(2000s)

Disney(ish) Reviews with the Unshaved Mouse: The Hunchback of Notre Dame II

It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. Execution is more important than concept.

Consider Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Doing Victor Hugo’s classic melodrama as an animated Disney musical is an objectively terrible idea. Awful. Comedically bad. You would have to really sit down and think to come up with a classic novel less suited to the genre. Dracula has more potential as a Renaissance Disney movie than Hunchback (Magical villain with a cape and animal sidekicks, heroine who yearns for more than her safe, stale existence, funny comedy relief foreigner and a happy ending, what more do you want?).

But the thing about Hunchback is that, despite the inherent cruddiness of the core concept, everything else is JUST SO GOOD. That animation! The character designs! The backgrounds! The acting! The direction! The singing! The music! YE GODS THE MUSIC!

So what if the final product resembles Hugo’s work so loosely that Disney might as well have claimed it was original IP and called it the “The Adventures of Maurice the Not-So-Pretty Bell Man”? Gorgeous movie is gorgeous.

But what if…what if all that was taken away?

What if you took away the animation, the character designs, the backgrounds, the acting, the direction, the singing, the music ye gods the music?

What if all you had left was that initial terrible, terrible idea?

Probably something like The Hunchback of Notre Dame 2, produced in 2000 but only released in 2002, presumably out of shame. This movie is why we have words like “nadir”.

Let me be clear. It’s not simply terrible compared to the original. It’s not simply terrible as a movie in its own right. It is terrible compared to other Disney Sequels.

Scared?

By God, you should be.

***

Alright, so imagine you’re making a cheap sequel to one of the most beautiful animated movies made by an American studio in the twentieth century, and it’s to be animated by Disney’s notoriously shoddy Japanese TV animation studio. It’s not going to look good. Make your peace with that right now. But a good script is no more expensive to animate than a bad one so, y’know, you can still pull this off. You can still make a decent movie provided you don’t go out of your way to remind people of the original movie oh are YOU KIDDING ME…

You know what? I appreciate that. The movie just flat out dispenses with any pretense and shows us where we stand. The opening scene of the original is one of the single most powerful sequences in the whole canon. The gentle Latin chanting suddenly blasted away by the thunderous bells and those mountainous opening chords while Notre Dame looms impossibly tall over pristine white clouds, God, it nourishes my soul.

The opening scene of Hunchback 2 tries to replicate it and every single element is just so hideously inferior. Especially the animation. But especially the music. Especially everything. Everything is equally especial.

So, since last movie featured the Festival of Fools, this time around Paris is getting ready for the Jour D’Amour, with Clopin and Quasimodo OH SWEET JESUS MERCIFUL SAVIOR…

SEND IT BACK TO THE BELLTOWER!

Yeah, so here’s an interesting thought experiment. What if you had a cartoon where the animators simply didn’t have the skill to animate the main character? James Baxter’s original Quasimodo design is quite possibly the most marvellous and intricate model of any hand-drawn character in any Disney movie. It breaks every rule and somehow it works, it’s asymetrical, and heavily detailed and yet it moves with fluidity and grace and somehow manages to look ugly and appealing at the same time which shouldn’t be possible.

This movie’s version of Quasimodo is the animation equivalent of badly performed Shakespeare. The brilliance of the source material actually makes the whole experience ten times worse. Quasi truly is “half-formed” now, veering so wildly in appearance from scene to scene that it’s kind of hard to tell what he was supposed to look like originally. The fact that they actually managed to get Tom Hulce back (and even more bafflingly, Kevin Kline, Demi Moore and Jason Alexander) lessens the pain not a jot.

So Quasi is hanging bunting by swinging from the rooftops like a kyphotic Spider-Man while Clopin sings about the coming Jour de L’Amour. On the one hand, I suppose it’s a positive that the movie doesn’t try to undo the previous film’s happy ending and shows that Quasi and Clopin are both now beloved and accepted members of Parisian society. On the other hand, this is the fucking worst, right here. It’s all so wholesome and saccharine. Seeing Quasimodo and Clopin dancing in the streets together while smiling onlookers cheer and clap just feels…wrong.

“Ha ha my friend! Remember the time I almost hanged you in a sewer?”
“Ho ho! We’re such good friends!”

The opening song…actually no. Let me talk about the songs for a minute to explain why I’m not going to talk about the songs. Imagine for a minute you were taken hostage by a cult of inbred hillbillies who proceeded to slowly eat you over the course of many months. You would, possibly, decide that one of the hillbillies was nicer than the others. Maybe Ol’ Uncle Zeke is a real peach because he only eats your toes. Having a favourite song from Hunchback 2 is kind of like having a favourite cannibal hillbilly. You might convince yourself that one was less terrible than the others but it’s just your brain trying to protect you. The fact is,  all the songs are regurgitated garbage and comparing them to each other is a waste of my time and yours. Moving on.

So Quasimodo is excited because on the Jour D’Amour he gets to ring “La Fidele” a bell that is plan on the outside but studded with gold and jewels on the inside.

Because it’s beautiful.

On the inside.

Do you understand? Do you see what they did there?

“Do you see? Do you see?”

Now you might say “Mouse, isn’t the inside of the bell the absolute worst place to put a load of gold and priceless jewels? Wouldn’t the jewels be damaged and the bell sound terrible thus making the entire undertaking a double failure?”

