Thursday, October 9, 2014

Jungle Emperor Leo (1989) TV Series Review: Part 2

What's Good About It?

A poster depicting much of the series's cast.

The First Half of the Series

This series is very difficult to properly rate due to its varying degree of quality. Despite Jungle Emperor 1989's reputation, it is initially quite enjoyable. Indeed, the first six episodes are very accessible to Tezuka fans and classic anime fans (which makes sense as they were actually the last productions to be overseen by Osamu Tezuka before he passed away at age sixty on February 9, 1989). These early episodes are very concise, closely following the manga's narrative. The next 30 or so episodes are also quite good even if they are a bit less cheery. The series deals with many dense subtexts despite its deceptively cute looking exterior.

As Leo attempts to succeed his father, he is confronted with many challenges. Not all of the animals believe that he has the capacity to rule as his father did, and they often argue amongst themselves. Panja's (Leo's father's) jungle is a refuge for disenfranchised animals who have been been driven out of their homelands due to famine, feuds or human activities. The law of Panja's jungle decrees that no animal can kill or harm one another, so Leo must remain vigilant of law breakers. While humans are a concern, they only appear occasionally. The series's primary antagonist is Bubu (Claw), a scheming, dark-maned lion who holds a grudge against Panja after losing one of his eyes in battle.

Don't let his ridiculous sounding name fool you. In this version, Bubu means serious business. 

The Early Episodes Maintain a Positive Outlook

Fortunately, Leo isn't alone. He is supported by a small core network of friends. His closest companions are Cocco the green parrot and Toni the gazelle, who often serve as comic relief. Cocco is Leo's bossy, self-appointed 'advisor.' (Think of The Lion King's Zuzu, but as even more incompetent and annoying.) Toni is Cocco's foil. He is simple and down to earth. Toni is easily scared and prone to run away at the first sight of danger, but will defend his friends when necessary. Both Cocco and Toni are also sympathetic towards humans like Leo, having been either kept or saved by them at certain points in their lives. Additionally, Leo frequently turns to an old rhino who was a friend of his father for support (who seems to be the 1989 version's replacement for Mandy the baboon), and his love interest, Lyra the lioness. He even wins the respect of Marody (a wise, conservative Barbary Lion), who shared a friendly rivalry with Panja.

Forget white lions, Marody is a true rarity. Just look at that 'stash. 

These earlier episodes manage to properly balance darker and more dense topics with a sense of hope, accomplishment, and an occasional dose of lightheartedness. For instance in episode two, a young Leo attempts to help three panthers escape a zoo so they can go to Africa. Ultimately, the panthers are either captured or shot for being 'dangerous,' but they thank Leo for his help, and the experience allows for Leo to grow and witness the trials of leadership.  Episode 12, on the other hand, simply involves Leo helping teach a baby eagle how to fly by overcoming his fear of heights. Likewise in Episode 22, Leo reunites briefly with his previous human owner, Kenichi, but must protect the boy from animals who see the child as a threat. In the end, it is apparent that the two can no longer live together and they part. (In fact, it takes a while for Leo to recall Kenichi's scent, because the lion has lived in the wild for quite a while now.) Leo's and Kenichi's friendship has influenced both of the character's lives, however. By living with kind humans, Leo has learned how to be empathetic and to be a good judge of character. Kenichi's experience with Leo inspires him to travel and work with wildlife protection services.

Leo and Kenichi, symbolizing the link between humanity and nature.

Well Rounded, Believable Characters

In terms of character development, nearly all of the personalities in this show are very fleshed out and even relatively minor characters have arcs. Leo is very hardworking and aims to be just towards all things while heading to his father's laws. Although Leo's transition of moving from the city into the jungle is a bit of a shock for him, he chooses the pristine wild over living in a nature reserve. Ironically, Leo is accused of being 'too nice' at first by the other animals. He refuses to fight with Bubu on several occasions, and insists that he will only fight invading humans because they 'bully everyone.' It is only until Leo is severely beaten by Bubu and lectured by Marody that he decides to fight.

