Family

The Mighty Kong (1998, Art Scott)

The Mighty Kong is fairly awful. It’d be nice to say there’s some kind of charm to it, given it’s an animated, family-targeted, period King Kong adaptation, it’s got Dudley Moore’s final performance, and Jodi Benson’s a lot more professional than the production deserves. But it doesn’t have any consistent charm. Not even Benson, who’s the only potential anywhere in the picture; for a while it seems like Benson’s going to be the protagonist.

Okay, let me set it up a little. Moore is the Robert Armstrong character, the movie director. In Mighty Kong he has a nerdy sidekick who’s his cameraman and assistant only the nerdy sidekick (voiced by William Sage). Moore and Sage make musicals of wild animals appearing silly, which is rather imaginative for William J. Keenan’s script. At some point Mighty Kong gives up on having a script—to the point you can forget the movie has a fairly standard first act introducing the characters and situation. Sure, it’s peculiar because Moore’s never it enough to be the lead, even though he’s the lead of that part of the story no question, and the scale of the production is always lacking. Mighty Kong really doesn’t have the animation budget it needs and what the animators end up doing… I mean, it’s bad. There are times when director Scott seems to have a good idea and the animators butcher it.

Except in the finale, which I’ll get to in a bit.

First, back to the characters. So Benson is Fay Wray and Randy Hamilton is Bruce Cabot. Hamilton’s only character trait is he hates women being on ships and is generally a dick. He falls for Benson after the natives on Skull Island threaten her. We know he falls for her because their next scene together is a heavily stylized, including 1998 CGI stars, musical duet where you don’t believe Hamilton or Benson ever met much less sing the duet in the same studio at the same time. Heck, their animated characters don’t even appear on screen together for the duet. It’s godawful and in no way amusing.

Immediately after that duet, it’s time for the giant ape to get introduced—they call him a “Monkey God” in Mighty Kong, never ape. Maybe apes are too big a concept for the target audience, but there isn’t a target audience because it’s such a weird movie. But anyway.

The Kong grabbing Benson and fighting dinosaur after dinosaur section is brief and at least not good in a different way than the first forty-five or so minutes have been not good. Once they get to New York, there’s the absurd Kong breakout sequence where Hamilton and Benson just walk away and ignore the destruction behind them. Even when they should be running. They just walk. Because bad animation.

Though Hamilton looks just like John Cassavetes most of the time, which would be cool if Hamilton were any good. He’s not, though it’s also a terribly written part. Moore gets bad one-liners. The script at least tries for him. Benson does get the “concern for Monkey God” subplot, but very little dialogue in the third act.

The only good part of the movie is when Kong gets into comic hijinks destroying New York. Even when he apparently kills two teens necking in a car. The animation is hilariously executed. Even if Kong’s rarely the same size.

The Mighty Kong is (mostly) harmlessly bad; it’s clearly being done way too cheap. It’s got bad music, bad songs, bad performances of bad lines, bad animation—occasionally excellent editing from Tony Hayman—and it’s not even worth it as a curiosity, which is a shame. An animated musical kids version of King Kong ought to at least be a curiosity.

Though it could qualify as an icky curiosity for the occasional objectification of Benson’s cartoon character in a kids’ movie but… a good curiosity would be nice.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Art Scott; screenplay by William J. Keenan, based on the story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace; edited by Tony Hayman; production designers, Brendan deVallance and Lyn Henderson; produced by Denis deVallance and Henderson; released by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.

Starring Dudley Moore (Denham), Jodi Benson (Ann), Randy Hamilton (Driscoll), William Sage (Roscoe), Jason Gray-Stanford (Ricky), and Richard Newman (Captain).


A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969, Bill Melendez)

A Boy Named Charlie Brown gets by on a lot of charm. It takes writer and creator Charles M. Schulz forever to get to the story. It takes Schulz so long to get to the story–Charlie Brown, spelling bee champ–it seems like there isn’t going to be a story.

Schulz lays the groundwork for the story, sure; Charlie Brown enters the spelling bee as an attempt to bolster his self-confidence. Nothing else has worked. He’s lost a baseball game, he’s had a lousy–not just for him–therapy session with Lucy. He even losses at tic-tac-toe.

