Monday, April 29, 2013

Don Bluth meets Winsor McCay

This rather unique tribute / crossover piece by Don Bluth honoring Winsor McCay is brilliant. It also happens to have a bit of history behind it. There is no denying that Don Bluth, although some of his later films proved to rather lackluster, contributed a lot to animation. He brought Disney its much needed competition in the 1980s and proved that other companies outside of large studios could create successful films.  Like many other animators and artists, Bluth found much inspiration in the works of Winsor McCay.

McCay was a true pioneer. He started as out as a successful comic strip artist, and become one of the first figures to popularize animation. His art nouveau inspired style and interact attention to detail was simply astounding, and his imagination was boundless. Today he is best remembered for his comic-strip Little Nemo (1905-1927) and the animated short Gertie the Dinosaur (1911).

Notice how the panels grow to emphasize the size of the bed's legs.

Gertie the Dinosaur was drawn single-handedly on rice paper. Each background was traced, as animation cels had not been invented yet (which may explain why McCay only made about ten shorts in his career). 

Despite the tribute image was drawn in 1990, it almost seemed to predict something. In fact, Don Bluth was given the prestigious Winsor McCay Award in 2004 for his lifetime dedication to animation. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Of Witches, Femme Fatales, and Film Noir

The femme fatale archetype has been around far longer than the relatively short history of filmmaking, dating back to ancient times. It is the typecast role of a seductive and mysterious woman, whose personalty remains hard to figure out for most of the storyline. Her motives may seem conflicted or vague. She can also play the part of the trickster or deceiver. Although not always the story's outright villain (sometimes she may be portrayed as an antihero or in a more sympathetic light), the femme fatale represents the dangers of lustful desire and often leads her lovers into risky or compromising situations. Indeed the term itself is French for 'deadly woman.'

Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past (1947), a typical femme fatale.

Where did this idea of dangerous women originate from? Perhaps, it came into being because it was based off of certain mens' disastrous past relationships with their lovers. Femme fatales could be the reflection of a general fear about the consequences of entering a relationship that a man knows little about, and the unfortunate effects that might come with that relationship (i.e. giving into temptation, new responsibilities, commitment, childcare). In early history, the idea of a powerful women or female ruler was rather frightening for some as it was rather unheard of. Likely, many men questioned how effective such rulers were while in power. No doubt, the femme fatale also represents humankind's paradoxical attraction and repulsion of sex.

Some of the earliest examples of femme fatales date back to genesis of literature. Aphrodite (Venus), the goddesses of love, beauty, and procreation, had numerous affairs with several other gods and often ignited jealousy among immortals and mortals alike. She caused so much trouble that Zeus had her wed Hephaestus, a cripple who was skilled at metallurgy. Even Aphrodite's birth was rather suggestive. She arose from sea foam after Cronus threw Uranus's genitals into the ocean. Aphrodite was also known for being vain and easily offended. Her personality along with her control of magic and enticement of men, would become the basis of several figures to follow.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1485).

In Greek mythology, there are others that have the qualities of seductive, deadly women. Sirens (along with mermaids and nymphs) were feared for luring men into drowning by playing their lovely music, singing, or by their appearance alone. Clytemnestra, was Helen's half sister. She is infamously remembered for killing her husband, Agamemnon, after he returns from Troy, so that she can marry Aegisthus. Circe, the enchantress, briefly held Odysseus's men captive after transforming them into pigs with drug laced wine. The Sphinx, borrowed from Egyptian lore, was a female hybrid creature said to devour any man who could not solve her riddles. Hecate, was known as the goddess of crossroads, misfortune, and accidents. She would later become associated with the mysteriousness of the night and witchcraft.

Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse (1896).

Biblical texts also mentions several femme fatale like women in its Hebrew portion. Vanity and giving into temptation or seduction are commonly considered to be crimes in many religions. Although Eve is not really a femme fatale, she certainly represented the fear of disobeying God when she committed the first sin on Earth (similar to how Pandora could not contain her curiosity and opened the box she was given, letting misfortune into the world). Lilith ('screech owl'), was a female figure based off of earlier Mesopotamian demons, and Delilah was known for betraying Sampson when she cut his hair. Also notable were Salome, who gets revenge for her mother by receiving John the Baptist's head in return for her dancing, and Jezebel, who was a Phoenician queen and 'enemy of God's prophets'.

The Burney Relief depicting Lilith (Mesopotamian origin, 1800 - 1750 BC). 

In Medieval to early Renaissance times, women acting out of line or seductively would become associated with witchcraft. This basis had its roots in the earlier mentioned religion and folklore, and also from the Roman goddess Diana. Diana was representative of the moon, hunting, woods, and childrearing. Fertility cults that worshipped Diana at night would later be charged of performing witchcraft and practicing the witches's sabbath, likely as an attempt to wipe out Paganism. (Christianity is a very cumulative religion, and any beliefs not absorbed by it were often shunned or considered to be the work of the Devil / evil during this time period.) The idea of rebellion or 'shameless sexual activity', was particularly disconcerting to many people in the early Renaissance. This along with several crises at the time (religious upheaval, a changing European economy, and widespread epidemic diseases) caused society to look for an ideal scapegoat, which unfortunately often happened to be older, defenseless women who were widowed or social outcasts. The magic attributed to such witches could have had its basis in sexual desires, vanity, assertive behavior, or deception, all of which are traits commonly associated with the femme fatale archetype.

