Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Disney's The Emperor's New Groove

Last but definitely not least of the 2000 movies is The Emperor's New Groove. This is my third favorite Disney movie behind Hercules and Aladdin, mostly because of the humor. It's not very dramatic or serious, but it makes up for it in being probably the funniest Disney movie ever. I'm dead serious. This movie never gets old for me. It's fun for the kids and it has enough adult humor that parents won't mind watching it. If the title sounds vaguely familiar it's because it's a reference to the Hans Christian Anderson tale, The Emperor's New Clothes. That being said, there is no similarities between the two so I won't go into that story at all. This movie went through probably the most drastic change in Disney history, going from a serious epic named Empire of the Sun, to a straight up comedy called The Emperor's New Groove. Let's see what happened.

Production on the movie started around 1994 with the purpose of making another Lion King type epic. The plan was to have a movie based around Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, where an greedy and selfish Inca Emperor who finds a peasant that looks just like him. He decides to switch places with the man on a lark. The evil witch Yzma decides that she is going to summon a dark spirit to capture the sun so she can stay young forever, and in the process finds out about the switch between the Emperor and the peasant. She turns the real Emperor into a llama and threatens to reveal the truth of the switch unless the peasant does whatever she says. The Emperor-llama learns humility in his new form and even falls in love with a lady llama-herder. Together, the girl and the llama set out to undue the witches plan. The movie was to be called Empire of the Sun, but was later changed to Empire in the Sun. You can see where this is going. With production under way, Roger Allers becomes the director while Randy Fullmer acts as the producer. Unfortunately, production faltered when they tried to make the plot a little more original and not so much like The Prince and the Pauper. Disney had just released a Mickey Mouse short on the subject a few years earlier in fact. Test screenings did not go well and upper management was not happy with the films lack of direction. So, Disney decided to hire Mark Dindal, director of Cats Don't Dance. Here's where things get really interesting.

With Dindal now on as another director, the film was basically split in two; Dindal doing a more comedic version, and Allers creating a more dramatic version. Things were not going well and the Disney execs still saw the film as uneven. They hesitated to intervene at first because of Allers' success with The Lion King, which also suffered some production speed bumps. By 1998 however, it was painfully obvious that the film would not be complete in time for a Summer 2000 release. A Disney exec stormed into producer Fullmer's office and informed him that they were very close to shutting down the whole production. When Fullmer went to Allers about the problem, Allers asked for another six month extension. Fullmer declined and Allers left. Eisner came in and told Fullmer that he had two weeks to salvage the film or else. Stopping production for six months, Fullmer and Dindal completely overhauled the story. What came out of that was the story we have today with the new name of The Emperor's New Gro ove. It turned into a buddy movie, with Yzma becoming a mad scientist sort of villain and the Emperor losing a love interest in the movie. Eisner was a little hesitant about the movie because he saw similarities between it and Hercules, a movie that was well received but didn't do phenomenal at the box office. The crew assured him that this had a much smaller supporting cast so people would be much more invested in the characters. The overhaul had one last drawback however, as it made animator Andreas Deja quit the production and start working on Lilo and Stitch. Why is that so bad? Well, on top of being in charge of the animation of Yzma, Deja also was in charge of the parts of the film that included the songs done by singer Sting. Sting had already recorded the songs and everything, but with Deja gone, his parts in the film were eliminated. Sting had done all that work for nothing. And he was pissed. There's even a documentary about Sting's efforts in the film called The Sweatbox. Good luck finding a copy, as Disney owns the rights and likely won't let it out for quite a while. Sting's songs can still be found on the official soundtrack however if you're curious. One of his songs "My Funny Friend and Me" was even nominated for an Academy Award. If you liked the ending, you can thank Sting for that. The original ending had Kuzco building his resort on a neighboring hill, which Sting thought was dumb since it showed that Kuzco hadn't learned his lesson. Thus, at the end, Kuzco has his own little hut instead.

The setting of the film is based off the Peruvian Inca Empire. Along with the architecture, roads, intricate waterworks, sun worship, and llamas as domesticated beasts, Kuzco's name is similar to Cusco, the Peruvian city considered the capital of the Inca Empire, and Pacha's name is drawn from Pachacuti, considered the most important ruler of the Inca Empire, and a historical figure. That being said, there are plenty of incongruities and anachronisms throughout the film, some for comedic effect and some just because they didn't care about being too historically accurate. And, while the crew did take a trip down to Peru for inspiration, the setting is not specifically based off of any particular area of Peru. What makes this movie even more unusual is the fact that it has almost no musical numbers, save for the beginning and end song and Kronk's impromptu theme music.