So, right after Lucy and two other girls sing a song to Charlie Brown about him being a “failure face.” Not a great song. Rod McKuen writes the melancholy Charlie Brown songs, John Scott Trotter writes the didactic spelling song.

Even with director Melendez’s suburban Expressionist visuals and the fantastic montaging courteosy Robert T. Gillis, Chuck McCann, and Steven Cuitlahuac Melendez’s expert cutting, Failure Face is a low point. It’s the meanest the girls ever get to Charlie Brown. Sure, maybe it’s the inciting incident for the spelling bee plot development, but Melendez doesn’t change tone with it. Just because Schulz is finally ready to go, Melendez isn’t speeding up Boy. It’s still going to be slow and deliberate, with visually outrageous montages, interludes, and asides.

Schulz’s spelling bee plot works out. Linus gave Charlie Brown his blanket to keep him comfort at the nationals. Linus didn’t know he’d go into fainting spellings without the blanket, he and Snoopy go to nationals.

Nationals appear to be in a beautiful and empty New York City. Why Linus gets the excursion to the New York Public Library and Rockefeller Center while Charlie Brown is literally studying in a movie called A Boy Named Charlie Brown doesn’t even matter. Snoopy goes with Linus. And has his own daydream about playing hockey.

It’s the last daydream–or aside or iunterlude–and it’s the worst. It’s cartoon Snoopy in front of silhouetted hockey footage. Boy Named Charlie Brown has this Beethoven “music video” full of Eastern Orthodox imagery (I think, I saw eggs) and all sorts of other amazing stuff. It’s wondrous. And everything else is good if not excellent. To end on a blah daydream?

Maybe if Schulz’s lesson came through, it’d work. Schulz has a lesson in A Boy Named Charlie Brown for Charlie Brown and it’s eighty-five minutes coming so maybe it should be good. It’s not a good lesson. It’s a “movie’s over in two minutes” lesson. The film’s just shown it can do New York City and scale and then it’s got a bad lesson for Charlie Brown, who spent the last third of the movie offscreen.

Even the spelling bee is from the perspective of the other kids. Charlie Brown narrates Boy for a while, yet Schulz doesn’t want to spend the time with him. Schulz is sympathetic to Charlie Brown, empathetic to him, but he never seems to like him. All of Charlie Brown’s details are jokes at his expense. Or at least Schulz goes that route in A Boy Named Charlie Brown. The eventual story arc starts with lengthy depression monologue thirteen year-old Peter Robbins gets to do as Charlie Brown. Schulz gets intense when he’s not trying to be funny.

And then sometimes he’s not funny. Like Lucy. Not funny. Pamelyn Ferdin’s never particularly likable as Lucy here because all she’s ever doing is being mean to Charlie Brown. She’s invested in it, nothing else. She and Schroeder only have the one scene–kicking off the great Beethoven music video–but Schulz gives Lucy almost nothing other than being mean.

Glenn Gilger’s the best performance. He’s Linus. Robbins’s is good as Charlie Brown. But Schulz doesn’t give him anything good. Gilger’s best because he gets the best material.

Excellent score from Vince Guarladi. Fantastic animation. A Boy Named Charlie Brown has all the parts it needs to be great–not McKuen, sorry, forgot about him; but it doesn’t work out. Schulz’s plotting is too cumbersome.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bill Melendez; written by Charles M. Schulz; edited by Robert T. Gillis, Chuck McCann, and Steven Cuitlahuac Melendez; music by Vince Guaraldi; produced by Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson; released by National General Pictures.

Starring Peter Robbins (Charlie Brown), Pamelyn Ferdin (Lucy Van Pelt), Glenn Gilger (Linus Van Pelt), Andy Pforsich (Schroeder), Sally Dryer (Patty), Ann Altieri (Violet), Erin Sullivan (Sally), Lynda Mendelson (Frieda), and Christopher DeFaria (Pig Pen).


Sleeping Beauty (1959, Clyde Geronimi)

Seven credited writers on Sleeping Beauty and none of them could figure out any dialogue to give the prince. Though, notwithstanding some cute banter between the three fairies, there’s not much good dialogue in Sleeping Beauty anyway. Villain Maleficent doesn’t even get any. Eleanor Audley’s great in the part, but it’s not because of the dialogue, it’s because of the visuals. Sleeping Beauty is all about the visuals, which is why it can usually get away with not having great–or any–dialogue.

