Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Where the Editor totally loses it, and shakes her cane at all them young 'uns who don't know what they're missin'

WARNING: This post will be photo-heavy, probably with a fair amount of cursing, and the soapbox will be at least six feet high.

As a disclaimer, I am by no means an expert. I am merely a self-righteous appreciator of the art of animation who knows better than the people in charge of animation today. And guess what? I'm gonna tell you ALL ABOUT IT.

Mrs. Brisby looks out in caution, due to the impending diatribe.

There's something you need to know about me. I love nostalgia. I am all about it, all up in it, and sink slowly into a big pillow of it when I go to sleep. I'm that chick that has Rainbow Brite on her Amazon wishlist and is serious about it. I'm nostalgic about stuff I wasn't around for. That's how intense I'm talking. So recently, on a trip to the local thrift store I found An American Tail on VHS for a quarter and LET ME TELL YOU I about died and went to heaven. As a kid, I would make my mom check out that VHS and All Dogs Go to Heaven just about all the goddamned time. We owned The Secret of NIMH, which I probably watched enough to destroy the tape (as it is conspicuously absent in the boxes of tapes at home). After watching An American Tail, I was so enthralled by the memories and the new adult perception of the film, that I had to watch Don Bluth's other films. OH MY GOD PEOPLE.

One: if you don't get these movies for your kids, you're a terrible parent, and I'm reporting you to Social Services.
Two: Christ, today's animators should just go ahead and jump off a bridge, crunch a cyanide capsule between their teeth, or lay down on some train tracks, because nearly all of today's animation can't even hold a candle to what Bluth and his colleagues achieved on comparatively shoestring budgets.
Three: If you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about, seriously, do yourself a favor and rent, borrow, steal these movies.

The Secret of NIMH
An American Tail
The Land Before Time
All Dogs Go to Heaven
Titan A.E.

It should be noted that Bluth was the directing animator for Disney's The Rescuers, Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians (1961 film), and The Fox and the Hound, his influence stamped all over like no one's business.

It was after he left Disney that he created his own studio team, Don Bluth Productions, dedicated to returning to the old animation techniques, as well as using new, more labor intensive techniques to create the amazing artwork in the film. The Secret of NIMH was his first film on his own, and is generally considered his opus. The producing studio, Aurora Studio, bought the rights to the book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and offered Bluth's team a budget of $5.7 million and 30 months to complete the film, a smaller budget and tighter schedule than Disney films at the time. Despite the time crunch and lack of funds, Bluth and his producers mortgaged their houses and put in over 100 hours a week during the final stretch of filming to make their vision come to life. If only we could see that kind of dedication to quality nowadays, I think we'd be a bit better off.

This might be a good time for me to lay something out for you all. Despite it's trailblazing history in animation, and the numerous classic films it produced, and it's towering presence in millions of childhoods, Disney has gone straight down the crapper. Some time in the mid-nineties, they started piggy-backing on the talent and innovation of Pixar, and stopped requiring that there be any actual effort put into their films. Around this time they started putting out those god-awful filmatic abortions, the straight-to-DVD sequels to their classic films. Hardly any were safe, not Cinderella, not Peter Pan, not Lady, nor the Tramp. They also threw Mickey into the murky and squalid basement, only dragging him out to dance a grotesque mockery of his former glory, holding out the little fez for your change as Disney studios cranked the hand organ. Basically, whoever was responsible (and continues to be) for the creative and business decisions of the last fifteen years has been raping Walt's antisemitic corpse and smiling for the cameras while they did it.

What gets me, is that the general public eats this garbage up. They buy their kids the half-assedly animated sequels, the Hannah Montana t-shirts and lip gloss, and blow thousands of dollars at the Magic Kingdom where you spend most of your time waiting in a line. What's worse, Disney gobbles up the rights to our childhood, and then squirrels it away from the public eye until they decide to drag it out in a fancy package (that is actually pretty damn ugly and cheaply done) and "all new features" (hint: there aren't any new features, just some crappy interactive "game") and charge you thirty bucks for it. THEY BOUGHT JIM HENSON'S MUPPETS. DISNEY OWNS THE GODDAMNED MUPPETS. If I ever meet Brian Henson, I'm going to have to kick him as hard as I can, right in the shins.

Whew. I'm sorry, I get really upset when I talk about this stuff. Honestly, if I had one wish, it would probably be to be in charge of Disney and all children's programming, because seriously folks, they're fucking it up SO HARD.

Um, so, if you've made it this far, I did have a point to all this. I re-watched An American Tail for the first time in years, and I didn't make it past the opening credits before I started bawling like a three year old. The composers Bluth used for his films have a knack for finding those specific notes that twang my heartstrings and send the tears shooting forcefully from my ducts. What I couldn't figure out was how this never happened when I was little. These movies are terrifying, tragic, and beautiful, how is it I wasn't constantly walking around with the sniffles and puffy eyes? Being an adult, I recognize and appreciate the depth of the tragedy in these movies, and even the happy endings have a touch of sadness or morbidity. It's something totally lost on a kid, but as an adult, you better be ready.

