors voicing in the film include comedian Nick Swardson (Reno 911), James Lipton (Inside the Actor's Studio) as the Director, Randy Savage ("OOOOHHH YEAAAAAHHH! SNAP INTO A SLIM JIM!") as a Thug, and John DiMaggio (Futurama) as Saul.

Anne and I have both seen this movie and at least I thought it was decent. Anne apparently hates it. She just hates Miley Cyrus' smokers voice. I can't really blame her. Apparently though, a lot of people found it to be more than decent. Critics raved about this one. It has a 88% on Rotten Tomatoes, placing it above most of Disney's canon. That has caused a bit of a stir, but apparently Disney got the ingredients right for a critical and high grossing hit. Most critics found it to be a return to Disney's standard and a film both kids and parents can enjoy. It debuted in theaters in Winter 2008 and though it ranked third on its opening weekend, it climbed up to second in the next and more than made up for what Disney had put into the film. Worldwide the film made $309 million. Nothing to sneeze at. One last interesting note about this movie is the name of it in other countries. It is called Lighting in Croatia, Thunder in Bulgaria, and Volt in France, Hungary, and Russia. But there is a specific reason that it's named that in Russia. It turns out that the word bolt is a vulgar word for a man's...well....you can probably guess what it is.