Part of what makes this movie so great is the voice actors. I don't think this film would have worked had it not been for David Spade and John Goodman. Spade is absolutely perfect for the selfish and conceited Kuzco, while Goodman shines as the foil to Kuzco's bombastic personality. It's funny too because Spade has been in a bunch of different movies where he plays the shrimpy whiny character next to the portly comic relief (Tommy Boy, Black Sheep, Lost and Found), and this film is no different. I can't picture anyone doing the voice of Yzma other than Eartha Kitt. It just fits her perfectly. And of course Patrick Warburton, who usually plays the dumb oaf is one of the funniest characters as Kronk. Funny story: Disney made Warburton sign the rights away for Kronk's "theme song," something that was ad-libbed by Warburton. Wendie Malick plays Pacha's wife, Chicha, who you may recall from Just Shoot Me!, a show in which she shared the screen with David Spade. And last we have Tom Jones as the Theme Song Guy. The film's team originally wanted Sting to do the opening theme song, but they considered him too old. So they got Tom Jones who is eleven years older than Sting. Good job!

The film opened on December 15th 2000 to mostly glowing reviews. Critics found that the pace and humor overshadowed any minor flaws the movie had. However, Eisner was right that it would turn out like Hercules. The movie only grossed a measly $90 million domestically and another $80 million worldwide. This was well below the standards of the 90's Disney films. In fact, the only films in the rest of the decade would sustain losses for Disney except for Lilo and Stitch and Brother Bear. Yikes.

I really can't say enough about why this movie is so great. It's got a good story, a solid funny cast, plenty of sight gags, adult humor, and references everywhere. I can't even tell you what part is my favorite because there are too many to choose from. Most of them involve Krunk, though. Please watch this movie again if you haven't in awhile. You'll be glad you did. And you may have to watch it more than once, just so you don't miss anything. This is probably the most cartoony film you'll see from Disney, as you have all the typical Looney Tunes type antics happening. From delayed falls, to purposeful incongruities, to lack of death, to tons of slapstick, this movie is the closest thing you'll get to a Saturday morning cartoon.

Disney's Dinosaur

I'm sorry, but I would consider this to be the first mediocre movie since the Renaissance era of Disney animation. I have only seen this movie twice and didn't find it that enjoyable to be honest. I'd rather watch Land Before Time any day. Not the million sequels, just the first one. Dinosaur is the second of three movies to come out in 2000, an odd year for Disney. For the most part they've kept their movies a year or two apart, so the fact that three movies found their way onto the screen in one year is astounding. While the plot is mediocre and seems like a ripoff of a certain movie I mentioned earlier, it's still beautifully animated. This was Disney's first completely CGI movie and in terms of animation I think it looks pretty good. Not as good as movies today, mind you, but still pretty good for the time.

This may be a short post since there isn't a lot about this movie and it's not based off of anything. I'll tell you what I can though. Dinosaur was originally going to be a non-speaking film, precisely for the fact that it was too much like Land Before Time. Micheal Eisner would have none of that however and insisted the film have dialogue so it would be more "commercially viable." You can't really blame him. No one wants to watch a bunch of silent dinosaurs trudging through a wasteland for an hour and a half. Direction of the movie changed hands from the Oliver and Company director, George Scribner, to Ralph Zondag. Though Scribner left to be part of Disney Imagineering, most of his story is still intact. The film itself had CGI animation superimposed on real life backgrounds, namely those from Canaima National Park in Venezuela, and Angel Falls. Several ideas were thrown out during production, namely that the voices would not come from moving lips, but instead be voice-overs like in Homeward Bound. They were going to have a shot of the meteor going through space, but that sort of shot was in Armageddon so they got rid of it. Armageddon wasn't the only movie to ruin Dinosaur's fun, as The Lost World depicted the tyrannosaurus as having more a motherly side to it, so having a tyrannosaurus as the main villain was tossed out the window in favor of a Carnoaurus. BORING! Last change was the raptors, who the animators wanted to have feathers around their neck so it would look more like Indians attacking a stagecoach in the scene where the raptors go after the herd. The feathers proved too hard to animate so they were taken out.

