Mary… Poppins? Musical theater isn’t my thing.

July 25, 2009

poppinsFROM JASON’S LONG, SAD AFTERNOON — Andrew and I have often discussed our very different opinions on musical theater. I am not fond of it, while he tends to be a fan.

Two-and-a-half hours trapped today in a balcony seat affirmed why I eschew this particular medium. It’s the singing. And the dancing.

Please don’t misunderstand; both in small doses can be just fine. But the live version of Disney’s Mary Poppins can’t stand against the 1964 film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. On stage, the actors put so much weight into the song-and-dance routines that they miss out on what I love best about stories — the  characterization.

It was the wife’s idea — or maybe her revenge after I forced her to sit through Star Trek — to hit the State Theater on Playhouse Square in downtown Cleveland. She’s a huge fan of children’s media as long as it’s ripped from a book and in no way contains transforming robots, laser-wielding terrorists, cat-men with magic swords, any manifestation of ninja (mutant or otherwise), or is any way related to either DC or Marvel. Also, science fiction in her eyes is bad, whilst magic is just peachy.

She loves the singing. And the dancing. Sigh.

She must also love being too far away from the action to see any facial acting. And she must love that the actors rush through spoken lines too quickly to get to sing-song ones. She must hate dramatic pauses, establishing shots, and all the dynamism that comes with camera-work. Film editing must be anathema.

But she sure liked the disturbing narcissism and cold shoulder-ing that Poppins embraced in her live role, which if IMDB is to believed is actually much closer to how the character acted in the source material by novelist P.L. Travers. In addition, there were homoerotic living statues, a scene where toys come to life (which was cut from the Disney film), and not a dancing penguin to be seen.

But that’s just the method of delivery. Make no bones about it, I’ve always loved the film version of Poppins, and couldn’t stop whistling the catchy Sherman Brothers songs all the way home. Chim-chim-char-oo indeed! Look, I’m just a guy who likes to drink beer and play video games. Musical theater crosses a line that can sometimes be masked on film. That’s all I’m saying.

Not everything about the theater performance was unbearable. The sets were amazing works of both engineering and art, with some very clever built-in special effects that made the production just as much a magic show as a story. Sometimes the wires were visible, but other times the ingenuity of the builders had me scratching my head and wondering where the trap doors and puppet actors could possibly be hidden, or whether they were using radio controls and servos to accomplish certain effects.

Matter of fact, I spent more time wondering trying to reverse engineer the set than I did paying attention to the actors. Or the singing. And the dancing.

My mind also wandered thematically as Bert mused about the self-reflexive nature of Mary Poppins’ appearance. Cyclism is a time-honored philosophical device… the Norse had their Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, and Battlestar Galactica had its refrain of,  “All of this has happened before and will happen again.” Bert suggests in both the stage and screen versions that Poppins works in much the same way, and that this story is just one of many in which she’s involved herself.

Bert’s authority on that matter has always intrigued me. There’s never an explanation for how Poppins knows Bert, or from whence comes his narrative omniscience. I posit that either A) Mary was summoned as Bert’s nanny when he was a child or B) he’s a kindred magical spirit.

I’m glad the writers left the matter ambiguous. Can you imagine the same movie written today? The producers would insist, of course, of sapping the power out of the enigma by creating a concrete backstory for who Mary is, where she comes from, where she returns to. There would be an elaborate scene showing her origin. There might even be a montage showing her popping up in conspicuous places throughout history.

Also left unabashedly unexplained is the subtle romance between Mary and Bert… which Travers allegedly hated. The story goes that she made Walt Disney promise not to slip it into the script (yet there it is, underplayed and remaining a loose string to this day).

Word is that Travers didn’t like anything about the Disney version — hating it to the point of storming out of the premier. She had script approval on the film, but Walt laughed last by clinching final draft approval and giving a firm rejection to her attempted rewrites.

She also didn’t like the singing. And the dancing.

It didn’t matter. It was Disney’s most expensive film to date, but it was also the highest-grossing of the lot from 1965 to 1985. It raked in $102.5 million at the box office and won five Academy Awards.

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‘Up’ is a beautiful downer you should see

May 29, 2009

upanim

FROM JASON’S $3 CINEMA — He is not cut like Brad Pitt. He is not slick like James Bond. He is not cunning like Jason Bourne. He is not overbrimming with bravado like Indiana Jones.

No, the hero of Pixar’s stunning Up is world-weary and melancholy, sore in his bones and relying on a cane for support.

And in the first 10 minutes of Up, the animators at Pixar managed to pump so much life and loss and love into him that my wife was already bawling, and I — the hardened macho man that I am — was swallowing every two and a half seconds to keep down the aching lump in my throat.

Carl Fredrickson is the eager-eyed boy who finds true love in a young neighborhood girl. They live happily ever after together, growing old while their dreams of adventure-seeking in South American are trumped by domestic reality. When his Ellie dies, Carl uses a flotilla of helium balloons to soar his entire home to an idyllic jungle vista and live out his wife’s fantasy.

