All posts by Scott Sentinella

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)

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)

CAPSULE: JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1996)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Paul Terry, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margoyles, Pete Postlethwaite, Steven Culp, , , Jane Leeves, , Simon Callow

PLOT: A boy rides a giant peach across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City.
Still from James and the Giant Peach (1996)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a light-hearted fantasy film for children, and fantasy isn’t necessarily weird just because it’s fantastical. Also, the movie tones down some of the darker elements of the original 1961 source novel by the delightfully mean-spirited .

COMMENTS: Orphaned James (Paul Terry, in his only film) is mistreated, Cinderella-style, by his cruel aunts, the angular Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and the portly Sponge (Miriam Margoyles). When a mystery man (Pete Postlethwaite) gives James a jar of magical crocodile tongues–which are supposed to solve all of James’ problems, although he doesn’t understand why–James loses them in the grass near the roots of a dead tree. The next day, a peach that was in the grass has grown to the size of a house, and the insects inside the fruit—a centipede (voiced by Richard Dreyfuss), a Russian spider (Susan Sarandon), a ladybug (Jane Leeves), an earthworm (David Thewlis), a grasshopper (Simon Callow) and a glowworm (Margoyles again)—are now taller than James, who takes off with the bugs inside the now-rolling peach to New York City.

This somewhat obscure Disney production is a masterpiece of beautiful and stunning stop-motion animation, directed by Henry Selick, who helmed the equally dazzling 1993 classic The Nightmare Before Christmas (contrary to popular belief,  did not direct Nightmare, although he did co-produce and co-write the film, as well as design its distinctive look.) This one is not, however, a masterpiece of storytelling. Even at a mere 79 minutes, James and the Giant Peach feels like a rather thin—although marvelous—children’s book stretched out to feature-length. The filmmakers added episodes not in the novel, such as an encounter with ghostly pirates (including one that’s a dead ringer for Nightmare protagonist Jack Skellington) to flesh out the plot.

Also threaded throughout the proceedings are a number of songs by Randy “Short People” Newman, although they sound more like conventional showtunes than the low-key ditties he penned for many Pixar films. The all-star voice cast is not known for their singing, and this film does nothing to change that. Richard Dreyfuss is at his most abrasive as the cigar-chomping centipede (the only American character in the story), but casting the glamorous Jane Leeves  (“Frasier”) as the ladybug—a jolly old British matron—is a nice change of pace. The film’s most memorable performances come courtesy of Joanna Lumley (“Absolutely Fabulous”) and Miriam Margoyles, who are made up to look especially ghoulish in the film’s opening and closing live-action sequences, although their monstrous Aunt characters are spared the dire fates they had in the book. (Aunts Spiker and Sponge seem to be a clear influence on Harry Potter’s horrible Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia.) There’s plenty of visual razzmatazz on display here, but ultimately the film is less memorable than either Nightmare or Selick’s superb later effort Coraline.

Since James and the Giant Peach is a relatively little-known film, Disney gives its Blu-ray release short shrift (by their standards) in the extras department. There’s a game, a music video, a “making of” featurette that runs a whopping four-and-a-half minutes, the movie’s trailer, and a gallery of fifty-nine “Behind the Scenes” still photographs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…shines with weird, whimsical invention.”–Stephen Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: , , , Terry Jones, , Terry Gilliam, Carol Cleveland

PLOT: King Arthur, along with Sir Lancelot the Brave, Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot, Sir Galahad the Pure, Sir Bedevere the Wise, and Arthur’s squire, Patsy, set out to find the Holy Grail, meeting the Black Knight, a killer rabbit, and the knights who say “Ni!” along the way.

Still from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While most of ‘s work flirts with surreal fantasy, this film simply doesn’t plunge as deeply into the genre as most of the other movies directed or co-directed by Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys, Brazil, The Brothers Grimm).