However, Leo becomes so engrossed with protecting his homeland and honoring his father's ways that his concern (and pride) temporarily becomes his downfall. After worsening a feud between two packs of wild dogs and nearly killing (!) one of the humans who attempted to capture his aunt, Leona, Leo exiles himself from his own jungle for several months. It is only then that he begins to understand more about the true meaning of leadership and realizes that he can't do everything on his own. He also comes to learn that even his father was not perfect. (Panja was more of a traditionalist and would kill animals tamed by humans because they had 'thrown away their pride'.) Leo realizes that he must make the jungle reputable with his own name, and that is ok that he is not exactly the same as his revered father.

Leo is a pacifist, but must learn to control his own violent tendencies before he can be an example for others.

Likewise, Lyra is portrayed with a surprising amount of depth. She partakes in a more active role than she does in most incarnations of Jungle Emperor, even though she is not as physically strong as Leo. Early in the series, this puts her at odds with Leo (along with the that fact that she initially lives with Leona among humans as part of a tourist attraction) because Leo insists Lyra should stay behind so she does not get harmed. Leo always means well, but he can be quite passionate and opinionated at times. Lyra is the gentler voice of reason. In fact, her reactions to Leo's temporarily violent behavior inspire Leo to reexamine his own philosophy. She even manages to overcome her depression regarding Leona's death within a couple of episodes, and helps an outcast warthog find acceptance within Panja's jungle and saves Leo from dying of infected vulture wounds at one point.

Lyra is frequently Leo's voice of reason and takes a more active role in this series than in other versions.

Interestingly, Marody's two sons, Obishan and Karadu, are given a considerable amount of screen time. Their personalities mirror those of Lyra and Kimba respectively, but are more exaggerated. Like Lyra, Obishan is inherently gentle and level headed. However, he often is too timid to stand up to his more volatile brother. Karadu is very prideful and constantly believes he has to prove himself to his father, Marody. Karadu's short temper often gets the best of him and he becomes extremely jealous of Leo after Marody takes a liking to the white cub. It is only towards the end of the series that Karadu experiences a humiliating defeat (which results in the death of half of his pride while trying to drive off humans invading Marody's mountain). Like Leo, Karadu temporarily exiles himself from his homeland after the event. Still, Karadu remains a flawed character. He outrightly kills a human at the end of Episode 46, something that Leo would never do.

"Hey Leo, move out of the frame. You're hogging my space."

Friday, October 3, 2014

Jungle Emperor Leo (1989) TV Series Review: Part 1

Director(s): Rintaro, Osamu Tezuka (original concept, oversaw direction of first six episodes)

Company: Tezuka Productions

Year: 1989-1990

Country: Japan

Although it may look cute, this is one of the most polarizing remakes in cartoon history.

The Controversy about the Series*

In the past couple of years, Hollywood has gotten a lot of flack for its recent fixation with creating 'grittier' and 'more realistic' revisions of popular franchises ranging from the likes of the misguided Man of Steel to this year's summer blockbuster, Godzilla. Of course this is nothing new, back in the 1960s-70s the James Bond and Planet of the Apes film franchises were exceptionally popular and continue to be made today, and other countries spout out remakes frequently as well. The problem with many these reboots/remakes is that tend to focus too much on superficial aesthetics and end up ignoring the core values of the original property that they were supposed to represent.

Many have claimed this is the case with the 1989 version of Jungle Emperor Leo (aka The New Adventures of Kimba the White Lion). The series has been accused of lacking the charm of the original 1960s show, and being devoid of any value beyond its much improved animation. It is often written off as a footnote in animation history compared to the '80s remake of Osamu Tezuka's other famous series, Astro Boy; and information about the series in English is surprisingly scarce (more on part of the reason as to why later). Yet, the remake has also been defended by members of its small community of fans. They claim that the series is a misjudged re-imagining that explores many dense topics that were skimmed over in the '60s version. The 1989 version of Kimba must have also been met with some success in its home country because it did receive several tie-ins and merchandise during its run in Japan (including a canceled video game).  

