Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Jungle Book 2

Year 4, Day 22 - 1/22/12 - Movie #1,022

BEFORE: This worked out pretty well, I'm watching films set in the African wilds and Indian jungles while it's below freezing and there's snow on the ground here in NYC.

The animation world is filled with unsung heroes, people who can do amazing things with their voices and play all different characters and don't always get the recognition they deserve.  Tonight I salute one of these actors, and not just because doing so is the easiest way to link between movies.  Really, how cynical of you to even think that!  Jim Cummings provided the voice for the third hyena in "The Lion King" (the one not voiced by Whoopi Goldberg or Cheech Marin) and in "Lion King 2" he supplied the very necessary "Additional voices" - I mean, come on, what would that film be without additional voices?  In tonight's film he voices two roles, Kaa the Snake and Col. Hathi the elephant.

Cummings is probably most famous for being the voice of Winnie the Pooh, and Tigger as well, dating back to 1988.  Sterling Holloway voiced Pooh (and the original Kaa) before that, but at some point characters tend to outlive the voice actors.  I saw "The Jungle Book" when I was a kid (must have been a re-release, since the movie's a year older than I am), and it's a little sad to think about the fact that most of the actors weren't around to reprise their roles when they made the sequel 36 years later: Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima and the great George Sanders.

When you're a kid you can just enjoy "The Jungle Book" as a cartoon - but as an adult I sometimes watch and old movie and find myself thinking about how no one on the screen is still alive...

THE PLOT: Mowgli, missing the jungle and his old friends, runs away from the man village unaware of the danger he's in by going back to the wild.

AFTER: Once again, a lot of concurrent themes and plot points with the previous film in the chain, "Lion King 2".  Kiara is told not to venture across the river and out of the pridelands, and Mowgli is told not to venture across the river and into the jungle.  But you just know Mowgli's going to cross the river, right?  I mean, if he doesn't it's going to be a pretty boring movie...what with staying in the village and doing chores, catching up on laundry, etc.

So Mowgli hooks back up with his old buddy Baloo, and hijinks follow - but Mowgli's girlfriend Shanti and his little pal Ranjan follow, and then there's that tiger Shere Khan who wants revenge (KHAAN!) for what happened to him in the first film.

Unfortunately not a lot happens in this film, mostly people keep losing each other in the jungle, call out each other's names, and find each other again.  (Repeat as necessary until the big showdown)  There are a couple nifty songs, but only a couple - and one of those, "The Bare Necessities", carries over from the original "Jungle Book", so that's a bit of a cheat.   Wait, make that two, since "I Wanna Be Like You" also plays during the closing credits.  Apparently the budget for creating new songs for a direct-to-video sequel is not that high.

Starring the voices of John Goodman (last heard in "Bee Movie"), Haley Joel Osment (last seen in a cameo in "Mixed Nuts"), Mae Whitman, John Rhys-Davies, Tony Jay (last heard in "All Dogs Go to Heaven 2") and Phil Collins.

RATING: 4 out of 10 mangos

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Lion King 2: Simba's Pride

Year 4, Day 21 - 1/21/12 - Movie #1,021

BEFORE: First thing tonight, I want to give some shouts out to my 2 new favorite pieces of viral entertainment - one is a Vimeo/Youtube clip someone edited together of pieces of dialogue from various famous films - everything from "E.T." and "Annie Hall" to "Back to the Future" and "Total Recall". When set to music, the characters from the various films recite the first verse and chorus of Lionel Richie's 80's sap-fest "Hello". It's a bit jarring at first, but after a few views I began to roll with it, and then I wanted to identify every little clip. Such a simple idea - every word or phrase has been spoken in some film at some time, right? But it's genius in its simplicity - more like this, please, internet people. Copyright clearances be damned.

In a similar vein, I'm getting into this year's "United State of Pop" remix of last year's top 25 hits, as assembled by DJ Earworm. He's done this at last since 2008, taking bits of songs from a year and interweaving them, to form something that's both familiar and original, stitched together and also coherent, creating something new from the pieces of the old. I wasn't digging the 2011 song, "World Go Boom", when I first heard it, but then I watched it with the video and started to figure out where all the pieces came from - Adele, Katy Perry, LMFAO, Bruno Mars. I don't even like most of today's music, but I love it when it's all mashed together - does that make sense? This one might even top the 2009 mix, which was called "Blame It on the Pop".

