Sunday, July 29, 2012

Disney's Home on the Range

Home on the Range is Disney's first cowboy movie, except instead of the cowboys, it has cows. Not exactly the same, but Disney was hoping that the movie would do well giving that they've never really done a Western-themed movie. We'll see how that worked out for them soon. The title of the movie comes from the state song of Kansas, and a song that basically everyone attributes with the old west. The movie was originally going to be titled, Sweating Bullets, and star a young calf named Bullets that saves his herd from a gang of ghost cattle rustlers. Not a bad plot, it's just that the name is pretty stupid. The movie was also almost going to be a pied piper story, but Micheal Eisner hated the idea because he thought no parent would want to take their kid to a movie about children getting murdered. The writers came up with this movie instead, but kept a few pieces of the pied piper story-line. Instead, Home on the Range is about three cows who have to save their owners ranch from being foreclosed on. To do this, they decide to capture a cattle rustler named Alameda Slim so they can collect the reward money to save the ranch. Pretty basic story, right? The whole, "We have to collect money for our (fill in the blank) or else it will close" trope is tried and true, and even the unlikely heroes catching a criminal has been done a hundred times. I kind of feel like this movie is a mash-up of Western story-lines, but none of them are very interesting.

Home on the Range marks the end for traditional animation at Disney Studios. Well, at least for five years. At the time Disney thought it was going to be a permanent shift, as all other animation studios were operating almost completely at the computer animated end. With the end of traditional animation, it also ended the CAPS system that was first used in The Rescuers Down Under. So, big changes happening with Disney at this time, including the laying off of animators. This movie has actually been in production for a really long time, since after Pocahontas. It was originally going to be released in 2003 instead of Brother Bear, but the film ran into a few bumps and it had to be released in 2004, and not in the summer or Thanksgiving as had every other Disney film done. It was released in April, which probably led to its dismal return. Oh, did I give something away? You knew this was coming.

Probably the only saving grace of this movie is the voice cast, which it seems Disney went all out on. They all aren't big Hollywood names for the most part, but the cast is still more star-studded than the average Disney film. Voicing the main character, Maggie, is Roseanne Barr. Now, for all you youngin's out there who don't know who Roseanne is, you are pretty lucky. She is most known for her TV show of the same name, and for completely destroying the national anthem at a Padres game in 1990. Dame Judi Dench voices Mrs. Calloway, the leadership crazy cow. Judi Dench is perhaps the complete opposite of Roseanne. Dench is dignified and known for roles in Shakespearean plays. Roseanne is crass and is known for grabbing her crotch. See the difference? The third happy-go-lucky cow, Grace, is voiced by Jennifer Tilly. Tilly has been in a bunch of stuff, but is more known for her voice acting, as she has a very unique voice. Most notably she does the voice of Bonnie Swanson in Family Guy, and voiced Celia Mae, Mike's girlfriend, in Monsters Inc. Cuba Gooding, Jr. voices the selfish horse named Buck. Cuba has really not been in anything recently, but is most known for his role as Rod Tidwell i n Jerry Macguire and for his role in the kids movie Daddy Day Care. Other stars filling out the roles include, Randy Quaid as the cattle rustler Alameda Slim, Steve Buscemi as Wesley, and Patrick Warburton as...Patrick.

Home on the Range came out in April 2004 and did not do so well in the box office. In all it grossed a combined $103 million, which doesn't sound that bad. That is, until you find out that the movie cost $110 million to make. It's not as big of a bust as Treasure Planet was, so Disney has that to think about. I blame the lousy returns on a few things. First off, making a Disney movie come out any other time than Thanksgiving or Summer is unforgivable. Why would you break tradition? I know the time of year shouldn't matter, but it does. People see more movies in the summer and around holidays. Another factor was the material. Westerns have not been "in" since the 70's and have only made brief successful returns such as Pale Rider, Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, 3:10 to Yuma, and the remake of True Grit. You may think that's a lot, but that's a span from 1985 to present, and a lot of movies come out in a year. Westerns just aren't that popular anymore. Disney apparently didn't get the memo and hoped that kids just wouldn't care and would just want to see the barn animals. It didn't work apparently. Another factor, though very small, is the PG rating. This film received it for a "boob joke" in the guise of an utter joke. Only a few other films have received a PG rating in the Disney canon, and not all have been bombs, so I would say this didn't deter viewers as much as the first two points. Critics weren't kind to this movie, calling it unoriginal and badly animated. It currently holds a 55% on Rotten Tomatoes and is one of the lowest rated. Something needs to go right for Disney. Will it be their next film, Chicken Little?