That fervent tribute to a lost soulmate would have been a terrific movie. Being infatuated with my own wife of seven years, I was entirely emotionally vested in Carl. I would be a shell without my Lisa.

But instead of telling that simple story in an appropriate 30-minute short, Pixar needed to bow to the feature-length convention and pollute its heartfelt tale with a kid-friendly cast of zany secondary characters.

There is a Boy Scout who gets roped into Carl’s adventure, along with a talking dog, a monstrous tropical bird long thought to be extinct, a geriatric and insane villain, and an army of anthropomorphized canine killers. Every single one is superfluous to Carl’s emotional journey.

There’s also a load of cheap jokes imposed on an otherwise perfect tragedy.

Look, I understand that Pixar makes money by targeting the under-12 demographic. Without the cartoonish faux-suspense and bad guys, youngsters wouldn’t be hooked and they’d lose out on ticket sales. Children certainly not going to care for a script about growing old. And in the United States, we for some reason still relegate animation to the realm of adolescents; it’s not considered a valid art form for an over-50 audience, like Up should have been tailored to.

That really annoys me.

So instead of a literary tale, we get a beautiful story watered down by sentient canines flying biplanes that shoot darts. That really happens. It’s somewhat mitigated by a nifty Star Wars reference, but it was still gratuitous.

It will make hundreds of millions of dollars for Pixar. It will also serve as the perfect example of how pandering to multiple audience demographics can sully a piece of art.

Fortunately, the visual part of the art was in no way soiled. The lighting, shadowing, and color were astounding; we saw the 2D version of Up, and even without 3D glasses it still looked like ViewMaster slides put in motion and perfect focus. The character models looked at points like real-world puppetry.

That’s a big admission coming from me, because I am typically critical of computer-generated content. But CG has certainly advanced since the days of Toy Story. Here, some of the rocky South American landscapes look photorealistic (remember how bad the same textures were back in the days of The Last Starfighter?), and praise is certainly due.

Overall, I ardently recommend Up with just those few reservations. If it doesn’t get to you, then you are either too young or Vulcan. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a film many will pay to own on DVD, as most of the comments I heard on exiting the cinema were along the lines of, “It was terrific, but it was just too sad.”


Week of Cartoons – Day 3: TaleSpin (1991)

March 25, 2008

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12

talespin.jpgFROM JASON’S AIRSHIP FORTRESS — Who is this Baloo of whom you speak? I thought Don Karnage was the star of the show. If we’re being honest, TaleSpin was all about the air pirates.

Plunder & Lightning is the TaleSpin origin story, telling how boy scoundrel Kit Cloudkicker defected from Karnage’s clutches, teamed up with ace pilot Baloo, and saved Cape Suzette from a rain of laser fire and looting.

The show isn’t exactly steampunk, but it’s set in a timeless 1930-ish oceanic world with anthropomorphized bears, apes, tigers, pumas, and dogs. Looking back, I can’t explain how relieved I am that TaleSpin wasn’t just a Jungle Book spin-off set in India and featuring Mowgli. What we got was far superior and reminds me less of Rudyard Kipling and more of Indiana Jones.

P&L hit the TV in 1991 as part of the Disney Afternoon and won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Animation Program. I didn’t care about that; all I wanted was more kinda-noir hijinx. Boy did it ever deliver. It could have gone wrong — Baloo and Kit could have just zipped around against blue skies with zany, fluffy plots.

Instead, the animators put the Sea Duck in dog fights and swooping dives against some of the most incredible cloudscapes you’ve ever seen and actually made you afraid for the characters’ safety on a regular basis. There were also airships, robots, mad scientists, and diminutive Soviet warthogs.

The show was a bundle of pure awesome.

Baloo was an oddity: In a time when muscled action heroes like Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger were cashing in, Baloo was a fat, reluctant adventurer. The pear-shaped bear wanted nothing more to laze in his hammock. He was also a bumbler; his only redeeming qualities were his loyalty to friends and his flying skills.

Kit was awesome, zipping around on his aerofoil and playing Robin to Baloo’s huggable Batman. But I always thought the name Kit Cloudkicker was suspiciously too much like Luke Skywalker. Admittedly, I’m always one to see Star Wars parallels lurking in the shadows.

There are also quite a few Star Trek links to TaleSpin. Tony Jay, the voice of Shere Khan, appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation as Campio of the planet Kostolain, who was engaged to marry Lwuxana Troi, mother of Enterprise counselor Deanna Troi.

R.J. Williams, who voiced Kit Cloudkicker in TaleSpin, was also on TNG as Ian Andrew Troi, Deanna’s father.

Legendary voice actor Frank Welker (Megatron from Transformers), who has more than 550 acting credits on IMDB, helped out in TaleSpin, too. If a cartoon aired without his help, the universe would probably explode. I hear his IMDB resume is almost dense enough to collapse and become a new star. By the way, Welker appeared in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager as a random alien in 1998.