Outside of fiction and witch trails, there were several real life people who are considered to be femme fatales. Cleopatra, although much of her life in popular culture is fictionalized, is probably the most famous example. Coming from a family of Greek origin, Cleopatra ruled Egypt from approximately 69 to 30 BC. She was the last pharaoh and had affairs with powerful Roman generals Julius Cesar and Mark Antony. Mata Hari was a supposed German spy who acted as an erotic dancer and entertainer. She was executed by the French army in 1917. More recently, Anna Chapman was also accused of being a spy. She was posing as a fashion model in order to obtain information about the US for the Russian government.

Mata Hari, the world's most famous female spy.

In film, arguably the first major femme fatal figure was Theda Bara, famous for her portrayal as the 'vamp', one of cinema's earliest sex symbols. She wore many outfits that were (and still are) rather racy, perhaps in part prompting Hollywood to adopt the Hayes Box Office Code about ten years later. She is best known for starring in A Fool There Was (1915), Cleopatra (1917), and The She Devil (1918).  Most of Bara's films are now lost due to many being destroyed with the implantation of The Hayes Code or burning in fires.

Louis "Lulu" Brooks was another notable silent film star. She was a fiercely outspoken and independent woman who initially started her career in Hollywood, but would later move to Germany after a falling out over the use of sound with Paramount (for The Canary Murder Case [1929]).  She was a critic of the Hollywood system, popularized the bobbed hair cut, and would go to star in more complex, darker films after leaving America. Brooks had several affairs (once even with Charlie Chaplin), but was never able to achieve a stable marriage, which she attributes to being assaulted at age nine, making her leery of entering long time relationships. Her greatest films arguably were Beggars for Life (1928), Pandora's Box (1929), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), and Prix de Beaute (1930).

Many of these silent femme fatales, such as Louis Glaum and Musidora, were foreign in appearance (specifically Eastern European or Asian) which added to their mysterious allure. Their assertive and sometimes wild behavior was also a reflection of the increasing presence of women in the 1920s outside of the domestic sphere (the flapper, women gaining the right to vote with the 19th Amendment, more women going to college, etc). These actresses were the exact opposite of the more wholesome and innocent performances of stars such as Lillian Gish or Mary Pickford.

The few remaining seconds discovered of Theda Bara as Cleopatra (1917), and an interview with Bara.

Louise Brooks was another silent film femme fatale.

In the 1940s, many German filmmakers fled their homeland to avoid censorship from the Nazi regime and brought their unique, dark, and complex expressionist style with them, forever altering America cinema. Film Noir thus came into being and its style was adopted by several famous directors, including Alferd Hitchcock and Orson Wells. It is characterized by its crime ridden plot lines commonly involving antiheroes, dramatic black and white lighting, and (surprise!) femme fatales. The goal of film noir was to challenge the Hays Code and typical, 'safer' American movies made at the time. Some of the most famous film noir films include: Rebecca (1940), Citizen Cane (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Laura (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Gilda (1946), Out of the Past (1947), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960).  Sunset Blvd (1950) was particularly interesting. It cast Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, an eccentric former silent film star, obsessed with rising back to fame and her ill fated relationship with the young screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden).

"All right Mr. DeMillie, I'm ready for my closeup."

To this day, there are many films that follow the pattern of femme fatales found in film noir. Some recent examples of 'neo-noir' fatales include the likes of Evelyn Mulwray from Chinatown (1974),  Matty Walker of Body Heat (1981), Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction (1987), Lynn Bracken from L.A. Confidential (1997), and Mal Cobb from Inception (2010). A notable example of the femme fatale is the 'Bond Girl.' A Bond Girl is any of the classy, outspoken women from the James Bond film series. They are known for their often sexually suggestive names, troubled pasts, and penchant for betrayal. Femme fatales are common outside of American cinema as well, perhaps the best know being the anime characters Fujiko Mime from the Lupin the Third franchise and Fey from Cowboy Bebop (1998). 

Parodies of the femme fatale have also been popular ever since the 1940s. Animator Tex Avery gave as Red Hot Riding (1943) which mocked traditional fairytale conventions by updating them for modern audiences. Eartha Kitt's enjoyably campy performance for the third season original Batman show (1967 - 1968), was laced with puns and hamminess. Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) makes a tongue in cheek reference to the archetype stating, "I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way." Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) poked fun at noir conventions with its twisted black humor and plot about a thief being mistaken for an actor and detective. 

Parodying the femme fatale: Eirtha Kitt as Catwoman!

Fujiko Mime, anime's answer to the fatale archetype. 

Whether you agree with the implications of the character role or not, the femme fatale is here to stay and has long been part of our cultural heritage and imagination. She can be seen as a threat to traditional gender roles, a sexually liberated individual, or a manipulative honey trap. Depending on the context, this woman archetype is commonly seen as a cool, confident woman or nuisance to beware of. In either case, the femme fatale is one of the most recognizable figures conceived for fiction.  

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Short Lived Theatrical Cartoons that Had A Lasting Impact

Not all cartoons are instant hits. For certain reasons, some characters fade into the obscurity of time. During the Golden Age of Animation (1930 - early 1960s), theatrical shorts featuring funny animals were all the craze. Several later-to-be-famous animators initially had trouble standing out of the crowd or establishing successful series. Below are five cartoon characters that never managed to be widely successful, but are never the less important to the history of animation.

1. Foxy (1931, 3 shorts)

It's Mickey and Minnie Mouse! ....No, wait.