Disney's Brother Bear

Disney loves to tell tales of transformation; a wooden puppet turns into a real boy, a poor little cinder girl becomes a princess, and a beast becomes a man. This tale is all about a man who turns into a bear. An Inuit man to be precise. The main character, Kenai, is transformed by the Spirits after he kills a bear for revenge for killing his older brother, Sitka. Kenai must learn how to walk in others paws and learn how to love properly if he ever wants to become a man again. They may sound unfair, being turned into a bear because you killed the bear that killed your brother. But that's not the point the story is trying to make. Kenai is transformed by the Spirit, who being an eagle is most likely Sitka, because he kills the bear out of hate and revenge, not for food or anything good. Kenai has pure hatred in his heart for bears even before this and bemoans that it is the spirit animal to which he is assigned on his totem. Anyway, while he is a bear he meets a young bear named Koda, who acts as his bear guide. After learning the ropes and meeting new animals friends, including two goofy moose, he comes to the realization that he killed Koda's mother. Denahi, Kenai's brother, who has thought the whole time that the bear form of Kenai killed Sitka has been hunting him the whole film. Denahi finds and corners Kenai, but Koda comes to his rescue and vice-versa as the fight progresses. For his act of love in saving Koda, Sitka, who is represented by the eagle spirit, turns Kenai back into a man, though Kenai asks to be turned back so he can stay with Koda. I'd want to be a bear too. You got fur to keep you warm, awesome claws, and you can go to the bathroom anywhere! This is a win-win situation for Kenai!

This will be a common theme for some of these newer movies, but there isn't much about the production of this movie. I do know however that the movie had the tentative title of Bears for awhile. Not sure which one I like better, but I guess the newer one makes more sense. This was the last film to be produced completely at the MGM studios animation department inside of Disney World in Orlando. The studio completely shut down in 2004 thanks to their short sighted decision to go completely with computer animated films. I've been to that animation studio! It was awesome! I remember they were working on The Emperor's New Groove at the time and they showed us how they animated the whole bridge scene. Thanks a lot computer animation! Something I found very interesting about the movie, which apparently it's the first animated film to do this, is it changed aspect ratio right in the middle of the movie. When Kenai gets turned into a bear, the ratio goes from 1.75:1 to Cinemascope 2.35:1. This was apparently to make the film look more like it was from the perspective of an animal, giving it a wider look. Plus, the colors in the film are brighter and more vibrant. The shift in perspective reminds me of Lady and the Tramp, how they used the lower angle to give it more of a "dog's eye view."

There were a few changes in the film, namely the title. At some point, Disney decided to drive the brother thing home by putting it into the title of the movie. On top of the title change, Disney decided to change a few characters around. Denahi was at first meant to be Kenai's father, not his other older brother. I think they wanted to sho w more of a conflict between brothers in the film, so they scrapped the father idea. Koda wasn't even in the film at first, as they almost went for an older bear guide named Grizz (creative, right?).

The movie has a few big names connected to it, though not as many as some previous ones. Joaquin Pheonix voices Kenai the main character and youngest of the three brothers. Joaquin is probably most recognized for his roles as Commodus in Gladiator, and Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Jeremy Suarez voices Koda ,the young and playful bear that befriends the bewildered Kenai. Suarez has been in plenty of movies, but is most known for his role of Jordan in The Bernie Mac Show. And perhaps the only reason I really enjoy parts of this movie is the casting of these two Canadian gentlemen a s the moose Rutt and Tuke, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. Moranis has been in countless comedies, mostly in the 80's, including Ghostbusters, Spaceballs, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Thomas on the other hand, has stayed mostly to TV spots, though what they are most known for by the Canadian crowd is their roles as Bob and Doug McKenzie on SCTV. The two are comedy gold together, and I think that Disney's decision to get them to voice the moose is probably one of best decisions they ever made. Watch some of their old sketches, or at least see the movie Strange Brew. Dear God, I love that movie. Rutt and Tuke are basically just the McKenzie Brothers in moose form. Sadly, this is Rick Moranis' last movie. No, he didn't die, he retired from acting. It's a really sad story. Read it some time.

