Thursday, January 3, 2013

More Kid Flicks

Labyrinth - 1986, Jim Henson - netflix
Return to Oz - 1985, Walter Murch - DVD
The Secret of the Sword (He-Man and She-Ra) - 1985, Ed Friedman, Lou Kachivas, Marsh Lamore, Bill Reed, Gwen Wetzler - youtubeThe Lion King - 1994, Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff - DVD
Ratatouille - 2008, Brad Bird & Jan Pinkava

Since the last batch of Kid Flicks seemed to go well, and there doesn't seem to be any end to my viewing of them, here are some others I came to watch recently, some with my kids and some without.  As you can see from those listed above, more than a few of them predate my kids, age 10 and 3 (ish), and more squarely fall into films from my own childhood or adolescence.

Despite loving the Muppets and having a strong affection for Jim Henson's output, I had never watched Labyrinth before, in part or in whole.  I'm not certain why, as I'd seen the bulk of other kid-oriented fantasy movies from the era.  It's unfortunate too, as I think if I had watched it as a kid I would have a much stronger reaction to it today.  As it stands, I was somewhat entertained, but I'm far too aware of film making and puppetry tricks to fully invest in the story of the movie, instead I focused more on the craftsmanship involved.  To be fair, the story is pretty flimsy, and the characters are largely plot driven, rather than the other way around.  Bowie has become a camp figure for my wife and I of late, and that campiness is on full and glorious display here.  He's quite fun to watch.  Jennifer Connelly, an object of my letching since the Rocketeer in 1991, is way too young (round faced and obviously still teen-aged) to letch over, but she's already a solid actress and carries the film and it's fantastical elements quite well. 

It seems to me that with Labyrinth, Henson was more interested in creature design and puppetry execution than he was with storytelling.  The story seemed more a vehicle to put the puppetry advancements on screen than servicing any sort of character, plot, or concept.  On the other hand, Henson's Workshop was primarily responsible for the creatures in the much maligned Return To Oz where they are no less impressive and far more serviceable to the story.

I was never a fan of the 30's Judy Garland Wizard of Oz, it always seemed far too precious, and frankly the actors playing the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodsman all annoyed the pants off me even as a child.  I found their costumes silly (and they just looked like costumes) and couldn't invest in them as characters at all.  The songs are largely grating (even to my then-young ears they were) and it just seemed childish, campy and certainly didn't stack up against my many Sci-Fi, superhero, or fantasy obsessions of the time.

In the late 1980's and early 1990's, the Return to Oz was on television with seeming frequency.  Though I had no great love for the Wizard, Dorothy's return to Oz seemed a much, much, much darker journey.  The film begins with Dorothy being shipped off to an Asylum for electroshock therapy as she cannot sleep due to the nightmares following her return to Kansas.  Escaping with another girl from the asylum, they're separated as Dorothy gets swept up in a river during a storm.  When she comes to, she's in Oz, where her worst fears are realized.  Evil has swept the land, with the nefarious Mombi and Nome King having established their fiefdoms and turned all the residents to stone.  Dorothy' chicken from the home, Bellina, surprisingly can talk and acts as her chaperone.  They befriend a clockwork soldier, Tik Tok, find another in Mombi's experiment in creating life, Jack Pumpkinhead, and make their own friend out of a stuffed Gump head, a few sofas, and some rope.

It's a much darker, far more insidious adventure, but it makes Dorothy's triumphs that much more rewarding.  Whereas the classic Wizard just seemed to find the protagonists stumbling their way to victory, here Dorothy is much more proactive, far more daring and intelligent, and her connection with her friends (though puppets all) is much more endearing.  It's such a stimulating adventure, and I'm amazed that beyond it's very underground cult status that it hasn't received more attention.  It's a decidedly different film than Wizard, but that's what makes it so great.  It didn't try to repeat the successes of its predecessor and its so much the better film for it.  It's maybe a little too intense for the pre-school crowd, but 7-9 seems about the right starting age, depending on the kid.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was a charmingly inoffensive action-oriented cartoon made to sell toys.  It was a rich power-fantasy of a dorky prince with the ability to change into the most powerful man in the universe, fighting against a bumbling cadre of eccentric-looking villains in a barbarian-inspired fantasy world that featured wild technology alongside equally powerful magic.  It had two seasons of 65 episodes each (so that it could run daily on weekdays) and was remarkably popular despite not really featuring the assets from the Mattel toyline all that prominently (at least not in comparison to the G.I. Joe, Transformers and other such toy-based cartoons that followed closely behind its lead).  Instead of continuing with new episodes of He-Man, Mattel, the toy's manufacturer commissioned a new cartoon series from Filmation based on its spin-off toy line of girl-centric adventure heroes, She-Ra:Princess of Power.