For example, as a kid, I enjoyed this little ditty, and really only remembered the chorus. But listen a little closer:

Johnny Guarnieri - There Are No Cats In America

Our family was traveling
Through the snow to Minsk
Suddenly Papa
Saw those huge paw prints
When I heard him screaming
I fainted dead away
And I woke up an orphan
Oy vey

But there are no cats in America
And the streets are paved with cheese
Oh there are no cats in America
So set your mind at ease

Ma la cosa terrible
Que esiste in la patria mia
If you think things were bad in Russia
You should see things in my country:

The times were hard in Sicily
We had no provolone
The Don he was a tabby
With a taste for my brother Tony
When Mama went to plead for him
The Don said he would see her
We found her rosary on the ground
Poor Mama mia

But there are no cats in America
And the streets are paved with cheese
Oh there are no cats in America
So set your mind at ease

Sure that’s sad, but sadder still...

When I was but a lad
I lost my true love fair
A calico, he caught us by surprise
In a flash of teeth and fur
Her tail was all he left of her
'Neath the heather
Is where it tirra-lirra lies

But there are no cats in America
(There are no cats in America)
And the streets are paved with cheese
Oh there are no cats in America
(And the streets are paved with cheese)
There are no cats in America
There are no cats in America
There are no cats in America
That is why, we sail, these seas

In this movie, the cats were just munching on whole mouse families, did you see those Cossack Cats in the beginning, and wholly crap Madeleine Kahn's character walks into a wake and exclaims, "There's a dead mouse on the table!" You have to respect Bluth's refusal to ignore death and danger, just because it's a kids' movie.

Mr. Ages is not feeling Mrs. Brisby up, they are having a tender moment, dammit, Nicodemus is dead, what kind of person are you?!?

See that red stuff right there? That's blood kids. You better get used to the sight of it, 'cause you're body is just chock full of the stuff.
It's cool, though, that guy totally had it coming, see the wavey-edged sword?

In fact, nearly all his films feature the not-so-nice and pretty plain death of one or more characters. It's a surprising realization to know that kids' movies have been softened and watered down so much that they're more ridiculous catch phrases and fart jokes than actual story.

If parents were concerned over the dogs in UP, how do you think they would have dealt with the Cossack Cats, Carface, Sharptooth, and Dragon?

If I had been a bird, I would have peed my pants, if I were the kind of bird that wore pants.

At some point American society became so terrified of damaging their precious little one's mind and psyche that everything became safe and mindless and sparkly. Quality went down the tubes, replaced by lights and computer generated special effects, and I'm wondering what the end result is going to be. If the teenagers that flounce into my place of work are any indication, I'm thinking of moving to Nova Scotia.

So most of this post has been very Debbie Downer, or rather, RAGING RACHEL, but really, I want to share my appreciation for what Don Bluth accomplished. I'd really like to find an address and mail him to let him know how much his work meant and means to me and my childhood.

*Quick plot synopsis: Recent widow Mrs. Brisby has to go to the secretive and mysterious rats of NIMH to help move her house before the farmer's plow destroys it and her son who can't be moved because of pneumonia. However, she stumbles right into a battle for power between the rats' patriarch Nicodemus and his loyal followers and clearly a bad dude, Jenner and his lackey.

The Secret of NIMH really is a masterpiece, one that stands up to today's fancy computer technology and shows that hand-drawn animation can be just as, if not more, effective an outlet for storytelling. The amount of work spent on this film is vibrantly apparent in every lovingly crafted cel, and the attention to detail is incredible. They studied animal movement and behavior, and one animator kept crutches by his table to mimic the movement of Mr. Ages. What I find the most impressive is that each voice chosen for the characters completely MATCHES AND EMBODIES that character, so much that you see the character, not the person voicing the character. Elizabeth Hartman's voice quivers and quakes and squeaks as the timid Mrs. Brisby who is forced by circumstances to be much braver than her nature would normally allow.

Glowing eyes and a Fu-Manchu mustache equals WISDOM.

John Carradine's voice booms and echoes as the looming, yet wise Owl, terrifying but also, somehow, reassuring. They are all pitch-perfect casting, mostly of people I've never heard of, but who create the characters so completely, you couldn't imagine anyone else doing it.

I also found the subtle animal rights vs. science to be an interesting conundrum.

Stupid meat sacks and their needles.