To which I reply “Yeah. Yeah. But…uh, I think we got a bigger problem here.”

The bell doesn’t even have a FUCKING CLAPPER.

No, no. I’m being unfair. How could I expect them to understand how a bell works, they’re notoriously complex instruments.

Anyway, the three gargoyles try to convince Quasi to get out and enjoy the Jour de L’Amour but he says he has too much work to do. The gargoyles are again voiced by Jason Alexander (Hugo) and Charles Kimbrough (Victor) with Jane Withers stepping in to voice LaVerne as Mary Wickes couldn’t appear in the film, as she had passed on by this point. Allegedly.

“That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it!”

We then meet Zephyr (Haley Joel Osmond), the six year old result of Phoebus and Esmerelda’s union and every bit as bad as the start of this sentence would lead you to believe. None of the original characters from the first film are anything but a pale shadow of their former selves, but I have to say that Phoebus and Esmerelda both suffer virtual character assassination, as they are here re-imagined as the kind of people who would name their child “Zephyr”. Phoebus and Esmerelda just start making out in front of Quasimodo (nice guys, classy) and talking about how they’re going to be yelling about how much they love each other when La Fidele rings. Zephyr asks Quasimodo who’s going to be screaming his name and he says “I don’t think anyone will” which is completely untrue. I haven’t stopped screaming his name since the movie started, usually followed by “WHY!?” and “WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOU, MY CROISSANT SHAPED PRINCE?” Anyway, Esmerelda tells Quasi that there’s a girl out there for him, not her, obviously, I mean, Jesus, but you know…somebody.

A circus arrives in town and the magician/proprietor Sarousch puts on a show for the local rubes. However, his act almost comes a cropper when his assistant fails to appear. He finds her practicing a tight-rope walking act and chews her out, saying “You’re job is to stand there and look pretty.” but she says she want to contribute more to the circus. This is Madellaine.

Madellaine is voiced by America’s Sweetheart For Around Forty Minutes in 2000, Jennifer Love-Hewitt and she will be our love interest for this ordeal. This brings me neatly to what I call the “Quasimodo’s Girlfriend Dilemma”.

So, if we can acknowledge that this whole area is a minefield that we would run from if we valued our lives, let me say that I don’t object in principle to the idea of giving Quasi a girlfriend. I mean, pairing him up with Esmerelda is always going to be too far against the grain of the original novel (plus, two male and female Disney leads having  a loving but platonic friendship is important in its own right) but yeah, having Quasi never find love is problematic in a different way. So fine, a romance for Quasi, I’m game.

The trouble is that Madellaine…

Hold up. Has anyone, anywhere, ever seen that name spelled that way? Anyone? I’m half convinced Disney invented a new name just to trademark it. Anyway, Madellaine™ feels anachronistic in a way that none of the other original characters do. Everything about her mannerisms and performance screams “Meg Ryan Rom Com Heroine” and it jars in a way that’s difficult to describe. Oh, but she’s an unqualified success, a veritable Lando Calrissian of seamless sequel integration compared to Sarousch.

Sarousch is our villain and, believe it or not, actually makes for a worthy successor to Frollo. What’s that? You don’t believe it? Well done. I was testing you and you passed. Sarousch is garbage. Not even being voiced by Michael McKean can salvage this trainwreck.

There’s something about this that’s so crap, it’s like how much more crap could this be? And the answer is none. None more crap.

As well as being vain and obsessed with his own appearance, Sarousch is a thief who uses his circus as a cover for heists. Because, if there is one thing this movie wants you to know, it’s that circus folk are all dirty, dirty thieves. Sarousch tells Madellaine™ to go to the bell tower and charm the bell-ringer into showing her La Fidele so that he and the rest of the circus folk can steal it. Madellaine™ is not not happy about this but goes up to the bell tower anyway. Quasi hides because it’s a g-g-g-girl. He hides under one of the bells and talks to her, and they engage in some of the most excruciating romantic banter I have ever had the misfortune of sitting through. Madellaine™ tells Quasi it looks like he’s wearing a massive hat and, OH MY GOD BUT THEY MILK THIS. THEY MILK THIS ONE NON-JOKE UNTIL IT DIES ALONE AND IN AGONY.

Oh, and Madellaine™ can see the gargoyles. She shouldn’t be able to see the gargoyles, because as I made very clear in my last review, the gargoyles are all in Quasi’s head and even when we see the gargoyles interacting with other characters that’s just Quasi Tyler Durdenning.

I explained this. I made it very clear. This movie is undoing a lot of hard work on my part and this will not stand.

Quasi is amazed that Madellaine™ can see the gargoyles (SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP). She thinks she’s going crazy but he says she just has an active imagination. She asks to see his face and when he finally comes into the light she of course doesn’t judge him by his appearence…oh.

In fairness, I’ve been making this face since the opening title.

She runs off and Quasi sadly goes back to his table of figurines to make a Madellaine™ doll that he can smush against the Quasimodo doll while making kissy noises. Quasimodo then sings An Ordinary Miracle and I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about the songs but seriously guys, you need to watch this shit. Come. Come and gawp at the carnage.

Not even Tom Hulce could save that that! It could not be Hulced!

The gargoyles tell Quasimodo…no wait, back up a step, what the fuck is happening with Victor and Hugo?

They’re changing colour so fast they looks you could stand beside them, play some techno music, drop some molly and get a rave going. Who was in charge of continuity on this? I mean God, they just did not care.