Dinosaur was not a cheap film to make. In fact, it was the most expensive movie released in 2000 with a total price tag of $130 million. Disney really needed this to go well. Their gamble paid off, as the film ended up making almost $350 million worldwide. Not only that, but it was not hated by everyone either. Critics gave it generally good reviews, though some critics like Roger Ebert thought they shouldn't have had the dinosaurs talk, as it took away from the realistic effort Disney had put forth. Generally though, the movie was seen as a visual treat and though it seemed like a rehash of Land Before Time, it could stand on its own legs. I haven't seen this movie in a while so maybe I'll give it another chance. I'm sure some of you out there have some fond memories of this movie. And it's not even close to the worst movie of the decade. I'll get to that soon.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Disney's Fantasia 2000

Fantasia 2000 is the second sequel film in the Disney canon, Rescuers Down Under being the first, and Winnie the Pooh the third. I honestly don't count The Three Caballeros as a sequel to Saludos Amigos! A lot of people I've talked to about this film really didn't like it, which is confusing to me. I've always liked this movie. When comparing it to Fantasia, this newer one seems a lot less boring. Sure I can appreciate the older one better now than I did as a child, but the whole dinosaur segment still makes me want to snooze. The first question that always comes up when you hear about a sequel is: "Why bother?" Rescuers Down Under did poorly compared to the other 90's films, so why put another sequel out there? Plus, one from what is considered one of the best Disney films of all time, if not the most innovative. Well, as the film itself says, it was Walt Disney's dream. Disney wanted to come out with a new Fantasia film every couple years, adding new songs and animation so the audience would see a different film each time. Unfortunately, Fantasia didn't make much, wasn't shown in Europe because of the war, and wasn't a hit with critics. Walt Disney's aspirations were seen as economically unsound, and who can blame the company. That wasn't the end of Fantasia however.

Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney decided it was about time for another Fantasia, albeit after Walt had passed away in 1966. Roy decided to pitch the idea to Micheal Eisner and the project was thrown around a little. A project for the sequel titled Musicana was to come out in the late 70's and focus on the world's cultures through musical compositions, but it was shelved in the early 80's. There is a special feature on the Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 Blu-ray/DVD that gives the history of Musicana and shows how much they had animated before the project was shelved. Finally, the idea resurfaced in 1990, and went into production, not under the name Musicana, but Fantasia Continued. In 1991, composer James Levine attended a meeting with Roy Disney, Thomas Schumacher, and Peter Gelb, who asked Levine to conduct several musical pieces of their choosing for the movie. Pieces like Pines of Rome (the whale segment) were there from the beginning, but others like Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major-1. Allegro were added very late in the mix. The film was even going to include more pieces from the original, like Dance of the Hours and The Nutcracker Suite, but were pulled because Disney wanted to shorten the run time, or they wanted something completely new, aka Rhapsody in Blue. The only original segment that made it was The Sorcerer's Apprentice. The original release was for the mid-90's but production ran long and it was delayed until 1999. The name of the movie was thus changed to Fantasia 1999. Yuck. Luckily, the movie was again delayed until 2000, making it a very busy movie year for Disney, as Dinosaur and Emperor's New Groove would come out the same year. So, Fantasia 1999 thankfully became Fantasia 2000, which is still not the best name but beats the hell out of anything with 1999 in the title.

Something that the studio wanted to keep from the first film was the introductions to the pieces, though in this case they wanted more than one person to do them. This way, it would "cleanse the emotional palate" of the audience and allow for some background on the piece. Such stars and musicians that introduce the pieces are: Steve Martin, Bette Midler, Quincy Jones, violinist Itzhak Perlman, Penn & Teller, James Earl Jones, composer James Levine (with Mickey Mouse and Leopold Stokowski, Stokowski's voice being from the original film), and finally, Angela Lansbury. Let's take a look at the segments:

First off we have Symphony No. 5 by Ludwig van Beethoven. Director Pixote Hunt decided on the concept for Symphony No. 5 with a conflict between the "good" multi-colored shapes and the "evil" dark shapes and how it resolves itself. Staff members visited zoos looking at butterflies and bats to get a sense in how each behaved. This is a very short piece, but for me it is very effective. The whole parent and child dynamic always gets me on an emotional level and I can remember being struck by the whole sequence when I first saw this in the IMAX. As always though, good triumphs over evil and though it appears the darkness has overtaken the father/mother, they appear at the very end of the piece. Still gets me.

The second piece is probably my least favorite but still is incredibly beautiful. Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi, though it seems like it would have an animated sequence about...well...Rome, doesn't. The animators went in a different direction and thought more along the lines of whales. Besides Rhapsody in Blue, I believe it is the longest section and for me has always been boring. Don't get me wrong, whales are cool and all but the whole whales flying around because of a supernova is a little odd. This segment, along with The Steadfast Tin Soldier are the lone completely CGI segments, which incidentally were finished before Pixar's landmark CGI film Toy Story even came out.

