Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Worth seeing, and worth an extra $2.50.

Like the other Cartoon Geeks, I have a troublesome job, plus other things I have to do, so I don’t get to attend premieres or get into sneak previews very often. But this Tuesday I had suffered a great deal. Part of that suffering was the fallout of the Virginia Tech shootings and the resulting TV coverage. You civilians can turn it off. I was broadcasting it. I had to watch it. It got to me. And so, I determined to see a movie in a theatre for the first time in months.

Grindhouse? Certainly an outré project, but too much sadism and death. Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Film for Theatres? Too wiseass and self-referential; if I want burning chicken I can do it in my own oven, thank you, Master Shake. TMNT? Never was a Turtles fan and didn’t think the animation looked that good. So I went to a late showing of Meet the Robinsons, and was surprised that ten other people showed up to see it – all of them college-age couples, at 10 PM, in a suburban theatre, on a school night.

To put it simply, this was the first Disney animated film in years that I smiled at all the way through - and the first time I was aware that I was smiling at it.

The story is fairly simple. A preteen orphan boy named Lewis (Daniel Hansen), a bit of a science geek, invents a “brain scanning machine.” His purpose is personal; he wants to find his birth mother, and thinks the key is in scanning his memory. A cliched-looking villain named Bowler Hat Guy, whose bowler is a sentient flying robot, arrives from the future and steals the machine. A kid from the future arrives and takes Lewis to his future world, to meet his family of colorful, wacky eccentrics – and to stop Bowler Hat Guy.

Oh, there are plot complications, but I won’t spoil them here. Suffice it to say, the plot complications are the same sort of games played in the Back to the Future trilogy, the Terminator movies and a few others. These complications land beautifully, they make sense, and they are more complex than anything I’ve seen in a Disney-made film.

What really made this film was the pacing of the gags. Disney generally plays out its gags casually, slowly, afraid that the short-bus kids won’t get the jokes if they’re told too fast. That didn’t happen here. In the middle act, the humor comes flying fast and frenetic. Unsung and probably overlooked in the rush of the film – but guys I’d like to buy plushies of – are the sentient, singing, dancing, jazz-playing frogs kept by the Robinson family. They bear some Rat Pack, Las Vegas pizzazz and just a little touch of The Sopranos.

The future has a lot of wackiness. Disney fans will see buildings like Space Mountain and the Astro Jets from Tomorrowland in an amusement park (labelled “Todayland”). Bowler Hat Guy has been pegged as a Snidely Whiplash clone, but I was reminded of Doctor Steve, the comic time-travelling villain in The Radio Adventures of Doctor Floyd (which you can explore at

However, in the film’s final third, frenetic action pacing slows down as a very moving moment, the emotional heart of the story, plays out. Director Stephen Anderson grew up in an orphanage. He brings out the agony Lewis has, as he is rejected by potential adopted parents, sees his first attempts at scientific gadgetry fail, and collapses into self-doubt. That feeds into the film’s final third, and gives the plot – with all its time-travel-paradox cleverness – real meaning. The film also has a moment that is fairly dark and disturbing, a future gone wrong, a territory Disney has traditionally avoided – but it’s there.

Although it came from a children’s book by William Joyce, many people see Lewis as a clone of Nickelodeon’s Jimmy Neutron, down to the weird hair. That’s probably kept a lot of people from seeing this film. But they should go anyway. Meet the Robinsons isn’t a complete success, but it’s a better film than Cars, and the best animated film Disney’s made in years. This is a good start for Disney’s comeback as an animation studio; this is making Rattatouille seem optimistic.

By the way, if it’s available in your town, try to see it in Disney 3-D. You’ll pay an extra two and a half bucks for the special glasses, but it’s really worth it. As I think I mentioned back with my review of the re-released Nightmare Before Christmas, the process works great. It’s no strain on my eyes. And as the first feature that was intentionally made for this 3-D process, it’s superior technically to the Nightmare 3-D version. For comparison, the film's preceeded by a Donald Duck/Chip 'n' Dale short from the 1950's made in 3-D. It's...well, creepy.

And a final note to the DreamWorks folks who keep promoting the stars as voice actors; in this film there are only three “celebrity names.” And Tom Sellick, Adam West and Angela Bassett do their parts professionally, without fanfare and without referring to their earlier works. There weren’t any cheap pop-culture references in the film, either.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

He yam what he yam and the DVD set drops 7/31



And this time it's being done right!!!!