This is the one thing fandoms can agree on apparently.

Like the original 1965 TV series, the basic plot follows the exploits of Leo (Kimba) a young, white lion cub raised by humans who eventually returns to his homeland in order to follow his father's footsteps as ruler of the jungle. (Leo is an orphan. His father was shot by a hunter before he was born and his mother perished in a shipwreck after being captured by humans.) Both series also choose to focus on Leo's youth (with the later focusing on a 'teenage' Leo) rather than portraying him growing into an adult lion, as he does in the manga. Unlike the first series, the 80's show draws more influence from some of the manga's darker themes which were absent in the '60s show in order to appease the network standards. (This is even more apparent in the English dub). For this reason, the mood of Jungle Emperor 1989 bears more resemblance to the series, Onward Leo! (Onward Leo! was produced by Tezuka without his American partner NBC. It is a sequel to Kimba the White Lion, focusing on the titular lion's adulthood.)

Shift in tone aside, the other most obvious difference between the two TV series has to due with budget. The 1965 version looks very dated by today's standards and its animation is very limited/static, which makes sense given that it was the first color anime to be ever produced for TV. Kimba the White Lion's art style is very 'cartoony' compared to its newer incarnation. The remake's animation, on the other hand while somewhat dated, holds up quite well as its art style is more 'realistic' and modern looking.

For comparison's sake, here is the first episode of the 1965 show (of the English dub; sorry purists!).

…and the 1989 version (in Japanese).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Tale of the Fox (Le Roman de Renard) Review

Director: Ladislas & Irene Starevich

Company: UFA

Year: 1937

Country: France, Germany

Obscure but historically important, this movie is like no other.

Although Disney's Snow White is often misidentified as the first full length animated film, there were actually eight other movies released before it. The Tale of the Fox was the sixth animated feature to be released. It was also the second to utilize stop-motion after the 1935 Soviet film, The New Gulliver. (Le Roman de Renard's animation was actually completed by 1930.) and the third to utilize sound. (However, the film did obtain a soundtrack until several years later due to funding issues.) The film was originally released in German (as funding was given by the National Socialist Regime) and later in French in 1941, which is the version currently available for home viewing. The movie is rather obscure outside of France today, likely because distribution was cut off due to WWII. This is truly a shame as director Ladislas Starevich was a true pioneer in his field, and Le Roman de Renard was his only full length feature.

Le Roman de Renard is based upon the medieval beast fable, Reynard the Fox. The story has been adapted into animated form several times. It was written as a political satire of aristocratic society which made the Reynard character popular among European peasants. Unlike many other 'modern' adaptations of the tale, Le Roman de Reynard remains very loyal to the original story and is aimed more at older audiences then at young children.

The original theatrical poster for the film.

The film begins with a narrator monkey operating a film camera. He tells the audience that he has a tale to share with them that is "the oldest and most beautiful story known to us animals." He opens a book introducing some of the film's main characters: the vain Monsieur Raven, Sir Cock and his wife Lady Hen, the fearful Hare, the king's guard dogs, Isengrim the Wolf, and finally Reynard himself. Reynard is very smart. Within the first five minutes of the film, he manages to steal a piece of cheese from Raven by flattering him. Isengrim is introduced as Reynard's rival. The wolf is larger and stronger than the fox, but not nearly as bright. One night, Isengrim plans to steal some fish off of Reynard for his family's dinner. Reynard then tricks the wolf into 'fishing' by claiming that by sticking his tail into a hole in the ice he can catch a large amount of fish to eat. In the end, Isengrim returns home with no dinner (and no tail) only to discover Reynard has stolen his food instead! (It should be noted that both of these episodes are also featured in Aesop's Fables.)