Brother Bear received mixed reviews when it was released in 2003. Most critics found it to be un-original, and a retread of The Lion King and Ice Age (funny enough, this movie went into production before Ice Age). Others were gentler, and praised the aspect ratio switch and classical animation. The movie went on to gross around $85 million domestically with $167 million coming from overseas. Combined making around $250 million, it was one of the only financially successful movies of the 2000's. It even did extremely well on DVD, selling $5 million copies in the month of April alone. The movie was eventually nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, but lost out to Disney/Pixar's Finding Nemo. That's a no brainer. I haven't watched this movie in awhile, so I'll have to wait to pass further judgment on it, but I remember being all sorts of meh about it. Of course, I was in high school at the time and numerous things were all sorts of meh to me. I do remember loving the moose though, so if you take anything away from this post, it should be that.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Disney's Treasure Planet

I didn't pay attention to Treasure Planet for a very long time. I think I was in college by the time I actually watched it for the first time, and wasn't that impressed with it. I'm not sure why, but I just didn't get it. Something changed though, maybe it was reading the actual novel itself, or maybe I just admitted to myself that nothing would ever be better than Muppet Treasure Island, but I started to really like this movie. In fact, it's probably my favorite of the decade besides The Emperor's New Groove. The story, though in space, was pretty close to the original novel, and on top of that, it had an amazing combination of traditional and computer generated animation. I just really like the story of Treasure Island. I find Long John Silver to be an incredibly interesting character. You are led to like the man during most of the book, then he turns out to be the main villain, though he still serves as sort of a mentor and father figure to protagonist Jim Hawkins. I've seen a few different versions of Treasure Island now: Treasure Planet, the before mentioned Muppet Treasure Island, and the 1950 Disney version of Treasure Island. All were fine and good, but I honestly prefer the book, which I usually do in the case of books made into movies. All the movie versions are unique and their own way, and Treasure Planet can probably be called the most unique just for the space setting.

"Treasure Island in Space," as it was pitched in 1985 by Ron Clements and John Musker at a meeting wasn't picked up right away. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was chief at Walt Disney Studios at the time just wasn't that interested in the idea and instead they went with some movie about a mermaid. It's probably better that the movie was put off, as they wanted to move the camera around a lot like Spielberg and James Cameron, but the technology just wasn't there in terms of animation. Musker and Clements finally got to do their "Treasure Island in Space" in 1997, and production started soon after. It took them four and a half years to complete the movie, with the brunt of the work starting in 2000. The movie started with 350 crew member, and by 2002 it had over 1,000 crew members credited for the movie. You can already tell that Disney had a lot of money invested in this movie judging by the amount of time and effort spent.

The crew attempted to make the movie as warm and inviting as possible, not cold, blue, and dark as most outer space movies looked. Outer space is almost always portrayed as a dark place where you can die at any minute due to all manner of things, but Disney tried to make it appear much more beautiful and hospitable. Fearing that it would look too hokey if the characters all wore space suits, Disney concocted a breathable space called Etherium, a sort of atmosphere around all planets. Disney did away with any big metal ships usually seen in sci-fi and stuck with old fashioned looking wood ships. You may be asking yourself by now: Why the heck did they put Treasure Island in space?! Well, to make it more accessible to the younger crowd. Musker and Clements figured that no kid would actually want to watch Treasure Island. They had to make it more modern. Along with the obvious changes that come with putting a classic novel in space, the crew also had to do a little re-tooling on the characters themselves. Jim Hawkins is a smart and capable kid in the novel, but the crew wanted to make him more relate-able, so they turned him into a bad-boy of sorts. Someone who is not quite sure who they really are, or how they fit into things. You know, teenagers. Dr. Doppler is a composite of Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney from the book, one more serious, the other kind of a goof, respectively. The crew also found that the father-son dynamic between Hawkins and Silver was somewhat present in the book, but they wanted to emphasis it more in the movie.

The overall look of the film was under the "70/30 law" as the crew put it. 70 percent traditional look, and 30 percent sci-fi. The crew wanted to go with a classic storybook illustration look for the film, and based much of it off of the picture "One more step, Mr. Hands," which can be seen on the left. To get the unique look of the film, they used an animation concept that they were going to use for Tarzan, but apparently never got around to doing. Called Virtual Sets, the animators would create a 360 degree set before they began staging the scenes. They combined this process with traditionally-drawn characters in order to achieve a "painted image with depth perception" and enabled the crew to place the camera anywhere in the set and maneuver it as they would maneuver a camera for a live-action film. The animators weren't sure how it would look for the traditionally animated Silver to have a computer animated cyborg arm so they tested it out on Captain Hook, giving him a cyborg arm instead. The crew also attempted to purge their minds of stereotypes when coming up with the character designs by not looking at previous incarnations of the book Treasure Island. One of the supervising animators, Glen Keane, did admit to getting some inspiration for how Silver talked from actor Wallace Beery, who had played Silver himself. Keane liked how Beery talked out of the side of his mouth for the Silver role and used it for Treasure Planet. For the characterization and design of Hawkins, they went with the ultimate in troubled bad-boy: James Dean. Animator John Ripa decided to use Dean as a model because "there was this whole attitude, a posture" wherein "you felt his pain and the youthful innocence." To help keep the design of the characters from straying, the crew used maquettes, or small statues of the characters from the film. The first film to use maquettes was Pinocchio, and since then there has been a whole department created to make the small figures.