COMMENTS: As someone who has seen every episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” (and “Fawlty Towers”), as well as all four of the “Python” feature films, it pains me to say this, but—this picture simply isn’t all that funny. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (along with Monty Python’s The Life of Brian) seems like it would have been more effective as a half-hour episode of “Python”, but, stretched out to feature-length, the seams really start to show. This production has so many indelible moments—“It’s only a flesh wound!”; coconuts used in lieu of the sound of horse’s hooves; “Bring out yer dead!”; etc., etc. etc.—that it seems churlish to say that it doesn’t hang together very well. It sounds like a ridiculous argument, like complaining that the films of Mel Brooks need more plot, but Holy Grail is only hilarious in fits and starts. Some of the funniest bits are the most subtle (“Someday, all this will be yours.” “What, the curtains?”) Otherwise, there is a surprising amount of dead air in this somewhat murky-looking film (it was shot on a very low-budget), which nevertheless has been acclaimed as a deathless classic by generations of nerds. By now, the movie is so immortal that it has been adapted into the hugely successful Broadway musical “Spamalot”, produced by the late Mike Nichols. But the film itself still seems like a huge pile of hit-and-miss gags that don’t actually add up to a real movie. And it is only weird in the way that all Python is weird; the fourth wall is broken repeatedly, but  was doing that 40 years before Python.

The Holy Grail isn’t strange enough to make the List. However, even this nutty farce is a far better exploration of Arthurian myth than the awful film version of Lerner and Loewe’s musical Camelot (which Chapman’s Arthur dismisses as “a silly place”) or Walt Disney’s exceedingly mediocre animated film The Sword in the Stone.

Because of the eternal popularity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it has been released and re-released on DVD and Blu-Ray a seemingly endless number of times. Some of the behind-the-scenes-stories (in the DVD Extras), like the one about how Chapman’s alcoholism was totally out of control on the set, are perhaps more interesting than the film itself.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Some inspired lunacy—and a lot of dry stretches; awfully bloody, too.”–Leonard Maltin, “Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide: The Modern Era”

“The Python team’s surreal take on the legend of Camelot bursts with inspired lunacy.”–Jamie Graham, Total Film (DVD)

CASPULE: LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (2004)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Kara Hoffman, Shelby Hoffman, , , ,

Still from Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Incidents (2004)
PLOT: After the brainy Baudelaire children—Violet (Browning), Klaus (Aiken) and Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman)—are orphaned, they move in with their closest living relative, the sinister ham actor Count Olaf (Carrey). Soon after turning the kids into his servants, Cinderella-style, Olaf simply decides to kill them so that he can inherit their parents’ enormous wealth. Will the children’s kindly, snake-loving Uncle Monty (Connolly) and severely phobic Aunt Josephine (Streep) come to their aid? Or are their lives fated to be a series of unfortunate events?

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While highly enjoyable in a -esque sort of way (more on that later), this black comedy for kids is all too reminiscent of earlier, similar tales from the likes of Roald Dahl, Charles Addams, and Edward Gorey. It’s definitely quirky, but not really all that weird.

 COMMENTS: After the staggering success of the Harry Potter franchise, every movie studio in town was looking for a series of fantastical young adult novels that could profitably be filmed. One of the most artistically and commercially successful films of this period was Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is a delightfully mean-spirited good time but also a terribly episodic 107 minutes. This movie is based on Daniel Handler’s first three “Snicket” novels—“The Bad Beginning” (1999), “The Reptile Room” (1999) and “The Wide Window” (1999)—and therein lies the problem. The film, written by Robert Gordon (responsible for the great Galaxy Quest), and narrated in the dulcet tones of Jude Law, is all too clearly an adaptation of three separate books, so that the story seems to resolve itself, than starts up again, than resolves itself again and so forth. There were eventually 13 novels in the series, so sequels to this movie could have been made, but never were. As it is, the film’s curiously stop-and-start pacing is its one great flaw, but almost everything else about it is stellar, particularly the art direction. The movie is set in an indeterminate era; the cars are from the 1950’s, but Meryl Streep dresses like a Dickensian matron. Lemony Snicket features eye-catchingly monochromatic cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, impressive costumes by Colleen Atwood and stunning production design from Rick Heinrichs (indeed, the film was shot entirely on soundstages, like The Wizard of Oz). This is the same cinematographer/costume designer/production designer team that did Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, and the movie, with its decidedly Grimm sense of humor, is definitely an imitation of Burton’s style— even has an unbilled cameo—but it’s a highly skilful imitation. (Casper’s Brad Silberling was the actual director.) In fact, Silberling’s movie is more “Burton-esque,” and superior to, some actual Burton films like Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland.