Reynard's pranks on Raven, Isengrim and several other animals eventually result in several complaints to the King Lion and his wife. Reynard's cousin, Badger, defends him in court, stating that the fox is not guilty. He weaves tales of Reynard's 'good deeds' and frames Isengrim and the other animals as being lazy, dishonest, cowardly or greedy (which besides from the 'good deeds' part is, ironically, true to some extent). The King is unable to prove Reynard's crime so he decrees that no animal can no longer eat one another, so that 'love can reign the land.'

The movie is unusual because its protagonist is not the kind of ideal hero that we are commonly accustomed to seeing in animated films. As with many of the other characters in this film, Reynard is a self-centered survivalist. Not all of Reynard's actions are entirely harmless. The fox is far from being enthusiastic about the King's new law. (In fact, he refuses to go vegetarian despite the risk of being hung because he finds the taste of flowers disgusting.) Badger is unable to defend his cousin when Reynard kills and eats Lady Hen. The rooster calls for revenge and the king sends several of his members of court to capture Reynard and his family. In the end, however, the cunning fox manages to outwit everyone including the King himself. Because the King's army is unable to successfully siege Reynard's home, the fox is selected as the king's new minister. Such is politics.

While it's easy to admire Reynard's quick wits, he's also somewhat of a selfish jerk.

Narrative structure aside, The Tale of the Fox is probably most noted for being a technical marvel. Despite that the movie is almost eighty years old the stop-motion holds up remarkably well, even rivaling what is put out by today's studios. This is especially notable because Le Roman de Renard premiered only three years after King Kong, which special effects look very dated by comparison. The film features many cutting techniques and a use of motion blur largely unseen at the time. Below, is a clip from the film involving the Queen being wooed by Tybalt, the minstrel cat. (Their doomed relationship is an interesting subplot present throughout most of the movie.) It demonstrates this movie's mastery of its medium.

The iconic scene where the peasant cat woes the queen.

This movie is one of the most unique and unusual films I have ever seen. It is an absolute must watch for not only lovers of animation, but for any film enthusiast period. Reynard and the other animals in this movie are not always the most admirable characters, but they are relatable due to their remarkably human flaws and impulses. Although this film is old and is different from much of what is produced today, it is very memorable for exactly that reason. If you are feeling adventurous, Le Roman de Reynard is more than worth your time. (The entire film is currently available on Youtube with English subtitles and can be watched here.)

Ladilas and his wife, Irene, posing with large scale versions of the puppets used in this film.

Rating: 4.5

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Drop Dead Fred (Review)

Director: Ate de Jong

Company: Polygram Filmed Entertainment, Working Title Films, New Line Cinema

Year: 1991

Country: United States, United Kingdom

Today, I review another cult film…uh-oh.

If Drop Dead Fred succeeds at anything exceptionally well, it's being exceptionally annoying. Despite having garnered a small fan base over the years due to how bizarre and irreverent it is, this film is a chore to watch due to its unlikable characters and scattered plot. Drop Dead Fred was met with mixed to negative reviews upon its release. The movie earned back only $14 million at box office. Its current critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes is at an 'impressive' nine percent. And Gene Siskel stated that it was, "Easily one of the worst films I've ever seen," and was, "made in shockingly bad taste." So with that stated, let's take a dive into this slapstick nightmare.

The film begins with a young girl, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Cronin, being read a fairytale by her mother, Polly, while in bed. When Polly tells her daughter that the story ended happily ever after with the girl marrying the prince, Elizabeth enquires, "How do you know?" Polly says it was because the girl was well behaved, which causes Elizabeth to state, "What a pile of shit!" Charming. I'm sure this movie's opening lines went over well with all the parents and children in the crowd.

