Tag Archives: Children’s Film

CAPSULE: THE NEVERENDING STORY (1984)

Die Unendliche Geschichte

“I was doing a tattoo in Seattle, and a girl came in and had the whole side of her buttcheek was the Auryn. So she pulled her pants off and asked if she could get a picture with me next to the Auryn, so I stuck my head right next to her butt.”–Noah Hathaway, star of The NeverEnding Story and tattoo artist, on the nexus of his past and current lives

DIRECTED BY: Wolfgang Petersen

FEATURING: Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver, Tami Stronach, voice of Alan Oppenheimer

PLOT: An orphaned boy discovers an epic story about a young hero’s quest to find the cure for a mysterious force that is destroying the kingdom and killing a princess, only to discover that he is more integral to the story’s outcome than he had imagined.

Still from The Neverending Story (1984)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A fantastical milieu is always good for unusual characters and settings, and the story’s propensity for bleak and even nihilistic ideas goes well beyond the usual expectations for “children’s fare.” However, the weirdness is mostly concentrated in the Mobius strip plot (which inspires the title), making the film primarily weird for the sake of itself.

COMMENTS: Director Wolfgang Petersen parlayed his success directing the global smash Das Boot into a seat at the helm of this movie, which would wrap as the most expensive film in German history. As regards what’s up on the screen, it shows. In our CGI-rich present, the effects may appear dated, but they are surprisingly effective and charming. Petersen creates a fully-realized fantasy world, from the crystalline castle of Fantasia to the dour Swamp of Sadness. The stop-motion, animatronic, and puppeteered creatures are also quite spectacular, with the fatalistic Rockbiter and the treacherous Gmork coming across as especially believable.

All those expensive special effects mean that the burden of acting falls almost entirely upon the two child leads. Noah Hathaway (previously sighted as Boxey on the original Battlestar Galactica series) is particularly strong, doing his best hero’s quest despite being prepubescent. Barret Oliver (soon to be seen as D.A.R.Y.L.) has a harder time, since so much of his role involves reacting to reading. He’s acting by himself opposite events happening to other people, which turns out to be at the heart of the movie’s bait-and-switch.

The true weirdness of The NeverEnding Story lies in this ultimate twist: the Nothing, an encroaching void that is destroying the world of Fantasia, is the personification of the apathy of a disinterested human readership, and the world can only be saved by the imagination of Bastian, the boy who stole and is now reading this very story about how the world is dying because he’s not imagining the story. It’s hardly a coincidence that the hero’s amulet, the Auryn, is a double ourobouros. The movie itself tells us that there is no real world/fantasy world dichotomy to unpack; it’s all fantasy, feeding upon itself. Which certainly goes a long way to explaining some of the story’s more puzzling mysteries, such as why Bastian’s unsympathetic, egg-swilling father (a very grim cameo by future Major Dad Gerald McRaney) isn’t out scouring the city looking for his son in the midst of a storm hours after he should have come home from school.

(Evidently, that metatextual mindplay is an even greater component in the source material. The movie draws on roughly the first half of Michael Ende’s novel, and the author was so incensed by the adaptation that he sued twice: first to stop the production, and then to have his name removed).

Ultimately, the film has major problems articulating what is really important. Characters are introduced only to have no impact on the story at all. A major death is wrung out for every tear it can muster before we’ve ever had a chance to meet the character or understand his importance to the hero. And the ending is a borderline travesty. Given the awesome power to create worlds, the most Bastian can think to do is turn the tables on his bullies and torment them in return. It’s an ending that works (my son laughed uproariously), but it doesn’t fit the philosophical, high-minded tone of all that has come before. Which is perhaps why it’s best to assume that the story never really ended.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… comes off as a Reading Rainbow episode covering existentialism… The NeverEnding Story’s virtues derive in part from its weirdness and uncompromising tone. Much of children’s entertainment instructs about self-actualization, but rarely is the message realized in a manner as respectful of its young audience’s intelligence.”
Mark Pfeiffer, Reel Times: Reflections on Cinema

EAKER VS. EAKER VS.THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (2016)

Alfred:

I doubt that even Jesus Christ himself knows how many film treatments there have been of s Alice sagas. Among the damned few that have been predominantly successful is the 1951 animated feature produced under the auspices of old man Walt himself. One would think the Disney folk would be happy with that, and leave well enough alone. Instead, they foisted ‘s 2010 version on us, which took a toilet plunger and sucked out virtually all of the novel’s inherent surrealism. It was a new nadir for both Burton and Disney. The Burton of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Batman Returns (1992), and Ed Wood (1994) might have been an ideal match for the material. But, as a wise old owl once said, “the world may never know.” The Burton of 2010 was well past his tether and far from being the dark visionary of his past. Indeed, his Alice was a painfully sanitized caricature, and it seemed Burton could sink no lower (until Dark Shadows, that is).

Promo for Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)The Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland was scripted by Disney writer Linda Woolverton, who is and always has been a hack. Her Beauty and the Beast  (1991) was a saccharine parody of ‘s staggeringly brilliant 1946 psychological fantasy. Astoundingly, Beast earned an Academy Award Best Picture nomination (one of the Academy’s most embarrassing moments, which is saying a lot). Even more cringe-inducing was her 1994 Lion King, with its maudlin “Circle of Life” song upchucked by Elton John (who seems hell bent on proving that Bernie Taupin deserves all the credit for their collaborations) and Tim Rice (who seems hell bent on proving that Howard Ashman deserves all the credit for their collaborations). Woolverton’s resume expanded with more Alka-Seltzer slugfests, such as Beauty and the Beast: Enchanted Christmas (1997), Belle’s Magical World (1998), Mulan (1998), Lion King 2 (1998) and Maleficent (2014).  Even in her most critically successful films (i.e Mulan) her writing never rises above formula, and what some feel might have worked in the projects she was attached to should be credited more to the animation and direction. Woolverton’s Alice made her direct-to-video, second-rate sequels look less embarrassing by comparison.

It hardly took a clairvoyant to see Alice Through the Looking Glass was a preordained disaster. A production team of hacks had plagued the previous production and, wisely, Burton opted out of returning as director. Gving Burton his due, he had to have known the Continue reading EAKER VS. EAKER VS.THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (2016)

PEE WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY (2016)

Forget Batman, Pee-wee is back.

Exclusively for Netflix, Pee-wee Herman () returns with his first feature in 28 years. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016) could be (and has been in some quarters) dismissed as “Pee-wee’s Next Big Adventure.” Is it as original as that -helmed Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)? No, but it’s a welcome return. Actually, Pee-wee has weathered pop culture better than Burton, who lost his mojo in the 90s.

There are a few pleasant surprises here, such as not-so-subtle homage to ‘s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). Still, mostly Reubens plays it safe, giving us exactly what we expect of him.

Pee-wee Herman comes from a very small cinematic tradition of the “creepy man-child,” which introduced in the silent era. Primarily under the direction of and , Langdon initially kept his character’s more disturbingly childlike qualities in check. However, eager to expand that characterization, Langdon eventually let loose—which quickly destroyed his career, even if the results were artistically satisfying.

Stan Laurel, very much influenced by Langdon, learned from his mentor’s populist misstep and kept the baby-face half of Laurel and Hardy forever innocent. , also influenced by Langdon, had more freedom with a European audience. In 1979, Steve Martin introduced his take on the naughty child. However, after a few experiments that unfortunately failed at the American box office, Martin took the safer route of growing up, which eventually rendered his body of work both disappointing and inconsequential. Reuben’s Pee-wee Herman character first emerged around the same time as Martin’s. After Burton and Rubens produced the masterpiece Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, 1988’s Big Top Pee Wee  was a disaster. This flop hardly mattered due to Reuben’s award winning “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” TV show (which earned 15 Emmys in 5 years). Reubens was undoubtedly the most original small screen personality since Ernie Kovacs.

Of course, we all know about Pee-wee’s rapid rise and fall, and television has been all the more bankrupt since its departure in 1991. That is not to say there is not good or even imaginative TV programming, but there is little with the aesthetic quality of Reubens[1].