The film opens in prologue. There’s a new royal baby and she’s about to be blessed by three fairies–Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, and Barbara Luddy contribute the voices–only then Audley shows up, a magnificent, malevolent “mistress of all evil.” She curses the baby then disappears. It’s up to Luddy to cast a spell to save the baby best as possible (Audley’s too powerful a mistress of all evil to just invalidate the curse).

The story jumps forward sixteen years, to when the curse is supposed to take effect. Mary Costa is voices the grown baby–though, frankly, Costa’s semi-sultry voice is a bit off for a teenage girl. Well, maybe not for Sleeping Beauty since the other part of turning sixteen is her parents to get marry her off to a prince, thereby bringing peace or something.

The only visible clash between Costa’s father (Taylor Holmes) and the prince’s father (Bill Thompson) is Thompson wants Holmes to get drunker than Holmes wants to get. Sleeping Beauty isn’t great on logic. When a movie looks like Sleeping Beauty, it doesn’t need to be great on much else.

The film starts in live action, a dolly into a storybook (Sleeping Beauty), which opens and the illustrations become the animation, the book’s text becomes the narration, and so on. But from the start, the animation is lush and wide. Sleeping Beauty is “Technirama,” a widescreen frame, and Technicolor. Supervising director Geronimi plays a lot with depth, as the fairies are raising Costa in hiding. The great palace is only visible in the background, something Costa has no interest in. Instead, she sings with the adorable forest wildlife and meets a dashing young man.

Sadly, she’s promised to a prince. There’s some drama, but not a lot. A lot of drama would mean less songs and more dialogue. I’m not sure Costa has any dialogue after she gets to the palace to celebrate not having fallen victim to Audley’s curse. Except Audley’s smarter than everyone else, maybe because the fairies are more adorable than they are smart, and the royals are all idiots.

Sorry, back to the visuals. The depth is amazing. The forest goes on and on, filling the frame, with jagged plateaus and endless trees. Geography doesn’t really matter in Sleeping Beauty. There’s apparently only one house in the whole forest, because when Costa’s young man comes calling, he finds the place right away. Too bad she’s off at the castle to meet her prince and Audley’s waiting to capture… someone. It’s never clear. Logic, like I said, isn’t Beauty’s strong point.

The evil stuff is evil, even when it’s amusing–Audley’s got some Gamorrean guards she zaps with force lightning when they’re dumb, which is all of the time. In her first scene to herself, it turns out the only reason Audley’s in such a pickle trying to get her curse to work is because her lackies are all complete idiots. No one’s very smart in Sleeping Beauty, except Audley some of the time and Costa’s young man’s horse more of the time.

But it doesn’t matter. It’s beautiful. The character designs are exquisite. When Costa and the prince stop talking, their expressions are still phemonenal. The animation’s not incredibly detailed on the faces–the fairies get expressions, Audley sort of gets them, no one else–but there’s so much visible emotion. The music, which has its ups and downs (just like the songs), gives the film its progression. It all takes place in a day and a half so there needs to be something to soothe the halty plotting. The music, often adapted from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet, does the trick. George Bruns handles that adaptation.

There are some okay songs. The one with Costa in the forest with her animal friends and then the young man is great. But because of the way the young couple dance their way through the frame–Sleeping Beauty loves to play with reflections and there’re lakes in the forest. The fairies don’t get songs, they get banter. Luddy gives the best performance, mostly because she’s the only one to get any characterization.

The third act, which is a narrative mess, is also a breathtaking action sequence. Geronimi and editors Roy M. Brewer Jr. and Donald Halliday create this phenomenal sequence. It’s not entirely successful–it’s a little rushed and there’s not really any nailbiting–but it’s breathtaking. Even when Sleeping Beauty is uneven, it’s gorgeous to behold.

It’s a beautiful film. Also one with a lot of problems.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clyde Geronimi; screenplay by Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright, and Milt Banta and based on a story by Charles Perrault; edited by Roy M. Brewer Jr. and Donald Halliday; production designers, Ken Anderson and Don DaGradi; released by Buena Vista Film Distribution Co.