Early on, the Looney Tunes had a hard time competing with the likes of Disney and the Fleisher Brothers. Their first mildly successful star was Bosko, who is rarely seen today due to being a caricature of an African American boy. He was created primarily to showcase popular songs in the Warner Bros. library, and to be animated in synchronization to the music.

In 1931, ex-Disney animators Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising drew up a new potential star, Foxy. The series's first cartoon, "Lady Play Your Mandolin", was the first cartoon in the Merrie Melodies canon. Foxy and his girlfriend looked almost identical to Mickey and Minnie Mouse, save for their bushy tails and pointed ears. Foxy was far more boisterous than Mickey however. He had a noticeably deeper voice and was shorter tempered. His second cartoon "Smile Darn Ya Smile" is notable for having its theme tune featured in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). Foxy's last cartoon, "One More Time", was his best. It featured an original story with Foxy as a traffic cop in a crime ridden city.

Just smile, dagnabbit!

Foxy was retired in less than a year. His failure to be unique enough from other cartoons at the time taught Warner Bros an important lesson: Don't copy other companies if you want to stand out. He was later replaced by Porky Pig (1935), and other more popular Looney Tunes characters soon followed. Foxy and Roxy would later appear, along with Goopy Geer, as guest stars in the Tiny Toon Adventures episode, "Two Tone Town",  in 1992. They also acted as the basis for the main characters in the Animaniacs (1993).  

2. Pooch the Pup (1932 - 1933, 13 shorts)

This was the cartoon that was meant to save Lantz's studio.

Walter Lantz is best remembered today for Woody Woodpecker and Chilly Willy. His studio at Universal was actually established many years earlier, in 1929, when he inherited Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks) from Charles Mintz. While Oswald continued to be successful enough to keep Lantz's staff busy, Walter wanted to create his own original character in hopes of striking gold. Thus, he put Bill Nolan in charge of the Oswald cartoons and began to direct a new series, Pooch the Pup.

Pooch the Pup did not have too much personality of his own. He was sort of the everyman character common at the time, acting as a vehicle for sight gags and Hollywood parodies. Pooch's appearance would change drastically over his ill fated career, perhaps in an attempt to try to save the character. In his earlier cartoons, Pooch was depicted as a small white terrier. Lantz would later redraw him to be more generic, resembling his own Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and, even more so, Fleischer Studios's Bimbo. Currently, only two of his cartoons have been released on video so far, "King Klunk" and "She Done Him Right", making him practically invisible to audiences today. Although Pooch never became popular, Lantz and his crew (including a young Tex Avery) gained valuable experience while working on the series and would move on to create bigger, better things.

Pooch's best known cartoon is a parody of King Kong.

3. Gabby Goat (1937, 3 shorts)

Porky Pig's original comedic foil.

As mentioned earlier, Porky Pig was Warner Brother's first run away hit cartoon character. In 1937, Bob Clampett created Porky a sidekick for the cartoon "Porky and Gabby" (which is notable for being directed by Ub Iwerks). Gabby Goat, voiced by storyboard artist Cal Howard, was a very temperamental and grumpy character whose personality constantly clashed with Porky's mild manners.  Despite his constant complaining about others, Gabby proved to be very incompetent, often causing his own problems. Gabby's second cartoon, "Porky's Bedtime Story", was the first Looney Tunes short to be directed by Clampett and was successful enough to be remade in 1944, as "Tick Tock Tuckered" (with Daffy Duck instead of Gabby). Gabby's final appearance was in "Get Quick Rich Porky", although it was originally planned for him to appear in "Porky's Party" (1938).

Gabby's last cartoon.

Gabby Goat was scrapped because audiences failed to find him funny. Some were even offended by his abrasive nature. Daffy Duck was used as his replacement and would later go on to become Bugs Bunny's rival. Apparently, Gabby is rumored to be returning on The Looney Tunes Show, but that is yet to be confirmed.

4. The Fox and the Crow (1941 - 1950, 24 shorts)

An uppity Englishman encounters a smart arse con artist. What could possibly go wrong?

Not many people remember Columbia's Screen Gems cartoons, which is understandable because many of them were very bland and low budget in comparison to the output of other studios from the same time. However, Frank Tashlin managed to give the studio its saving grace. He created Fauntleroy Fox and Crawford Crow as a comedic duo for the cartoon, "The Fox and The Sour Grapes". The short proved to very successful, so much so in fact, that the Fox and the Crow soon became Columbia's biggest stars. Animator Chuck Jones was particularly impressed. He used the short as an inspiration for his Roadrunner and Willie Coyote cartoons. The fox's hellbent intent to steal the grapes and his wacky schemes certainly reflected in the coyote's personality. The short was also one of the first to use creative blackout gags.

Tashlin's "The Fox and the Sour Grapes." 

The next twenty shorts, while somewhat variable in quality, managed to be entertaining enough. (Perhaps this was because Tashlin did not return to direct, leaving Bob Wickersham mostly at helm.) The series's strength came from its leads with opposing personalities. While Fauntleroy remained as gullible and cheerful as ever, his refined personality could just as easily break down into maniac rage after being pestered by Crawford. Crawford Crow would not always win in every cartoon, though, which made the the series very funny and unpredictable. Arguably, the best cartoons from this point of the characters's career were "Woodsman Spare the Tree" (1942), "Room and Board" (1944), and "Unsure Runts" (1946).