I know Jerry Beck said nice things about the Warner Bros. Golden Collections which have been DVNR-ed to death and are not necessarily so great, but his estimation of the Popeye set sounds like he's genuinely thrilled about it. I'm hoping that this is not anywhere near like the abortion that was the Betty Boop DVDs, which again were DVNR-ed into sub-Korean Traceover mishmash.

FINALLY, the Fleischers get their propers. Hopefully this marks a new beginning at Warner Home Video...perhaps another try at the Boops might be in the cards? There's already scuttlebutt that a "Forbidden WB Cartoons" Golden Collection might be coming down the pike as well. The cover art for the Popeye set has a very important disclaimer: "Warning: these cartoons are not for children, but for adult cartoon fans." Perhaps Warner Home Video is finally taking the treasures in the WB film archives seriously, and giving them the serious treatment? I hope so, dammit.

And I hope there's advance copies at Comic-Con. That would be something fun to have to watch on the train trip back home.

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Rats Deserting a (Sinking?) Ship

(Legal stuff: characters from Flushed Away © DreamWorks Animation.)

The news has been released for a while. Aardman's contract with DreamWorks Animation is up, and Aardman is signing with Sony.

As everyone knows, the idea that DreamWorks would be able to do wonders with Aardman was exciting to animation fans. And certainly, with the involvement of Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey "Sparky" Katzenberg, their animated products would be merchandised and promoted well, right?

Well, no. Partially because the animation division of DreamWorks has had problems enough for the main branch of DreamWorks to spin them off. From The Prince of Egypt to Over the Hedge, their ability to market films has been completely mis-aimed. I've talked about this in the past, but please let me re-visit and rephrase it.

The booth set up to promote Shrek at Comic-Con thought giving out pencils to the people who stopped by was sufficient promotion. No announcement about who the characters were, what they did, what the film was about - here, have a pencil, you forty-year-old child! Maybe they thought that telling anything about the film might frighten off potential customers - saying to us, "We just made some pretty pictures; we don't have a story." I thought at first they were dissing the fan audience - meaning "If you care about animation, you're worthless to us; we're trying to sucker the big, general, stupid audience." Or maybe the executives, often young and inexperienced in the Hollywood hierarchy, really thought this was how you promote cartoons.

That was typical of everything DreamWorks did in promotion. I didn't know was based on a long-running web comic until someone told me. Their PR people didn't think that was important. (Oddly, the filmmakers did; the end credits showed the original character drawings.) And posters for Flushed Away didn't even mention Aardman; yes, the characters looked similar, but they didn't even give credit to the creators.

There was a lot of paid advertising for Flushed, but it told very little about the story of the film. There was very little that helped you understand who Roddy was, why his being flushed into the London under-underground was an adventure...and sure, casting Hugh Jackman might suggest Wolverine-level action, but nobody at DreamWorks was talking...

The community of critics are finding that the studios are freezing them out. Passes to films are rare, near impossible for web-only critics. It's become an operational procedure among studios. Why have anyone critique your product? Won't you make more profit if you make people see the film, so they don't know if it's good or not? Why let Roger Ebert get in the way of the purpose of making movies - transferring wealth from the public to the studio heads?

DreamWorks seems to have taken this philosophy very seriously. I believe that the Aardman films suffered because of this belief. Perhaps Sony will offer a better deal, and sensible and intelligent promotion. They've also been good with many of the animated programs they've released to video; one of my favorites, Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, got a good-looking DVD release after decades of indifference. True, films like Open Season and the forthcoming Surf's Up (another PENGUIN film, God help us!) don't look that good, but at least they've had decent promotion. Getting qualified animators like Aardman will give them something good to promote.

Or at least Aardman has the chance to produce something good. We'll have to see. In the meantime, besides making a third trip to the well with Shrek, about all that DreamWorks Animation has to promote is Bee Movie, which sounds like Hollywood's most criminal act since Mel Gibson's appraisal of a policewoman's breasts - continuing the painful career of Jerry Seinfeld in the form of a cartoon voice. It sounds like a drinking game could be designed around the movie, taking a shot every time a Seinfeld reference pops up. What's up with that?