Back the circus Madellaine™ tries to explain that even in the circus she never trained for that kind of ugly but Sarousch tells her he wants the most useless bell in all Christendom and to seduce the Hunchback. Madellaine™ feels obligated to Sarousch because he didn’t turn her in to the authorities when he caught her stealing from him when she was six years old and also because she’s kinda dumb. She feels really guilty about lying to Quasimodo though, and stares at herself in the mirror so long that one of her eyes becomes larger than the other.

Is it a metaphor for the way her soul has become corrupted by Sarousch’s greed or is this just an awful cartoon? Who can say…

So after the magic show Madellaine™ catches up with Quasi and seems him carrying Zephyr home on his shoulders (so now he’s got two worthless lumps on his back, hi-yo!). Realising that anyone who could put up with Zephyr’s unending asinine prattle without dropping him down a well must have the gentle nature of a saint, she does…this.

I’ve mentioned the weird phenomenon of bad acting in cartoon characters before. I don’t mean bad voice acting, I mean when actual cartoon characters give unconvincing performances and Madellaine™ is an excellent example of this. Every gesture she makes is so over the top, so completely excessive, that it makes the Wolf from Red Hot Riding Hood look like Philip Seymour Hoffman. And here’s the thing, that is hard to do. Cartoon characters exist in their own world, we don’t think of them as actors, we think of them as real beings inhabiting their own seperate reality. For a cartoon character to be unconvincing would be like you giving a bad performance as yourself in your every day life. Sucking that hard is an achievement.

So they go far a walk and before you know it she starts falling for him for real. Meanwhile, Phoebus is suspicious because there’s been a wave of thefts since the circus arrived in town and he suspects Sarousch’s troupe. Esmerelda, Quasimodo and Zephyr all get mad at him when he blames the circus folk the thefts and theorises that Madellaine™ is using Quasi to get something else. So, big problem right here. Phoebus, is one of my favourite characters in the original movie and here he’s presented like a bigoted authoritarian jerk. But if your movie is going to be about bigotry you can’t have the bigot be right about every single thing. It is really suspicious that the crimes only began when the circus arrived. The circus troupe actually is behind the the thefts. And Madellaine™ really did get close to Quasimodo to steal something. And frankly, if Phoebus wants to investigate the circus troupe he has really good, compelling reasons to do so.

Meanwhile, Sarousch tells Madellaine™ to lure Quasimodo away from the belltower so that he can steal La Fidele. She doesn’t want to, but he tells her that if she doesn’t, Quasimodo could get hurt. Uh huh. Yeah. Sure. Oh gee, I really hope Sarousch doesn’t hurt Quasimodo. I am so fearful for Quasimodo’s safety. That Sarousch sure is a dangerous force to be reckoned with.

God I would pay money to see that.

Never happens of course. In fact, Quasimodo and Sarousch never actually exchange dialogue. In two movies we’ve gone from one of the most emotionally rich and dark hero-villain relationships in the Disney canon to a movie where our hero and villain never even speak to each other. I just realised that. This movie keeps finding new and ever more galling ways to show me that that it is the fucking worst thing.

Phoebus shows up at the circus and interrogates Sarousch who pins all the thefts on Madellaine™. While Phoebus looks for her, Sarousch’s men break into the bell and steal La Fidele. They’re discovered by Zephyr and Sarousch decides to take the kid as a hostage.

Quasi and Madellaine™ arrive back at Notre Dame to find the bell stolen and Quasi is furious at her for lying to him. Madellaine™ is arrested but when Esmerelda discovers that Zephyr has been kidnapped Madellaine™ offers to help them find Sarousch. She leads them into the catacombs and Phoebus’ gaurds block off Sarousch’s escape but he threatens Zephyr so they have no choice but to let his boat pass. Madellaine™ convinces Quasi to free her from her shackles and they work together to rescue Zephyr.

She tightrope walks over the boat and grabs Zephyr and Sarousch yells “What are you doing here?” and she replies “Just standing here looking pretty.” because that was the thing that he said and that was the thing she was doing and that’s how screenplays work.

Writing.

And the movie ends with Sarousch getting thrown in jail and all our couples celebrating La Jour D’Amour, Quasimodo with Madellaine™, Phoebus with Esmerelda and Hugo with Djali. Yes. That happens. The gargoyle and the goat are our first official gay Disney couple. I wanted this for so long.

But not like this. NOT LIKE THIS!

***

This is probably breaking some kind of movie-critic omerta but I enjoy bad movies. The Room brings me real, pure joy. I enjoy the first Transformers and Armageddon and probably more of Michael Bay’s oeuvre than I care to admit. Bad movies can be wonderfully enjoyable and even intellectually stimulating. They have a way of getting my creative juices flowing, wondering how I’d fix this character or that plot point. Pocahontas 2 was a bad movie but it was interesting and weird and hilarious and I honestly got more enjoyment out of it than its staid, bland, competent predecessor. But Hunchback 2 hits that awful, awful bad movie deadzone between good enough to be enjoyable and bad enough to be hilarious. However bad it gets, it’s never stunningly bad. It’s suffocatingly bad. Numbingly dull. It’s hideousnesses never sinks to the level of the bracingly garish. It’s ugly, but “seventies Tory” ugly, not “freakshow” ugly. It’s a bad, bad time, is what it is. I’ll watch Foodfightagain before I watch this.