The deadpan performances from the kids, whose characters are constantly threatened with death by train, snake, fire and hurricane, and the delightfully over-the-top turns from Carrey (at his manic best), Streep (who matches his nuttiness), and the always delightful Connolly make the pitiful waste of the all-star supporting cast (including Timothy Spall, Catherine O’Hara, Cedric the Entertainer, Luis Guzman, Jane Adams, Jennifer Coolidge, Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Handler, Jane Lynch, and the voice of Gilbert Gottfried) easier to take. (As recently as 2014, Craig Ferguson used his talk show to good-naturedly grouse about how his “Person of Indeterminate Gender” character was practically cut out of the film). There is also some extremely impressive animation over both the opening and closing credits, which makes the movie worth sitting through in its entirety. It’s all good, dark, unpleasant fun, but not all that much weirder than the average episode of “The Addams Family.” In fact, director Barry Sonnenfeld, who made the film Addams Family Values, was originally supposed to direct Unfortunate Events. He later criticized Silberling’s movie for spending too much time on Carrey’s scenery-devouring Count Olaf and not concentrating enough on the Baudelaires.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Director Brad Silberling has essentially made a Tim Burton movie, but without the weird shafts of adolescent pain.”—Ty Burr, “The Boston Globe” (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Dianne Wiest, Anthony Michael Hall, Kathy Baker, , Alan Arkin, Robert Oliveri, Conchata Ferrell, Caroline Aaron, Dick Anthony Williams, O-Lan Jones

PLOT: Avon lady Peg (Wiest) finds a strange boy named Edward (Depp) with scissors for hands living in a Gothic castle next to her candy-colored suburban neighborhood. Since his father/creator (Price) has died, Peg brings Edward home with her. At first, the town embraces Edward’s landscaping and hairdressing skills, but when he falls in love with Peg’s daughter (Ryder), complications arise.

Still from Edward Scissorhands (1990)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because it’s probably the most personal film directed by Tim Burton, arguably the weirdest filmmaker ever to achieve consistent, mainstream success within the Hollywood studio system. Burton never fully defines the film as either fantasy or science fiction; Edward is something like the Frankenstein monster, with Price as a benevolent mad scientist.

COMMENTS: This unlikely vehicle was really the film that turned the photogenic Johnny Depp into a movie star. (Intriguingly, Depp’s first starring role was actually in Cry-Baby, directed by another iconoclastic filmmaker, .) With his dead-white skin and rat’s nest hairdo, Edward Scissorhands vaguely resembles Robert Smith, lead singer of the rock group The Cure. Edward’s hair also looks something like Burton’s.  This was also the first of eight collaborations so far between Depp and Burton, who obviously see each other as kindred spirits. The film itself is a fabulously Gothic fairy tale, with an unexpectedly downbeat ending, a great deal of Burtonesque humor, and any number of haunting images, all backed up by Danny Elfman’s beautiful and mournful music. Both Burton and Elfman have called this their favorite of their own films. The film is set in a full-blown Burton universe, with all of his strange quirks and eccentricities (he wrote the story; Caroline Thompson penned the screenplay). After Edward, all of the live-action films directed by Burton have been based on material created by others (Mars Attacks, Alice in Wonderland, etc.), but this is unfiltered Tim Burton, melancholy and delightfully weird. Somehow, this director’s Disney-in-Hell vision has been palatable to mainstream audiences, unlike, say, the Surrealist nightmares of . (It’s amusing to compare Burton’s satiric portrait of suburbia here with Lynch’s terrifying town of Lumberton in Blue Velvet). The movie is obviously semi-autobiographical for Burton, with Edward being only one of his many white-faced protagonists–Pee-Wee Herman, Barnabbas Collins, Beetlejuice, etc.–and Edward definitely does not fit in the suburbs, which is the way Burton has always said he felt growing up in Burbank. (Ironically, Burbank is a place that Burton, in a way, never left, since most of his films have been for Disney or Warner Bros, which are both located in that city, though Edward was produced at 20th Century Fox.) If any Tim Burton film can make the List, this, his most personal picture, should be the one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One problem is that the other people are as weird, in their ways, as [Edward] is: Everyone in this film is stylized and peculiar, so he becomes another exhibit in the menagerie, instead of a commentary on it.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: FANTASIA 2000 (1999)