Yet, the success of The Fox and the Crow was not enough to save the Screen Gems cartoons. Eventually, the studio was shut down in 1946 and Columbia replaced it with a new studio established by Disney strikers, UPA. The Fox and the Crow was handed over to UPA in order to test its abilities. UPA took the bold approach of using stylized, limited animated animation contrasted with detailed backgrounds for their cartoons, launching the 'cartoon modern' era, which remains influential to this day. Long-time veteran John Hubley directed all three The Fox and the Crow shorts that UPA produced for Columbia, "Robin Hoodlum" (1948), "The Magic Fluke" (1949)", and "Punchy de Leon" (1950). UPA's venture proved to be fruitful. Their first two The Fox and the Crow shorts were even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short. However, the duo was ultimately abandoned by UPA, in favor of using their own non-antromorpic characters. The Fox and the Crow was left to the comic book realm, were it persisted for several more years, until 1968. Truly it is a shame that these short lived but very influential cartoons remain rather obscure to the general public today and all have yet to be been released to home video.

Hubley's "Punchy de Leon."

5. Screwy Squirrel (1944 - 1946, 5 shorts)

He's the nuttiest cartoon character ever created!

After co-creating Bugs Bunny and making several other contributions to Warner Brothers, Tex Avery left the company in 1942 establishing his own cartoon studio at MGM. He made several innovative one shot cartoons characterized by positively zany, fast-paced humor, some of which would probably alarm more conservative parents today. He meet his biggest success with the cartoon, "Red Hot Riding Hood" (whose protagonist would later be the model for Jessica Rabbit), and his Droopy Dog series, notable for its deadpan witticism. In hopes of replicating his success with wacky cartoon animals like he did at Warner Brothers, Avery came up with the idea of a literally insane character for the cartoon "Screwball Squirrel."

Screwy Squirrel was about the most anti-Disney a cartoon could get in the early 1940s. Screwy was loud, brash, and could be quite violent at times. He often antagonized Meathead and other dogs with little to no provocation. In his debut, he even beats up a stereotypically cute squirrel, stating to the audience, "You wouldn't have liked that cartoon anyway." Screwy was often very unpredictable and frequently broke through the fourth wall. In "Happy-Go-Nutty," Screwy's cell door is left open and he walks out, looking around the mental ward. However, he then closes the door and saws his way out. For his last three cartoons, "Big Heel-Watha", "The Screwy Truant" and "Lonesome Lenny," the squirrel was redesigned to look even goofier and given a more lanky appearance. The later was particularly notable for being a parody of George and Lenny, from Of Mice and Men. It also ended with the implication that Screwy was crushed to death by the dull witted dog based off Lenny. ("I used to have a little friend, but he don't move no more.")

Screwy Squirrel being, well, screwy.

Screwy Squirrel was killed off as joke, because Avery apparently wasn't that fond of him. He was ultimately abandoned in favor of Avery's other, slightly more sane characters. However, Screwy has gained somewhat of a cult following recently. This is likely due to changing tastes in humor over the years and the fact that the character's cartoons played frequently on Cartoon Network for a while. As an April Fool's Day joke in 1997, Cartoon Network even ran the short, "Happy-Go-Nutty," twenty-four seven. Screwy was also mentioned in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and acted as a template for the character Slappy Squirrel on the Animaniacs

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The 10 Stupidest Mockbusters EVER

Mockbusters are the bootleg equivalents of the movie world, except that they manage to tightrope around legal accusations. They exploit the ignorance of certain moviegoers (parents who don't care what their kids watch, senile grandmothers, etc) into buying knockoff versions of blockbusters. Most mockbusters are released around the same time a popular film is in theaters or just before it hits the home video market. They are cheaply made and often have little to do with the film they are piggybacking save for the basic premise. Unfortunately, mockbusters are doing better than ever due to sites such as Netflix and Hulu.

Just how bad are they? Well....they are often reviewed by shows such as Mystery Science Theater 3000 and are quickly becoming more infamous than B movies, which should set off red flags. So to inform people of the awfulness of mockbusters, here are ten of the worst I have had the (dis)pleasure of watching. 'Enjoy!'

10. Tappy Toes 

Happy Feet was already a cliche enough film about preachy, singing penguins. This movie doesn't even have an IMB page, presumably to keep people from leaving bad reviews on it. Brought to you from the 'brilliant' company, Renegade Animation (which states on its website to bring you "smart, funny, and always original" productions), Tappy Toes is not even what it appears to be on the cover. The film is not done in CGI, but animated in cheaply in Flash. It is about a dancing penguin who is raised by two Skua Birds who eat their own boogers. Seriously. 

9. Age of the Hobbits

Technically, this movie has been renamed Clash of the Empires because it actually sounded similar enough to Peter Jackson's film to provoke a lawsuit. Given that it was released by The Asylum, this perhaps is not too surprising. The company's founder David Michael Latt once said, 

 "I'm not trying to dupe anybody. I'm just trying to get my films watched. Other people do tie-ins all the time; they’re just better at being subtle about it. Another studio might make a giant robot movie that ties into the Transformers release and call it Robot Wars. We’ll call ours Transmorphers."

What an honest man! His vast insights sure make appreciate the artistry and acting in Age of the Hobbits a lot more!

8. Ratatoing

Video Brinquedo is the Brazilian animation equivalent of The Asylum. All of its productions bare an uncanny resemblance to several Dreamworks, Disney, and Pixar films. Ratatoing is perhaps the most infamous of all due to its awkward dialogue and very bad animation. So much so, that it was even parodied on a Cartoon Network show. Currently, Ratatoing has a three percent approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes. Impressive. 