Starring Verna Felton (Flora), Barbara Jo Allen (Fauna), Barbara Luddy (Merryweather), Eleanor Audley (Maleficent), Mary Costa (Princess Aurora), Taylor Holmes (King Stefan), Bill Shirley (Prince Phillip), and Bill Thompson (King Hubert).


Moana (2016, Don Hall, Chris Williams, Ron Clements, and John Musker)

Moana takes a while to find its stride. Directors Clements and Musker and Hall and Williams aren’t at ease until the movie’s on the water. The film starts on a Polynesian island, with a young chief-in-training (Auli’i Cravalho) secretly longing not to be stuck on the island paradise, but out exploring the ocean. Grandmother Rachel House encourages her, dad Temuera Morrison does not, she’s got an adorable pet pig and dimwit chicken as sidekicks… it’s cute, but it’s pretty shallow.

Once the movie gets out to water, however, everything changes. Cravalho isn’t reacting to House or Morrison, the performance all of a sudden has energy and personality. Until that point, it’s been entirely unclear how the story is going to work. Every time it seems like it’s going to be a quest story, Morrison steps in and shuts it down for a few more minutes. The first act of Moana is overlong.

Back to the water. The computer generation animation in Moana has these distinct thick edges for the characters. Again, cute enough, brings in some extra personality, whatever. No, not whatever, because once the characters are on the water, it’s all about how the CG light hits their CG angles to make CG shadows. Moana is shockingly beautiful. And the directors know it. They compose for it. The film gets away with a lot because of that lightning and the composition.

But it’s strongest assets are leads Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson. Johnson’s really, really good, giving a personable, but measured performance. His character–a selfish, disgraced demigod who Cravalho offers a chance at redemption–has a fairly predictable arc so there shouldn’t surprises and there aren’t in the narrative sense, just in how Johnson and Cravalho interact. Johnson’s got an askew distance in his performance, fully supporting Cravalho while still doing rote predicable incorrigible sidekick. It’s a surprisingly good performance, especially since it starts before the directors have shown they can excel at anything. They haven’t proven themselves at sea yet.

Jared Bush’s script is mediocre but fine for the first act. Too long, like I said before… way too long. Then there’s action and conflict and character development and excitement. There’s action, conflict, and character development in the first act, there’s just no excitement.

Land has lectures, ground situation, ground situation songs, and sadness. Ocean has excitement and exciting action. No more lectures, just funny and sometimes touching arguments. Good slapstick. Giant crabs doing Bowie impressions (Jemaine Clement is awesome). Sentient–and evil–coconuts roaming the high seas under the pirate flag. A lava beast. Oh, and a ghost. That’s a particularly gorgeous night sequence, because the light from the ghost–it’s a good ghost–provides the lightning for the figures’ angles.

Moana’s a thoughtful, gorgeous, amiably complex picture. The directors do well, the script does well, the computer animation’s breathtaking. Cravalho, Johnson, and House are all wonderful. It’s a lovely film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Don Hall, Chris Williams, Ron Clements, and John Musker; screenplay by Jared Bush, based on a story by Clements, Musker, Williams, Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell, and Jordan Kandell; edited by Jeff Draheim; music by Mark Mancina; production designer, Ian Gooding; produced by Osnat Shurer; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Auli’i Cravalho (Moana), Dwayne Johnson (Maui), Rachel House (Gramma Tala), Temuera Morrison (Chief Tui), Nicole Scherzinger (Sina), and Jemaine Clement (Tamatoa).


The NeverEnding Story (1984, Wolfgang Petersen), the international version

For most of The NeverEnding Story, director Petersen’s ability, the special effects, and active lead Noah Hathaway keep the whole thing going. It’s a gorgeous looking film, with great photography from Jost Vacano and exceptional editing from Jane Seitz. Hathaway’s character, a boy warrior, gets a fantastic characterization–simultaneously sensitive and brave–he’s a fantastic protagonist.