After some opening credits, the movie abruptly cuts to 21 years later.  Elizabeth (Phoebe Cates of Gremlins fame) has grown up to be an unhappy adult. She is unsatisfied with her current state in life and strained relationship with her domineering mother. Lizzie has also recently divorced her husband, Charles, who is in love with another woman named Annabella. Shortly after trying to talk with Charles, Lizzie's wallet and car are stolen. On top of it all, Lizzie arrives late for work and loses her job, which causes her to be chewed out by Polly again. Back at her childhood home, Lizzie becomes desperate. She decides to seek help from her childhood imaginary friend, Drop Dead Fred, as a last ditch effort.

Because everyone knows that struggling with depression and having a mental illness is hilarious. 

The titular character reappears when Elizabeth foolishly decides to release him from the jack-in-the-box her mother sealed him away in many years ago. After opening this Pandora's box, Fred proceeds to wreck havoc and crack unfunny jokes. He is an obnoxious hybrid of Beatle Juice/Peewee Herman portrayed by the late British actor, Rik Mayall. However, Lizzie tolerates Fred's potty humor, immature antics, and lewd behavior because he gives her a release from her oppressive mother. Frankly, I'm not seeing how this movie is supposed be funny yet. It's just making me feel kind of sad.

Thanks movie, I don't think I'll be able to sleep for a week now.

Soon after, Fred decides to start accompanying Elizabeth so that they can pull pranks on unaware bystanders and people they dislike, just like old times. The only catch is nobody can see Drop Dead Fred except for Elizabeth. Polly becomes concerned with her daughter's increasingly strange behavior (which includes talking incoherently, sinking her friend's house boat, and pouring wine on herself) and takes her to see a psychiatrist. Lizzie is given a pill prescription to rid herself of thoughts about Fred. But, of course, this doesn't work. As Fred becomes increasingly more crazy and out of control, Lizzie finds him harder and harder to deal with. Too make matters worse, Fred's behavior has began to sabotage the relationship Lizzie is trying to rebuild with Charles.

While Drop Dead Fred desperately tries to be funny and unconventional, the 'humor' in this film either falls flat or, more often than not, either annoys or offends the audience. Without the right balance of lightheartedness and genuinity, a comedy movie about a depressed protagonist is simply not funny. It's mean spirited...That is unless you actually happen to find jokes such as picking boogers, throwing poop at people, and staring up women's skirts funny.

And to think this film is sometimes marketed as a 'family movie.'

The characters are also woefully lacking in development. Polly is either too over the top to be a believable personality or else she is underplayed. Her actions sometimes don't even seem that mean or spiteful. Sure, Polly acts over protectively, but the way Lizzie responds to her mother's concern often just makes her end up looking really immature. (And, yes, I am aware that is probably part of the movie's intent. However, the audience is supposed to sympathize the most with Lizzie.) Phoebe Cates does an ok job considering what she's been given to work with, but Elizabeth spends most of her time moping (which makes the audience feel uncomfortable) or else awkwardly interacting Fred (which also makes the audience squirm in discomfort). As for Drop Dead Fred himself, well…this article has already talked enough about what's wrong with him.

The relationship between Elizabeth and her mother feels flat despite its large role in the story.

Watching his movie was one of the most miserable experiences I've had in a while. Drop Dead Fred is an uneven sloppy mess of a film. The fact that the titular character is introduced as both the film's center of conflict and as Lizzie's savior is an ill advised plot twist. This may have worked in the hands of a more skilled director, but considering Ate de Jong's track record their was no chance of that. Drop Dead Fred is a film at war with itself. It can't decide wether it wants to appeal to children or adults. In the end, it hardly appeals to anyone.

Sometimes it just sucks to be you.

Rating: 1.5

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ten Strange & Scandalous Pre-Hays Code Cartoons

The Hays Code was initially created in 1930 and began being enforced four years later. The code was meant to help reduce the amount of violence, sex and other 'anti-social' behavior onscreen. It was adopted due to conservative concerns about film content and controversy surrounding several off-screen scandals involving Hollywood stars.

