Sunday, November 11, 2012

Kid Flicks

The Nightmare Before Christmas - 1993, Henry Selick - DVD
Frankenweenie (Short) - 1984, Tim Burton - DVD
Hotel Transylvania - 2012, Genndy Tartakovsky - in theatre
Wreck-It Ralph - 2012, Rich Moore - in theatre
How To Train Your Dragon - 2010, Dean DeBlois, Chris Saunders - tv

The bane of many parents' existence is the prevalence of obnoxious children's programming in the household.  In Canada, the dedicated children's programming channel, Treehouse, is equally a parent's saviour (for times when you need to get stuff done, and need the kids out of the way) and nightmare (pretty much any other time you're exposed to it).  Some of the kids programming, like Yo Gabba Gabba, Octonauts and, even still, Sesame Street, is actually quite surprising, and casually engaging for even adults.

My household is a little more complicated, though.  With one television and two kids -- of different genders and seven years age difference -- it can pose a little more challenging to entertain both kids at once (or it should, but for some reason the 10-year-old still has no problem watching banal kiddie pap like Mike the Knight or Bubble Guppies).  As parents, we have to take a little ownership over what the kids watch and try to guide them towards quality entertainment, and in our situation, find something that will stimulate a 10-year-old boy that will also not be too advanced, frightening, violent, or challenging for a 3-year-old girl.

With the boy, he's always been cool with watching anything, so long as its a cartoon.  Live action stuff like Star Wars was never his thing.  As geeks, the wife and I have long had DVDs of cartoons we liked for him to watch: Batman The Animated Series, Justice League, Looney Toons, the Tick, Samurai Jack, as well he took a shining to the more mainstay Nickelodeon animated comedies, the children of Ren & Stimpy, like Spongebob and Fairly Odd Parents (the more palatable of the genre, the knock offs are atrocious and annoying).  As a result, though we've tried to reign our daughter into more age appropriate fare, we learned quickly that she could no only handle, but liked her brother's programming.

Both kids thankfully enjoy and can sit through movies.  The Pixar films are a particular hit with everyone in the house, but most other kid-centric films don't appeal as broadly.  So, it can truly be a crapshoot, a roll of the dice to find the winners that are not only worth watching, but worth watching again and again.  Outside of the mostly reliable Pixar, I've only found a handful of other movies that I like as much as the kids do.  Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs is ridiculous but tremendously funny with a great voice cast.  The Muppets, including the latest Jason Segal effort, Muppets From Space and the early films all hold a nostalgic potency that the kids seem to tap into as well.  I haven't test run The Fantastic Mr. Fox on my daughter yet, but the boy said, after watching it in the theatre, that it was probably the best movie he ever saw (I wonder if that would hold up).

Sitting on our shelf for years, untouched and unloved, was The Nightmare Before Christmas.  I've had this movie in my collection since it first came out on DVD in 2000, and if I've watched it more than once (until recently) I would be surprised.  I was, in the 90's, a Tim Burton devotee, and as a result I was committed to loving Nightmare even though I'm not all that certain I was as enamored with it as others became.  It wasn't a flop, but at the time it seemed a disappointment at the box office.  However, within a few short years it became a monster cult hit, spawning an endless barrage of collectibles still found in record stores, comic shops and novelty boutiques.

I recall trying to expose my step-son to Nightmare a few years back but he was creeped out almost instantly, and I don't think we made it ten minutes into the picture.  To be honest, I don't think I'd watched it in over half a decade and at that point couldn't recall any details beyond the chorus to a few of the songs.  Recently, it the pursuit to diversify my 3-year-old's viewing regimen, I asked her if she wanted to watch it, and I sat, hesitantly watching her in the opening minutes, waiting for her to cringe and tell me she didn't want to watch any more.

It would seem I have a little goth in training, as she adored it instantly.  It's beautifully creepy in its design, with cheerfully morbid songs and an ominous joie de vivre that my little girl obviously keyed into immediately.  With this, his feature directorial debut, Henry Selik proved himself a stop-motion animation wizard, rapidly earning prestige and clout within the industry and with fans alike.  Working from Tim Burton's poem and with his lanky and lean character designs, the figures give wonderfully expressive physical performances, while an unprecedented number of head sculpts (about 400) gives lead Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon with Danny Elfman subbing in for the songs) a richly emotive face, while other characters had some subtle traditional animation overlaid for lip synching.

Almost two decades later, Nightmare still feels very fresh and unique.  Stop motion animation is such a heady commitment and time consuming endeavor that Nightmare's modest initial returns didn't spawn the spate of imitators it would have were it a blockbuster.  Combined with it's gothic sensibility, it's borderline creepy aesthetic and its unusual holiday connection, as well as a soundtrack that was far more sinister than the usual Disney fare (although they paid for it, Disney scuttled it under their Touchstone Pictures masthead, when it could have used the Disney push... but then the traditional animation brand was still riding its Lion King/Little Mermaid/Beauty and the Beast high, so they weren't willing to risk the brand on this unusual offering).