Except he’s not the protagonist. The protagonist is Barret Oliver’s similarly aged character (the passive lead). He’s locked up reading the book, The NeverEnding Story, and experiencing the book’s events as they unfold for the viewer too. The only way Petersen and co-screenwriters Herman Weigel and Robert Easton come up with to integrate the two concurrent narratives is cutting to Oliver reacting to the book. Sure, Seitz cuts the scenes beautifully and the “real world” parts of the film are arguably the best directed, but Oliver’s a weak protagonist. He’s a weaker lead. Everything strong about the way Hathaway gets characterized is ignored when it comes to Oliver. He’s bullied–both by classmates and his jerk father (Gerald McRaney)–he’s mourning the death of his mother, but he’s got no depth. It ought to be fine because he’s not part of The NeverEnding Story.

Until the film ties the two narratives together, ingloriously shucking Hathaway, and generally collapsing under its own import. The film had already forecasted a shaky mythology regarding reading but hadn’t run out of goodwill at that point. It burns through it in the final act, with Petersen trying real hard but unable to pull it off. Not even the booming, sweeping score from Klaus Doldinger and Giorgio Moroder can save the finale. Probably shouldn’t be a surprise The NeverEnding Story can’t figure out a way to end well.

Some of the performances are wonderful, but there aren’t a lot of supporting parts. Hathaway just goes from person to person (or troll to troll) and has a scene or two, then moves on. Sydney Bromley and Patricia Hayes are great as a bickering gnome couple. Alan Oppenheimer voices most of the animatronic creatures, including the flying dragon. He’s great.

The special effects–and the fantasy scenery–are the real accomplishment of The NeverEnding Story. The composite shots are often awesome, same with the sets, same with the animatronics.

The NeverEnding Story disappoints. Petersen needed to be stronger when directing Oliver, needed to come up with a better finish. Both those elements were essential, both don’t work out.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen; screenplay by Petersen, Herman Weigel, and Robert Easton, based on the novel by Michael Ende; director of photography, Jost Vacano; edited by Jane Seitz; music by Klaus Doldinger and Giorgio Moroder; production designer, Rolf Zehetbauer; produced by Bernd Eichinger and Dieter Geissler; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Barret Oliver (Bastian), Noah Hathaway (Atreyu), Tami Stronach (The Empress), Moses Gunn (Cairon), Sydney Bromley (Engywook), Patricia Hayes (Urgl), Deep Roy (Teeny Weeny), Tilo Prückner (Night Hob), Gerald McRaney (Bastian’s Father), Thomas Hill (Carl Conrad Coreander) and Alan Oppenheimer (Falkor).


Flight of the Navigator (1986, Randal Kleiser)

Flight of the Navigator works on a principal of delayed charm; eventually, it’s got to be charming, right? No, no, it doesn’t. The film’s a series of false starts. The only thing approaching a pay-off is Paul Reubens–voicing an alien spaceship–going into a riff on his “Pee-Wee” routine. It’s not even a good routine. Worse, the film wastes kid lead Joey Cramer’s substantial likability. He’s not great, but he’s not annoying. He’s always sympathetic. Well, until the idiotic conclusion.

Navigator runs ninety minutes. Almost the first hour is about Cramer, missing for eight years, returning to his family. Only Cramer’s the same age; what happened in those missing eight years. For some reason, Howard Hesseman’s NASA scientist thinks it’s got to be linked to the alien spaceship they just discovered. Flight of the Navigator takes place over like three days. The film does a weak job establishing the characters, even weaker after it jumps forward eight years, so it’s hard to sympathize with anyone. You’re not supposed to sympathize with Hesseman, who’s just a jerk. He’s incredibly miscast.

Most of the acting is fine. Cliff De Young and Veronica Cartwright have thin parts as Cramer’s parents, but they’re both fine. Matt Adler’s kind of weak as his now older brother, but with the script, it’s not like Adler was going to be able to do anything with it. Same goes for Sarah Jessica Parker, who’s basically just around to gently flirt with twelve-year-old Cramer and explain the eighties to him.

Technically, the film approaches competent. Director Kleiser tries for grandiose with the first half and fails, but has more success once the spaceship comes into it. Alan Silvestri’s music is lacking. Nothing else stands out. I mean, James Glennon’s photography is boring, but it isn’t bad.

