Thursday, July 14, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #25-27: Cauldron, Mouse Detective, Oliver/Co.

Even with the looming shadow of the studio's fearless leader having died still hanging over them, with the aid of many of his closest friends and collaborators, the same spark of creativity was still there, even if the filmmaker's doubt and uncertainty in their abilities couldn't be easily shaken. Many of Walt's original team, nicknamed the Nine Old Men, were there to give guidance to newcomers to the studio, which included now famed Disney icons such as Glen Keane and Don Hahn, and animation graduates who would go on to become great directors in their own right such as Tim Burton and John Lasseter.

However, the Nine Old Men knew that their time at the studio was coming to an end, with longtime director Wolfgang Reitherman realizing after The Fox and the Hound that it was best to pass the torch over to the next generation. The Fox and the Hound marked the last film to feature involvement from these legends, and now was the time for the younger generation to make a name for themselves, and tell their own stories. In a few years time, this is exactly what they would manage to achieve, but their first actual film strictly to themselves proved a rocky foundation. Not only that, but one of their own, Don Bluth, had decided to strike out on his own and start his own animation company. His first film came in the form of 1982's The Secret of NIMH, which established his studio as a new force to be reckoned with, and would later gain the attention and guidance of Steven Spielberg. Indeed, the very model of Disney Animation Studios that we know and love today might never have been what it is had they not learned from the mistakes and successes of one film...

The Black Cauldron:
The Black Cauldron was a film of many firsts for Disney. It was the first Disney film not to have any of the Nine Old Men collaborating, the most expensive animated film the studio had produced up to that point, and the first animated Disney movie to be given a PG rating (back when that rating actually meant something). While the studio had tackled fantasy countless times, this was a departure that leaned more towards The Lord of the Rings in scale and nature, and Disney spared no expense when it came to marketing the film. Unfortunately, contemporary audiences didn't respond well to it, becoming the first certified bomb to come from the studio, and only adding insult to injury was the fact that it earned less than The Care Bears Movie in total domestic gross that same year.

Only in the years since did the film finally find a cult audience, but personally speaking, having finally watched the film for the first time since I was a child, I couldn't consider myself a fan of the film, and much of the issue with that has to do with the film's world building. Introduced to the audience by way of narration by John Huston, the titular Cauldron itself is given a very vague bit of exposition, but is otherwise shrouded in mystery and never expanded upon after that. It serves as a reasonable MacGuffin to get the characters going on an epic journey, but it comes to represent a greater problem within the film. The entire world of Prydain struggles to properly define and establish itself as a kingdom, mainly because we're always restricted to all of a few small environments within the film. Despite the dreaded Horned King's relentless and violent quest to retrieve the Cauldron, whatever neighboring villages or kingdoms there are, we never get to see how his actions affect them, and so we never get to feel any ticking clock tension or suspense over the horrible things he plans to do with the cauldron. Prydain just feels like a few barren fields, some cabins and a scary castle, and for such a fantasy adventure that tries to feel epic in scale, the entire film feels comparatively small and simple, as well as lacking unity.

Such a thing would be easy to forgive if the characters were engaging, but just the same, they don't allow us to have a connection with them because the film doesn't do anything to develop them beyond their traits in their initial introduction. Taran himself makes for a bland, and frankly annoying protagonist, frequently bolstering his ego which ends up getting him into more trouble, and contributing very little actual urgency to the story. Someone like Princess Eilonwy (because the movie just *had* to have a princess) makes for a slightly more interesting character, but rather than the film try and do anything with her, it instead sidelines her in favor of giving Taran more screentime, and downright forcing her to be his love interest with no prior build-up. But they're nothing compared to Gurgi, a cowardly and annoying fuzzy koala/bear/dog hybrid that just happens to tag along with the gang for absolutely no reason other than to provide quick levity for the kids in the audience, and whose voice is almost as irritating as Jar Jar Binks. When the main characters are so weak that I find myself favoring John Hurt's sinister and demonic Horned King (even if he has far less screentime and dialogue than his obnoxious sycophant Kreeper), that's a very bad sign for a movie's writing.

That said, that's not to say that The Black Cauldron is irredeemable. For one thing, the animation of the movie is absolutely astounding stuff. While nowhere near as epic as it tried to be, the overall production and character design complement the film's dark tone and scarier world excellently. While utilizing heavier use on computer assisted animation to cut down on costs, the two mediums manage to blend together near seamlessly, and many of the characters and creatures to this day rival a number of newer counterparts. Also excellent is the music by Elmer Bernsten, a departure from Disney's traditional song-heavy mold, and suitably adding epic and sweeping spirit and gravitas where the actual narrative lacks. Otherwise, I'm not very fond of the film, though I can certainly respect why others have been able to form such a strong connection to the film. Thankfully the studio would later bounce back, but given how it nearly cratered the studio's future, it's no surprise that they've actively tried to bury it ever since.