The film holds up as a holiday classic for two holidays, meaning parents can get a lot more mileage out of it.  It maintains a holiday movie sensibility but by splitting the difference between Halloween and Christmas it actually separates itself somewhat from both, meaning it can be enjoyed outside of any festive spirit.  It's soundtrack has maintained a classic sensibility, the songs having a compounding infectiousness that may not appear so catchy at first but certainly digging into the ear after multiple exposures.

It's obviously not going to catch every kid's interest, but those that do key into it will love it deeply.  If there's any negative to The Nightmare Before Christmas, it's that it is not long enough.   At a meager (but wonderful) 75 minutes, it seems over as soon as it starts if you're trying to occupy your kids while you go off and do something else.

The 2000 release of the DVD (and subsequent Blu-Ray releases) for The Nightmare Before Christmas contains Tim Burton's 1984 live-action short film (roughly 30 minutes) Frankenweenie, naturally the source for the 2012 animated feature of the same name.

Using black and white film, shooting with a low-budget, delightfully retro 50's sensibility and a style reflective of a hybrid Twilight Zone and Leave It To Beaver, Burton tells the story of a boy, Victor, whose dog, Sparky, is unceremoniously killed.  Though wallowing in grief, he learns of the wondrously restorative capabilities of electricity in science class, and spares no effort in attempting to revive his best friend from his mortal slumber, an effort which does not go unnoticed by a suspicious neighbour.

When Sparky is fully revived in a grade-school interpretation of the science lab from the classic Frankenstein movie, he unintentionally gets up to no good, riling up the neighbourhood and causing a panic.  This leads to another homage to the classic Frankenstein, with the neighbours taking up arms and chasing after the dog, only to unwittingly trap Victor and Sparky in a mini-putt windmill set alight.

It's a charming short with quality performances from child star Barrett Oliver (D.A.R.Y.L., Cocoon, The Twilight Zone The Movie) as Victor, Daniel Stern and Shelly Duvall as his parents and characters actors like Joseph Maher and Roz Braverman as the neighbours, and even kid supporting actors like Jason Hervey and Sophia Coppola in the mix.  Burton's natural flare for off-beat children's stories shines through, but filtering it through the peachy-keen 50's aesthetic lessens most of the darker edges.  It's that same retro-50's filter that gives this nearly 30-year-old production a timeless feel, as it adopts the vibe wholeheartedly rather than doing so through an 1980's filter.

If anything, it's overlong for a short feature, which makes me wonder exactly how padded out "Tim Burton's Frankenweenie", the new animated feature, must be.  (I believe David has a review in the pipeline).

This year has seen a curious trend in spooky children's entertainment, as if Hollywood has only recently caught on to the fact that kids like creepy things too.  David covered Paranorman recently, though it was released in August.  Frankenweenie came out in time for Halloween, preceded by Hotel Transylvania, a monster mash of a film, meant to be more of a comedy than fright fest.

The titular hotel in the picture was started by Count Dracula as a refuge for all monsters to come, to be free from the oppression of human society and to relax in the assurances of both security and camaraderie of fellow monsters.  Upon the celebration of his daughter, Mavis' 118th birthday, all of his monster friends have arrived at the hotel, but amidst the joyous occasion Dracula frets as his daughter seeks to establish her independence and venture out into the human world for the first time.

Dracula does manage to trick her into staying home, but the human world comes knocking on their door in the form of a young backpacker, Jonathan, who is both completely freaked out and equally enamored with the hotel and its denizens.  Disguised as a distant relative of Frankenstein by Dracula so as not to freak out his patrons and friends, Jonathan becomes the hit of the festivities and the object of Mavis' affections.

It's a cute plot that's equal parts parental anxiety and teenaged romantic comedy, but it's hindered by a painfully high number of puns and obvious gags involving the various monsters traits.  Featuring a script from British sketch comedy wizard Peter Baynham and Saturday Night Live/Late Night With Conan O'Brien alum Robert Smigel,  and featuring the voice talents of a largely ex-SNL cast, including Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Jon Lovitz, and Chris Parnell, the film should have been far more amusing.  It is pretty sharp at times from a storytelling standpoint, but the overall tone of the humour and proceedings seems dumbed-down to juvenile levels.  Given how successful Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs was at being absurd but hilarious and romantic and sentimental, there's no reason Hotel Transylvania, with all its talents, couldn't have replicated that same sensibility.  Sandler, for his part, commits to one of his less annoying voices in his cinematic career, doing a hybrid of cliche Dracula and Triumph The Insult Comic Dog (actually it was mostly the latter... I wonder if there's a "for me to poop on" outtake or ten somewhere).