While Flight of the Navigator is still about Cramer reappearing after eight years, it has a far amount of potential. Even during some of the last third’s special effects sequence, it has some left. It’s dwindling, but it’s still there. Until the lame finish, which lacks any dramatic heft. The film’s not long enough and the script’s not good enough to make Cramer’s adventure resonate. Flight of the Navigator could have run fifteen minutes and had the same dramatic impact. It’s slight and not diverting enough.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Randal Kleiser; screenplay by Michael Burton and Matt MacManus, based on a story by Mark H. Baker; director of photography, James Glennon; edited by Jeff Gourson; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, William J. Creber; produced by Robert Wald and Dimitri Villard; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Joey Cramer (David Freeman), Cliff De Young (Bill Freeman), Veronica Cartwright (Helen Freeman), Matt Adler (Jeff), Sarah Jessica Parker (Carolyn McAdams), Howard Hesseman (Dr. Louis Faraday) and Paul Reubens (Max).


Batman: The Movie (1966, Leslie H. Martinson)

Burt Ward is really bad in Batman: The Movie. Sure, he’s just around to parrot Adam West, who’s a horny, kind of dumb, know-it-all. The problem is it doesn’t seem like anyone else is in on the joke because director Martinson does such a bad job. There are some okay scenes in Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s script–none for West and Ward but, they’re still okay scenes. And Martinson screws them up. Yes, Howard Schwartz’s cinematography is bland but why bother with anything given Martinson never does anything.

Until the big fight scene at the end. The big fight scene at the end has the potential to be a farcical masterpiece. It could even be one subtly. But Martinson. And editor Harry W. Gerstad. He cuts the action too long; it gives more time to the actors, which they don’t need given the scale of the action. It’s too bad. Some gem in Batman: The Movie would be nice to find.

At best, the film has an amusing moment for Alan Napier (as Alfred), who apparently wants to perve on West romancing Lee Meriwether and Ward has to shut it down. Ward’s Robin is an obnoxious little yes boy, spouting off stupid ideas. It’s like West isn’t even letting Ward in on the joke.

Meriwether’s Catwoman is bad. She’s kind of likable, but only because West’s such a dumb horny guy around her and she gets it. So she’s in on the joke. But she’s not good at all.

Burgess Meredith has some moments. Less than if Martinson and Gerstad cut his close-ups better. The composition is a mess. Martinson’s framing for The Movie is way too much like a TV show (shocker) and it needs to be more open. Just enough for headroom in some cases.

Frank Gorshin’s okay. You know, he’s okay. He’s weird. It works. A lot better than Cesar Romero’s Cowardly Lion Joker character. But Romero’s kind of likable. You feel a little bad for him. You don’t feel bad for the scenes of West and Ward acting like clowns. Batman: The Movie is most engaging when the lack of awareness about the absurdity–the complete lack of verisimilitude, if you would–makes it an unbearable experience.

And what’s up with the music? Nelson Riddle has some pretty decent music and then some awful music. It’s a toss-up. It’s probably the best thing about the movie–except the opening titles. They’re actually pretty darn cool.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Leslie H. Martinson; screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr., based on characters created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger; director of photography, Howard Schwartz; edited by Harry W. Gerstad; music by Nelson Riddle; produced by William Dozier; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Adam West (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Burt Ward (Robin / Dick Grayson), Lee Meriwether (The Catwoman), Cesar Romero (The Joker), Burgess Meredith (The Penguin), Frank Gorshin (The Riddler), Alan Napier (Alfred), Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon), Stafford Repp (Chief O’Hara), Madge Blake (Aunt Harriet Cooper) and Reginald Denny (Commodore Schmidlapp).


Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971, Mel Stuart)

Part of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’s greatest successes is the plotting–how top-billed Gene Wilder doesn’t show up until almost halfway into the film–but it’s also one of the film’s problems. It needs another five or ten minutes with Wilder; probably not at the very end, but somewhere before it. There’s so much going on, director Stuart and writer Roald Dahl (adapting his novel) sort of lose track of everything.

There’s a lot creativity, both in the writing and the direction, to the narrative–Stuart juxtaposes various television reports about Wilder’s Willy Wonka offering five passes to his chocolate factory against young Peter Ostrum’s wishes to find one. It’s beautifully executed, thanks to great acting, Arthur Ibbetson’s photography, Stuart’s direction and Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s music. Not all of the songs are great, but they’re all good enough and some of them are outstanding. Ostrum gives a fine, appealing performance; Stuart tends to put him opposite rather strong performers. Jack Albertson is great as his grandfather, Diana Sowle’s good as his mom. Bit players Aubrey Woods and David Battley are also quite good.