As an adult, we know that without animal testing, most of our vaccines and medicines wouldn't be as effective as they are. But from the point of view of the animals, one wonders just how necessary a lot of testing is. Though on the other hand, without the experimentation of the humans, the rats would not be as smart or able to build such a magnificent society. But yet again, the rats seems to hold their intelligence as somewhat of a burden, a secret that can't be revealed to anyone, lest everyone be endangered. It's a big windy road of twine that is making my head hurt in a good way.

And my god. The art is just...astounding.

The booklet sez: This scene required about 96 layers of cels. Dems a lotta layers!

Multiple color palettes were used for characters to fit in different lighting situations, from daylight, to night, to warm environments to underwater. Mrs. Brisby had 46 different lighting situations, so there were 46 different color palettes for her.

Bluth's animation team used multiple passes on the camera to achieve transparent shadows, and backlit animation, where animated mattes are shot with light shining through color gels to create glowing, artificial light and fire.

Remember what I said about glowy eyes and the 'stache? PROOF.

Messiah Mouse!

I seriously choke up during this part, I don't know if it's the fact that her children are suffocating, or the intensity of her desire to save them, or all those solar flares shooting off her body, but it's intense and I'm crying my eyes out.

Fun Fact: Mrs. Brisby was originally Mrs. Frisby, as in the title of the book. The creators of the toy "Frisbee" refused to waive the use of the similar sounding name, so the film team had to go back and change each instance of "Frisby" to "Brisby" by fudging the sound or pulling a "B" sound from somewhere else in the character's dialogue. Though it's a silly situation, I like Brisby better.

So, I hope you don't hate me too much for this. I just really like my classic animation. And Dom DeLuise.

"Courage of the heart is very rare.
The Stone has a power when it's there."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Movies movies movies movies movies....

Hmmm. If anyone is still reading, you're probably used to this by now. But! I have some stuff knockin' around the ol' brain (what little is left of it), so maybe there will be more than one post this month?

Before I regale you with my tirade on animation in movies, I'd like to lead off with my squidgy excitement over the latest Miyazaki film, as well as a host of other movies we should start getting impatient over the release date.

Hayao Miyazaki is the premier anime animator in Japan, and holds the distinction of winning the first Academy Award for an anime and for having two of the three highest grossing films in Japan (the third being Titanic). His movies have strong female leads, usually children, with complex themes about the environment and moral ambiguity. What's best is that his films appeal to all age groups; children will love the fantasy aspect, the creatures, and the funny jokes. Adults will be able to appreciate the beautiful hand-drawn animation and the challenging storylines. If you are unfamiliar with Miyazaki's work, I suggest you get your butt down to the local video rental or put these at the top of you Netflix queue:
- Princess Mononoke
- Spirited Away
- Kiki's Delivery Service
- My Neighbor Totoro
- Howl's Moving Castle

Miyazaki's latest release is Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, which looks delightful. My only hesitation about this movie is its connection with the Disney studios. Does anyone else think that the logo looks suspiciously like the Finding Nemo title?

Release date: August 14

In other news, those of you who are fans of Roald Dahl will breathe a sigh of relief that The Fantastic Mr. Fox isn't computer animated, but instead uses stop animation which has its own kind of bizarre fluidity that compliments the story very well.

Oh, and did I mention that it's directed by Wes Anderson? High five to that guy for doing us all a favor and making this movie first, because there are few directors that are suited to making Roald Dahl books come alive. If you're at all familiar with Anderson's movies (The Royal Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, etc.), then you know that visual style and dark humor are his forte (something Dahl dabbles in more than once in a while). So let's all breathe a sigh of relief, and get ready to enjoy a great animated film.

Release date: November 13

Though it still doesn't have a release date, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus has a trailer, and I have to say, when I heard that director Terry Gilliam brought in Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrel to play the lead after Heath Ledger died (Still too painful. He ODs on prescription pills, and Paris Hilton still roams the earth? There is no justice.), I thought, "Well, that's going to be a bit weird, innit?" But after watching the trailer, I think it's going to fit into the storyline pretty well. And besides, since when have Terry Gilliam's films ever been normal?

While we have all been worrying about who was going to get to direct The Hobbit, Peter Jackson has made a quiet return behind the camera, and as a master of visuals, I don't think it's going to disappoint. Based on Alice Sebold's best-selling novel (that I never read, sorry), The Lovely Bones looks pretty amazing. Really, the only thing I can pick on based on the trailer is that I have a hard time believing that Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg are old enough to have two teenage daughters. But, I am excited to see Susan Sarandon back on the silver screen. I can see this role having the same kind of depth and impact that Leslie Ann Warren had in Secretary, one of my favorite Warren performances since the eldest daughter in Faerie Tale Theater's "Seven Dancing Princesses".

Release date: December 11

Well, there ya go. It's my day off, and I've got a laundry list of things to do, topped off with Karaoke night, so shove off and I'll get back to ya when I'm done killing my liver.