Friday, September 30, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #41-43: Atlantis, Lilo/Stitch, Treasure Planet.

In the early 2000's, it became very apparent that the hand-drawn animation format was slowly starting to wain in popularity. It was a pivotal moment in cinema that many often debate as to when their actual downfall started, and I think I can point to the exact day.

June 16th, 2000. The day that Titan AE premiered...

Of course, just talking about the film is one thing, seeing legendary animator Don Bluth, best known for The Secret of NIMH and The Land Before Time, following up his surprise hit Anastasia with an outdated and paper thin slog. I could go on all day ranting about its gaping plot holes, stiff and lifeless characters, terribly outdated blend of 2D and 3D, tensionless action and shoddy writing, and filling itself with truly juvenile humor even for Bluth at his worst, but here's the thing... The film's performance speaks it for me. Not only was it a disappointment among critics and audiences, but despite being produced at a now tame budget of $70 million dollars, the film bombed so harshly that it ultimately led to Fox's animation studio closing its doors for good, and to this day remains Don Bluth's final directed film.

If anything, I think Titan AE signifies a great deal everything that was wrong with hand-drawn animation at the time. With the release of films such as Shrek, Ice Age, as well as several big films from Disney's own cousins at Pixar, computer animation quickly rose to prominence, and analysts and executives were starting to subscribe to the line of thinking that the new medium was now a foolproof formula for box office popularity, with even Disney themselves experiencing more success from Dinosaur than films like Atlantis. Of course, leave it to those same executives to not realize that this alone was not the issue, or to acknowledge that their stories probably weren't all that great to begin with, but the new quickly overtook the old-fashioned, with Disney's competitors at Dreamworks closing their hand-drawn department after 2003's Sinbad. With times like this, the early 2000's saw Disney experiencing some of the most inconsistent years they'd experienced since the 70's to the 80's, with some of the widest range in quality their legacy had ever seen. Welcome to the Transitional Era...

Atlantis: The Lost Empire:
As the company made its way into the new millennium, one notable change in pace for the studio was in distancing themselves from the musical spectacles that made them a household name, and begin branching out into new types of story, as we saw when Kingdom of the Sun was reworked into The Emperor's New Groove. To date the final Disney film from Beauty and the Beast directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, Atlantis: The Lost Empire was Disney's attempt to create an action/adventure spectacle in the vein of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and take on a more gritty and adult vibe to lure back its aging audience of young adult viewers. Unfortunately, those intentions backfired, garnering both a tepid response from viewers, and underperforming at the box office.

Ostensibly 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea mixed with Star Trek (the latter greatly hinted at by the casting of Leonard Nimoy), Atlantis struggles a great deal in trying to form its central story and characters together. While many of the greatest popcorn movies ever made have also been noted for being comparatively light on story, it's very clear that Atlantis wants to be seen as more than simple light fun, taking a great deal of time out of the epic set-pieces for moments of supposed character development. The problem is that many of these characters don't have much to them after their initial introductions, with Milo initially promising a great and interesting hero for his hyperactive enthusiasm, but who fails to be defined as anything more than an overly perfect boy scout. Its supporting cast that includes the dirt-obsessed Mole, the explosive happy Vinny, the tough yet sweet Audrey, and the kindly and hands-on doctor Sweet each may have their moments of enjoyment or genuine laughs - made even better by a rock solid voice cast (minus Mole, he's annoying), but each struggle to define themselves, with only one heavy-handed and convenient exposition dump around the campfire midway through to give them some backstory. Even Princess Kida, seen to be just as enthusiastic to learn about Milo's surface culture while also painfully aware of her people's slowly dying way of life, takes a back seat to the proceedings, becoming a blatant MacGuffin in the final act.

Issues like this really do highlight that the film was likely longer and deeper than what it eventually ended up being, but was slimmed down in pre-production, and a great deal of this is felt in the movie's general pacing, as the first half of the film moves at a very brisk and at times hasty rhythm, while its second half is comparatively a bit more sluggish. The film also struggles to find consistency in tone, with those grittier and more intense elements sometimes proven foiled by cheap attempts at laughs - mostly to blame on Mole. I also fully admit to nit-picking at this point, but several smaller details about the film also bug me. Like the Atlantean language is based on a root dialect that traces back to other languages akin to the Tower of Babel, and the crystals they wear around their necks have powerful healing capabilities, yet the citizens have collectively lost any knowledge of being able to read, and it takes Milo to finally remind them how to activate their transports?