7. The Little Panda Fighter

The Little Panda Fighter is another Video Brinquedo monstrosity. Instead of wanting to become a kung fu panda, however, this one wants to be ballerina... and spends much of his time creepily staring at the audience like on the box art above. He also fights an evil Care Bear at one point. One thing is for sure, after watching this film, anyone can learn to better appreciate the animation that comes out of well known studios (and how they avoid the uncanny valley). 

6. Kiara the Brave

Don't be fooled. This movie has very little at all to do with the similarly named Pixar film. It is actually an Indian film called Super K repackaged to look like Brave. The plot follows a boy with superpowers and his quest to save the galaxy. Too bad for all the little girls who were hoping to see a movie about a plucky princess! The Youtube tailer has its comments disabled, so they can not even voice their disappointment. 

5. Life's a Jungle

Here is film which in no way resembles Madagascar! Still not convinced? Well, it comes with a free downloadable activity kit. Also, here's a fun game kids! Let's play how to spot the uncanny valley again! Note: We are not responsible for any nightmares this production may cause. 

4. The Secret of Mulan

Disney's Mulan and Pixar's A Bugs Life came out during the same year. So somebody decided to release a cartoon with both of them combined. In this version, Caterpillar Mulan fights an evil Hun cockroach and must win the affection of a butterfly prince. The screenwriter's credits include the likes of Jem, Dork Hunters from Outer Space, and Kong: The Animated Series

3. Sunday School Musical

What's worse than High School Musical? The Asylum's Sunday School Musical! Made on the high budget of $8,100, it is guaranteed to offend Christians everywhere. Critics on IMDB are saying, "If a movie is still awful drunk, you know it's a bad film" and, "It's a good laugh if you can appreciate it for what it is - total crap".   

2. The Amazing Bulk

Easily the most unintentionally hilarious mockbuster on this list, The Amazing Bulk fails on every level to be scary or suspenseful. It's a hybrid between a superhero story and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The producers were so lazy that all of the CGI props stick out like a sore thumb and the green screen is the worst in a motion picture that I have ever seen. Don't get me started on the acting. It looks like a parody on Saturday Night Live

Prepare to laugh or cry, you cannot escape the horribleness of this movie. 

1. Titanic the Animated Movie (Both Versions)

The two animated Titanic movies have become semi-legendary on the internet due to how absolutely bonkers they are. The first one, Titanic: The Legend Goes on, involves a rapping dog, Yiddish mice, and love interests that have about three lines of dialogue a piece. The second, The Legend of the Titanic, is even worse. Here the titanic is not sunk by an iceberg, but by gangster sharks and a giant octopus. It also has dolphins that can communicate with people by crying moonbeams. In both versions, none of the characters die except for the villains. This is so insulting to all of those who died on the real Titanic. It would be like if Disney decided to make an Anne Frank movie.

There is a rapping dog on the Titanic. This is the real tragedy. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Lupin the Third: Series 1 (Review)

Masaaki Osumi (episodes: 1-7, 9, 12)
Hayao Miyazaki & Isao Takahada (episodes: 8, 10, 11, 13-23)

Company: TMS

Year: 1971-1972

Country: Japan

How does one of Japan's most revolutionary anime series hold up?

Lupin the Third is one of Japan's longest living franchises, still generating numerous spinoffs and specials to this day. Based off of the manga by Monkey Punch, the series is about Lupin III, the grandson of French thief Arsene Lupin, who never fails to steal a target that he sets his eyes upon. Lupin is aided by Diasake Jigen, an excellent marksman who is heavily implied to be a former mafia member, and, later, by the stoic swordsman Goemon on occasion. Fujiko Mime betrays Lupin just as frequently as she helps him. She often exploits Lupin's weakness for women to her own advantage. Lupin must also beware of Kocihi Zenigata, a bumbling inspector who has dedicated his life to capturing the thief. Although a pilot film was released in 1969, the Lupin franchise did not really take off until 1971 with its first television series, initially somewhat controversial due to its level of violence and suggestive themes.

Our protagonists: a thief, a former mobster, a samurai, and a femme fatale.  

The early episodes, directed by Masaaki Osumi, are rather rough around the edges in certain places and remain fairly loyal in overall tone to the original manga. Lupin III truly was the first anime series aimed at a more adult audience. It was a product of changing standards brought on by the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s. Some of the content in the first half of the series can be a bit surprising even by today's standards. The body counts can be quite high as Lupin is not below shooting his enemies and the protagonists frequently get tangled up with criminal organizations. The drama remains tense throughout, and Lupin and his friends encounter many hardships uncommon (or rather unheard of) in American cartoons of the same time period.

Black comedy and bizarre Mad Magazine like humor is also common early on. Sex is never depicted on screen, but never the less is suggested and certain episodes are quite racy at times. In one particular scene, Fujiko thanks Lupin for saving her and says, "I just wish you would have come sooner." Lupin, upon seeing Fujiko's ripped clothes, replies, "No, I should have come later!" 

Or in other words, Lupin, you're being manipulated again.

Pointing the gun at the screen. Not your typical Saturday morning fare. 

Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahada were later brought in to tone down the violence and innuendoes. The series then went under a major makeover. Slapstick humor and inspired sight gags become fairly common. Some of the violence remains, but is less mysterious and sinister in nature. Lupin becomes a more carefree and kinder character. He is far less of a playboy and is even quite chivalrous at times, when he saves young girls from harm or steals money from the rich in a Robin Hood-esque manner. Jigen becomes less temperamental and Goemon's rivalry with Lupin cools down considerably. All of Lupin's allies are more willing to work with one another as well.

