Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Land Before Time

An American Tail was a hit, and it allowed Bluth a period of time where he didn't have to worry about one of his companies going bankrupt. The next film being planned with Steven Spielberg (George Lucas jumped on board too) was described as a story like Bambi, but with dinosaurs. The early title was The Land Before Time Began, and it was originally planned to have no dialogue, similar to the Rites of Spring segment of Fantasia. Spielberg and Lucas decided that this would alienate children, so they made it a talking dinosaur movie. A lot of research went into the movie, with many of the film's animators and production teams visiting natural history museums and especially the Smithsonian. The film featured many different types of dinosaurs, but the research team didn't do a perfect job: in the setting of the movie, five species of dinosaurs depicted would have already been extinct. Oh well, kids aren't going to nit-pick that sort of thing. Plus, people are trying to tell me that there's no such thing as a triceratops, so now Cera isn't real! Scientists, stop messing with my childhood! You took Pluto away, don't tell me certain dinosaurs didn't exist!

A lot was changed in the movie as time went on. Littlefoot was originally going to be named Thunderfoot, though they had to change it when they found out a triceratops in a book was named that. I think Littlefoot has a better ring to it. Thunderfoot doesn't fit the character of Littlefoot, really. Maybe if Littlefoot wore cool sunglasses the whole movie. I'd pay to see that movie! Cera's character was originally going to be a male named Bambo (why so close to Bambi?), until Lucas decided that Bambo should instead be a girl and have a clever name instead of a stupid one. Also, I had no idea until a few years ago that Cera's name was spelled that way. I just assumed it was Sara, or some variation of how we spell it. My mind was blown. I mean, come on, triCERAtops?! Who does that? Spielberg and Lucas took one look at the finished project and realized that they had made one scary dinosaur movie. They had to tone it down a little or they would be stuck with a PG rating. This may be a common thing today, but back in the eighties it was pretty risky to let your animated film get a PG rating. The only two I can think of that did it around that time were Watership Down and Disney's The Black Cauldron. With Bluth complaining the whole way, Lucas and Spielberg cut about nine minutes of the film, mostly consisting of Sharptooth scenes, making the film only sixty nine minutes long. That's barely longer than Dumbo! Littlefoot's mother dying was deemed too emotionally scarring and the character of Rooter (the old clubtail dinosaur) was introduced to soften the blow. Doesn't matter, it's still probably the most tear jerking scenes in all of animation. Even the theatrical version seen in 1988 is different from the version you see on DVD. In the original, Littlefoot's mother is shown being bitten by Sharptooth on the neck and back, but apparently it was later deemed to intense. While the movie isn't the darkest of the Bluth films, it's easily the most depressing.

The cast of dinosaurs centers around an Apatosaurus (Littlefoot), a Triceratops (Cera), a Saurolophus (Ducky), a Pteranodon (Petrie), and a Stegosaurus (Spike). In the story, a tyrannosaurus named Sharptooth (I always thought it was Sharktooth as a child, I can't be the only one!) attacks a group of dinosaurs while a random earthquake happens. Littlefoot's mother fends off Sharptooth, who falls into a deep crevice, though it costs her her life. Due to the earthquake, both Littlefoot and Cera are seperated from what's left of their families and have to set out to find them. Their ulitmate destination is the Great Valley, a place that hasn't been ravaged by volcanoes and earthquakes; a place where food is plentiful and there are no sharpteeth. Along the way they are joined by Petrie, Ducky, and Spike. They run into trouble along the way involving other, more dangerous dinosaurs, though in the end they defeat Sharptooth and make it to the Great Valley. I know that was a short run-down, but there isn't much to this story in terms of plot. What I will go into however is the relationships between the dinosaurs.

Whether you knew it or not as a child, you were watching a big story about tolerance and acceptance of people different from you. At the beginning of the film we learn from Littlefoot's mother that there are four other main groups of dinosaurs that they live around, "Three-horns", "Spiketails", "Swimmers", and "Flyers." We also learn that historically these dinosaurs don't associate themselves with each other and generally mind their own business. This conversations stems from Cera's father insisting that Cera not play with a "Longneck." This is an easy reflection of race/class relations in our own culture. Two children of different backgrounds or race play with each other for a time, until one of the parents insists that they stay away from each other. The other child questions their parents, who tell them that's just how it is. Maybe you've been in that situation yourself, or have seen examples of it in your daily life, but the movie does a good job of setting up a realistic scenario of how fear of other kinds of beings will lead to chaos instead of union. Both Littlefoot and Cera are OK with playing with each other until they are told by their parents that it's not acceptable behavior. Each gets a different response; while Littlefoot's mother says that's just how it is, Cera's father makes Longnecks out to be an inferior group. Cera's attitude throughout the movie carries her parent's indoctrination, though it doesn't help that she's kind of bossy to begin with. It's only through their travels together that they realize that's there's nothing wrong with associating with other dinosaurs. In fact, they probably all would have perished had it not been for each other. I know I didn't pick up on most of those things when I was a kid, but I did know by the end that you shouldn't dislike someone just because they are different.

