review

Balto (1995)

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.

You will know them by the trail of dead in their wake.

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 Mouse. Sweet, innocent Mouse.”
“Ah. The furries. Got it.”
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“Sever the nerve.”

Paws in the air, the real reason why I delayed reviewing this movie was that I honestly can’t remember a review I’ve had less appetite to write.

I re-watched Black Widow for this review only a few days ago, and yet whenever I try to remember anything about it I get the mental equivalent of this:

And it’s not like it’s a bad movie! It’s not like it’s an anything movie frankly. It’s just…a movie. It’s a glass of cinematic water. Absolutely flavourless. It’s…I what am I even talking about again?

Oh right. Sorry, I keep forgetting.

My point is, I can write about good movies and I can write about bad movies but bland, perfectly acceptable movies are my kryptonite and I literally cannot remember a film that left me so utterly emotionally unmoved, in either a positive or negative sense, as this. So I probably am not going to break any word count records for this review. Hey, maybe a brief comics history of the titles character will help pad this thrill ride out? Worked before.

So like pretty much every interesting female superhero created during the Golden or early Silver ages, Natalia Alianovna “Natasha” Romanova was introduced as a villain. She first appeared in 1964 in the pages of Tales of Suspense as a Soviet spy tasked with bringing down Tony Stark, embodying his two greatest weaknesses: beautiful women and Communism. In her early days she was less an ass-kicking super-spy and more a seductress, using her wiles to get any man she wanted to carry out her sinister schemes. And with a whole pantheon of super powered beings to choose from she used this power to ensnare…um…Hawkeye?

Won’t know. Won’t care.

By the end of the sixties she’d defected to America and become a superhero and proceeded to spend the next fifty years bouncing around the Marvel Universe. Never an A-tier character, she nonetheless maintained a fairly high profile and you could usually count on her being in someone’s book. Natasha as a character is something of a renaissance woman. She’s an Avenger. She’s a SHIELD agent. She’s Daredevil’s ex-girlfriend. She’s a superhero. She’s a morally dubious black ops assassin. She’s friends with Spider-man, Wolverine, Hercules…basically she’s the Kevin Bacon of the Marvel universe. If a given hero doesn’t know her, they know someone who knows her. And then something strange happened. In 2012, The Avengers was released and Black Widow, by dint of various factors like Marvel not owning the movie rights to some of their own most high profile female characters (like Sue Storm and regular Storm), won the position of Token Female Avenger almost by default. And suddenly, Black Widow was the most high profile female superhero in the world complete with lunchboxes, action figures (fucking eventually) and kids’ Halloween costumes. And…that’s kinda weird, right? That’s like if the most famous male superhero in the world was Punisher instead of Superman. Weird though it was, it didn’t last long. While there was a clamour for a Black Widow movie almost as soon as she appeared in Iron Man 2, work couldn’t begin until Ike Perlmutter was prized from Marvel’s hide with a set of tweezers. And by then, well, the moment had passed. It’s not 2010 anymore. We have had female superhero movies. We have had BIG female superhero movies. We have had superhero movies with female directors. Black Widow’s biggest claim to historical significance is that it is the first ever mainstream, big-budget Hollywood summer movie with Jewish women as its star and producer, director, and supporting actress and frankly that feels a bit strained (which is in no way intended to dismiss the oppression of three-person creative teams of Jewish women in the film industry and the incredibly specific hurdles they have had to overcome). And, as a trailblazer myself (what with being the first Greek-Cypriot Irish bisexual science fiction author), I think that’s great! It’s great that simply being a female led superhero movie is not enough any more to be considered a big deal. It’s great that the movie wasn’t burdened with the same expectations that Wonder Woman faced with being the first female superhero movie…

…whose existence decent God-fearing people will acknowledge. It’s good that it has a reason to exist other than being THE FEMALE SUPERHERO MOVIE.

Doesn’t it?

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Bats Versus Bolts: Marvel Animé

I know, I know, I know I said I’d do Black Widow. But that was before I realised a couple of very important things:

  1. Not doing a horror themed post on Halloween is super lame.
  2. In the 1980s Toei animation did two animé movies based on Marvel’s versions of Dracula and Frankenstein.
  3. One of these movies is regarded as one of the worst animé ever made, which, as you can imagine, is a title with competition that is not merely “stiff” but positively turgid.
  4. Both of these movies are just sitting on YouTube, misshapen shambling things made and then abandoned by their creators to the cruelties of an uncaring world like…someone…I can’t think of a good analogy right now.

I mean c’mon! A crappy animated Marvel Bats versus Bolts on Halloween? How could I not?! I was BORN for this post. Seriously, this is what it’s all been leading to. My magnum opus. My masterpiece.

Our story begins in the late seventies when Toei Animation acquired the rights to the Marvel comics horror series Tomb of Dracula and Monster of Frankenstein. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Who the hell buys the rights to a property based on Dracula or Frankenstein? That’s like paying for a Pornhub Account. They’re public domain for chrissakes! Why not just do your own version of the characters? Well, friends, you’re missing a crucial piece of relevant context, namely that Tomb of Dracula and Monster of Frankenstein were the mutt’s nuts. TOD in particular was one of the very best comics produced by Marvel in the seventies, with one of the all time great portrayals of the Count in any medium. From this acquisition came today’s movies Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned and Kyōfu Densetsu Kaiki! Frankenstein. They are…my God. Words fail me…

These movies are special. They are dear to me. Come, come.

such-sights-to-show

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The Little Mermaid, The Series: Scuttle

Wha’ Happen’?

