It’s probably a testament to just how jaded I am that my first thought when watching The Polar Express was “actually, this animation isn’t half bad”. The Polar Express is notorious for being the start of Robert Zemeckis’ turn to the dark side, where one of the most respected directors of genre cinema became a professional corporate necromancer.
And The Polar Express was his first attempt at making an all CGI mocapped film and is infamous for being utterly, skin-crawlingly unsettling in its depiction of human characters. And yet, maybe it’s because I‘ve seen the absolute depths to which this accursed path would lead Zemeckis I found myself not minding the animation too much, for the most part at least. It just looks like a computer game cutscene. And, if I’m being scrupulously fair, there are even shots that I think are honest to God beautiful.
My, this review is trending rather positive isn’t it? I wonder if that will last.
Heavy Metal began in 1977 as an American translation of Metal Hurlant, a French science fiction fantasy magazine that featured seminal work by such legendary creators as Moebius, Enki Bilal and Jean Claude Forest and had a massive influence on the entire comic book medium because TITS.
Was there some genuinely thought provoking and visually spectacular sci-fi in its pages? Absolutely! Playboy also published plenty of great articles, what’s your point?
Heavy Metal, the 1981 anthology animated film that adapts many of the magazine’s most iconic stories, has tits. It has many tits. It has big tits and small…actually no, it only has big tits. In the ancient swamp of the pre-internet age, that really was enough. The marketing campaign could literally have been the words “CARTOON BOOBS, YA DIG?” plastered on every available surface and this movie would have been a success.
But for a jaded, modern reviewer who sees boobs once (maybe even twice) a month, it’ll take more than that. So, is there more to Heavy Metal than awesome bewbage? Let’s take a look.
Imagine you go to a Burger King and the guy at the counter serves you with a smile, promptly brings the food to your table, thanks you kindly for your custom and wishes you a good day. Someone, in short, who doesn’t have to put nearly this much effort into their job but does it anyway because, gosh darn it, if you’re going to do a job you might as well do it well.
That’s Nelvana. Nelvana is an extremely prolific Canadian animation studio who produced basically any cartoon you saw in the eighties or nineties that wasn’t made by Disney, Hanna-Barbera, Filmation or Warner Bros. They’re probably most famous (if you’re my age, at least) for their many, many licensed animations for properties like Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake and My Pet Monster. Nelvana were front and centre in the saccharine, corporatised swamp that was the American TV animation scene in the Reagan era. Like many of their peers, Nelvana had to make ends meet in the burger joint by cranking out barely concealed animated toy commercials. Unlike many of their peers, Nelvana actually seemed to give a damn. Their shows were, broadly speaking, better than they needed to be and demonstrated real skill and craftsmanship in their animation. There were always hints that, if given time and a budget and a premise slightly less anodyne than “Will Grumpy Bear ever get that stick out of his ass?”, Nelvana had the talent to make something truly special. And, if ever there was a time to do it, it was the early eighties.
The late seventies/early eighties were the “Warring States” period of American Feature Animation. The senile old king, Disney, had fallen from his throne and seemingly every animator who could hold a pencil was scrambling for the crown. This was the heady time when Rankin Bass, Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth battled for control of the artform, right up until 1989 when the old king came back and was like “I’m feeling a lot better now everyone, thank you for your concern“.
But all that was in the future. Nelvana was formed in 1971 by Patrick Loubert, Clive Smith and Michael Hirsh with the stated intent of creating a Canadian Disney.
After several well received Christmas specials and animating literally the only part of the Star Wars Holiday Special that deserved to be spared the flame (the cartoon that introduced Boba Fett), the studio began work on their first feature length animation; Rock and Rule. It’s an obvious passion project, clearly made by a young team just bursting with talent and ambition and love for what they were doing. It’s also something that was very obviously begun without a complete script or even a set plot. It’s weird. It’s uneven. It’s a wild, uncontrolled shambling mess of eighties animation that failed when it was dumped into theatres with no marketing by a distributor that neither loved nor understood it. Which obviously means that it was made for me, Mouse, personally.
Milligan: Ohhh yes! If we build this mountain on England, England would sink under the weight.
Seagoon: Sink? In that case, this mountain would be invaluable, people could climb up the side and save themselves from drowning!
Milligan: Mercy, you’re right. Hurry and build it, before we all drown!
The Goon Show: “The Greatest Mountain in the World” (1954)
Alright, let’s just dispense with the usual dancing around.
Encanto is great. It’s a great piece of animation. It’s an excellent musical and it’s without a doubt my favourite canon movie in a long-ass time. It’s walking out of here with a good grade, don’t nobody worry ’bout that.
I have to confess that what really fascinates me about Encanto is how it keeps making the most basic, obvious mistakes in screen-writing you can imagine (trying to build a mountain that will cause the country to sink), and instead of just fixing them in a sensible way (just not building the mountain) by doubling down and solving those problems in the most ridiculously over the top way possible (actually building the mountain). And it works.
The best example of this is the first song Welcome to the Family Madrigal.