Released in 1988, The Land Before Time was a huge hit for Bluth, grossing over $84 million dollars worldwide (around the same as An American Tail, though Land Before Time did better domestically). Disney's Oliver & Company came out around the same time,  but came in about $10 million less than Land Before Time. Critics liked the film more than An American Tail and confessed that it was more like a classic Disney movie than Oliver & Company. The only common complaint against the film was that it spent more time on tragedy than it did on the sense of discovery and natural history. The film has spawned twelve direct-to-video sequels and even a television show. I've honestly probably only watched one of the sequels, but I remember it being garbage. So why isn't this film my favorite of the Bluth films? Well, honestly Cera and Littlefoot kind of bug me. I loved this film as a kid, but it's lost some of its sheen in more recent viewings. I love all the other characters, but for some reason Cera and Littlefoot just rub me the wrong way now. Still a great animated film, though, and a classic Bluth film.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

An American Tail

Don Bluth Productions may have been bankrupt, but that didn't stop Bluth from teaming up with Rick Dyer of Advanced Microcomputer Systems and founding Bluth Group (Bluth really liked his own name I guess). The group ended up creating one of the three games stored at the Smithsonian (the others being Pong and Pac-man), Dragon's Lair.  Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, coming out in 1983 and 1984, respectively, were both played on Laserdisc, so it gave the game a more realistic look, something revolutionary at the time for video games. Unfortunately for Bluth, the video game market crashed in 1985 and Bluth Group also had to file for bankruptcy. Things were not looking good for Bluth, but in 1985 he got a second chance in movies thanks to businessman Morris Sullivan. Together with Bluth's dependable team of producers, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, they created Sullivan Bluth Productions. Another lucky stroke for Bluth was the interest of Steven Spielberg in helping produce and distribute his pictures. Together they created the story of a small Jewish mouse who moves to America.

An American Tail tells the story of Fievel (or Feivel) Mousekewitz, a young Jewish mouse that lives in Shostka, Russia in the mid 1880's. Fievel and his family are run out of their home by an army of Cossacks and their cats, leading them to jump on a boat for America. Papa Mousekewitz assures his family that there are no cats in America, and it will be a land of freedom and prosperity. A huge storm causes Fievel and his family to become separated and they believe that he has drowned. Instead, Fievel had stowed away inside a bottle and eventually lands in New York City. He is encouraged by French pigeon named Henri, and sets off to find his family in this new world. Things aren't easy for either Fievel or the Mousekewitz family in America. While Fievel is tricked into being sold to a sweatshop by conman Warren T. Rat, the Mousekewitz family is trying to adjust to their new life in America and realizing it's not all that it's cracked up to be. Instead of freedom from cats and prosperity, they find a ton of cats and little opportunity for the American Dream. Fievel escapes from the sweatshop with a street-smart Italian mouse named Tony, and they run into a rally centered on dealing with the cat problem. The speaker at the rally is an Irish immigrant named Bridget, who agrees to help Fievel find his family. They go to the local politician, a drunk mouse named Honest John, who says he can't help Fievel since his family isn't registered to vote.

Fievel and the gang attend another rally and Fievel comes up with the idea of scaring away the gang of cats that roam the area: they'll build a large mechanical mouse in the image of the legendary figure, the "Giant Mouse of Minsk." Fievel gets lost on the day they are supposed to release the secret weapon and stumbles into Warren T. Rat's hideout. It is here that Fievel realizes that Warren is not a rat at all, but a cat! They capture Fievel, but he is eventually let go by a soft-hearted cat named Tiger. The cats chase Fievel out of the hideout and are led to the dock where the mice have the secret weapon in waiting. The giant mouse comes out, fireworks shooting out of its mouth and everything, and the cats are so scared they jump into the water, eventually boarding a steamer headed for Hong Kong (not sure if this is supposed to be a joke about Chinese food being made of domesticated animals or not). After the battle, Fievel starts to give up hope of ever finding his family, but he eventually hears the violin music his father plays and is finally reunited. The film ends with Henri showing the Mousekewitz family his completed project, The Statue of Liberty.