But as is the case with most Disney movies, even if the story isn't up to par, at least the style alone is mightily impressive. The animation of the film is a very unique new style for Disney, designed more in line with a pulpy angular comic book, with a heavy influence taken from Mike Mignola of Hellboy fame, and also utilizing a greater sense of scale through its blend of hand-drawn and computer, as well as the massive widescreen framing. Following up his success with Dinosaur, James Newton Howard also comes back to deliver another fabulous musical score, populated by beautiful choir and ethereal percussion, and creating rousing emotions during the big action scenes. But the true standout is sound designer Gary Rydstrom, imaginatively manipulating various elements to create a mystical and organic soundscape, making even the mechanical feel alive and supernatural, and for my money is the finest sound work in any animated Disney movie.

But while perfectly fun and harmless, Atlantis is an admirable, yet abundantly problematic film, disparate in trying to bring its strands into a coherent whole, yet only mildly succeeding in doing so. It may not be the catastrophe that sank the studio, but there's no doubt that it was the first bump on the it's downward slope.

*** / *****

Lilo & Stitch:
For 65 years, Disney's feature animation department had crafted some of the most iconic and timeless animated features ever imagined, but at the same time, it was also very rare to see them tackle a film based purely on their own originality as opposed to adapting previously published material. Yet every now and then, they would hit original, pure gold that would enchant the viewer, with 2002 seeing the release of one such film, Lilo & Stitch, which as far as I'm concerned remains their finest film of the 2000's, a seamless blend of sassy comedy and deeply empathetic tragedy wearing its heart sincerely on its sleeve.

Much like The Emperor's New Groove before it, Lilo & Stitch is a strong testament to Disney's lean efficiency as a storyteller, but also reaches extra special heights thanks to its perfectly built up dramatic elements. Most of this comes forth in the material with Lilo, a young girl and a social misfit due to her awkward, hyper, and macabre personality and fascination with the absurd, and whose loneliness and deeply-rooted grief brings out irrational, but identifiable outbursts of frustration. The things she's experienced is tough enough for her, but with her older sister having to adjust to being a guardian figure, to create a stable living environment or risk losing custody of her, brings out some tragic, deeply-affecting moments of introspection and very personalized stamps on the part of the storytellers, creating some of the best slice of life storytelling from Disney since their Bambi days.

On the other side, we have the more Sci-Fi heavy side of the film with Stitch, which is where the film is free to embrace more adventurous and humorous elements to create a great sense of fun, but don't think that makes it any less compelling emotionally. While Stitch's hyperactive energy makes Lilo's look tame by comparison, being an enthusiastically violent and destructive little creature - doing so simply out of not knowing any better, Stitch's later segments being part of Lilo's small family also allow the little guy to let go of his pent up aggression. It's where the film allows Stitch to strip himself down to emotional basics, and tap into a powerful longing of purpose and belonging, desperate to cling to a history that sadly doesn't exist for him, beyond whatever evil intentions his creator designated as his one goal, all making for a powerful allegory of children who are only the pariahs that we build them up to be.

But where the film is at its strongest is when focusing squarely on the building relationship between the two, as they serve as perfect foils and complements to each other. Theirs is a relationship built on experience and personal examination, with Lilo unintentionally causing a stir through her actions, while Stitch has come to know nothing but destruction, and in Lilo's plans to reform Stitch into a model citizen, learns to rein herself in just as much as Stitch slowly becomes reserved. Their interactions are brimming with creative and funny moments of sparks and chemistry, despite being based around one-sided conversations or body language a majority of the time, all the while as the two learn more about the heartbreaking insecurities of the other, they also choose to finally confront their personal feelings, leading to a stronger familial bond throughout. It's one of the finest friendships Disney has ever constructed, and the strength of the two alone make the film worth watching.

The film also has great animation, a wonderful supporting voice cast, exciting action, and a killer soundtrack mostly comprised of Elvis, but its main draw is the pure, powerful originality on display in the writing. It's template was so successful that directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois would later go on to recreate their success - fantastically, at that - with How to Train Your Dragon eight years later. In Disney Animation's rockiest patch since the 80's, Lilo & Stitch was the film that finally saw them earn their mojo back...