There are twelve named speaking Madrigal characters, all with unique personalities, powers and familial relationships to keep track of. That is, quite frankly, bananas and any sensible screenwriter would have gone through the cast with a machete looking for who could be cut.
Way I see it, for this story you need Mirabelle, two older siblings to establish the pattern that Mirabelle broke by not getting a gift, and then a younger sibling to get a gift to show that Mirabelle really was a fluke. You need Abuela, obviously, Bruno and Julietta. Augustine doesn’t need to be there and Pepa’s entire family is extraneous. And yes, obviously, that would really suck to lose those characters but that would be the sensible choice. The sane choice. But that would not be the Encanto choice.
Encanto instead decides that it’s going to have an opening song flat out admitting “yes, our cast is far too big and complicated and our premise is weird and clunky so here is a song to help you remember”. It shouldn’t work. It really shouldn’t work. But simply by dint that it is a phenomenal song it does. They built the goddamn mountain.
Ten years ago, I tried to start a blog on That Guy with the Glasses. I decided I was going to review all 52 canon Disney movies. I had no real background in film criticism. I didn’t know much about animation other than I liked it and could express opinions with colourful profanity and pop culture references. I had a juvenile, 2010s sense of humour. Back then, it was all it took.
After a false start where I realised that the TGWTG website was a clunky unusable mess (and because I suspected this Doug Walker fellow was a bad egg), I struck out on my own and threw together a simple wordpress site. And here we are.
It’s hard to succinctly sum up something that has taken up over a quarter of your life. Mouse has changed almost as much as Neil Sharpson has. When I first wrote that Snow White review I had hopes and fears. I hoped, madly, that I’d become a huge internet star based on a text blog (highly unlikely in 2012, absolutely impossible now). And I feared that the blog would just vanish into obscurity or that I’d get bored or disillusioned or quit a few weeks in. Neither happened.
Instead, it just lived. It just kept going. Through highs and lows. Mine and everyone else’s.
It’s been a wild ten years, hasn’t it? I mean wild in its original meaning. Feral. Untamed. Unpredictable. Red in tooth and claw. One long journey through Bahia.
This blog used to be my lifeline. Back when I was a young, frustrated man desperately wanting to be told I was funny or clever or a good writer I needed this blog so badly. I wrote because I had to. Because I needed, desperately to be seen.
I don’t need the blog any more. I write for a living. I’m doing the thing I always dreamed of doing, and amazingly, it’s every bit as wonderful as I hoped. But the blog won’t be going anywhere. Because I still love it. And I do it now, because I choose to.
If I hope anything about this blog, it’s that it was for you what it was for me. A little safe harbour on the mad churning sea of the internet. A place where no one was trying to make you angry or sell you something. A place where we could be people. Or mice. Same thing, really.
Ten years. Did it matter? It mattered to me. I hope it did to you, too.
The video game adaptation has proven a particularly alluring siren for Hollywood over the years. The medium is stacked to the gills with beloved, household name properties with huge fanbases of teens absolutely filthy with disposable income. But, like any siren, it’s probably best to assume that the relationship is not going to end well and skedaddle before you run aground on the jagged rocks of box office disaster. Oh yes, traveler, many studios have tried for the successful video game adatation.
So what’s the problem? Why can we adapt frickin’ LORD OF THE RINGS successfully but not Super Mario Brothers? Well, because your typical video game adaptation is working towards two mutually exclusive goals. On the one had, and apologies for this harsh and mind-blowing truth I’m about to drop on your poor innocent sensibilities, but studios don’t greenlit video game adaptations because the muse demands that they bring Dead Or Alive: Beach Volleyball to the big screen so that the story can be truly appreciated as God intended. They don’t care about the material, they just know these games have large fanbases, and they want those fans to buy tickets in droves. But those fans will rebel and stay away if the studios change too much about the source material. And here’s the big problem: 99% of the time, if you don’t change the source material, you’re not getting a good movie.
That’s because video game plots are like dreams. They’re wonderfully exciting and immersive when you are the one experiencing them, but to an onlooker (or anyone you describe the dream to) it’s alienating and deeply dull. And that’s because people play games and watch movies for very different reasons.*
For example, right now I’m playing Darkest Dungeon. Again. After a month since my last playthrough where I probably sunk the guts of fifty hours. I am rather partial to that game like methheads are rather partial to meth. The premise is, you arrive in a dilapidated hamlet cursed with ancient evil and have to lead waves and waves of heroes into the titular dungeon to finally defeat the Lovecraftian horror that dwells below. And your heroes die. A lot. They get sick, they go mad, they get murdered in countless unspeakable ways. It’s a gruelling, grinding quest where you face constant failure. But every so often, you defeat a significant monster or earn enough to upgrade one of your buildings and it all becomes worth it. The grind and the tedium are what make it satisfying because you, personally, are achieving something. But, much as I love Darkest Dungeon, if I hear that anyone is trying to make a movie of it I will frame that person for murder because that is a terrible, awful idea and would make a terrible, awful movie.