At 63 years old, Reubens had his face digitally enhanced for Big Holiday, in order to retain that child-like mask ( did not have 21st century technology and had to give up on her little girl lost act at the age of 34). Still, although treading narrative familiar ground, Reubens retains the character’s edge in this belated return. There is even a latent same-sex attraction undercurrent between Pee-wee and Joe Manganiello (it’s so latent, kids will not be privy to it).

Still from Pee Wee's Big Holiday (2016)Pee-Wee is still very much a fixture in a surreal suburbia—as usual, he is the only one who realizes just how off-kilter the ‘burbs are—when he meets Joe. Sharing a love for root beer barrel candy, Joe and Pee-wee hit it off. Joe, soon to have a birthday party in New York, invites Pee-wee, encouraging the suburban Peter Pan to step outside of his G.O.P. mecca of Fairville and “live a little.” Reubens is savvy enough to poke fun of the retreaded plot: “I don’t want to go anywhere or try anything new.” He could be Fairville’s poster child for Donald Trump’s desire to “Make ‘Murica Grate Again,”  (AKA, let’s return to the oppressive past), except that Pee-wee does have a tad bit of the eternal bad boy Reubens under his skin. Of course Pee-wee heads to the Big Apple, embarking on his next big adventure as if 1985 was just a few days ago.

Between a hexagon of biker outlaw udders (Alia Shawkat, as one of the trio, shines and has genuine chemistry with her co-star) and nine man-meat craving farm girls who have used a tad too much butter on the grits, Pee-wee makes it clear that he is not interested in the fairer sex “that way.” With all those pheromones, Pee-wee runs for New York cover and Joe’s ripped, saving arms. Of course, there are some mildly weird diversions along the way that never get quite phantasmagorical enough. A traveling snake oil salesman who literally takes hitchhiking Pee-Wee to a snake farm, a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang flying car (occupied by Diane Sallinger[2]), an Amish village of balloon deflators ( an amusingly extended gag), and an odd musical number all add up to subdued eccentricity, but never on the natural scales of or the late Tim Burton.

Still, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a charmer that may lead to Reuben’s reviving the character and taking him into more innovative terrain.

  1. 2013-2105’s “Hannibal” was both aesthetically and dramatically superior to any of the Hannibal Lecter character’s films, including the overrated Silence Of The Lambs, but audiences, having understandably overdosed on wretched sequels and prequels, never gave this television exercise in noir surrealism a chance []
  2. Sallinger is a veteran Reubens co-conspirator, having starred with him in both Batman Returns and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure []

LIST CANDIDATE: NIGHT ON THE GALACTIC RAILROAD (1985)

Ginga-tetsudo no Yoru; AKA Night on the Galactic Express

DIRECTED BY: Gisaburo Sugii

FEATURING: Voices of Mayumi Tanaka, Chika Sakumoto

PLOT: In a fictional town in a fictional universe during the annual star-worshiping festivities, a boy and his friend find themselves on a metaphysical train that takes them on an existential journey through space. Oh, and everybody is a cat.

Still from Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Even without delving into the film’s brutally in-depth takes on loneliness, death and depression, Railroad is a tripper’s paradise, filled to the brim with such weirdness as glowing, candy-flavored herons, self-replicating apples, stairways that lead to the center of the universe, and beaches where each grain of sand is a jewel filled with fire. Rich in imagery and philosophy, it treads that always intriguing line between children’s entertainment and adult existentialism.

COMMENTS: A little background is very useful when approaching Night on the Galactic Railroad, else it might sucker punch you into hating it. Based on a 1927 book by Kenji Miyazawa, the film takes many liberties with the foundations of what was a very personal story to turn the novel into something with a distinctly anime flavor. The most controversial of these decision is to have (almost) everybody in the film drawn as a cat, an early indication that realism and logic will be thrown out the window despite the fact the film follows a very human path in regards to its character’s crises. The explanation for this decision has never really been given, but some have suggested it was simply due to the fact that it was easier to animate a cat than a human. Who knows if this is true, but nevertheless this town of star-worshiping felines all have very human characteristics. It isn’t difficult to sympathize with Giovanni, our young protagonist, as he is ostracized by his peers, bullied and insulted; he has no time to socialize due to his commitment to pick up milk for his sick mother.