Scoring

How butt ugly is the animation? Is it as ugly as a butt: 2/20

Well, the characters move. So it meets the criteria of being “animation”.

Are the main characters jerks? I bet they’re jerks: 2/10

This Quasi makes me queasy.

Bet the villain’s a real shitpile, character wise: 2/20

Shit sandwich.

“You can’t print that!”

Oh what’s this? Supporting characters? Fuck you supporting characters!: 1/20

No, you know what, I can’t, I just can’t I’m welling up guys…

Man, fuck the music. I hope it dies: 1/20

AW CHRIST.

FINAL SCORE: 8%

NEXT UPDATE: 07 September 2017

NEXT TIME: Taking a bit of a break to focus on other writing but I’ll back in September for a slightly belated extra special fifth-anniversary review. When I started these reviews five years ago I didn’t really know what I was doing.

“Plus ca change.”

“Shaddup.”

So I thought it might be fun to revisit a movie I reviewed way back in 2012 and see what an older, wiser Unshaved Mouse review might look like. What’s the movie?

What else?

Charlie the Unicorn (2005)

I hate the internet sometimes. Sometimes I feel like it’s just this huge malevolent thing that holds me in its thrall, designed to make me outraged and depressed and extract as much money from me as is physically possible. Sometimes it’s hard to keep sight of just how much it’s changed the entire world, and often very much for the better.

Oh yeah, this series is still going. Sorry about the delay. One of the reasons why (apart from work being crazy) was the sheer, monumental task of picking just one animated short to represent the first decade of the 21st century. It’s like I said; before now there were only so many animation studios producing shorts in the West to choose from. Now though, virtually anything that appeared on Newgrounds between 2001 and 2010 was fair game, literally thousands of creators. How to pick just one? I bounced around between Homestar Runner and Badgers, which was essentially “something I could never cover in just one post” versus “something I couldn’t talk about long enough to fill even one post” before finally settling on today’s short; Charlie the Unicorn.

I said back when I reviewed Injun Country that just because a cartoon is cheap doesn’t mean it can’t be good and Charlie is a pretty excellent example of that. It is objectively the worst animated of any of the shorts I will review for this series but it overcomes that through a combination of strong writing and hilarious voice work (all done by animator Jason Steele) all leading up to a single, hilariously dark punchline.

It’s a great short, and pretty much a perfect summation of my generation’s sense of humour. There’s a clear Simpsons influence with an even bigger debt to South Park, two of the single most important shapers of the comedic voices of anyone who grew up in the nineties. It’s also a reaction to the  ridiculously saccharine cartoons of the eighties, correctly twigging that there was something undeniably sinister about relentlessly chipper characters who want everyone to get along and have fun no matter what.

Be honest. If it turned out the Care Bears were harvesting organs, would you be shocked?

Animation was once one of the most exclusive and gated art forms in existence, with only a handful of universities and companies worldwide offering an entry point. Now, with the explosive democratisation of the artform brought on by the internet, anyone with an idea or a story to tell can buy some inexpensive software and become an animator. And, with the advent of sites like YouTube, they now have the perfect platform to thrive on.

Animated shorts never died, they just went to heaven.

 

“You want to protect the world. But you don’t want it to change.”

The Marvel comics universe is overflowing with some of the greatest villains created in any medium, from the regal majesty of Doctor Doom to the saturnine, brooding splendour of Galactus to the cackling, twitching megalomania of Annihilus. And amongst these villains, one of the greatest is, without question…not Ultron.

Just my opinion, mind.

The character was first created in 1968 and introduced in the pages of The Avengers as the creation of Hank Pym, whose long storied history of fucking up we will touch upon at a later point in these chronicles. But make no mistake, Hank Pym fucks up in the same way that Michaelangelo painted. He fucks up like it’s what God put him on this earth to do. Created by Pym as an artificial intelligence based on his own brainwaves, Ultron decided pretty quickly that it hated Hank Pym like the Sharks hate the Jets and tried to kill him. Which, considering that Pym based it on his own mind, should tell you everything you need to know about the state of Pym’s self-esteem (dude needs a hug).  Ultron later expanded his to do list to wiping out all human life and returned to bedevil the Avengers and threaten the world again, and again, and again. My problem with Ultron is that there’s just not much “there” there. He’s an angry shouty robot who wants to kill everyone. Have there been good stories with the character? Sure. Have there been writers who found interesting things to do with him? No doubt. But Ultron’s basic default setting has just never grabbed me as particularly compelling. Nevertheless, Ultron is generally regarded as the Avengers’ ultimate arch-enemy, the Moriarty to their Holmes if Sherlock Holmes was a conglomeration of brightly coloured WW2 era adventurers, Norse gods, billionaire tech-messiahs and former circus performers (and who wouldn’t read that?). But even that’s kinda by default. Loki is a Thor villain who sometimes fights the Avengers. Red Skull is a Captain America villain who sometimes fights the Avengers. Ultron would technically be a Hank Pym villain, but since Hank has never been popular enough to headline an ongoing series of his own Ultron just kinda became an arch-enemy for the whole team, like how the rest of the family adopts your little brother’s hamster once it becomes clear he can’t look after it himself. So when it came time for Marvel to follow up The Avengers with a sequel, choosing Ultron to be the villain was about as obvious as having the Joker be the bad guy of The Dark Knight. Who else was it going to be?