Fujiko perhaps changes the most. The sexuality goes completely out the window with Miyazaki and Takahada at helm. Fujiko becomes far less seductive and begins to become more playful with Lupin. She is shown to be kidnapped less often and to be very capable. Also, Fujiko starts to be depicted in Miyazaki's trademark style. She begins to sport a short hair cut, pilot airplanes, and frequently wear the color blue.

The contrasting parts of the show make it very interesting to watch indeed. The first few episodes are almost too cruel or over sexualized in places, while the later Miyazaki / Takahada episodes can be overly goofy at times. Perhaps, the best episodes are the middle ones which balance the drama and grit of Osumi's direction with the boyish energy and more confident direction of the later Miyazaki / Takahada ones. The sudden change in the show is not a bad thing, in fact, it makes Lupin III more enjoyable.

Miyazaki and Takahada working behind the scenes in 1971.

Miyazaki's Fujiko relies less on her sexuality and more on her wits.    

The greatest thing about this series is its great use of characterization and zany humor. Each Lupin episode can be viewed as a self contained story (save for the one where Goemon is introduced), but have enough references back to past episodes to keep fans watching. Much of the show's humor and tension comes from its cast's contrasting personalities. Lupin is smart, but also very goofy at times and weak willed around women. On the other hand, his partner, Jigen, is a no-nonsense guy who can't stand Fujiko. Goemon is even more stern. He is quite conservative and his ego frequently clashes with Lupin's. Zenigata is so stubborn and so driven to catch Lupin, that he constantly makes errors. The audience gets a lot of laughs out of his mistakes, but can sympathize with him as well. And Fujiko, despite how manipulative she can be at times, truly does care for Lupin. She never puts Lupin into situations that he can not escape from and mourns when she is lead to believe that he has died. (Once, Fujiko even shoots her former partner, whom she was very close to, in order to save Lupin's life.)

Lupin drives a Mercedes SSK which happens to be one of the world's rarest cars. The running gag? It blows up or gets cut in half a lot

Oh no, Zenigata caught Lupin...Too bad he will escape in about two seconds.

Another interesting aspect is the series's soundtrack by Takeo Yamashita with vocals provided by Charlie Kosei and, occasionally, Kayoko Ishu. The music is very distinctive, firmly fitting in the era Lupin III was created. It has sort of a post-Woodstock vibe to it. Charlie Kosei sounds a bit like Bob Dylan at times, and the soundtrack also makes heavy use of jazz, whistling, and scat lyrics. There are even English vocals throughout the score. This can be somewhat hilarious as the English can be rather nonsensical. ("Lupin, he's a nice man...and he gets angry....sometimes...But he's a groovy guy. Yeah, Lupin the Third".) It should also be noted that the music of Lupin III and the overall darker mood of the series's first half had a great influence on Shinichiro Watanabe, creator of Cowboy Bebop (1998) and Samurai Chamloo (2004). 

The animation of Lupin the Third is dated, yes, but that is practically unavoidable for a TV series that is over forty years old. Even though the characters are rather static in certain scenes, the animation for this show is very fluid in comparison to other anime and American cartoons released at the same time. The character designs have aged fairly well, as they have not changed too much over the years. Great attention is given to drawing realistic looking guns, cars, motorcycles, airplanes, and other such machines. This detailed style of inanimate objects would carry on to Miyazaki's later work, due to his love of flight and appreciation of mechanics. (Miyazaki's father was an aeronautical engineer who created plane parts during WWII.)

The attention to detail on the motorcycle is impressive, especially given this show's age.

The original Lupin III series is not perfect, but that's part of its charm. The grittier, more adult half of Lupin really helped push anime into unfamiliar territory and further distance its self from American cartoons. The later half of the show was a stepping stone for Miyazaki and Takahada who would later become two of the most respected anime directors to ever live. Lupin is not only historically important, but it has great wacky humor and well developed characters. So despite Lupin having a rather rough start and its age, the series remains a favorite among many hardcore anime fans and perhaps one of mine as well. 

Rating: 4/5

* About the Dub: No English dub of Lupin III was ever produced, despite the later series receiving one. For those curious about the Lupin III, it is available for purchase on Amazon in its entirety, with restored picture quality and special features including the pilot film. For broke college students and any one else starved on cash, the original series can be watched for free on Hulu.

Friday, April 5, 2013

RIP Roger Ebert

The world's most famous film critic has just passed away.

Breaking News: Roger Ebert died yesterday at the age of 70 after a long battle with cancer. Ebert worked as film critic for Chicago Sun-Times since 1967 and publish many of his reviews on his own website.  He will be fondly remembered for his wit and insights on the art of film making. Ebert was also an outspoken critic of the American film rating system, violence in the media, and a supporter of artistic expression. He helped popularize the film star rating system and created the 'thumbs up, thumbs down' review summaries with his partner Gene Siskel (who died in 1999). In 1975, Ebert became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. More can be read about Ebert here from The New York Times

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Movie Night: Chirin no Suzu

When a movie is obscure enough to the general public and hard to get in the USA (out of print or never in print), I will post them here on the blog from Youtube and related sites. For your enjoyment, tonight's film is Chirin no Suzu (The Ringing Bell of Chirin). As reviewed earlier, Chirin a is dark but well crafted fable about the dangers of revenge and cruelty of the outside world, that just so happens to be under the guise of childern's movie featuring sheep. Chirin no Suzu is presented in its original Japanese audio below, in five parts. For those curious, the English version can be watched here.