So it’s not simply that video game adaptations are being handed off to talentless hacks. I mean, obviously, that does happen (see everything Uwe Boll has ever done or touched). But, as I hope I’ve demonstrated there are real structural reasons why video game adaptations almost never work.
So, how the hell did Detective Pikachu pull it off? Well, it probably helps to have all the money in the world.
Back in my review for Roller Coaster Rabbit I called Steven Spielberg the “Forrest Gump of American Animation”. Pick any seminal development in the history of the medium over the past forty years or so and chances are Spielberg is involved somehow, showing LBJ his ass. But the problem with history is that a lot of it is really, really, really sad and few things ring a tear from my dusty old eye ducts like the collapse of traditional hand-drawn animation in the face of CGI like a proud old Mesomamerican Empire succumbing to hordes of plastic-faced, eyebrow-raised, pop culture spouting Spaniards. Perhaps the earliest death-knell of the hand-drawn animated feature was heard all the way back in 1995, ostensibly when the Disney Renaissance was still going strong. Balto, the third and (as it would prove to be) final film produced by Spielberg’s Amblimation studio was one of the biggest box office flops of the year, tanking so hard that Amblimation closed as an animation studio and now lives in quiet seclusion as a Self-Storage company based in Acton. Because, well, let’s just say 1995 was a bad year to be competing in the market of feature length animation.
This was the first of many high profile examples of hand-drawn animation competing and failing against CGI movies which ultimately led to the near extinction of traditional hand-drawn feature animation, at least in America. But I think Balto’s failure can’t just be attributed to its unfortunate status as the first notch in CGI’s gun barrel. For starters, I know for a fact that I actively avoided this film. See, from the moment The Little Mermaid lit the touch paper, every studio in Hollywood had been trying to cash in on Disney’s success with their own Disney-esque movies. And I steered clear of them because Disney inculcates brand loyalty like a psychotic mother stroking her child’s hair and whispering “no one shall ever love you as I do, little one, least of all whatever whore you end up marrying”. In my defence though, most of the wannabe Disneys were god-awful and the more “Disney-like” they tried to be, the worse they tended to turn out. And Balto, even from a cursory look at the poster, wants to be Disney so, so hard it’s honestly a little sad. So I think that many people, like myself, had learned to distrust non-Disney movies that were clearly trying to be Disney movies. For as wise Mr Beaver once said: “if you meet anything that’s going to be Disney but isn’t yet, or used to be Disney once and isn’t now, or ought to be Disney but isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and get ready to leave a bad review on Rotten Tomatoes”.
As unexpected as the movie’s initial failure was its equally remarkable afterlife. Its home video sales were robust enough to spawn two sequels, meaning that there was definitely an audience for this film, just not one willing to go out in public to watch it. Which I find inexplicable.
Oh Disney’s The Little Mermaid The Series, how could I ever have doubted ye? After the snore-fest of Metal Fish I was resigned to this retrospective ending in a disappointing (if thematically appropriate) damp squib. Oh Mouse of little faith. Strap in folks, we’re riding this train all the way to crazy town.
There’s an episode of Blackadder Goes Forth where Captain Edmund Blackadder is being courtmartialed for eating a carrier pigeon. He’s not worried, though, as he tells his jailer that he’s retained the services of Massingbird, the greatest lawyer of the age:
Jailer: I hear he’s a dab hand at the prosecution as well, sir.
Blackadder: Yes, well, look at Oscar Wilde.
Jailer: Ol’ butch Oscar.
Blackadder: Yep! Big, bearded, bonking, butch Oscar. The terror of the ladies. 114 illegitimate children, world heavyweight boxing champion and author of the best-selling pamphlet “Why I Like To Do It With Girls.” And Massingbird had him sent down for being a whoopsie.
That scene kept running through my mind as I watched Metal Fish with its depiction of Hans Christian Andersen as a flame haired, barrel-chested adventurer of the deepest depths of the sea and not, as he was in real life, a wee Danish pastry who spent much of his life in an undisclosed location hiding from his own erections. But I get ahead of myself.
Of all the nerve! I’m going to be absolutely brutal on this one. Wish Upon a Starfish begins with Sebastien looking for Ariel and telling her she’d better be studying for her “Crab Philosophy” test…okay, I already have a million and one questions here.
Ariel is receiving some kind of education? Sebastien is her tutor now (why am I not surprised)? But most importantly, which crab philosophers are on the curriculum? Crabistotle? Socrabstes? Crab Camus?
Anyway, Sebastien tells Ariel that there’s a storm going on overhead so she swims to the surface to see if she can get some of that sweet, sweet human swag. She finds a music box with a ballerina figurine (I would really have liked if this was the same music box we see in Part of Your World but alas) but Sebastien and Flounder yell at her to come back because the storm is dangerous. Somehow.
Well yes, actually. They get hit by a wave and we next see Ariel unconscious, washed up on a beach with Flounder beside her. And Flounder’s first words are “Ariel, are you okay?!”
Like, sweet and all that he cares about her so much but sometimes it’s okay to prioritise your own needs, y’know?