The next segment is my favorite: Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. I don't know if it's because it's sort of a historical piece, or if it's because of the various stories going on, or the unique animation, but I really like this piece. It helps that I also like the song. Though it is a long piece, it doesn't bore you, as it tells the story of four different people: a construction worker longing to be a drummer, a begrudging husband who has to follow his high maintenance wife around, a down on his luck man who is just looking for employment, and a little girl who just wants to spend time with her parents, not her nanny. In the end, the construction worker chooses to become a drummer in a band, the husband decides to go out and have some fun, the unemployed man takes over the constructions worker's job, and the little girl is reunited with her parent's after she is almost hit by a ton of cars. I love the feel of the whole piece; the 30's setting, the Al Hirschfeld style animation, and the surprise cameo by Gershwin himself playing piano.

Piano Concerto No. 2 follows and tells the story of The Steadfast Tin Soldier. Disney knew they wanted to tell the story of the steadfast tin soldier, but didn't find a song for it until late in the game. This is another really good piece, as it's story is easy to follow and the music accents it perfectly. The story details the love between a tin soldier who is missing one leg, and a toy ballerina. Their relationship is cut short by a jealous jack-in-the-box who wants the ballerina for himself. The tin soldier is knocked out a window and though he goes down into the sewer and is eaten by a fish, he inexplicably ends up right back at his master's house. He battles the jack-in-the-box and successfully throws him into a fire. The soldier and ballerina live happily ever after! Well, that's the Disney version at least. In Hans Christian Anderson's version, the jack-in-the-box is a goblin instead, and in the end, the soldier and the ballerina are accidentally knocked into a fireplace by their boy owner. The tin soldier burns into the shape of a heart. Very sad and kind of disturbing. I'm so glad Disney sanitizes some stories.

The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens is another very short piece. This segment details what would happen if you gave a yo-yo to a flock of flamingos. The idea for the segment came from legendary story artist Joe Grant, who loved the Fantasia segment Dance of the Hours. He wanted to have a bunch of ostriches with a yo-yo, but it was eventually changed to flamingos. I remember that they had a lot of merchandise at The Henry Ford where we went to see this when it first came out, but the only thing I thought was cool was the yo-yo with the flamingo on it. Hey, come on...yo-yo's were cool back then and I was fourteen. It's funny because I think I still have it around here somewhere.

I'm skipping The Sorcerers Apprentice since that's an old piece. The next new piece is Pomp and Circumstance by Edward Elgar. I, like most people, associate this song with graduations, so I was a little put off by it at first, but it's grown on me. This segment details the Biblical story of Noah and the flood. Donald and Daisy star as helpers of Noah and Donald gets into some hijinks. When the flood comes however, Daisy is convinced Donald didn't make the ship and counts him lost. Of course Donald is alright, he's just under Murphy's Law 24/7. They eventually land and Donald and Daisy are reunited. What else would have happened? Good piece if you can disassociate the music with graduations. And Donald makes everything awesome so you can't help but like this segment.

Last but not least is the Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky. This is one of those segments that has grown on me, but its still not one of my favorites. Disney wanted to have a piece that was the same thing as the Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria segment that closed the first Fantasia, so they went with a story that details the theme of life-death-rebirth deities. The segment was also meant to be a stylized interpretation of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. The segment involves a spring sprite and her companion, the elk, who both accidentally wake up the Firebird, a fiery spirit of destruction in a nearby volcano. This segment has breathtaking visuals and full of action, a little more so than the others. Still, it's not as good as some of the others in my book.

The film received a positive critical reception, though most critics noted that there were some faults in the movie. Most pointed out that though it was good, it wasn't the original. That sentiment usually comes up when dealing with a sequel. The film was screened at 75 IMAX theaters throughout the world from January 1st to the end of April. It was later released at regular theaters on June 16th and in the end made a little over $90 million, just $10 million more than what they spent on the movie. So, was it all worth it? I think so, but maybe if I was a Disney executive I would think differently. It may not be as much of a landmark film as the original Fantasia, but I definitely think it's a bit more entertaining. I was a little surprised when I realized this was part of the Disney canon, but it is! I think the fact that it came out in the same year as two other animated films threw me off. Also, check out the video for Destino. Bette Midler actually talks about this piece that almost made it into the film, being the one with Salvador Dali's touch. Destino is an odd little piece that doesn't seem to fit into the mold with the others, but it's still very intriguing and beautiful, so check it out!