Shaddup.

Now, let’s get this out of the way. For all you people who ask why I don’t, for example, review Moana the very second it comes out? This is why. To do a review justice takes time, preparation, fasting and prayerful contemplation. The review/tongue bath I gave Age of Ultron the day after it came out back in 2015 was written while I was still basking in the afterglow of explosions and Whedonisms falling on my ears like confetti and I did not see the plotholes and padding and questionable charecterisations and clear signs of executives sticking their grubby oars in. Honestly if I had it all to do again, I imagine I’d be a lot more critical. Oh hey, look at that. I have it all to do again.

(more…)

WALL·E (2008)

WALL·E  sucks!

“MOUSE WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”

“MOUSE WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”

the-angry-mob

Mob

riot

greece-riots

“MWAH HA HA HA HA! YES!! BURN THE INTERNET! BURN IT TO THE GROUND!

“MWAH HA HA HA HA! YES!! BURN THE INTERNET! BURN IT TO THE GROUND!

 

Sigh.

Okay, fine, WALL·E  doesn’t suck. I was just trying to get out of this review.

WALL·E is the kind of movie I actively dread tackling and the reason why (ignoble automotive abberations aside) I’ve largely steered clear of the Pixar canon in these reviews. They are possibly the most beautiful, perfectly crafted feature length animated movies ever made and that makes them absolute kryptonite to a Snarky Internet Reviewer like me. What the hell am I supposed to make fun of here? “HA HA, look at these idiots and their perfectly crafted and utterly charming meditation on the human condition”? I got nothing to work with here. Nothing!

This is what I see when I look at this movie.

This is what I see when I look at this movie.

Alright. Background. So, one day in 1994  John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and Joe Ranft  sat down in the Hidden City Cafe for a cup of coffee, a chat, and to change the history of animation as we know it (as you do). From this legendary brainstorming session came the ideas that would eventually become A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and WALL·E. No doubt muttering “What the FUCK was in that coffee?” they then paid their bill, and left a generous tip for the waitress along with a cure for cancer that Lasseter had idly scribbled on a napkin. One thing you notice about WALL·E is that it’s not so much one film as two short films starring the same characters. The first is a film about the last robot on earth discovering humanity through its refuse and the second is a sci-fi romp about plucky robots helping the human race overthrow a dictatorial wheel. There’s a reason for that. The first half of the movie, with WALL·E putzing around on Earth,  arrived fully formed at that meeting and never changed all through the writing process. The second half, through, got re-written to hell and back and at one point was going to be about a robot uprising against evil aliens called “the Gels”.

anywayyyy

This means that WALL·E is the rare movie that not only has fans, but has fans of different parts of the movie. There’s probably someone out there who loves the first half of WALL·E utterly but doesn’t regard the second half as canon. That happens a lot with TV shows. Movies? Not so much. What do I think?

I think this movie is going to kick my ass and make me say “Thank you sir, may I have another?” Let’s just get this over with.

(more…)

Space Chimps (2008)

Never pick a fight with an Australian. Lesson. Fucking. Learned.

This one hurt, folks. Space Chimps manages to encapsulate so much of what has gone wrong with 21st century animation that I almost feel like if I burned the DVD all those sins would just evaporate as the spell was lifted. It’s awful, but it’s awful in so many different ways at once that it has inestimable value as a teaching tool. I feel like you could teach an animation course on what not to do based on this movie alone.  This is the first movie by Vanguard Animation that I’ve reviewed on this blog as I’ve not had the unalloyed pleasure of viewing Valiant, Happily N’Ever After or Space Chimps 2: Zartog Strikes Back….

Sorry. When I typed that last one I felt an ice-cold shudder and had to go check that all the doors and windows are locked. Anyway, Vanguard is at the rearguard of modern American animation and was founded by John H. Williams who is, as the DVD cover is quick to remind us, one of the primates who brought us Shrek. And I have one question. What the hell is Shrek? Shrek? Sounds like an Eastern European currency. Boris bought a red cabbage and a bottle of vodka for three shrek.

Highest grossing animated film of all time you say? No, doesn't ring a bell.

Highest grossing animated film of all time you say? No, doesn’t ring a bell.

(more…)

Justice League: New Frontier (2008)

Comic Book historians divide the history of superhero comics into “ages”. The Golden Age lasted from the late thirties to the end of the second world war. It began with the creation of Superman and saw the births of Batman, Wonder Woman, Captains America and Marvel, the original incarnations of the Green Lantern and the Flash as well as a host of others. Owing to the ongoing unpleasantness at the time, many of these characters were patriotic, Japanazi fighting do-gooders like the greatest superhero for all time, the Original Human Torch.
“Mouse, stop showing that panel of the Original Human torch calling Hitler a liar while burning him a…” “NEVER!”

“Mouse, stop showing that panel of the Original Human torch calling Hitler a liar while burning him a…”
“NEVER!”

Also, owing to the fact that this was a brand new genre and folks were still figuring out the rules these comics tended to be absolutely batshit insane.
In the forties we had a superhero who was a giant flying eyeball. How’s that for diversity?

In the forties we had a superhero who was a giant flying eyeball. How’s that for diversity?