In a valiant but unsuccessful effort the film features a half dozen original songs.  It's definitely a preferable route than plugging in the kid-approved hits of the day, but also futile as they all sought to replicate those very same hits, to largely painful degrees.

The name that initially sold the picture for me, however, was director Genndy Tartakovski.  Tartakovski's brilliant resume, including the Powerpuff Girls, Dexter's Lab and the first (and best) animated stab at Star Wars: The Clone Wars, was the main draw.  My daughter has discovered Tartakovski's Samurai Jack, a favourite of my step-son's as well, and I hold that show as the epitome of animation at the point where art crosses entertainment.  I was hoping some of Tartakovski's more unconventional influences and inspirations would come out in Hotel Transylvania, like they did in most of his previous work, but it's a fairly straightforward directorial effort.  The only scene that had any particular impact was a sweetly framed sequence of Dracula walking down the steeply-pitched roof to join a moping Mavis.  One stand-out composition was far less than I was expecting out of this (from what I've heard, however, Tartakovski was a late arrival on the project, its sixth director).

Given that I had really no preconceptions and no expectations from the film, I was neither disappointed nor pleased.  It was moderately entertaining, well animated, but overall a forgettable experience.

Getting away from all the creepiness, yet, still focussing on supposed bad-guys, Wreck-It Ralph is a kid-flick in the vein of Toy Story, wherein it builds a world for our playthings unknowingly in our midst.  In this case it's the shared world in the arcade, where video game characters can interact not only in their own game, but with any game.  Like Toy Story, the characters "come to life" after the arcade has shut down and there's no people to notice them.

But Wreck-It Ralph isn't so much about the world it inhabits, but the characters that inhabit it, which would actually be disappointing if the story and characters weren't so involving.  The titular Ralph is the bad guy in a vintage Donkey Kong/Rampage hybrid  arcade game called "Fix-It Felix Jr.", but after 30 years, Ralph is sick of being the bad guy and sets out in search of a gold medallion of his own, if not to be the hero, then at least be seen as less of a bad guy.  Of course, by abandoning his game, in the real world, they think the machine needs to be put out to pasture, so Fix-It Felix Jr. has one night to find Ralph and bring him back before they're unplugged.

Ralph, however, is a catastrophe waiting to happen and, true to his name, he kind of wrecks everything he touches, whether it's his intention or not.  When he winds up in the cutesy "Sugar Rush" racing game, he meets Vanellope Von Sweet, a glitchy character within the game who is similarly deemed an outcast by the other game characters.  The two characters naturally forge an uneasy friendship, Vanellope's playful, precocious, sarcastic nature continually sitting uneasily with Ralph's surly, patience-free, singularly focused demeanor.

To continue explaining the ins and outs of the film would take some time, as it's not so easily summarized.  For what's ostensibly a family movie, it's surprisingly dense in its structure, with moments building upon moments, and keeping virtually everything relevant.  Though it may seem like it at the time, there's truly no fluff in the film.

Wreck-It Ralph features a seemingly endless array of sight gags and gamer in-jokes, many of which I -- a very minor dabbler in video games -- picked up on, but I'm sure there were even more that I didn't.  Thankfully these types of jokes, unlike Hotel Transylvania, were laregely unobtrusive, and mostly set deep in the background.  They certainly weren't key to enjoying the film, which I think is its brilliance, that it could make a movie about video games, fill it with nuances that only gamers could appreciate, and yet make it accessible to almost every viewer.

The central story is about what it means for Ralph to be a bad guy, and the film very, very quickly takes the black and white of good and bad and plays with its shades of grey.  A formidable moment that kickstarts the third act finds Sugar Rush's monarch, King Candy (voiced with gleeful, lispy aplomb by Alan Tudyk) having the unfortunate job of convincing Ralph that in being a good guy and helping his friend Vanellope, he's actually going to do her more harm.  Then, upon returning to his own game, Ralph sees the effect of his quest for heroic redemption, the end of his own game.

The main voice talent is perfectly cast.  John C. Reilley provides the precise awkward voice for a gigantic, disheveled ape-man, while Sarah Silverman is the only person who can make being an incessant annoyance endearing and cute (well, perhaps Kristen Schall).  Jane Lynch playing the tough as nails sergeant from a Halo-esque shoot-em-up provided the perfect amount of edge and balls, but also just the right hint of fragility, while Jack McBrayer's puritan, high pitched, mid-western drawl is perfect for a beloved 80's video game handyman hero in the Mario vein.  That the cast largely recorded together as well makes for a noticeable impact on the repartee between characters, particularly Ralph, Vanellope and King Candy (though I don't know how anyone kept from giggling when Tudyk did his thing).