The "70/30 law" was used also for sound effects and music. The crew didn't want Silver to be "too slick or sci-fi," so they went to junk yards and dug up old antique wind up toys and mechanisms to create the sound effects for Silver's movements. The crew even attempted to use a more mechanical sound for the voices of some characters, especially the character of B.E.N. voiced by Martin Short. They found that by adding the extra effects, it took away from the comedy of Short's delivery, so they vouched to scrap the idea. The music for the film was mainly orchestral, but it did feature some pop songs, namely "I'm Still Here" by John Rzeznik, the front man of The Goo Goo Dolls, and "Always Know You Are There" by British pop-rock group BBMak. The score has been described as a mixture of modern music in the spirit of Star Wars and Celtic music. Never thought I'd hear those words in the same sentence.

The film has an all-star cast, starting with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Hawkins. Gordon-Levitt has been in a lot of things recently, like Inception, 500 days of Summer, and will be in the new Batman movie, but was only in some indie films for awhile after his well known role in Third Rock from the Sun. Brian Murray, the voice of Long John Silver, is perhaps the only non-star of the group, being known more for directing than anything else. Dr. Doppler was written with David Hyde Pierce in mind, and the crew sent him the script along with some preliminary drawings of the characters and landscapes. He apparently liked it enough and signed on. Pierce is best known for his role as Niles Crane in Frasier. Captain Amelia was also written with someone in mind, namely Emma Thompson. Thompson jumped at the opportunity, since it would be her first action film. Last in the main cast is Martin Short, who voiced the robot B.E.N. This is honestly the last thing I remember Short being in. Short, for all you younger folk reading this, was big in the 80's and 90's. His best films are The Three Amigos, Innerspace, and the Father of the Bride movies. It's really too bad he's not in more things these days, as he is really funny.

Treasure Planet had a lot of promotional tie-ins before the movie was released: Kellogg's, Dreyer's, McDonald's, Hasbro, and Pepsi. That didn't stop the movie from completely tanking. It's seriously an official box office bomb. It cost $140 million to make, and it made $38 million domestically. It made some of it up by making a little over $70 million overseas, but the domestic gross was extremely bad for a Disney movie in the 2000's. Treasure Planet is the biggest loser for Disney, by far. Even with it opening also in IMAX, it didn't make that much. A good side of the story is that when it came out, it remained on the top of the DVD sales list for two weeks, earning Disney $64 million in a three month span. If this is factored into the gross, the movie really didn't do that bad. Critics liked the film for the most part, giving the film a 70% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave it 2.5 out of 5, saying he liked it, but felt it would have been better if it was "less gimmicky." Other critics also felt the same way about the space aspect of the classic swashbuckling story, finding it unnecessary or annoying. But, for the most part, critics praised the characters, story, and the spectacular animation.

I'm not going into the original text that inspired the movie, because most everyone has seen a Treasure Island movie, or had to read the book at some point. If you haven't, well that's your loss. It's one of those books I took for granted, and picked up much later in life only to find that I really liked it. Besides, it's basically the same story. Except the space thing.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Disney's Lilo and Stitch