Using rotoscoping again to make the humans look much more life-like, thereby differentiating their animation style from the more cartoon looking animals, Bluth once again had a beautiful looking film. The film, released in 1986, ended up grossing the most of any non-Disney film, taking in almost $85 million dollars. In comparison, Disney's The Great Mouse Detective made about $22 million less, so Bluth was finally hitting his stride while Disney was floundering. While critics had loved The Secret of NIMH, they really didn't care for An American Tail. Critics called it an expensive movie with no real humor or interesting narrative. Roger Ebert commented that the story was "dark and gloomy" and that "very few children would understand or care that the Mouskewitz's are Jewish." Though critics didn't appreciate the film, it has still developed a cult following, as has most of Bluth's films. The movie spawned a sequel, Fievel Goes West, a project that Bluth was not a part of, but Spielberg did produce. The movie was panned by critics, but is still popular among members of my generation.

Both An American Tail and Fievel Goes West were mainstays in my childhood. I never owned either film but would rent them often, especially the second film. I can still remember going to see the movie in theaters for my 6th birthday, then going out to Pizza Hut afterwards. I only bring up the second film because I won't be writing an official post on it. Over the years, An American Tail has become one of my favorite Bluth films, probably tied with The Secret of NIMH. I can really appreciate the historical aspects in the film, from the different groups of immigrants trying to make it in New York City, to the sweatshops that employed children, to the Tammany Hall politicians that only seek to gain influence, to the embittered loneliness that most felt when first coming to this country; a country that for many was not a land of opportunity, but more of the same. I honestly don't know why critics hate this movie so much, it's a really good movie with a decent narrative. Sure it's darker than most Disney movies, but maybe some kid's movies don't need to be squeaky clean. My last note on this film will be its unintended(?) impact on Art Spiegleman's graphic novel, Maus. Maus is a book detailing Art's fathers struggles during WWII and the holocaust. What does this have to do with An American Tale? Well, Spiegleman had been working on his book since the late 70's, a book that portrayed Jewish people as mice, German's as cats, and so on and so forth. Spiegleman was convinced that Spielberg or Bluth had stolen the idea for Jewish mice and set out to outdo them. Instead of suing them for plagiarism, Spiegleman asked his publishers if he could release the first part of his book before the movie came out, that way people wouldn't think he was stealing from the movie. The publisher's agreed and Maus Volume 1 came out in 1986, with Volume 2 coming out in 1991. You still have to buy them separately. Be warned, Maus is nothing like An American Tail, but it is a very good graphic novel that delves deep into the experience of  a Jewish man trying to survive the Holocaust.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Secret of NIMH

If you've read some of my blog posts concerning Disney movies in the 1980's, then you'll probably remember the name Don Bluth popping up every once in a while. For those who don't remember, Bluth was an animator for Disney for many years, first working on Sleeping Beauty in the late 50's, though working more for the company in the 70's. Disney still had a few hits in the 70's, but it didn't match anything they had made in their early years. Bluth, along with eighteen other Disney animators decided to leave to form their own animation company. Bluth complained that Disney had lost their way and he wanted to create new and exciting animation that would bring it back to the forefront of entertainment. With his small group of animators, Bluth started Don Bluth Productions, and went about working on their first short film, Banjo the Woodpile Cat. Besides the short film, Bluth and his company were also tasked with doing the animated segment of the live-action film, Xanadu. The reason I'm bringing up Bluth is because he is a very important part of animation history. Not only did his company churn out some of the best animated movies of all time, but because of this, Disney got their act together and started making hits again. So, I wanted to do a series on Bluth and his films, though there are much fewer than Disney has released. If you didn't bother to read the title, I'm going to be talking about his first major release, and one of my favorite animated films of all time, The Secret of NIMH.

The Secret of NIMH is based off the book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O' Brien. The book tells the story of Mrs. Frisby, a widowed field mouse who must save her family from human interference. When her son, Timothy, becomes very sick around the same time the farmer, whose land they live on, decides it's time to plow the field, they must find a way to move their home, though the move would likely kill Timothy. Mrs. Frisby is stuck on what to do for her son, until she is directed by an owl to speak to the rats that live in a nearby rosebush. Speaking to the rat's leader, Nicodemus, she finds out that the rats have all gained human-level intelligence from being tested on by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and have thus learned to read, write, and master certain forms of technology. The rats agree to help Mrs. Frisby due to the fact that her husband, Jonathon, was one of their own that had helped them escape from the laboratory. Ironically, the rats also need Mrs. Frisby's help in moving them, as they want to stop their dependence on humans (they steal electricity from the farmer). A small group of the rats didn't agree with this plan and set off on their own, getting killed in the process, which leads to exterminators being called to kill the rats. Mrs. Frisby must help the rats by drugging the farmer's cat, Dragon, so they can move out in the open without fear. Mrs. Frisby is caught by the farmer's son and locked in a cage. Only with one of the rat's help, Justin, is Mrs. Frisby able to escape and tell the rat's of the humans plans to kill them. In the end, everybody makes it out, and little Timothy gets better. 