Tonight my film count stands at 265 - and it was 270 on Jan. 1, 20 days ago, so I'm still adding 3 films for each one I watch, but even though it's slow progress, that still counts as progress.

THE PLOT: Simba's daughter is the key to a resolution of a bitter feud between Simba's pride and the outcast pride led by the mate of Scar.

AFTER: Well, at least tonight I had the advantage of not knowing the plot - that made it easier for me to stay awake and pay attention.

I reckon they gave Simba a daughter so this wouldn't feel like a retread of the first film. But it's still a basic retread of "Romeo & Juliet" (only with a happier ending), in the same ways that "The Lion King" was a retread of "Hamlet", complete with Timon/Rosencrantz and Pumbaa/Guildenstern.

The animation was fine, even though the House of Mouse farmed its direct-to-video sequels off to the Disney Studio in Australia, presumably to save some cash and get it done quicker. But the songs aren't necessarily up to snuff with the original film. "We Are One" is a pale copy of "Circle of Life", and "Love Will Find a Way" wasn't nearly as moving as "Can You Feel the Love Tonight".

Still, it's got action, and conflict, and comic relief, all those things that help keep the ADHD kids focused. So I'm taking a non-committal middle score on this one.

Starring the voices of Matthew Broderick, Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane, Robert Guillaume, James Earl Jones, Ernie Sabella (all carrying over from the first film), plus Suzanne Pleshette, Neve Campbell (last seen in "The Craft"), Andy Dick (last seen in "Knocked Up"), and Jason Marsden.

RATING: 5 out of 10 antelope

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Lion King

Year 4, Day 20 - 1/20/12 - Movie #1,020

BEFORE: I know what you're thinking - how could he NOT have seen "The Lion King"? How could he work in animation and not have rushed out to see, like, the biggest Disney movie ever? (Let me check on that - yes, confirmed, it's the biggest Disney movie ever, save for "Toy Story 3".) Geez, I've only had 17 years to watch this, what was the hold-up? Well, when it was first released I did have a co-worker who lobbied hard for it, and sometimes that makes me defensive, and the more people push for me to see something, the less I want to see it. Sometimes I like to discover movies on my own, ya dig? Plus I was sort of busy in 1994 - actually that may be something of an understatement.

But that's what the blog is about - atoning for past cinematic sins. (cins?) I did buy tickets to the Broadway stage version for my wife's birthday last October, so I'm coming at this one from a funny angle, having seen the stage show before the film it was based on.

Joel Edgerton from "Legend of the Guardians" was also in "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith", which conveniently links him to James Earl Jones, who provided Darth Vader's voice in that film, however briefly.

THE PLOT: Tricked into thinking he killed his father, a guilt ridden lion cub flees into exile and abandons his identity as the future King.

AFTER: See, this reminded me why I love animation. Sure, you can dress up a bunch of people and build fantastic sets, and giant animal-shaped puppets, but with animation, there truly are no limits. If you can imagine it, it can be drawn (or generated or composited, whatever) and it can look like the ultimate rendition of that object or idea, if you want it to. The stage show was limited to simple props, like a water-hole drying up represented by a piece of blue fabric being pulled into a hole in the floor. It's inventive, but with animation you can just DRAW THAT, and it will look the way it's supposed to.

So now I see some of the imperfections in the stage show, and some parts where they had to beef up the dialogue to make up for what could not be represented visually. Plus there were some extreme logistical problems with the nature of the puppetry - Timon was much larger on stage than he was in the film, and the puppeteers portraying him and Zazu had to appear on stage next to the characters, and we all just sort of had to pretend that we couldn't see them. (awkward)

Plus the lions and hyenas wore these headpieces, with their human heads poking through what should have been the characters' necks. How is that acceptable? I didn't know whether to look at their human faces or their animal faces. By comparison, it just seems a lot simpler to watch the film.

In other ways, this is a very simple, almost elegant story - there's no Long and Difficult Quest, which is a big relief. Compared to that "Owls of Ga'Hoole" nonsense, understanding the circle of life is a breeze.

However, with that said, I do feel that there's just too much comic relief in this one, and of course it raises the question over whether animals can grasp such concepts as a line of monarchial succession, or even the concept of government in general. The lion's status as the "King of Beasts" - that's a human label, right? Of course we want to anthropomorphize animals for the sake of a story, but I'm left wondering if it's always necessary, or just a frequently used screenwriting crutch.

