Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #38-40: Fantasia 2000, Dinosaur, Groove.

Welcome back, and now that we enter the 21st Century, we'll finally be taking a look through Disney's Transitional era, starting with the company's very busy 2000...

Fantasia 2000:
Fantasia remains the most experimental, as well as one of the most important movies in Disney Animation's history, but in spite of this, I often find myself wondering if it would be nearly as revered had it been released today. Even back then it was a hard concept to sell, with Walt eventually scrapping his intention to turn it into an evolving series. However, sixty years later, his nephew Roy took it upon himself to finally realize that vision, leading to the creation of Fantasia 2000, which - while experiencing the occasional pitfall - remains faithful to Walt's incredible vision and magical eye for visuals.

The original Fantasia was built around three basic musical narratives; Definite stories, segments with no real story yet have some underlying narrative, and images that exist solely for the sake of images. By comparison, the latter is barely seen here in 2000, with the only example of such a style existing in the opening Beethoven movement, yet only briefly as the rest of the segment attempts to tell a slight narrative. Still, it's a small trade-off, as the segments are largely of tremendous quality, if lacking in true consistency in quality.

Much like the first film, the symbiosis of the animation to the dramatic rising and falling of the music are accentuated with near-perfect unity, and with the film taking advantage of a then unheard of IMAX release, as well as animation having made massive strides in the six decades since, all of it led to some of the finest and cleanest artistry of the studio's history. In fact, in a further great deal of experimentation, the segments made varied and fantastic use out of very diverse styles of presentation, the highlight being the Al Hirschfeld-inspired Rhapsody in Blue, whose matching of Gershwin's beautiful jazz piece with a caricaturish representation of Great Depression era New York is one of the studio's most perfect marriages of visuals and audio. While there are a few notable pieces that fail to meet the same great standard, they each are of a very entertaining quality, including a return to the classics with The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

But if there is anything I don't enjoy about the movie, it would be the off-putting interludes with celebrity guests. Featuring the likes of Steve Martin, Angela Lansbury, and James Earl Jones, the scenes may be small, but also often prove a distracting nuisance, needlessly padding the film past a seventy minute mark, adding nothing of any real value or insight to the film, and providing a cheap attempt at levity to cater to the attention of children in the audience. A brief bit featuring Penn and Teller introducing The Sorcerer's Apprentice proves to be the low point of the entire film, and epitomizes my problems with these segments, that while they may seem minor in the grand scheme of things, they're a needless side event that simply break the mood of the film, and I often prefer to skip past them on Blu-Ray.

It can't help but feel like a pale achievement standing next to its innovative older sibling, but all notions of comparison aside, the achievement is still confident and splendid stuff. No doubt a movie that lacks consistency, but when the film hits it high marks, the result is terrifically entertaining and soulful.

**** / *****

For the first 7 minutes of Dinosaur, I experienced a wave of euphoria that no film - save Jurassic Park - had ever been able to replicate before, or since. Seeing dinosaurs brought to life in all their full glory and wonderment, by Disney no less, stirred powerful, boundless emotions beyond description within me. As Brachiosaurs tower over a massive lake, and a Pteranodon swoops its way through canyons in perfect synchronization with the film's score, I felt like my days of waiting for a proper, documentarain prehistoric journey with the greatest creatures to ever roam the earth had finally ended... and then in only four words, those hopes were immediately dashed. One thing is abundantly clear throughout the rest of Dinosaur, that in spite of its visual splendor and sonic amazement, this was not the film that Disney had originally envisioned.

And yet it didn't have to be this way. Despite not officially being acknowledged as part of its Classics banner until 2008, it was clear that the studio had faith in it. In a manner very similar to that of The Lion King, when it came time to advertising the film in theaters, Disney decided once more to use the film's epic prologue to sell the movie to cinemagoers. It was yet another brilliant marketing decision on the part of the company, as the powerful imagery generated great word of mouth, and with the prologue's modest beauty, intense action, and sweeping moments of flight, expectations were quite high. Fortunately for viewers, this opening lived up to expectations, but unfortunately, it failed to recreate The Lion King's momentum. For many, this opening was where the film hit its collective apex, and set a near impossible precedent for the rest of the film to follow.

I'd love to give myself over to the film's majestic imagery, and be fully enraptured by its exotic setting, but the problem is that the dialogue and the generic story simply won't let me. Truth be told, for a film that could have and should have let the film tell its story purely through aesthetic presentation, simplicity would have gone a long way in allowing the viewer to get absorbed in the prehistoric world. Unfortunately, I can't let that be since I'm consistently distracted by how often the film shamelessly screams The Land Before Time, an ironic circumstance as the filmmakers originally wanted this to feel different from Don Bluth's film. However, unlike The Land Before Time's (for lack of a better word) timeless quality and mature characterization, the cast of characters in Dinosaur are all so thinly sketched that many are lucky to have a second dimension, and the frustrating modernization of the dialogue (particularly highlighted by Max Casella's oafish Zini) feels wildly out of place within a more grounded and dramatic setting, as well as featuring numerous lines redundantly stating the obvious for children in the audience. It almost gives you the impression that the prologue and the following movie were produced by two altogether different creative teams, and were merged into one film.