My sister likes to compare me to Stitch from this movie. Or at least my younger self. I was pretty out of control, and you didn't want to give me large amounts of caffeine. When my parents let me have a cappuccino for the first time I ran around the house so much they forced me to get on the treadmill until I calmed down. But I was nothing compared to everyone's favorite little blue alien. I definitely didn't eat as much, and no one let me have a laser blaster. Though Lilo has her name in the title too, most people remember good old Stitch. Disney had made several big budget movies in the 90's that luckily made their money back and then some. That wasn't the case so much for the early 2000's. Their last four movies didn't really do that well compared to their 90's entries, so Disney decided to take things down a few notches. They wanted to make a more economically-made movie like they had done before with Dumbo, which was Disney's cheap response to big budget projects Bambi and Fantasia. Chris Sanders, who was the head storyboard artist at the time, was asked to pitch some ideas. It just so happens that Sanders had the perfect idea. He had created the character of Stitch for a children's book in 1985, but was unable to gain any support for it. He then decided that one day he'd turn it into a movie, about an out of control alien that runs amok in rural Kansas. Kansas being chosen because it would limit the amount of havoc Stitch could inflict on the infrastructure since the state is kind of desolate and out of the way. When it was brought up by Sanders for consideration, Disney decided to change the location to the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i, somewhere still isolated, but a more interesting setting. This movie would, of course, be the first Disney movie set in Hawaii. It's also one of the few that are set in the present time.

Like in any animated film based off a real life place, the crew went to the island of Kaua'i to get some ideas for the landscape animation and culture that would be an integral part of bringing the story alive. Something that really hit the crew as they were getting tours of the island was their tour guide's explanation of the word 'ohana. The guide detailed how it doesn't just mean family in the sense of your immediate family members, but extended members and friends. "No matter where we went, our tour guide seemed to know somebody. He was really the one who explained to us the Hawaiian concept of 'ohana, a sense of family that extends far beyond immediate relatives. That idea so influenced the story that it became the foundational theme, the thing that causes Stitch to evolve despite what he was created to do, which was destroy," explains writer Dean DeBlois. The Disney animators faced the daunting task of meshing the film's plot, which showed the impoverished and dysfunctional life that many Hawaiians lived during the then-recent economic downturn, with the island's serene beauty. To help authenticity further, Disney received help from the voices of Nani and David, who both either lived in Hawaii, or had grown up there, to get the proper colloquial dialect and slang for the Hawaiians in the film.

The background animation for Lilo and Stitch is something that we haven't seen in a long time. Instead of using the typical gouache technique for backgrounds, the animators instead went with watercolors, something they hadn't done since the early years of Disney animated films. Chris Sanders preferred the look of watercolor though, as it would give the movie a much brighter look and allow it to follow the art direction of Dumbo. On top of that, the characters weren't designed to look like the usual Disney house style, but were modeled directly off of Chris Sanders' drawings. This is one of the many things I enjoy about Disney; their ability to change up their animation a little bit and not get too stuck into one single one. This is more apparent in the more recent films, as the older ones just seemed to be evolving into more sophisticated animation. This film looks completely different from Atlantis, and Atlantis looks different than Pocahontas or Hercules. Each film, for the most part, has its own animation style and that's what keeps people coming back. I love Bluth films, but they all look the same for the most part. I think that is part of the reason his movies petered out in the early 90's. That, and he couldn't replicate the success he had story-wise in the 80's. But that's a story for another day. Disney has taken risks, and some haven't worked out, and some have. Luckily, Lilo and Stitch was one of the gambles that paid off for Disney.

Several things were changed about Lilo and Stitch before it made it to theaters. Stitch was originally supposed to be part of an intergalactic gang, and Jumba was one of his former cronies that was sent after Stitch by the Intergalactic Council to capture him. Test audiences apparently didn't like the feel of that plot so Disney changed the relationship between the two to being creator (Jumba) and created (Stitch). Another big change was near the end of the movie when Stitch flies a 747 into downtown Honolulu to save Lilo. After 9/11 though, they felt this would be a might disrespectful so they changed the plane to a spaceship. I really don't think we'll see a movie with any sort of plane or air born apparatus flying into anything for a long time.

Lilo and Stitch was released on June 21st, 2002 to rave reviews, one of only a few in the 2000's to be critically lauded, the others being The Emperor's New Groove, The Princess and the Frog, Treasure Planet, and Bolt. Praises were given to the story, Stitch, and of course the beautiful animation. Peter M. Nichols even stated that through the character of Nani and her struggles the film appeals to older children much more than some of the other Disney movies that attempted to do the same thing, namely The Emperor's New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Treasure Planet. The film proved to be a success in the box office too, ending up with a worldwide gross of over $273 million. Given that the film was made with an $80 million budget, $40 million less than Atlantis, it's easy to see that this film made Disney quite a profit. The film proved to be popular enough to spawn two direct-to-video sequels and a television series. Lilo and Stitch is one of my favorites of the decade, but not my most favorite. That was Emperor's New Groove. My other favorite is coming up in the next post.