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.

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The Little Mermaid, The Series: Metal Fish

Wha’ Happen’?

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.

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The Little Mermaid, the series: Wish Upon a Starfish

“Hey Mouse. I did you a solid with that Ursula episode, right? So how’s about you don’t rag on me quite so mercilessly from now on?”
“My my. Am I already at the part where I hallucinate that the series I’m reviewing is talking to me? How time flies.”
“C’mon Mouse. Isn’t there enough negativity in the world? Just give me a good review and I’ll make it worth your while.”
“Lie to my readers? Why that’s…I couldn’t possibly…NO! GET OUT! GET OUT OF HERE! LEAVE ME ALONE!”
“Suit yourself. It was only a suggestion.”

Wha’ Happen’?

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?

“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Don’t walk beside me because I walk sideways. Because I’m a crab.”

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.

Oh no! They might…drown?

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?!”

Yeah dude. She is. Because she has LUNGS.

Like, sweet and all that he cares about her so much but sometimes it’s okay to prioritise your own needs, y’know?

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The Little Mermaid, the series: Against the Tide

Wha’ Happen’?

The episode begins with Ariel riding a sea horse throughout the entire ocean to wish every single sea creature a good morning and to continue her descent into self-parody. One creature who is not having a good morning however, is whatever the hell this thing is:

What? What!? WHAT?!!

So this…flipped bird from evolution itself is a Bad Luck Creature and none of the other sea creatures will have anything to do with it because it’s supposedly unlucky which, clearly from the fact that it’s living, it is. The creature, which we shall call Lucky, is very sad because all of the other ocean denizens shun it and call it names.

“FREAK!”

Ariel comes across this abomination and starts make cooing noises and oh God, you know what this means don’t you?

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The Little Mermaid, The Series: Save the Whale

Wha’ Happen’?

If my kids ever ask me about the nineties I’ll tell them of a wondrous time when the Soviet Union had collapsed, the Cold War was over and we were all free to focus on what was really important: dinosaurs and whales. Seriously, if it wasn’t big, extinct or going extinct it could get fucked. The mania of interest in dinosaurs obviously followed in the wake of Jurassic Park, whereas the world’s global bout of cetaphilia was a result of the movie Free Willy, a film about boys and whales and whales jumping over boys.

Not a great movie. Sorry.
“Between this and talking shit about Darkwing Duck, you are just asking to be killed by nineties kids at this point.”

This episode deals with Spot, a baby killer whale that Ariel adopted in the pilot for this series which I haven’t reviewed because Disney, in their infinite wisdom, decided to not put it on Disney plus. And this episode is a sequel to that one where Spot returns because Disney was decided in 1993 that having an episode about a killer whale trying to escape from a water park might be an easy sell.

Ahem.

Actually I can’t be sure of that. This episode aired in October 1993, a mere three months after Free Willy premiered which seems like an awfully quick turnaround. I mean, that would mean that this episode was just slapped together in ninety days and ohhhhhhhh I see…

And all the pieces fell into place.
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The Little Mermaid, The Series: Thinga-Ma-Jigger

Wha’ Happen’?

Ariel and Flounder are out minding their own damn business when a naval battle between some pirates and the Royal Navy breaks out overhead. During the battle, one of the pirates drops a boot and Ariel, little hoarder that she is, is fascinated by it and takes it back to Atlantica to show to her friends. Now, The Little Mermaid the film had a lean, tight little screenplay with very little fat which was to its credit. But it does mean that Ariel’s world is really under-populated. She has literally two friends in that movie (Sebastien is more of an authority figure), Flounder and Scuttle and she hasn’t actually met Scuttle yet. So the episode has to create some new fish friends for Ariel. Who are these fresh new additions to the rich Mermaid canon? Well, we get an unnamed posh lady fish who loves fashion dahling and an uninspired Woody Allen impression. God, uninspired Woody Allen impersonations used to be everywhere in cartoons and they were never a good sign. Foodfight! had one. That should teach you plenty. By a rather morbid coincidence this episode would have aired right around the time Dylan Farrow went public.

Probably why this guy isn’t on a lot of merch.
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The Little Mermaid, The Series: The Evil Manta

Wha’ Happen’?

Things get off to a bad start right away when The Little Mermaid the series violates the unwritten rule that all Disney series from the nineties have to have an absolute banger as a theme song. Instead, TLM has a wordless medley of the themes for Under the Sea and Part of Your World. Fantastic pieces of music no doubt, but it still feels more than a little lazy.

Anyway, remember the Under the Sea sequence from the original movie? Sure ya do. Well, it turns out that’s just how life is in Atlantica all the time, a never-ending calypso-infused bacchanal under the kindly patrician gaze of beloved despot King Triton. So Triton and Sebastien are taking a trip see the “turtle races” and Ariel and Flounder take the opportunity to go exploring. Near a sinister looking volcano they hear a weak, pathetic voice begging them for help and discover an unseen creature trapped in the volcano’s crater. Ariel wants to help but Flounder reminds her of the legend of a terrible monster that was trapped in a volcano (much like this one actually) by the ancient Atlanticans and that would certainly doom their entire civilization if it was ever freed. Ariel, naturally, tells Flounder not to be such a little bitch and frees the creature which turns out to be…the thing, the thing I just said.

I’m not even going to insult you by telling you who they got to voice him. You should be able to tell just by looking at him.
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