Esoteric creative decisions lend even the relatively dull first fifteen minutes of the film an undeniable beauty. Tilted camera angles and close ups as Giovanni goes about his work in a publishing house after school turn the mundane into the mysterious, the bland into something otherworldly. The opening scenes’ dedication to create an alien world out of the familiar, along with the stillness and quiet tension on show, is closer to than anything else I have seen within (or outside of) the animation genre.

The film doesn’t stay on this route, though, and soon whisks us out of the medieval town. Giovanni and his only friend, Campanella, leave the occult stargazing festivities (complete with Carnivale-style masks) and find themselves on a train hurtling through space.

While the audience sits in a mild shock at these events, the two cats Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: NIGHT ON THE GALACTIC RAILROAD (1985)

LIST CANDIDATE: TWICE UPON A TIME (1983)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: John Korty, Charles Swenson, Bill Couturié (“adult” version)

FEATURING: Voices of Lorenzo Music, Marshall Efron, Judith Kahan, James Cranna, Julie Payne, Hamilton Camp, Paul Frees

PLOT: With the help of a fairy godmother and a blundering superhero, two dreamland misfits try to stop the wicked Synonamess Botch from detonating nightmare bombs.

Still from Twice Upon a Time (1983)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The mix of a crazy dream/fairytale plot with luminous cutout animation that often evokes surrealist collage landscapes—the cartoon characters might find themselves inside a clock that looks like a Leonardo da Vinci notebook page, on a frozen beach with body parts sticking out of the sand, or attacked by office supplies—makes Twice Upon a Time a one-of-a-kind oddball adventure. The legendary backstory involving the film’s longtime unavailability, kid-unfriendly profanity, competing versions, and accusations of censorship (which turned out to be reverse censorship) doesn’t hurt Time‘s cult credentials, either.

COMMENTS: Coming out during Disney’s nadir, when cartoon features were out-of-fashion, Twice Upon a Time was simultaneously a throwback and an innovation. The movie was painstakingly animated through the never before (or since) used process of “Lumage,” where plastic cutouts are placed on a light table and filmed. The process makes the cutouts seem to glow at times, as well as creating planes that impart a weird three-dimensionality to the images. The effect has been compared to stained glass, although the movie’s soft palettes are more reminiscent of gently glowing pastel watercolors. Besides the immensely detailed painted backdrops, the cartoon characters of dreamland also frequently tromp on top of black and white stills representing the “real” world. The resulting work comprises shots of extreme beauty (the shadowy, tiered towers of Murkworks, contrasted with the construction-paper chaos of Frivoili) and wit (the camera pulls back to reveal that the hedges the villains are trotting through form a skull and crossbones, and the submersible tottering on top of a pile of junk is surely a tribute to stylistic precursor Yellow Submarine).

Structurally, the narrative can be charitably described as anarchic, with archetypal characters who are as two-dimensional as the plastic cels they’re made from. Our misfit heroes, a shape-shifting “all-purpose animal” and a mute esque Tramp, are joined by a Jewish fairy godmother (“FGM” for short), an aspiring actress, a superhero with a learner’s permit, and other jokey stock characters. Opposing them is nightmare tycoon Synonamess Botch (with “Nixon & Agnew ’68” tattooed on his chest), his fleet of  vulture bombers, a pet rat (presciently named “Ratatouille”), and “head scream writer” Scuzzbopper. Together, the opposing sides war for dominance in the minds of the monochrome denizens of our world, know to them as the “Rushers of Din” (as accurate a three-word summary of modern humans as I can imagine).

Many find the plot, which involves the necessity of stopping time by stealing a piece of a cosmic clock, confusing; but although the setup may be rushed, it falls far short of being truly baffling. Some very bad, rejected-for-a-Rocky-sequel 80s pop music over the credits detracts from the project’s artistic credibility, but helps fix it in its era. Despite minor reservations, Twice Upon a Time is a great, overlooked, imaginative oddity that is well worth rediscovering. It’s so strange that it’s hard to believe executive producer George Lucas ever gave the project his blessing (although it’s easy to see why Mr. Blockbuster didn’t champion it after it breezed through theaters, making barely a ripple in the public consciousness).