Ringing Bell / Chirin no Suzu (Review)

Director: Masami Hata

Company: Sanrio and Madhouse

Year: 1978

Country: Japan

Sure it's cute at first, but not for long...

Rather obscure outside of Japan, Chirin no Suzu (The Ringing Bell of Chirin), is one of the most depressing but brutality honest 'children's films' out there. Despite that it is only 47 minutes long, a single viewing of Chirin is sure to stay ingrained in your brain long after being watched due to its extreme mood whiplash and universal themes of revenge and loss of innocence. The film starts out a lot like many other typical family movies. The movie is about a young lamb named Chirin who is very curious but naive about the world. He is given a bell to wear around his neck to ensure that he does not wonder too far from home. Chirin's mother warns him not to go beyond the pasture gate because a fearsome wolf lives beyond it. However, Chirin barely listens and goes off to play with a rabbit.

Even if Chirin had listened to his mother, chances are tragedy still would have struck. 

But, one night, something terrible happened which altered the life of Chirin forever. The wolf that Chirin's mother had spoken of bursts into the barn and Chirin freezes in fright. In an attempt to protect her son, Chirin's mother shields Chirin and is killed. In this one horrifying event, Chirin is no longer the cheerful, care-free character that he used to be. The other sheep do not help Chirin. They only watch him in horror and are too afraid to help him or even offer any words of condolence. Chirin becomes torn apart by feelings of anger and vengeance towards the wolf, and is ashamed of the other sheep for being so weak. Despite his clear disadvantage, Chirin sets off to find the wolf in the cold rugged mountains, far beyond the safe pasture he grew up in.  

When Chirin quickly discovers that he is no match for the wolf, the movie takes a surprising turn. Unlike a safer or 'Disney-like' cartoon, things get more grim from here on out, with very little comedic relief or 'family friendly' shenanigans. Our hero, or rather anti-hero, decides to become the wolf's apprentice. Chirin is embarrassed by his own feebleness and feels abandoned by his own kind. He wants to become like the wolf not only to eventually avenge his mother's death, but also to become strong enough to defend himself. Although Chirin is frightened by the wolf's hunting, he soon realizes that the world can be cruel and unforgiving. The wolf is only doing what he has to do in order to survive. 

Aww, so sweet.

Oh.... my....God. 

Eventually, Chirin comes to the wolf as a father figure. This may seem strange, but since the orphaned Chirin has no one to turn to and desires strength, he comes to admire and respect the wolf. Likewise, the wolf is surprised by Chirin's well to live and admires Chirin's perseverance and dedication to his training. Chirin's epiphany comes when he attempts to save a nest of eggs from a snake. The snake kills the mother bird. Chirin, in anger, attacks the snake. However, he ends up smashing the eggs in the process. Sobbing, Chirin asks the wolf, "Why do the weak have to die?" After a long talk with the wolf, Chirin realizes the unfair law of nature: only the most ruthless can hope to live in this world. 

"Life is not fair Chirin. In order for some to live, others must die."

On a symbolic level, much goes on within Chirin no Suzu's short runtime. Chirin's sorrow becomes his resentment and anger. As the wolf had told him, "Over the course of your life, you will be burdened by grief and despair. But, by overcoming them you will sharpen the fangs of your heart." Indeed, the now semi-adoleseant Chirin does take the wolf's lesson to heart. In a fantastical sequence of dark animation, the once cute lamb grows older. After many hard years of training, Chirin is no longer small or weak. He has become a fully grown ram that bears a shocking resemblance to the wolf. 

But the wolf makes a mistake when he takes Chirin back to the barn. Chirin is unable to go in and kill the other sheep after seeing a lamb being shielded by its mother. In desperation Chirin charges the at the wolf screaming, "I was one of them!" The wolf is killed, but is proud to have died during battle with his pupil. The other sheep will not accept Chirin as there own; he has changed too much. The only reminder of Chirin's childhood is the small bell around his neck. Chirin is forsaken and goes off to presumably die alone. Thus, Chirin's own anger and lust for vengeance harms him in the end. He lost everything he hoped to become and is outcast from the rest of society. Was his life a failure? Did he do the wrong thing? If so, what choice did he have? 

Chirin becomes consumed by anger and revenge....

 ....causing him to transform into a beast that is 'neither ram or wolf.'

The art direction of Chirin is simple but works very well and holds up nicely for its age. Although, made for Sanrio (of Hello Kitty?!), the animation was done at Madhouse, which would later become known for making its sophisticated, adult anime. Chirin no Suzu really does an excellent job of contrasting the first half of the film's style with its second half. In the beginning, Chirin is drawn with bright colors and populated with cute cartoon animals. After the film takes on its dark tone, the cuteness is gone and only bleak, washed out colors are used. The film's lyrical music, written by Takasji Yanase and Taku Izumi, is appropriately solemn and melancholy. It should be noted that the adult Chirin was voiced by Akira Kamiya, most famous for his role in the mecha genre, Iago in the Japanese version of Aladdin, and in many other popular anime. Chirin no Suzu's narrator, Hitoshi Takagi, also voiced Totoro.

The world is cruel beyond the shelter of childhood and safety of home.