What would take real cojones would be to write a story from the realistic point of view of an animal, without pandering to a childlike audience, or over-humanizing the characters. I wonder if it's ever been done, or even possible.

Starring the voices of Matthew Broderick (last heard in "Bee Movie"), Jonathan Taylor Thomas, James Earl Jones (last seen in "Clear and Present Danger"), Jeremy Irons (last seen in "The French Lieutenant's Woman"), Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane (last heard in "Teacher's Pet"), Ernie Sabella, Robert Guillaume (last seen in "The Meteor Man"), Rowan Atkinson (last seen in "Johnny English"), Whoopi Goldberg (last heard in "Everyone's Hero" and Cheech Marin (last seen in "From Dusk Till Dawn").

RATING: 6 out of 10 elephant tusks

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

Year 4, Day 19 - 1/19/12 - Movie #1,019

BEFORE: Well, there was a rather noticable owl in last night's film, so this worked out rather well. And I swear it's another one of those little coincidences. It's strange how as the list gets smaller, there seem to be more and more links I can make between the films that are left - I'm even passing on some rather notable connections. I don't know how long I can keep my chain going, I'm guessing that by May or June I'll be watching random leftovers, but who knows?

Elisabeth Moss from "Once Upon a Forest" links through "Get Him to the Greek" to co-star Rose Byrne, who appeared in "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones" along with Joel Edgerton, who does a voice in tonight's film.

THE PLOT: When a young owl is abducted by an evil Owl army, he must escape with newfound friends to seek out the legendary Guardians to stop the menace.

AFTER: Last night's film was think with pro-environmental messages, and this one? Well, it comes close to collapsing under the weight of its own mythology - not to mention that convoluted title. There's all kinds of owl stories and legends, referring to battles in the past between warring factions of owls - it all seems rather complicated.

The buy-in tonight is high - you not only have to believe that owls can talk, but that they can forge armor, operate magical items, and form complex hierarchies based on conflicting idealogies. Oh, and all the owls speak with Australian accents. It's a lot to take in - also, they live in a world that's filled with gorgeous ruins, but no people are seen. It looks a bit like Middle Earth if you gave all the elves and orcs the day off.

The central character, Soren, is kidnapped and enslaved, brought to a far-off place where owls are each assigned tasks, and are forced to work at hard labor for the benefit of the leaders, the Pure Ones. Fortunately, he's able to escape and he travels to a far-off place where owls are each assigned jobs, and all work hard together for the benefit of the Guardians. Hey, wait a is that really better?

I suppose it's all about free will - and the Guardians' tree-colony looks a whole lot nicer than the mountainous cavern that the Pure Ones live in. But other than some very obvious Nazi-like analogies about purity and the killing of the weak, it's rather fuzzy trying to assign labels like good and evil to different factions of birds.

The film's redemption comes in the battle sequences, fantastically choreographed mid-air fights between armored owls. This film's director also made "300" and "Watchmen", so that sort of thing kind of carries over nicely. I almost (but not quite) forgot I was watching owls battling, and just sort of got into the excitement of the battles late in the film.

But it's still rather formulaic, and vastly overblown. I can make connections to a number of other films including "Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars: Episode 3", but I've already written about how these touchstones, like the long and difficult quest, are fairly universal in fantasy films, and this one is no different. Except it has more owls.

Also starring the voices of Jim Sturgess (last seen in "21"), Hugo Weaving (last seen in "The Wolfman"), Helen Mirren (last seen in "Inkheart"), Geoffrey Rush (last seen in "The Tailor of Panama"), Sam Neill (last seen in "Memoirs of an Invisible Man"), Anthony LaPaglia (last seen in "Mixed Nuts"), and Richard Roxburgh (last seen in "Mission: Impossible II")

RATING: 4 out of 10 mouse pellets

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Once Upon a Forest

Year 4, Day 18 - 1/18/12 - Movie #1,018

BEFORE: No more bug-based films, so I'm opening up the topic to include all manner of woodland and jungle creatures. Should keep me busy for the next two weeks. I've got February's movies blocked out on paper, but I can change things around a bit if need be.

This film is basically rodent-based, so maybe I should have watched it right after "Stuart Little 2". Oh, well, what's done is done. Linking from "A Bug's Life", David Hyde Pierce did a voice in the film "Hellboy", which starred Ron Perlman, who was also in "The Last Supper" with Elisabeth Moss, who voiced a character in this 1993 animated film (she was 11 at the time).