Twice Upon a Time‘s “censorship” flap merits an explanation. Per director John Korty, the story is that after the movie bombed, producer/screenwriter Bill Couturié  re-recorded some of Marshall Efron’s dialogue with “dirty” jokes (what today would amount to PG-13 rated scatology, mostly), with the studio’s blessing but without Korty’s knowledge or approval. The intent, apparently, was to re-position the flop as a cult movie for high school and college-aged kids. This “dirty” cut of the film originally played on HBO; when Korty discovered the fact, he supplied the network with the “clean” masters, which they then started airing. Angry viewers assumed that HBO had re-edited the film to remove the profanity and make it kid-friendly. Actually, it was a case of reverse-censorship: the racy material was inserted into the original to spice it up, not removed to appease the bluenoses. (And there was some mild profanity in the “clean” version, too). I prefer Korty’s cut (I don’t find fart noises all that funny), but they are not very different (the two versions are more than 95% identical). Still, the idea of a “blue” variation of an animated children’s movie is titillating. Wouldn’t it be a treat if studios went back and re-recorded a profane version of every flop kids’ movie?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in all honesty, it is never boring. Strange, confusing and color-convulsing, yes. Dull, never.”–Mike Watt, “Fervid Filmmaking

CAPSULE: THE THREE CABALLEROS (1944)

DIRECTED BY: , Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, , Harold Young

FEATURING: Dora Luz, Aurora Miranda, voices of Clarence Nash, Jose Oliveira, Joaquin Garay, Sterling Holloway

PLOT: Three Caballeros is one of the “package features” that Walt Disney made during World War II, a compilation of short subjects (a la Fantasia) with a vaguely Latin American theme.

Still from The Three Caballeros (1944)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Because only the last 15 minutes or so of this 70-minute feature are truly weird. However, if this were a list of the 366 weirdest animated films ever made, this picture might make it.

COMMENTS: In Three Caballeros, Donald Duck and his friends—the Brazilian parrot Jose, the Mexican rooster Panchito, and the manic Aracuan bird—embark on a musical tour of South America that impressively combines live-action with animation. Along the way, they encounter Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen) and engage in enough wild slapstick to shame the more anarchic Warner Bros. cartoon characters of the time (Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, etc.).

Despite having its own ride at EPCOT Center, Caballeros is one of Disney’s most obscure animated films, and with good reason: most of it is kind of dull. What does distinguish the movie, however, is its peculiar, almost Tex Avery-like tendency to turn Donald Duck into a downright lustful bird every time he encounters a Latin beauty (which happens a lot), and a bizarrely psychedelic third act that is a relentless assault of wild visual imagery a la the “Pink Elephants on Parade” segment from Dumbo. The last fifteen minutes of the picture practically turns it into Yellow Submarine, with exploding flowers and dancing, suggestive cacti (reminiscent of the giant swaying bananas in ’s 1943 musical The Gang’s All Here), just two factors in a non-stop crazy quilt of pre-psychedelia that refuses to stop until the avian trio has sung the film’s title song and Panchito has shot his guns in the air about 150 times. It’s exhausting (and, by Disney standards, extremely weird), yet clearly the highlight of the film. This makes The Three Caballeros worth seeing for die-hard fans of Disney and/or animation, but they should prepare to do a lot of fast-forwarding on their DVD remotes.

Otherwise, the rest of the film is harmless and/or forgettable, although Blue Sky Studio’s recent, music-filled Rio (about Brazilian parrots) may owe something to both this film and Disney’s similar 1943 packager Saludos Amigos. As alluded to before, this movie obviously has its fans within the Disney empire’s theme park division, as the Mouse has tried to keep all its characters alive in one way or another: Jose and Panchito can be spotted in the revamped “It’s a Small World” ride.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

I would not hesitate to call it the most surreal work ever produced by the Disney studios… in a film full of surrealist touches, Donald the sex fiend is easily the strangest part, though certainly one of the most memorable. (The fact that the animation looks a bit pasted on top of the live action footage just makes it all the weirder).”–Tim Brayton, Anatgony & Ecstasy (DVD)

222. SPIRITED AWAY (2001)

Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi

“It was just too bizarre.