The animation, quite frankly, is some of the best I've seen with regards to attention to detail, and I'm not talking in the design of the worlds (although the central hub is brilliantly conceived, while the landscape of Sugar Rush is a thorough delight) but in the nuance of movements and the shifts in pixellation between games, and those moments where we see what's happening in-game from an outside perspective.  The animators, and the director, obviously know their gaming history and put their knowledge to good use.

And then there's the soundtrack, which blends video game sound effects from across the ages and old 8-bit style compositions with modern composition techniques to wondrous effect.  It's hard to pull one's self away from the visual stimulation of the images on screen, and even more difficult to remove one's self from the story to notice, but at times I found myself smiling only to realize that it was the score that was triggering it.

I'm more impressed with Wreck-It Ralph in hindsight than I was after first viewing.  Not to say that I disliked it, far from it, but I wasn't as enamored with it as early reviews seemed to imply I should be.  Yet, in thinking about the film, and writing about it now, I find myself flat out impressed by it.  Where Pixar let us down with the tepid mommy-issues story in Brave, Wreck-It Ralph (though a Disney proper film and not a Pixar effort) truly is the heir to the Pixar throne.  All that John Lasseter, Brad Bird, and Andrew Stanton built, designing wholly unique worlds amidst our own and populating them with characters worth investing in and seeding their movies with the broadest range of emotions and excitement, from empathy and humour to suspense and even mild horror, Wreck-It Ralph truly carries that torch.

Speaking of Brave (and to a lesser extent, Hotel Transylvania) and the whole "parental issues" subgenre of kid-flicks, How To Train Your Dragon is ostensibly of this ilk, and yet transcends it in ways Brave just couldn't see fit to do, by actually giving the main character a journey that wasn't so much about their parents but about them.

In HTTYD, Hiccup is the scrawny, wimpy son of the leader of a Viking clan, and though he's been given the role of apprentice to the weapons smith, he's aware how big of a disappointment he is.  The town they live in is occasionally attacked by dragons, and the culture takes great pride in the hunting and killing of dragons, as well as dying by them too.  During one such attack Hiccup manages to injure a fabled Night Fury in flight, and the next day, upon coming face-to-face with the wounded creature, finds that the killing spirit is not within him.

Naturally the two bond, as Hiccup studies the Night Fury, "Toothless", and learns more about their nature than any viking past.  Simultaneously, Hiccup is forced to participate in dragon-fighting training, but using his newfound knowledge of dragon whispering, Hiccup soon bests every captive dragon his trainer has, without ever having to use a weapon or harm the creature.  By the time his father returns from a hunting party, he's a celebrity, but naturally it's completely misunderstood.

The film develops the characters and their relationships nicely, including the kids, who are quite apparently born and raised amongst a warrior community.  The dragons equally have a mix of different races, each with their own nuances, and individual dragons with their own personalities.  There's a lot of emotion (a surprising amount for warriors, I would assume) throughout, all of it well earned.  Hiccup's path to hero, not just amidst his people, but amongst the dragons as well, is a wonderful tale with plenty of depth, humor and heart, as a well as a surprising amount of intensity and a respectable amount (for a kids picture) of the viking brutality in tact.

(Side note: I did find it odd that this Norse-god loving clan spoke with Scottish accents, save for the kids who spoke with conventionally North America accents, and yet, it kind of worked for the film.)

Of all of these, my 3-year-old is most enthused with The Nightmare Before Christmas.  She was about as enthused with Hotel Transylvania as I was, and while she liked Wreck-It Ralph, I'm not sure that it resonated with her like Iron Giant or Monsters, Inc. has.  I don't even think she stayed and watched all of Frankenweenie, while How To Train Your Dragon, she watched somewhat passively (though she mirrored my wife's comments that Toothless looks and acts very much like our black cat).

The 10-year-old, well, he's harder to read.  He tends to avoid Nightmare when it's on, and I think he really enjoyed Hotel Transylvania in that it seemed targeted specifically to his age group.  He seemed to assume that because Frankenweenie looked old (ie. 1950's old) that it was old (which it is) and seemed to dismiss it, only somewhat retaining interest because he knows there's a cartoon of it out there.  Wreck-It Ralph, well, he stayed through to the end credits, so I imagine he liked it, but he's not always the most forthcoming with his response to seeing a movie (I think the biggest responses I have seen out of him were the aforementioned Fantastic Mr. Fox and an arms-up-high, "AWESOME!" for John Carter).  He saw How To Train Your Dragon in theatres two years ago, and seemed to enjoy it, but he poo-pooed reading the novel series when suggested to him, so I guess he wasn't that enamored with it.