YouTube Cinema: DuckTales, Treasure of the Lost Lamp (1990)

January 31, 2008

“Did you ever hear of Atlantis? It was everybody’s favorite resort until Merlock couldn’t make any reservations. Then down she went! Poor Pompei. Mount Vesuvius would never had blown its top if Merlock hadn’t blown his!”

FROM JASON’S ELEMENTARY SCHOOL DAYS — I’m not sure I can explain to you kiddies just how important DuckTales was. For years, it was the anchor of The Disney Afternoon, a two-hour block of after-school cartoons that included The Gummy Bears, Chip & Dale’s Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, Darkwing Duck, and a spin-off of the Aladdin movie.

To a pre-adolescent boy, these shows had everything that mattered: Swords, exploration, gadgets, villains who were evil for the sake of being evil, pirates (and air pirates), zombies, superheroes, supervillains, robots, curses, lasers, dungeons….

So when I stumbled on the 1990 DuckTales movie on YouTube, I had to sit and watch.

The first 20 minutes had everything I remembered that made the show great: Exotic traps, faux history (Collie Baba and his 40 thieves, anybody?), sumo-wrestling scorpions, pith helmets, and lushly-painted desert and pyramid scenes.

The rest was significantly meh as we stayed in Duckburg and dealt with the whole genie-in-the-lamp Pinocchio story and the be-careful-what-you-wish-for business.

The Plot (Such As It Is)

Real quick: Scrooge has been hunting his entire life for the lost treasure of Collie Baba. When he finally finds it, a shape-shifting wizard named Merlock swoops in and steals it.

Merlock doesn’t care about jewels; all he wants is the magic lamp containing a genie. Merlock has a magic talisman, which will allow him to force the genie to grant unlimited wishes — and giving him unlimited, unadulterated evil control over the entire world.

But Scrooge’s niece, Webby, filches the lamp and makes friends with the genie, who she calls Gene. Along with Huey, Dewey, and Louie, she starts making wishes, until Merlock comes to Duckburg to collect the lamp again.

Using his magic, he takes over Scrooge’s mansion, and the boys have to break back in and free Gene and the rest of the world from slavery. It’s almost the exact same plot as Disney’s Aladdin movie in 1992.

The Dire Consequences

There were rumors. Boy, were there ever rumors. Back in the pre-Internet days of 1990, that’s all we had to live by — that, and various hints in video game magazines.

The rumors said that Disney had lots of other DuckTales movies up Michael Eisner’s sleeves. The rumors were right.

Unfortunately, Disney, perhaps as the spiritual ancestor to FOX, decided to cancel those plans when Legend of the Lost Lamp only made $18 million at the box office. My parents paid good money for my little brother and I to see it, but apparently that wasn’t enough. The other movies were canned, as was a Rescue Rangers feature-length film (which I would bankroll today if I had the means).

DAMN YOU, WALT DISNEY COMPANY. DAMN YOU STRAIGHT TO HEEEEEELL!

The Geek Connections

If you’re a geek, you know everyone who had a hand in this movie. Even if it’s only by proxy, you know their work. You’ve seen their shows. Let me show you the way.

Alan Young, the voice of Scrooge, is better known as Mister Ed’s owner, Wilbur (“Gee, Wilbur!”) in the 1961 TV show. He’s also a bat-shit crazy Christian Scientist and is down with the Focus On the Family crowd. I can almost — almost! — forgive him, though, because he was also Haggis McMutton in the LucasArts game Curse of Monkey Island.

Russi Taylor, who voiced Huey, Dewey, Louie, and Webby, was also baby Gonzo on Muppet Babies and has been the voice of Minnie Mouse since 1986 — including in the RPG Kingdom Hearts.

Terry McGovern, AKA Launchpad McQuack, is also a Lucas-ite. His early films include THX-1138 and American Graffiti. In 1977, The Lucas hired him to do voice-overs for stormtroopers in A New Hope (“Close the blast doors!”).

The genie was voiced by flamboyant ’60s comedian Rip Taylor, known for crying on stage, doing Mofaz the Persian-type routines about his bad luck, and for his recent work with The Bloodhound Gang and Jackass.

The mack-daddy of them all — and if you don’t recognize the voice immediately then you are dead to me — is Christopher Lloyd as Merlock. You know him as Doc Brown from Back to the Future, Kruge in Star Trek III, the Rev. Jim from Taxi, and… god help us… as John Bigboote in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension.

Oh, and about six dozen other shows, many of them crappy, including Amazing Stories, Cyberchase, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Addams Family, Suburban Commando, Angels In the Outfield, and Baby Geniuses. I have to admit that I love watching Christopher Lloyd. It’s a testament to his ability and personality that he can make such shit watchable.

I almost forgot. Frank Welker (Optimus Prime) did some voices in Legend of the Lost Lamp, too.