“Honestly, when I watched Spirited Away for the first time back in 2008, I didn’t like it for the same reason as you. I just found it too weird.”

–IMDB message board dissenters on Spirited Away

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki; , Jason Marsden, (English dub)

PLOT: While moving to a new town, ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents take a detour to a seemingly abandoned amusement park in rural Japan. Once the sun sets, the park transforms into an otherworldly resort for spirits and gods overseen by the cruel witch Yubaba. Now separated from her parents, Chihiro must learn to survive among an array of weird creatures as she attempts to reunite her family and return home.

Still from Spirited Away (2001)

BACKGROUND:

  • Hayao Miyazaki had announced his retirement from feature filmmaking in 1998, after completing Princess Mononoke. He came out of retirement in 2001 to make Spirited Away.
  • Disney Studios had distributed Studio Ghibli’s previous film, Princess Mononoke, in the United States, with disappointing results. They put little money into marketing the film, but strong reviews and word of mouth turned it into a hit, and Disney’s partnership with Ghibli was cemented from that point on.
  • Spirited Away won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (along with 52 wins granted by other organizations).
  • Spirited Away is the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan.
  • Hayao Miyazaki had announced his retirement from feature filmmaking in 2001, after completing Spirited Away. He came out of retirement in 2004 to make Howl’s Moving Castle.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Lured into the park by a delicious scent, Chihiro’s parents come upon a vacant restaurant filled with sumptuous, exotic dishes. The two immediately begin to fill their plates, ignoring their daughter’s worries that they’ll be punished for taking the food. After the park begins its transformation, Chihiro returns to find her parents bloated and hunched over piles of scraps. She tries to warn her father about what is happening, but when he looks at her she sees only the sweating, engorged face of a pig. The grunting pig ignores Chihiro and climbs over the restaurant’s counter, only to be swatted away by an unseen figure’s reptilian arm. The pig then crashes to the ground with a primal squeal, frightening Chihiro as she cries out for her parents and runs into a street filled with tall, anonymous ghosts.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pig parents; “No Face” eats; three heads and a giant baby

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki plays on the normal fears of lost children as the basis for an outlandish, frightening fantasy about a young girl being thrust into the incomprehensible life of an adult. The imagination of the setting is so immense that it seems to dwarf the film itself, suggesting a fully realized universe of magic and monsters with borders that extend far beyond the frame of the story.


Disney Trailer for Spirited Away

COMMENTS: Spirited Away begins with the main character, Chihiro, Continue reading 222. SPIRITED AWAY (2001)

CAPSULE: BABE: PIG IN THE CITY (1998)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: E.G. Daily (voice), Magda Szubanski, Mickey Rooney, James Cromwell

PLOT: After the porcine Babe accidentally injures Farmer Hoggett, Mrs. Hoggett (Szubanski) takes over the family farm, which immediately begins losing money. Desperate, she takes Babe to the big city for another shepherding contest (like the one that ended the first film), but the duo find more than they bargained for, including an elaborate hotel populated almost exclusively by animals.

Still from Babe: Pig in the City (1998)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While it’s definitely louder and more chaotic than the gentle original, this enjoyable sequel certainly doesn’t deserve its reputation as a bizarre miscalculation. If this website were about the 366 weirdest family films, Babe 2 might get on that list.

COMMENTS: Unlike the beloved, Oscar-nominated Babe, Babe: Pig in the City was a gigantic box-office flop, at least in the U.S. Reviews were mixed to negative (mostly negative), with the notable exception of Siskel and Ebert, who both lavished the production with praise. Audiences stayed home in droves, as they say, and the picture was D.O.A. from the first weekend. Everyone seemed to feel that the movie was too dark and sinister, and, watching the film now, one is struck by the fact that director George “Mad Max” Miller  does indeed direct the action as if he were still doing The Road Warrior, with plenty of looming close-ups shot with a fish-eyed lens and a frenetic, restless camera. There are lots of weirdness-for-the-sake-of-weirdness touches, like the way that Mickey Rooney (who never speaks) always looks as if he was interrupted in the middle of dinner and forgot to wipe his mouth. The “big city” is positively fanciful, featuring the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House all in one town; it’s an overload of visual invention, unlike the placid, bucolic setting of the original Babe. And James Cromwell is almost MIA, showing up at only the beginning and the end.