And then, with the war over, the superhero fad died about as quickly as it had ignited and superheroes pretty much vanished from the shelves with the exception of a few stubborn holdouts like Superman.
Now, I want you to imagine that you wake up tomorrow and everyone is playing POGs. Like, POGS are suddenly huge again. Kids are playing POGs, college students are playing POGs,  journalists are writing long earnest think pieces about the cultural ramifications of the POGsurgance instead of doing actual work. This weird fad from fifteen or twenty years back suddenly comes roaring to prominence again and never leaves and before you know it movie studios are making massive-budget spectacle movies with inter-connected continuity and people are lining down the street to watch Pog versus Pog: Dawn of Pog.  That’s kind of what happened with the dawn of the Silver Age of comics in the late fifties/early sixties. So what happened?
“Two words. Sput! Nik!”

“Two words. Sput! Nik!”

With the dawn of the space race, America became obsessed with science and its wild, stoner little sister science fiction. Whereas Golden Age heroes tended to have magical or mythical based powers, the new crop of superheroes belonged firmly in the realm of science fiction. Instead of getting his powers from an old magic lantern, the new Green Lantern was a space cop gifted with fabulous technology by a race of all powerful aliens. The new Flash was police scientist Barry Allen who eschewed the Roman mythology inspired look of his predecessor, Jay Garrick. Even the few surviving Golden Age heroes adapted to the times; I mean look at what poor Batman had to deal with for chrissakes:
“I AM THE NIGHT!”

“I AM THE NIGHT!”

Over at Marvel, the hottest new properties were Spider-man, a science student turned superhero, and the Fantastic Four, a quartet of astronauts who literally got their powers as a result of the space race.
Much like “the sixties” doesn’t simply mean the years between 1960 and 1969 but refers to an entire cultural…thing, “silver age” has come to represent a specific attitude and aesthetic in comics. The comics of this period tended to be bright, optimistic, occasionally goofy as hell and suffused with a spirit of Moon Shot era can-do. New Frontier, Darwyn Cooke’s classic  2004 love letter to that whole era, simultaneously interrogates the period in which those stories were written while simultaneously celebrating what made them great. In 2008, Cooke teamed up with his old partner Bruce Timm (Batman the Animated Series) to adapt this story as part of Warner’s line of direct to to DVD animations. Did Cooke’s work make the transition unscathed? Let’s take a look.
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The Secret of Kells (2009)

Guys, I’ll be honest. I haven’t been this daunted by a review since Frozen. First you have the fact that this is an absolutely adored film with a lot of fans amongst readers of this very blog, and then you have the fact that the movie is Irish (well, an Irish-Franco-Belgian co-production) and the fact that I’m Irish (well, an Irish-Greek co-production) and that people seem to think that gives me some kind of special insight into this movie. I mean what are you expecting, that I’m just going to emerge from my turf cottage and impart some ancient Gaelic wisdom through the haze of my clay pipe?
"Yes, now quit stalling."

“Yes, now quit stalling.”

Okay, okay. Special insight. Special insight. Let me see. Okay. You know that episode of the Simpsons where they’re crossing from the American embassy into Australia and Homer’s all “Look boy! Now I’m in America! Now I’m in Australia! America! Australia!” and so on and so forth? Imagine an entire culture built around that joke and you have the Irish. We’re obsessed with borders. OBSESSED. The places in space and time where one thing ends and another starts. Ask an American when summer begins and they’ll say “Ohhhh, round about Memorial day, I guess?”. Ask an Irish person when summer begins and they’ll say “01 May. Midnight. Greenwich Mean time. And not a second before.” Borders are where things get weird, where things aren’t one thing or another. Why is Halloween so creepy? Because Samhain occurs on October 31st, right when Autumn ends and Winter begins on the Gaelic calendar. It’s at times like that when the…things in the other world can cross into ours. This fear and fascination with borders runs bone deep in the Irish psyche and ties into our historic relationship with the fairy realm. My wife is a dyed in the wool atheist, but she would not enter a fairy ring if you paid her. You just don’t do that.
“IT’S COMMON SENSE PEOPLE!”

“IT’S COMMON SENSE PEOPLE!”

Secret of Kells is a very Irish movie, and I don’t just mean because it draws so heavily on Irish mythology, art and history and features some of the greatest Irish actors to have been claimed as British by the English media at some point. It’s obessed with lines drawn between over here and over there, between light and dark, between faith and fear and between civilization and the wild wood.
It is also feckin smurges.

It is also feckin’ smurges.

So. Background. Secret of Kells is the product of Cartoon Saloon, which began as a loose animator’s collective in 1999 and has now produced four full length animated features, two of which have been nominated for Academy Awards. Despite this incredibly small filmography, Cartoon Saloon is already considered to be on a par with Studio Ghibli. Clearly, Irish Animation has come a long way since Daithí Lacha.
HE WAS TERRIBLE.

HE WAS TERRIBLE.

But is the praise justified? Yes. Is the movie as good as YES. Does it YES. Whatever hypothetical question I could ask the answer is almost definitely YES.
Let’s take a look.
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“I don’t want to control it. I want to get rid of it.”