** / ***** 

The Great Mouse Detective:
After the crippling disappointment of The Black Cauldron, Disney Animation Studios soon went underway to find inspiration and restore their good name. One of these included an adaptation of arguably the most famous story by Hans Christian Anderson, with the studio perfecting it for years before finally releasing it in 1989. In the meantime, the future directors for said movie, John Musker and Ron Clements, made their feature film directing debut with The Great Mouse Detective.

Hardly a game changer like many previous icons in Disney's pantheon, The Great Mouse Detective nevertheless made for a rock solid adventure that did the best it could to negate the damage of The Black Cauldron, and give the audience a nice dose of light entertainment. While not much of a mystery in the traditional sense, the film does manage to wring an appropriate tension and briskness as it focuses on the match of wits between the protagonist and antagonist of the film. In the hero position is Basil of Baker Street, an eccentric genius who charms the audience with his tenacious stream-of-consciousness thinking, a personality hilariously alternating between rapid and kooky (very much like John Cleese in Monty Python), as well as self-pitying and worn down when bested, but the character's charm lies in that, even if very egotistical, the mouse's infectious knowledge and deduction abilities do justify his occasional condescension.

Proving more than a worthy adversary is the film's villain Rattigan, as played by a gloriously sinister Vincent Price. While the character's overall motivation really does boil down to "I'm just evil because", Price still manages to make it so infectious and entertaining, and the character so thoroughly enjoys every despicable action he performs that the film feels justified in leaving such info on the back burner. It's just delightful to see the character snicker and praise himself so highly, serving as even more of an egotist when compared to Basil, yet also fascinating in how he resorts to hiding his true vicious nature behind fancy wardrobe and etiquette before ultimately snapping in the climax.

These two were clearly the most necessary areas in the film to focus, but it doesn't mean that the rest of the characters were underserved, even if tending to take a backseat. The animation, while perhaps not quite as impressive when compared to The Black Cauldron, was also fluid and utterly enjoyable to watch, with most of the budget obviously being reserved for the intense climax in the Big Ben clock tower, whose CGI/hand-drawn blend (a precursor to their CAPS technology) still feels timeless. Couple in some entertaining songs and an exciting score by Henry Mancini, and The Great Mouse Detective saw the studio back in form, even if Don Bluth once again overshadowed them with An American Tail releasing the same year.

**** / *****

Oliver & Company:
Okay, let's address the elephant in the room. Back in 1988, Oliver & Company released the very same day as Don Bluth's third theatrical feature, The Land Before Time, and since then, it's become almost inevitable to compare the two, with the latter commonly considered the winner of that particular argument. Personally speaking, I also consider it superior. I find its characters more endearing, its atmosphere more enchanting, its drama deeper, its animation more epic, its music more powerful (after all, it was James Horner), and I feel it's remained Don Bluth's best film.

By - admittedly unfair - comparison, it feels more in line with the traditional Disney narrative than Oliver & Company. Sadly bearing the burden of being forced to play the warm-up for Disney's Renaissance, Oliver doesn't bear the usual inspiration expected of the studio, or the same level of high quality. While the film does have its fair share of personality, mainly due to the diverse and fast-paced New York setting complemented by intentionally sketchy artistic design, the film tends to fall a bit on the flat side as far as story goes. The concept of modernizing the Oliver Twist story is one not without great merit, but the numerous characters are usually defined by single personality traits, and while it does offer the voice cast some fun interplay and dialogue on occasion (particularly from Billy Joel and Cheech Marin), it's not quite enough to let the characters leave any real lasting value. Even the animation, as solid as it is, has clearly shown its age almost thirty years later, especially when compared to its contemporaries.

But above all, I just find the overall storytelling and tone jarring. This is mainly due to the fact that, while the film predominantly places itself as a sweet family adventure with highly derivative, but believable conflicts in regards to class and family, that gets thrown for a loop when the story works in Fagin's debts to loan shark Sykes. This entire side of the film tends to feel separate from the rest of the actual film due to its violent and dark nature, which wouldn't be so much of a problem had the film eased the audience into these darker elements rather than leaping in head-first. In fact, when realizing that one of the screenwriters was future Girl, Interrupted and Walk the Line director James Mangold, it doesn't become hard to pinpoint which sections of the film were courtesy of the three central writers.

Even the songs are something of a mixed bag, lacking any real unity due to numerous contributing creative minds as opposed to teams of only two or three forming a narrative. Usually these moments aren't too memorable and merely pad the film, and since Bette Midler voices a character, of course she gets a big show-stopper, written by Barry Manilow no less (Trust me, it's not nearly as bad as "Marry the Mole"). Still, it's no accident that Billy Joel's big solo number was the one where Disney's musicians pulled absolutely no punches, serving as the early highlight of the entire movie. Overall, Oliver & Company is harmless and momentarily entertaining stuff, but sadly isn't all that memorable once it finally ends.

On the bright side, it also marked the end of Disney's dark post-Walt days, setting the stage for the studio's grand rebirth...

**1/2 / *****

On July 28th, join me back when we'll finally be taking a look at Disney's Renaissance era.

No comments:

Post a Comment