But Babe: Pig in the City is hardly the nightmare that it’s been made out to be. Doesn’t anyone remember the frights in The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka, or most of the Disney classics? In the original Babe there is a scene where Farmer Hoggett aims a gun right into the pig’s face, intending to turn him into bacon; it’s still rather startling, so the more jarring moments in the sequel, as when Babe is chased by a snarling dog, shouldn’t be that surprising. And this is one sequel, that, unlike so many others, tries to do something entirely different from the original.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…scattered reports of the sequel taking on a Fellini-esque quality that wouldn’t translate to the masses proved utterly groundless… Miller and his army of technicians and animal specialists invent crazy quilt contraptions that spin off in weird trajectories when set in motion.”–Leonard Klady, Variety (contemporaneous)

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS (BONUS COVERAGE): INSIDE OUT (2015)

Pixar’s Inside Out (2015) is one of those “eat crow” moments.

The glories of Wall-E (2008) and the Toy Story trilogy have been overshadowed by the pedestrian equivalent of Disney Big Macs with such junk fodder as Monsters Universty (2013), Brave (2012), Cars 2 (2011), and Finding Nemo (2003). Pete Docter and Ronlado Del Carmen are the writing/directing team on Inside Out; their previous credits do not suggest anything resembling exceptional caliber.

Thus, when my Portland tribe voted on Inside Out, I made sure to grab the Rolaids on the way out, anticipating an overdose of saccharine banality. Within moments of this astoundingly remarkable film, my mirror of preconceived notions had delightfully shattered.

Inside Out is one of the most innovative (animated or not) films since The Lego Movie (2014) and, as an entertaining catapult into emotional intelligence via an adolescent girl, it actually surpasses, and is more important than, last year’s animated blockbuster.

The plot is threadbare and can be easily summed up. Riley ( Kaitlyn Dias) moves, with her parents (Diane Lane and ) from Minnesota to San Francisco. She initially hates her new school, her new hockey team, her new town, but learns to acclimate herself.

Of course, that is something many of us have experienced at least once, so the excitement level, upon reading said plot, may not even register. Except that Inside Out honestly goes where few films have gone. It takes us into the fear of change. What better subject is there for that journey than an eleven-year-old girl?

Children fear change, which is why they often are obsessed with familiarity (of course, some adults are just as prone, but we will stop there in the spirit of avoiding polemics, for once).

Still from Inside Out (2015)We are taken inside Riley’s heart/mind to a very busy control room and introduced  to Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). The characters are color coded: Joy/Yellow, Sadness/Blue, Anger/Red, and so on.

Although the emotion controllers are often at odds with one another, they work together for the benefit of Riley. They, like Riley herself, learn to adjust through trial and error to unexpected turns of events, mitigating circumstances, and the pains of evolving. Naturally, the lessons taught from either/or vs. both/and approaches are often painful ones, and commendably Inside/Out does not flinch.

This may sound vaguely existential, for a reason: it is existentialism. However, there is no need for trepidation; the production team smartly hurls everything at us at such an entertaining, kinetic pace that never once does it become pretentious. Rather, by the time we sink back into our seats during closing credits, we are inspired to comfortably smile, having matter-of-factly experienced familiar memories.

Riley’s dreams are produced in a dream factory, which gifts Inside Out enough breath to venture into ian terrain. An imaginary friend weeps Wonka treats and sacrifices himself so that Riley may survive adolescence. A future potential (and hilariously vapid) boyfriend also makes a similar sacrifice.

We visit the islands of Riley’s conscience—Honesty, Family, Friendship, and Hockey—and are pulled to the seat edge when those landscapes are threatened. Subtle shades of Rankin and Bass abound.