When comic fans and writers talk about a character’s “status quo” they don’t  just mean the existing state of affairs in that character’s book. The Status Quo is sort of like the Platonic Ideal of a comic character, the version of the character that everyone thinks of when they hear the character’s name. For example, Spider-man’s status quo is:
  • Spider-man is mild-mannered Peter Parker, who gained incredible spider powers when he was bitten by a radioactive spider during a science presentation.
  • He wears a red and blue spider-suit.
  • He lives in Queens with his elderly Aunt May.
  • His love interest is Mary Jane Watson.
  • He works as a freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle, where his boss is J. Jonah Jameson.
  • His life is a never ending parade of misery.
Now, you could pick up any comic featuring Spider-man since 1962 and the odds are good that at least one of those bullet points is not true for the book you’re currently reading (except the last one. That never changes). Spider-man might be dating Gwen Stacy. He might be working as a science teacher. He might not be Peter Parker at all, but instead Ben Reilly or Miles Morales or Otto Octavius or Miguel O’Hara. Aunt May might be dead again. But still, that’s the default version of the character. Whenever the comic goes off the rails, chances are they’ll return Spider-man to his roots and have him back at the Daily Bugle, back with Mary Jane, living with Aunt May. Sooner or later, he will return to status quo like he’s attached to it with a bungee cord.
The Hulk, who debuted a few months prior to Spider-man in 1962 also has a default version; When he gets angry, scientist Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk, a massive rampaging green giant with the mental capacity of a three year old who destroys everything in his path. He is a man of few words, and those words are “Hulk” and “Smash”.
This is the version of the character that everyone is familiar with, and to comic fans he’s known as “Savage Hulk”. What’s interesting about the Hulk is that I can think of very few superheroes who spend less time “at status quo” than the Hulk. And the reason for that is, there’s not really that much you can do with Savage Hulk. Savage Hulk is less a character than an event that other characters react to. He’s like Godzilla. What kind of story can you do with Godzilla? What journey can he go on? Is he going to adopt an orphaned child and raise him as his ward? No. He’s going to stomp on buildings and go “SKRONK!”. Is he going to discover a shocking secret about his past that throws everything he though he knew about himself into doubt? No. He’s going to stomp on buildings and go “SKRONK!”. Is he going to serve as an allegory for the horrors of nuclear war? Yes. While he stomps on buildings and goes “SKRONK!”
That’s basically Hulk’s problem (just swap out “SKRONK” for “HULK SMASH”) and probably why the character often had trouble maintaining a series of his own while still being a very popular guest character in the books of other superheroes. Writers have gotten around this by staying as far away from the Savage Hulk status quo as they can. Often the Hulk will be made more intelligent, or a different side of Banner’s personality will emerge as a new Hulk. Or Banner and the Hulk will merge personalities. Or they’ll swap personalities. Or the writers will huff paint and do something really stupid.
We do not speak of the time Hulk tried to bang his cousin.

We do not speak of the time Hulk tried to bang his cousin.

 Despite that, Savage Hulk retains a near total grip on the general public’s perception of the character, especially since all the non-comic depictions of the (the seventies TV Show, the two cartoon series and both movies) have been pure Savage Hulk. And the reason for that is that Savage Hulk, despite the limitations he brings from a story-telling point of view, is a fanastic concept because he is so universal. Everyone can relate to the Hulk. When we see Bruce Banner finally lose his temper and transform into a huge, rampaging monster it’s cathartic as all hell because on some level we all wish we could do that.
Following the success of Iron Man it was time for the difficult second album and Hulk seemed an obvious candidate for the studio’s sophomore effort. He was, without question, the highest profile character in Marvel’s stable that they owned the movie rights to, thanks to the success of the Bill Bixby series. But there was a problem, looming over the production like a big hulking…hulk.
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In a way, it would have been easier if Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk: A Mediation on Moss has been an out and out flop. That way Marvel could have simply said “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it! The grownups are in charge now!” and completely ignore it other than to work a few sarcastic swipes at it into to the script. But here’s the thing, Lee’s Hulk might not have been popular with comic fans but it actually did fairly decently at the box office and got not a little critical love. Personally, I appreciate what Lee was going for and think that there are some beautiful moments and really good performances but yeah, the movie is kind of a snooze fest. It has its fans though, putting Marvel in a bit of a tricky position. Should they embrace Lee’s Hulk and make their version a straight up sequel, or start again with a new origin story that firmly established their Hulk as a new, separate beast?  In the end, they did neither.

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Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)

I’ve got a lot of love for Roald Dahl, even if he was a bit of an unpleasant cuss. He taught me how to read, after all. When I was around four or five years old I was taken to Temple Street children’s hospital for one of my periodic lung re-inflations (I had asthma and smog in Dublin in the eighties was so thick you could chip your teeth on it). While waiting to be seen I picked up a copy of The Magic Finger, which I remember being the first book I ever read through from beginning to end. Dahl was huge when I was growing up. He was our JK Rowling. That probably says something about us, but then again, I think it’s often overstated just how violent and horrifying his stories were. I mean, sure, they were violent and horrifying, but it was all a matter of tone. Roald Dahl was like Rebecca Black, he sounded a lot worse than he actually was. A plot description The BFG or The Witches is arguably more horrific than the books themselves. Roald Dahl took horror and made it so ridiculous and luridly over the top that you couldn’t help but laugh at it. In doing so, he made our terrors ridiculous. I think that’s why so many children loved his work, even nervous kids like me. Roald Dahl didn’t make us feel scared. He made us feel brave.

The trouble with adapting Roald Dahl for screen is that, by necessity, you lose the author’s voice and that tone I talked about often goes out the window. That’s how you get something like the 1989 BFG film which, while certainly not bad, is just cussing terrifying. There have been just under a dozen films based on Dahl’s work (not counting his own screenplays like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and they range in quality from “terrible” to “one of the greatest movie musicals of all time”.
Chocolate

With the same story at both poles, oddly enough.