And sadder still, even amidst all of this chaotic and dated writing, you can still sense a much greater movie beneath the surface struggling to get out, with moments of further majestic emotions stirred not by any actual lines of dialogue on the part of the characters, but when the film finally yields to its own technical elements, and lets them have the focus. Brought to life by Disney's short lived in-house computer-generation studio The Secret Lab, Dinosaur blends its perfectly realized creatures with sweeping live-action vistas and dangerous terrain with a tremendous intensity and feeling of genuine danger and beauty, and the pure photo-realism and gorgeous effects artistry on the creatures even today have aged gracefully. Even greater are the film's sonic elements, as Chris Boyes of The Lord of the Rings fame creates countless unique and earth-shattering vocalizations of every species in the film, and enhances the great threat of the environments as well. Adding some much needed beauty and excitement to the film is composer James Newton Howard, giving the film a tremendous, larger than life musical voice, teaming up with Lebo M and his choir to supply a stirring exotic flavor, and delivering on numerous instantly memorable melodies. As far as I'm concerned, it's the most undervalued Disney soundtrack of all time.

It's hard not to see Dinosaur as a colossal waste of potential, and yet for a few minutes of unbridled enchantment, it didn't appear to be that way. The seeds of a game changer are unmistakably present all throughout this film, but it's frustrating to see a film like this chicken out at the 11th hour, because if any animation studio could have done this justice, it was Disney. Instead, in the years following, we've seen other animated features such as Walking with Dinosaurs and The Good Dinosaur fall into the same pit, choosing to play it safe for commercial viability, while always failing to take that inspired first step and become the definitive last word on dinosaur films. If only Dinosaur had held up its momentum, it could have become a landmark, and undoubtedly could have become one of my personal favorite films of all time. It's still absolutely worth watching if only for its technical prowess, but perhaps it would have been best for everyone, both viewer and filmmaker, had these characters kept to their silence.

***1/2 / *****

The Emperor's New Groove:
Originally conceived as another addition to Disney's musical lineage, then known Kingdom of the Sun from Lion King co-director Roger Allers was an Aztec retelling of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, and was a much more supernatural and dramatically based movie than the final product, The Emperor's New Groove. After unenthusiastic test screenings, the entire film was restructured from the ground up by Mark Dindal (showcased in the little seen documentary The Sweatbox), and reformed into the comedy that we all know and love it as today. One must often wonder how that original film may have turned out had Allers stayed on, but at the very least, the film that it ended up becoming is still an incredibly entertaining sit.

At a running time of about 78 minutes, The Emperor's New Groove is one of the breeziest movies in Disney's legacy, the shortest film from the studio since The Rescuers Down Under. At times, this hastiness can become quite apparent, especially as the film's manic energy can hit its occasional limits (very seldom, however), but at the same time, it's also one of the finest showcases for Disney's fast-paced way with storytelling. As one of the most fat-free films to come from the studio, the film wastes absolutely no time in setting up its initial premise and establishing each of its thankfully small cast of characters, intent on getting its viewers to the comedy that was the main draw of the film without weakening those characters in the process.

Even the main character proved to be a surprisingly layered and inspired shake-up from Disney's usual main hero, with the vain and spoiled Kuzco showing a terrific and believably crafted growth from despicable selfish child, to matured and thoughtful young adult valuing others just as much as he does himself, with David Spade's (in perhaps the one worthwhile film he's ever been in) sarcastic tones fitting the character effortlessly. It works even better when paired up against a reliably warm John Goodman as Pacha, with the two sharing an easy and delightfully snarky chemistry. But even stronger than those two are the villains Yzma and Kronk, as voiced by Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton, who dominate over the entire film even when not on screen, with interactions and over the top cartoonish antics that result in some of the movie's biggest and most stitch-inducing fits of laughter.

And that in and of itself is what the movie is best at, being the funniest film in Disney's Classics lineup since Aladdin. With Mark Dindal having previously directed the Warner Brothers feature Cats Don't Dance, it's clear he also brought that hyperactive Looney Tunes spirit with him when given the reins to The Emperor's New Groove. The many comedic set-pieces are all so thoroughly entertaining, as they allow the film the opportunity to strip itself down to basics, and while not every gag hits zingers - with the second half experiencing a notable slow down until the big climax, the jokes in the movie hit near constant bulls-eyes. The animation also shows a suitably simple, but also fast-paced and lively art style, nailing the Aztec/Mayan setting, and the soundtrack also features a couple of great songs courtesy of Sting. It's just a shame Kingdom of the Sun fell through like it did, as the change resulted in all of Sting's previous original songs getting scrapped. Thankfully they did see a release on album, so at least they weren't forgotten.

I don't necessarily see The Emperor's New Groove as a classic within Disney's lineup, but as a showcase for their ability with comedic writing, it's one of the most inspired films that they've ever released, packing more laughs into a single minute than many comedies do with ninety, and its brisk running time makes it one of the more rewatchable Disney films. Boom, baby!

**** / *****

And I thank you all for joining me back again. On September 30th, we return for more Disney adventures in the Transitional Era, as Disney's hand-drawn era slowly and sadly approaches its end...

No comments:

Post a Comment