***** / *****

Treasure Planet:
...And then they immediately lost it again with Treasure Planet. Truth be told, that whiplash effect must have hurt John Musker and Ron Clements, with this film being a strong passion project for the duo, having pitched the idea since before the days of The Little Mermaid, even using it's immediate production as a bargaining chip following the completion of Hercules. It's a shame that kind of effort and dedication went largely unnoticed knowing that, becoming the single biggest bomb in the studio's history, an undeserved fate for a frankly underrated - if at times gimmicky - rendition of a classic story.

Hardly the first time Disney has touched Stevenson's iconic literary staple, if anyone other than them had tried to make a high seas pirate adventure set in the vast sci-fi universe populated by creatures straight out of Star Wars, well, that would have just been silly. But in execution, the idea largely succeeds, a great deal of which is owed to the maturity on display in the writing. While the characterization of Jim may be nothing particularly new, I think the handling of the character is impressive. A wayward youth and a bit of a brooding loner, I think we've known or have felt ourselves similar to Jim's detached and hardened emotional fragility, distant and unsure of his own future despite his obvious brilliance and resourcefulness. Yet while brooding of his nature has proven to be way overabused in the years following the film, those states of mind always feel earned and sincere for the character here. He's a young man of interesting layers, afraid to truly latch on to any true relationships because of his own traumatic past experience of seeing his father leave. Learning how to grapple with topics like this is actually a bold move for the studio to make, because it's one thing for a parent to die because of situations beyond anyone's control (a staple of many Disney movies), but it's another coming to grips with a parent who simply didn't want to be involved in a family life in the first place.

But at the same time, in his character building months in space, the film goes to great, sometimes very subtle lengths to show how much the camaraderie on board the ship, as well as the sinister friendship between he and Silver shape him into more of an open individual. Speaking of which, that friendship between he and Silver is often the highlight of the film, with the latter proving a very complex antagonist on the part of Musker/Clements, on the surface appearing to be a devious act of manipulation, but whose great interest and secret care for Jim is always discernible from moments of dubious behind the scenes planning. It's always made clear that despite his dubious plot, he means and believes every glowing word he says about Jim, which is why it makes it all the more heart-rending when seeing the two acting as enemies. But they're only two in an otherwise rock solid batch of players, including Emma Thompson's gleefully egotistical and eloquent captain, and David Hyde Pierce's excitably intelligent doctor. Rarely do the characters feel weak or unimpressive, with the only real side effect being marooned android B.E.N., yet another attempt from the studio to recreate the success of Robin Williams' Genie with his hyperactive comedy, which essentially resorts to Martin Short shouting into a microphone.

And as always, when it comes to the craft of the film, the duo of Musker/Clements bring their A game, Treasure Planet being a stellar blend of traditional hand-drawn animation with updated computer enhancements. The characters, as always, show a highly imaginative and varied style of design work, but the work here is often all the more impressive for the mixture with digital elements, such as Silver's ever-changing and multi-talented mechanical arm, and the blend of the two styles (perhaps a precursor to Paperman) being the one great quality about B.E.N. It's once again terrific work from the animators, even if you now begin to see just how outdated their CAPS system is, often looking more akin to the film's DVD menu than the actual movie. The audio is again every bit as impressive, with the sound work showing a great deal of creativity and intensity, James Newton Howard in his third Disney animation collaboration hitting aces once more, but unlikely greatness comes from the left field selection for John Rzeznik as the film's songwriter, with the moody alternative ballad "I'm Still Here" set to the film's emotional highlight montage.

Sci-Fi clearly proved to be far from what the studio needed to rejuvenate newfound audience interest, and like Atlantis suffered horribly for not knowing exactly what type of audience to best appeal to, or how to market the film to that audience. Still, as poorly as the film may have performed, it's passion on the part of its directors was obvious in every frame, an ambitious, messy, but exciting and adult take on a classic story.

**** / *****

And so concludes today's edition. On October 10th, join me as we take on the last of Disney's hand-drawn efforts (at the time), before they move to the realm of computer animation...

No comments:

Post a Comment