Today’s movie, Fantastic Mr Fox, is based on Dahl’s 1970 novella of the same name. It’s probably fair to call the book “minor Dahl”, it’s certainly not as well known or beloved as Matilda, BFG or The Witches but I really loved it as a child. It’s a simple enough story, Mr Fox steals poultry from three horrible farmers, said farmers roll up with some serious firepower and blast Mr Fox’s tail off but he gets the last laugh in the end by tunnelling into their farms and stealing all their cuss and throwing a big cuss-off party. Whatever, I really liked it. But as you can probably tell it’s a fairly slight story which honestly is perfect for adaptation. You see, the best Dahl movies are those where someone with their own distinctive voice comes and builds a story around Dahl’s basic framework. And there are few voices in Hollywood as distinctive as Wes Anderson, who’s work is so distinctive that Slate created a Wes Anderson bingo card.
Would you like to play a game?

Would you like to play a game?

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Moomin and Midsummer Madness (2008)

(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)

When trying to understand the appeal of the Moomins, you first have to look at their creation back in…
Hello?
Hello?
Anybody?

Anybody?

"Congratulations Mouse. You’ve finally done it. You’ve finally succeeded in completely alienating your entire readership. Bravo. Genius. Take a blog that’s largely supported by Disney fans and devote it to obscure European cartoons, Irish politics and a film that was literally never even released."

“Congratulations Mouse. You’ve done it. You’ve finally succeeded in completely alienating your entire readership. Bravo. Genius. Take a blog that’s largely supported by Disney fans and devote it to obscure European cartoons, Irish politics and a film that was literally never even released.”

WHAT HAVE I DONE!? Surely its not too late?!

“WHAT HAVE I DONE!? Surely its not too late?!”

"Nope. They’re gone. You had your one chance at internet stardom and you blew it. That was it."

“Nope. They’re gone. You had your one chance at internet stardom and you blew it. That was it. Let’s go boys.”

"No! Wait, where are you going?"

“Wait, where are you going?!”

"Back to the Google images page you stole us from. Farewell, Mouse."

“Back to the Google images page you stole us from. Farewell, Mouse.”

"See you, Mouse. It was fun except for that time I was almost fed to wyverns."

“See you, Mouse. It was fun except for that time I was almost fed to wyverns.”

"Peace out, dawg."

“Peace out, dawg.”

"No…my readers. My maps. They’re all gone…"

“No…my readers. My maps. They’re all gone…”

“There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.” “There’s a pain goes on and on.” “No more views and no more comments.” “Oh my blog is dead and gone.”

“There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.”
“There’s a pain goes on and on.”
“No more views and no more comments.”
“Oh my blog is dead and gone…”

Guys, I swear, I will review a movie you’ve actually heard of as soon as I’ve done this one. Contractual obligations and all. If it helps, I’m as much in the dark about this one as a I think most of you are (with apologies to my Scandinavian readers). That’s not to say that the Moomins are unknown in Ireland, I know quite a few people who are fans, but the whole Moomin phenomenon just kind of completely passed me by. My blind spot on the Moomins honestly extends to most things Scandinavian. I just don’t know that much about those countries apart from the fact they constantly conspire to keep Ireland out of the top five on the Human Development Index, the Nordic Marcia Brady to our Gaelic Jan.
 Nordic Marcia
"Sweden did it again! Sweden, Sweden, Sweden!"

“Sweden did it again! Sweden, Sweden, Sweden!”

 

Okay. So. The Moomins. What are they? I don’t know. I mean literally, I have no idea what they’re supposed to be. Wikipedia describes them as “fairy tale” characters, which is just wonderfully specific. I suppose, since they’re called “Mumintrolls” in Swedish they’re supposed to be trolls from Scandinavian folklore but…
Yeah, how did I not get that?

Yeah, how did I not get that?

Well anyway.
Okay. So. The Moomins. They’re a family of white, hippo…things. Who hang out. And have whimsical adventures tinged with an unmistakeable air of melancholy. They were created by a Swedish-speaking Finn named Tove Jansson who wrote and illustrated nine books featuring the characters between 1945 and 1993 and who also takes a hell of a stylish photograph.
Who you know fresher than Tove, riddle me that?

Who you know fresher than Tove, riddle me that?

There have also been EIGHT cartoon series based on them, and numerous movies with the most recent being released this year. They are, like all things that are cute but difficult to explain, huge in Japan.
And yes, they have their own theme park.
"Because Europe."

Because Europe.

So, now we’re ready to talk about the movie? Oh, we have not even begun to unpack all this.
So, one of those eight (!) cartoon series was  Opowiadania Muminków, an Austrian, German and Polish co-production that ran between 1977-82. Then, in 2008, a Finnish company took that series and edited into a single movie called Moomin and Midsummer Madness, the English dub of which I am reviewing today. So, to recap.
  • Swedish speaking Finn writes a book.
  • Germans, Austrians and Poles adapt it into a TV series.
  • Finns adapt TV series into movie.
  • Americans dub movie.
  • Man kills God.
  • Man creates dinosaurs.
  • Dinsosaur kills man.
  • Woman inherits the earth.
 Got that? Okay, let’s do this.

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