However, many artists and filmmakers felt heavily restricted by the Code's rules which stated that films could not show such actions as: illegal drug trafficking, onscreen nudity or sex, profanity, 'white slavery', and ridicule of the clergy. Additionally, any crime shown on the screen had to be punished and couples could not be depicted sleeping in the same bed together. (Due to competition from other studios and changing social norms, the Code was eventually replaced by the film rating system we have today in 1968. While certainly not perfect, the MPAA's use of ratings does not rely on censorship, and thus allows more artistic freedom.)

A photo taken by A.L. Schafer that symbolically protests the Hays Code. It depicts several elements banned by the Code.

As a result, filmmaking in Hollywood changed drastically. Theatrical cartoons were not exempt. Despite that old animated shorts are often considered to be 'wholesome' / 'safe for the entire family,' many Pre-Code cartoons contained quite a few bizarre and sometimes unsettling scenes. If you don't believe it, then prepare to be enlightened by the ten shorts below.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Best (and Worst) Movie Sequels I Have Ever Seen - Part 2

Love them or hate them, Hollywood insists that sequels are here to stay. So what better way to celebrate (and scorn) them by creating a list in their 'honor'. As a follow up to my previous post, I have listed five of the most memorable and deplorable film sequels ever created below:

5.) The Best: The Rescuers Down Under 

The Rescuers Down Under is one of those few movies where the sequel is arguably better than the original. While the original Rescuers film is generally recognized as one of the better films to come out of Disney's dead period (i.e. shortly after Walt Disney died), its 1990 sequel is largely overlooked due to being released between The Little Mermaid and The Beauty and the Beast, as well as premiering during the opening week of Home Alone. It's a shame because The Rescuers Down Under is a truly fun, action-packed movie. It is arguably the closest Disney has come to releasing something in the vein of Indiana Jones or Crocodile Dundee

The storyline centers around a young, Australian boy named Cody. Cody befriends a large, endangered eagle (Marahute), but is held captive by a poacher when he refuses to tell him the eagle's location. Fortunately, the titular Rescuers, a pair two mice (Bianca and Bernard) are alerted and decide to embark on a dangerous mission in order to save Cody. At the same time, Bernard attempts to ask for Bianca's hand in marriage but is constantly interrupted by Jake, a charismatic kangaroo rat, and must over come his own incompetence. It should also be noted that The Rescuers Down Under was the first Disney film to be made using the digital CAPS system and the fantastic flight sequences of Marahute were animated by renowned animator Glen Keane. (Keane stated that the films of Hayao Miyazaki were a major influence on the film's flight scenes, specifically Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.)

5.) The Worst: The Blues Brothers 2000

Making a sequel between more than a decade is, more often than not, a recipe for disaster. Such is the case of Blues Brothers 2000 (which despite what it's name may suggest was released in 1998). 2000 takes place 18 years after the first film, when Elwood Blues is released from prison. He is told that his brother, Jake Blues has died and so has his surrogate father, Curtis. (This is the film's way to cover up for the deaths of the two actors that portrayed Jake and Curtis, John Belushi and Cab Calloway respectively.) Elwood also discoverers that he has second brother, Cabel Chamberlain. However, Cabel turns out be a member of the Illinois State Police. Thus Cabel is not that keen on Elwood's plan to reunite his band, after what happened the last time they played. 

2000 is basically a rehash of the first film, with almost the same plot and same jokes. The only difference is that this film constantly falls to be funny and tends to drag a lot of the time. Both critics and audiences responded negatively to the film. It only earned back a pitiful $14K its $28 million budget. The only good thing about Blues Brothers 2000 is its soundtrack and it still is not as good as the original film's music. If any thing, buy the CD. Avoid the movie.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Where I've Been

Hello, fellow bloggers! If you have been following my blog recently, you have probably noticed that I haven't posted anything for over a month. I have been extremely busy with my summer job and preparing for my senior project. (Not to mention, my internet has been rather spotty lately…) I should resume a more regular posting schedule by the end of this month. Sorry to keep you hanging! If you need something to read in the meantime, feel free to check out the recommended websites in the side tab.