The second half of the film, in addition to bringing Wilder into the story proper, also has all the other “golden ticket” winners. Great obnoxious children–particularly Julie Dawn Cole and Denise Nickerson–and great obnoxious parents–Leonard Stone and Roy Kinnear standout. Ostrum gets somewhat lost in the shuffle. When he and Albertson do get a scene to themselves, it’s at a point where the film needs more Wilder, not less.

As for Wilder, he’s phenomenal. He overcomplicates the role to fantastic result, going light and dark, introverted, extroverted. He’s always doing something wonderful (and why the heck didn’t Wilder do more singing roles?). While Stuart, Dahl and Ibbetson create a lot of the film’s gently tragic magic in the first half–along with Ostrum and Albertson, of course–it’s Wilder who introduces that element in the second half. Everyone else is way too busy with all the special effects and just managing the eleven principal characters.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory achieves a great many successes. It doesn’t quite get where it’s trying to go, but thanks to Wilder, Stuart, Dahl and Ostrum, it does get somewhere very special.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Stuart; screenplay by Roald Dahl, based on his novel; director of photography, Arthur Ibbetson; edited by David Saxon; music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley; produced by Stan Margulies and David L. Wolper; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Peter Ostrum (Charlie), Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka), Jack Albertson (Grandpa Joe), Diana Sowle (Mrs. Bucket), Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt), Roy Kinnear (Mr. Salt), Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregarde), Leonard Stone (Mr. Beauregarde), Paris Themmen (Mike Teevee), Nora Denney (Mrs. Teevee), Michael Bollner (Augustus Gloop), Ursula Reit (Mrs. Gloop), Aubrey Woods (Bill), David Battley (Mr. Turkentine) and Günter Meisner (Mr. Slugworth).


Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993, Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm)

There are a lot of excellent things in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, but maybe my favorite thing is the end credits music. It’s smooth jazz. It’s this smooth jazz love song over the cast and when you see names like Abe Vigoda and Dick Miller and John P. Ryan in an animated Batman movie, you want to enjoy the moment. With smooth jazz.

But, just wait, it’s not only smooth jazz. It’s a Tia Carrere song. Who knew there was such a thing as a Tia Carrere song but there is in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which makes it special. It’s not bad, either. It’s fine. Phantasm is this fifties melodrama style mixed with impossibly big buildings–which matches the lushness–and it’s a perfectly reasonable way to end the movie.

I wish they hadn’t done the “and Batman’s adventures continue” tag, but the finale of Phantasm has a number of problems. The movie starts exceptionally strong but the writing in the first act is stronger than the second and momentum runs out. It’s still really good–there are frequent action scenes and they’re phenomenal–it’s just not as good as it seemed like it might be.

Because Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is breathtaking. The designs are gorgeous, the animation is gorgeous. And it’s a solid outing for Batman; Kevin Conroy’s Batman is far more likable than anything else. He’s got personality, but not too much and not jaded personality either. It’s accessible to the kids, which is an inevitable.

But the screenwriters do a good job getting everything onto that chastened level–Conroy’s romance with Dana Delany, Hart Bochner’s sliminess. Not Mark Hamill’s Joker, however. It’s the one thing Phantasm never backs down on. It’s a very strange sensation because you’re watching a cartoon and somehow Hamill makes the character into a show-off. It shouldn’t be possible, but he’s so good, so well-timed. It’s kind of freaky, especially the editing on the Joker’s murder sequences. Al Breitenbach’s editing is great throughout, but it’s something special on those Joker sequences. It’s scary.

Good music from Shirley Walker. She has some cute nods to the Tim Burton scores.

Almost all of the acting is good, Delany and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in particular. In addition to Hamill, of course. And Conroy’s real good. Stacy Keach doesn’t impress though. It just doesn’t work.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is pretty darn good. It’s got a beauty pace–directors Radomski and Timm take their time with the shots, it’s cinematic through its pacing, not just its action sequences. It’s got some great acting. It just has some second and third act problems. But it’s pretty darn good; it’s often spectacular.