Wow, just wow. Chirin no Suzu has very little flaws, and remains just as shocking and unsettling as it was when first released. It boldly tackles subjects that most Western cartoons wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. The movie is really a reflection of Japan's post-WWII society. The innocence and simplicity of life has been shattered, replaced by chaos, loss, and sorrow. Chirin can be seen as a boy who became reluctantly pulled into war. A boy who became overridden by feelings of regret and resentment, unable to enter back into society after experiencing such horrors. Overall, Chirin no Suzu is a tragic fable of the fallen hero. It can be a painful experience to watch, because it is so humanly relatable. Not for the weak of heart, but highly recommended for anyone who wants to see an intellectually charged movie that well leave them asking questions about life. 

"Chirin come, come and play, 
Let your dreams carry you away,...
Run and play in the snow,
For now that's all the life you'll know,
Seasons pass you well see, 
That life is not all that free,
Chirin where are you now?..."

 Rating: 4/5*

*About the Dub: Frankly, it's surprising that this movie got a dub at all, considering how dark and unmarketable it is to the greater American public. The US version of Chirin no Suzu was released over 25 years ago directly to VHS, and has not been in print since. All of the original songs are intact, with lyrics rewritten by the original performers. Most of the songs are good (save for the laughably bad "I am Chirin"), although sometimes slightly off key. The most annoying thing about the dub is the inclusion of 'cute' and unnecessary sound effects or dialogue early on in the film, which ironically, makes the second half of the movie seem even darker. Most of the voice actors do a fine job as well, considering the dub's age, especially for adult Chirin and the wolf. Young Chirin's voice is rather obnoxious, however.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Cats Don't Dance (Review)

Director: Mark Dindal

Company: Warner Brothers and Turner Entertainment

Year: 1997

Country: USA

While not as good as Disney's Renaissance films, it's not a bad movie.

Cats Don't Dance was a production of Warner Brothers's short lived theatrical animation department of the 1990s. Set in the late 1930s, it is the story of star-struck and optimistic cat named Danny who wants to make it big at Hollywood. Unfortunately for Danny and all of the other animals (most of which who have already had their hopes crushed), they are typecast into the most meager and stereotypical roles. Standing in their way to success is the egotistic and manipulative child star Darla Dimple (an obvious pun on Shirley Temple). Danny is eager to help his aloof love interest, Sawyer, and the other animal actors, but his own curiosity and naiveness prove to be problematic at times.   

The animation in this film is very fun to look at and inspired, even if it is a little rough around the edges on occasion. Appropriately, Cats Don't Dance is drawn in a very vivid and bright art style, resembling the technicolor hues of films released at the time it is set in. The characters resemble cartoons from the late 1930s-1940s having large, exaggerated features and making heavy use of 'squash and stretch' animation. Perhaps, the art direction of Cats Don't Dance can best be described as Looney Tunes meets Singing in the Rain.

Many of the characters are fun to watch as well. The film's diverse cast includes a fish modeled after Norma Desmond from Sunset Blvd.; a large, talented, piano-playing, British elephant who acts as Mammoth Studio's mascot (a parody of MGM's lion logo); and a nervous, obsessive, fortune cookie reading turtle. (It should also be noted that Sawyer, the female cat, was animated by Lauren Faust who later would become well known for working in TV animation.) Darla practically steals the show with here over the top temper tantrums and violent outbursts. She covers her true nasty, self-centered behavior with her overly 'cute' stage persona. Darla's temper is very volatile and she can go from appearing 'innocent' to positively terrifying within a couple of seconds. The scenes with Darla dressed up as the star of the production 'The Little Ark Angel', seem to be mocking the way Hollywood markets 'adorable', safe childern's entertainment to a degree that is almost sickening.

Don't trust her, that creepy little smile gives away all her bad intentions.

The same women who voiced this fish voiced Cruella de Vil.

Another interesting thing about this film, is that the widespread aversion of the animal actors is an allusion to racism in the 1930s-1940s. The only parts which the animals are able to land are very small and heavily typecast, similar to how African Americans were treated at Hollywood during the same time period. At one point in the film a bus driver even tells Danny, "Hey, did you hear about that disaster down at Mammoth Pictures? Oh boy, what were those animals thinking?....No offense or anything...It's just that they don't belong in pictures, you know what I mean? They belong back on the farm."

Because it's the only role 'animals' are suited for. 

Parts of Cats Don't Dance are rather uneven, however. For a musical, many of the film's songs are fairly average. They are not terrible, but not particularly memorable either (save for Darla's rather devious performances), resembling typical standup routines common in the era that this film was set in. The humor in the film can fall flat a few times or rely a bit too much on overly dramatic scoring. The movie is also relatively short. Cats Don't Dance would have benefited by fleshing out some of its characters more and by tightening the focus of its plot.  

Another issue with the film is that Danny can come of as a rather flat character. He is far less interesting than the film's other characters. His main purpose does not go much beyond as acting as the 'everyman'. It is hard to believe how ignorant he can be at times. How could Danny have possibly trusted Darla after all the harm she had already done to him and his friends? He also lacks any motives beyond being successful at Hollywood and making friends there. Normally, this would't be too much of an issue, but  Danny has no back story for the audience to relate with.

Danny is perhaps a bit too over enthusiastic here...

All in all, Cats Don't Dance is an alright film. It is a bit too flawed to be truly memorable, but it is not offensive nor insults its audience's intelligence. So if you are looking for a film to pop in front of your kids for an hour or you are a classic movie fan, you might enjoy this film. There is nothing terribly wrong with Cats Don't Dance, in fact the animation is great, but there are better films.

Hey look there everybody! It's Mae West!

Rating: 3/5