She-Ra was designed to be He-Man's sister, but since there was no mention of her in previous cartoon continuity, the new cartoon needed to explain the association.  A multi-part "crossover" was born, which would serve to draw He-Man's fans to the new cartoon, as well as introduce She-Ra by showing her origin and extrapolating on He-Man's own.  So pleased was Mattel with Filmation's efforts that they decided to form the first five episodes of the new show into a singular, theatrically-released film.  It's a product of its time, to be sure, with the animation featuring a limited range of motion (compared to today, at least), and a quite juvenile worldview, filled with silly slapstick and no real danger presented to its heroes at all.  At the same time it's still wonderful classic cel animation, beautifully designed, richly detailed painted backdrops, and vibrant character work.  Filmation seemed to an animation house for artist keen on pushing the limits of animation (if not necessarily storytelling).  My 3-year-old has a massive crush on Skeletor and I was excited to show her a female super-hero that was just as capable of taking out the bad guys as the boys were.  She loved the movie and wanted more immediately.  It's not necessarily great at holding the attention of adults, even those filled with nostalgia for the product, but then we're not the target.  I'm happy to see that it still has some resonance with kids today because I had a great time with it in my youth.

On the flipside, until Pixar came along, I was never a Disney fan (I was more a Warner Brothers/Looney Toons kid than a Mickey/Donald/Goofy kid).  The Disney of the 1990's was so princess-centric and musical minded that it was designed to appeal more toward the under-serviced girls market.  After a couple hits like Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (and the girl-centric onslaught of ancillary merchandise) this seemed to be the overall impression of Disney's direction as a studio.  Thus when The Lion King hit, and exploded, it still didn't seem directed towards me.  Because it wasn't.  I was sixteen at the time.  I was watching Pulp Fiction and having my mind blown.  There was no way Elton John tunes in a cartoon could hold up to coke-fuelled "Son of a Preacher Man" or a twist on "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon".  The Lion Kind was a family movie, meant for kids but also smarter, for adults.

The three-year-old developed a recent fixation with it, and has enjoyed it repeatedly.  I can't stand it.  I think the animation is absolutely remarkable, and the story is actually pretty darn smart, but the rhythms of it feel so ancient and all too familiar, so formulaic, stepping in line with Disney of the past so that it just doesn't feel unique.  Part of it may be the songs have been so overplayed in the past (nearly) two decades, but equally the the necessity of the comic relief in Disney films is one of my biggest peeves about the films of that era.  While my daughter's kind of peeved I wasn't at all sad when suddenly the DVD just stopped playing last month (with no visible scratches or marks on the disc no less).

Ratatouille, on the other hand, is brilliant filmmaking, exceptional storytelling, and endlessly watchable.  If writer/director Brad Bird had an objective with his movie, it think it was to inspire kids to cook, or at the very least, appreciate the art of cooking, the beauty in food, and the pleasures in appreciating flavour.  In the background there's the delightfully rich story of a kid named Linguini trying to live up to his legacy in his deceased father's kitchen, and of a rat named Remy trying to escape the expectations put upon him by his own father (and species).  In both cases there's a sense of each trying to forge their path despite their circumstances.  Remy has a mentor in the form of the ghost of populist cooking show host Chef Gaston (Linguini's father), while Linguini finds one in Colette, a feisty chef in Gaston's kitchen, struggling to establish a name for herself under the totalitarian head Chef Skinner.  Skinner, meanwhile, is selling Gaston's name, diluting his reputation and ultimately destroying his legacy for his own reward.

There's so much at play in Ratatouille, so many complex emotions in such a richly constructed plot that it's maybe a little too much for children to fully comprehend, but thankfully it doesn't ever even attempt to dumb it down.   At the same time, it provides everything in an exceptionally streamlined manner such that, even if they're not getting all the various subtexts involved, there's still a basic story they can follow and enjoy (my 3-year-old keeps wondering who the bad guys are).  It doesn't trigger the same sense of delight or fantasy as most kids movies, but it's near-reality setting is what I love most.