The book ended up winning the Newberry Award in 1972 and was offered to Disney for film rights. Disney apparently wasn't interested in a story about lab rats and mice, but Bluth was a few years later. Bluth asked Aurora Productions to buy the rights to the film, though the deal brought with it a budget of $5.7 million dollars and 30 months to complete the film. Keep in mind that's a short amount of time to make a film, and not a lot of money to make it with. Bluth set out to make a film like the ones from Disney's Golden age, with better character development and classic animation techniques. He felt that Disney was using cheaper and cheaper modes of animation just to save a few bucks, which made the films less visually appealing. Bluth attempted to use a few new techniques in his film, namely rotoscoping (multiple passes on the camera to achieve transparent shadow), and back lit animation. Nicodemus' eyes appear to glow due to light being shone through the color gels. What Bluth got was something altogether new to animation, and something that no one had ever seen before. This style of animation, however, was extremely labor intensive and called for very long hours for the animators, and no pay to show for it in the short run. The animators were given portions of the profits instead, something unheard of in the animation world. Bluth and his producers even had to mortgage their homes so they could pay for the film, so stakes were a bit high. 

The movie differs from the book in a few ways. Probably the biggest difference is the name of the main character. Aurora contacted Wham-O to see if it was alright if they used the name Mrs. Frisby since it was so close to the name "Frisbee." Wham-O denied their request to use Mrs. Frisby, and now Bluth was stuck. All the lines had been done already and some of the actors couldn't even be brought back in to re-read, namely John Carradine. Bluth decided to go with a name that was so close, that they could convincingly make it to where Carradine's character, the great owl, sounded like he was saying the new name. So, because of Wham-O, Mrs. Frisby changed to Mrs. Brisby. Kind of silly, right? Many of the characters that had very small parts, or weren't actually shown in the book had much larger parts in the movie. Jenner, the leader of the rats that don't want to stop mooching off the humans becomes the villain in the movie. In the book he is mentioned briefly and is never shown. Jeremy the Crow goes from a bit part at the beginning of the book, to full on comedy relief for good portions of the movie. The book lacked any magic, but Bluth decided to change that by making Nicodemus, the leader of the rats, basically a wizard, complete with a magic amulet. Mrs. Brisby is still a widowed mother, but Justin turns into sort of a love interest. 

The film was ultimately distributed by MGM in 1982, who apparently didn't have much faith in the film since they did no advertising for it, so Aurora had to take the brunt of the responsibility for that. Though Bluth and Aurora planned on a wide release of 1,000 theaters, MGM instead went with 100 on the film's opening weekend. It slowly improved to 700, but the damage was done. Being released against E.T., the film only made a little over 14 million dollars, barely twice as much as its budget and therefore ended up putting the studio in the black. That, coupled with the writer's strike forced Don Bluth Productions to file for bankruptcy. This is not the end for Bluth, though. He would be saved, later, by a businessman and a famous director. For all the financial woes that befell the production, the movie was a huge critical success, being called one of the most vibrantly animated films of its time. The film became a hit on video and with cable showings and subsequently became a cult classic. 

This film is very much a part of my childhood, namely because it's mostly likely the first animated movie I had ever watched. My parents had recorded it off the TV sometime in the early eighties and my brother and sister and I watched the heck out of it. Not only was the animation beautiful, but the story intriguing and characters exciting. That being said, it's probably the darkest of all of Bluth's films, save for maybe All Dog's Go to Heaven. Between Jenner, the Great Owl, Nicodemus, and Dragon, the film has some creepy and frightening characters, though it wasn't any of them that scared me the most as a child. The scene that still gets me to this day is when Mrs. Brisby is trapped inside that cage inside the farmer's house. The drowning aspect combined with her accidentally cutting her arm open still makes me cringe. Though not as widely known as some of Bluth's other films, this is probably one of the best. Also, how many kid's movies has a widowed mother as the hero? Pretty sure this is the only one, and that's pretty cool. Oh, and it also has the best song during the credits. So bad, but so good.