DIRECTORS: James Algar, Gaetan Brizzi, Paul Brizzi, Francis Glebas, Eric Goldberg, Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt

CAST: James Levine (conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), plus hosts James Earl Jones, Quincy Jones, Angela Lansbury, Bette Midler, Steve Martin, Penn and Teller, and Itzhak Perlman

PLOT: Like the original Fantasia (1940), Fantasia 2000 has no overarching plot. Instead, the film presents a series of short subjects “illustrating” classical compositions by such masters as Igor Stravinsky, George Gershwin and Ottorino Respighi.

Still from Fantasia 2000 (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This semi-sequel lacks the edge of the first Fantasia’s sinister “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence (the one with the giant demon). Also, this later Fantasia is unlikely to attract the kind of audience that went to the late 1960’s re-issue of the first film while under the influence. After all, the original Fantasia received the Harvard Lampoon’s 1968 “OhGodOhGodOhGodTheLightsTheSoundsTheColors” award, which it shared with Yellow Submarine and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

COMMENTS: While lacking the innovative qualities of its predecessor, which was one of the first–if not the first–films recorded in multichannel sound, Fantasia 2000 is a (much) shorter, faster and more kid-friendly variation on the original, all of which does not necessarily make it better. Nevertheless, the film is both amusing, and, during the Stravinsky and Respighi sequences, surprisingly stirring.

Fantasia 2000 begins with Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5 in C Minor” being portrayed in abstract fashion with lots of Origami-style butterflies fluttering across the screen. This sequence is obviously meant to recall the original Fantasia’s opening: an impressionistic rendering of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, which was the dullest scene in either movie. Things perk up considerably after that, as Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” is turned into a touching computer-animated tale of humpback whales. Then comes a funny take on Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, animated in the style of legendary New York caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. This is followed by another digital segment: Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in F. Major”, now rendered as a somewhat lackluster adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” Next up is a very brief bit from Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Carnival of the Animals, Finale”, which here becomes a watercolor-painted sequence featuring pink flamingos playing with a yo-yo. One gets the feeling that this is supposed to be reminiscent of the 1940 original’s version of “Dance of the Hours,” with its immortal ballet-dancing hippos and ostriches, but if that is the case, then the earlier film’s anthropomorphic gags are far more memorable. There’s more anthropomorphism to come, as “Carnival of the Animals” is followed by a reprise of Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” This is simply the classic sequence from the original Fantasia edited in here: Mickey Mouse, thinking himself a great wizard, must fend off an army of living brooms. As it was it the best scene in the original, this is the best sequence in the second one, probably because it’s the only segment that illustrates what the composer was actually writing about. Donald Duck then gets equal time, as it were, by starring in Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.” This is not a story about Donald’s graduation, but a retelling of “Noah’s Ark” with Donald and Daisy standing in for Noah, and it’s amusing enough. The film’s finale is a memorable take on Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite,” as a woodland sprite brings the spirit of spring to the forest, only to be vanquished by the Firebird spirit, who lives in a volcano. But this is Disney, so the sprite rises again like the phoenix. Although this is arguably the most lavishly animated segment in Fantasia 2000, some of the imagery is suspiciously reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 film Princess Mononoke, as well as the forest fire in Disney’s own 1942 Bambi (complete with woodland creatures). Nevertheless, this is a fine note for the film to go out on.

Nothing in Fantasia 2000 is the slightest bit weird, but it is all gorgeously animated and quite entertaining. Compared to its legendary, if sometimes ponderous, 1940 predecessor, however, Fantasia 2000 does seem a bit lightweight.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If it’s a head trip you’re looking for in the millennial version of Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia,’ you’ll have to wait for the grand finale, in which the world appears to come to an end, then suddenly bursts to life again… [it] often has the feel of a giant corporate promotion…”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)