And it does end with a Tia Carrere ballad, which defies reality–a perfectly fine and appropriate Tia Carrere ballad too, which defies reality even more.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm; screenplay by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Paso and Michael Reaves, based on a story by Burnett and characters created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger; edited by Al Breitenbach; music by Shirley Walker; produced by Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kevin Conroy (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Dana Delany (Andrea Beaumont), Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (Alfred Pennyworth), Bob Hastings (Commissioner James Gordon), Hart Bochner (Arthur Reeves), Stacy Keach (Carl Beaumont), Robert Costanzo (Detective Harvey Bullock), Abe Vigoda (Salvatore Valestra), Dick Miller (Chuckie Sol), John P. Ryan (Buzz Bronski) and Mark Hamill (The Joker).


Zootopia (2016, Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush)

Ah, the socially responsible children’s movie, or: the progressive soulless capitalism of the Walt Disney Corporation, twenty-first century iteration. I went into Zootopia waiting for it to be great–I assumed the filmmakers would take responsibility for the big questions they imply–then I waited for it to be good, then I waited for it to be over. It’s a perfectly competent, perfectly satisfactory outing. Girls have a positive role model in Ginnifer Goodwin’s protagonist, the first rabbit cop, and boys will be positively reassured of their superior position in society thanks to Jason Bateman’s rogue sidekick. Watching Zootopia, you can just imagine Disney drones toggling between Buzzfeed and The Toast for concepts.

And not in a bad way, right? I mean, it is just a kid’s movie about anthropomorphized mammals. It’s not going to do any permanent damage, is it? It’s just a movie about how predators and prey can live together as long as predators are okay with the prey thinking they’re socially and morally inferior than the prey. Oh, wait, no, it actually seems like a big question and Zootopia tries to walk back from it immediately after every time it comes up. It flares. Someone who rewrote the screenplay added this occasional flaring up of really gross social commentary. It might be unintentional, but it’s gross. And obvious.

But it’s well-acted and the plotting is fairly strong. Directors Howard, Moore and Bush do better when handling suspense than action. Zootopia is kid’s CG and the animals are stylized not just to be more genially anthropomorphized, they’re also made adorable. It’s manipulative, it’s Disney, it means what could be amazing action set pieces are just passible CG animation instead. There’s great potential in a chase sequence through a “mouse metropolis” and the filmmakers go with plastic-y CG for the setting instead of any realism. It looks like a toy commercial, it’s got limited potential. But when Goodwin and Bateman are doing a James Bond movie action sequence, it’s awesome. It’s a shame everything’s so uneven.

In the supporting roles, Idris Elba and J.K. Simmons do well. There aren’t a lot of good parts. Even Simmons and Elba don’t have good parts. I mean, Goodwin doesn’t even have a good part, not really. Even Bateman has some really weak material–Zootopia’s so confused it can’t even commit to its charismatic antihero love interest dude.

And Jenny Slate’s not great. Her part’s crap, but she’s not great. The part needs some kind of greatness.

Still, it’s a kid’s movie. For me, I just wish it was better directed. But for a kid’s movie, I wish it didn’t fumble with its social message. I wish it comment on real world racial stereotypes with absurd entries in a “Friends Against Humanity” game. I wish the directors and the writers took it seriously, but Disney isn’t even Disney anymore. It’s just progressive soulless capitalist filmmaking, what should one expect from it? It’s not *Animal Farm*, after all, it’s just a kid’s movie.*

* Of course, *Wind in the Willows* is just a kid’s book and it’s thoughtful about how it anthropomorphizes its animals.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush; screenplay by Bush and Phil Johnston, based on a story by Howard, Moore, Bush, Jim Reardon, Josie Trinidad, Johnston and Jennifer Lee; edited by Fabienne Rawley and Jeremy Milton; music by Michael Giacchino; production designers, David Goetz and Dan Cooper; produced by Clark Spencer; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Ginnifer Goodwin (Judy Hopps), Jason Bateman (Nick Wilde), Idris Elba (Chief Bogo), Jenny Slate (Bellwether), Nate Torrence (Clawhauser), Bonnie Hunt (Bonnie Hopps), Don Lake (Stu Hopps), Octavia Spencer (Mrs. Otterton), Alan Tudyk (Duke Weaselton) and J.K. Simmons (Mayor Lionheart).


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