Joy is kind of the designated Captain Kirk of the emotion control team. She enjoys her position and clout as she runs back and forth manning an assortment of pinball levers. However, just as Bill Shatner did, she learns that, indeed Riley needs Sadness (Spock) and Anger (McCoy—true to form and tradition, Black, like De Forest Kelly before him, often steals the show without much effort). Beneath that realization is a layered critique of imposing false happiness on a child, who requires an essential full range of emotional experiences. MacLachlan’s thoroughly suburbanized father is another scene-stealer, an almost ironic subtext for the former Blue Velvet star.

There are moments of surrealism and abstraction, but these are filtered through a mesh of middle Americana, so much so that it would be easy to imagine the late composer Charles Ives being inspired to write a new a score for the film.

Seated between two clinical psychologists, I was not surprised to hear their approval. This may be the most un-Disney movie produced by Pixar. One can only hope Inside Out will inspire a whole new school in the art of filmmaking; one that could potentially change the way we think. It prompts us to think about thinking and, in doing so, it may be the most original and innovative movie of the year. Who would have thunk it?

CAPSULE: CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Freddie Highmore, David Kelly,  Annasophia Robb, Julia Winter, Jordan Fry, Philip Wiegratz, ,

PLOT: Poor, good-natured Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) wins a coveted Golden Ticket to visit the fabulous chocolate factory owned by the mysterious Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp); once there, Charlie discovers that all of his fellow school-aged winners are hateful brats, and Mr. Wonka seems to have a few screws loose himself…

Still from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s deliciously weird in the usual Tim Burton manner, this is probably the most benign and family-friendly of all his films. Even Frankenweenie is scarier.

COMMENTS: When Tim Burton’s visually sumptuous film of Roald Dahl’s 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opened in 2005, there was much discussion of how the late Mr. Dahl felt that the earlier, classic 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had toned down his often mean-spirited material. (This opinion was a little strange, considering that Dahl had written the screenplay.) The new film, it was said, was much more faithful to the book. Truth be told, both pictures hew very closely to the novel; but, although this might sound like sacrilege, Burton’s film is more impressive in almost every way than the earlier Gene Wilder movie. (Incidentally, the 1971 film was not very popular with anyone when it originally opened; it was only later that a whole new audience embraced the movie on television.) The 2005 version is by far the better directed and designed of the two films, but, although Johnny Depp’s Wonka is utterly delightful, he doesn’t come close to projecting the genuine menace, and, ironically enough, the fatherly warmth that Wilder did. Wilder gave a full-fledged, three-dimensional performance; Depp, while he is great fun to watch, is basically playing a cartoon. Of course, for those of us who saw the earlier film as children, Wilder made a tremendous impact. Who knows what the kids of 2005 felt when they saw Depp?

Mr. Depp looks and sounds something like Michael Jackson here (although he has Anna Wintour’s hair), and all the color has been digitally drained from his face. This Willy Wonka hates kids, and with good reason. Burton’s film makes it clear that the brats all survive their punishments in Wonka’s factory (another reason why this won’t make the List), while the 1971 version left their fates up in the air. The 2005 film does include some sequences from the book not in the earlier film, like the memorable bit where the tiresome Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) is attacked by nut-cracking squirrels, and the adventures of Prince Pondicherry (Nitin Ganatra). But some of screenwriter John August’s all-new additions, such as the revelation that Wonka’s estranged father (Christopher Lee) is a dentist, feel unnecessary. (The flashback to the young, candy-loving Wonka’s bad teeth and increasingly grotesque retainers are grisly fun, though, like something out of Little Shop of Horrors). Thankfully, Depp and Highmore, who co-starred together a year earlier in Finding Neverland, have good chemistry. The fact that Highmore is now playing psychotic killer Norman Bates on TV’s Bates Motel makes it look like another collaboration with Tim Burton would be a good idea.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The wondrous surfaces have a weird undercurrent that won’t go away… Before the trip is over, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ has gone from delectable to curdled, and Depp’s performance has shrunk from bizarrely riveting to one-note and vaguely creepy, turning Willy Wonka into yet another of Burton’s antisocial weirdoes. But then this is scarcely the first time a Burton film has started out great only to lose its way with fanciful doodlings and lack of secure moorings.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)