THE PLOT: A young mouse, mole and hedgehog risk their lives to find a cure for their badger friend, who's been poisoned by men.

AFTER: Hmm, as in last night's film, a plot point concerns animals impossibly building an airplane-like device. That's an odd coincidence. Why don't the goofs on the IMDB page ever say things like, "Three forest animals without opposable thumbs simply cannot construct a working flying machine." Or, for that matter, why don't they include the fact that forest animals can't talk, and don't wear cute clothing?

Three overly-cute and well-dressed animals have to go on a (say it with me, now) long and difficult quest to get the herbs needed to cure their friend, who inhaled some gas fumes after a tanker truck crashed. And the tanker truck crashed because it ran over a broken bottle, which was thrown out of a car window by a litterer. Yes, the humans are the villains here, no matter how you slice it, with their roads, and their tanker trucks and their construction equipment.

This is high eco-claptrap from the Hanna-Barbera studios - I'm sorry, I love animals, but I refuse to feel guilty over the Industrial Revolution. I didn't invent the combustion engine or coal-mining, or carbon monoxide. Should we all just stop driving our cars and shut down the generators and live in the woods like bushmen? Ain't gonna happen, you can't unring that bell.

However, looking at the films coming up on the schedule, it looks like I'll be seeing a lot more of this sort of eco-friendly evil-human thing in the days to come. Well, at least this film was short (71 minutes) and didn't take up too much of my time.

The high point in this film for me was the song "Please Wake Up", as sung by Michael Crawford, voicing an older badger. The symbolic references to morning and night made it feel like a lost song from "Phantom of the Opera", especially the way he sings it.

Also starring the voice of Ben Vereen (last seen in "All That Jazz").

RATING: 3 out of 10 acorns

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Bug's Life

Year 4, Day 17 - 1/17/12 - Movie #1,017

BEFORE: This is another one of those cases where there were two similar films released in the same year, like "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon". It happens with animated features too, like "Madagascar" and "The Wild", or "Happy Feet" and "Surf's Up". There are only so many animals, after all - I picture some kind of chart in the offices of Pixar and Dreamworks, where the animals used in high-profile releases are crossed off. And I wonder what kind of corporate espionage goes on between the studios, with one trying to scoop the other. Anyway, this film was released the same year as "Antz", and I made a choice - it only took me 13 years to see the other film.

I could link from "Bee Movie" to this via the Jerry Seinfeld connection to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but that's through a TV show, and it feels like cheating. How about - John Goodman was in "The Big Lebowski" with Steve Buscemi, who was in "Double Whammy" with Denis Leary? Yeah, that'll work.

THE PLOT: A misfit ant, looking for "warriors" to save his colony from greedy grasshoppers, recruits a group of bugs that turn out to be an inept circus troupe.

AFTER: I've lost most of my objectivity after watching so many kiddie films - they're all starting to feel like they hit the same plot points. (How do you parents do it? You learn to tune things out, right?) Neurotic bug, doesn't fit in, looking for his place in the colony (same as in "Bee Movie"), the colony is terrorized by larger, bullying bugs (same as in "The Ant Bully"), and one character has to go on a long-distance quest to find help (same as, umm, every movie?).

All right, I'll admit there's some fresh stuff here. Having an ant who's also an inventor is pretty, well, inventive. And the circus performers being mistaken for warriors, that's original. Having lots of different bug species, each with their own personality, goes a long way toward keeping things fresh.

But there's just as much stuff that seems cobbled together from other movies. The grasshoppers terrorizing the colony - the situation seems straight out of a Western like "High Plains Drifter" or "The Magnificent Seven", or one of those biker films like "The Wild One". The fact that kids wouldn't know about those films definitely works in Disney's favor, though.

Combining that with a very un-possible solution to the grasshopper problem, and I'm thinking the positives and the negatives balance out on this one, so it's a wash. But I also penalize for the phony bloopers at the end (we all know CGI films don't have outtakes, right?) and the unnecessary list of "production babies" - the audience just doesn't care if crew members had kids during production. I know I sure don't.

Starring the voices of Dave Foley (last seen in "3 Men and a Baby"), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (last seen in "Christmas Vacation"), Kevin Spacey (last seen in "A Time to Kill"), Phyllis Diller, David Hyde Pierce (last seen in "Wolf"), Richard Kind (last heard in "Garfield"), Denis Leary (last heard in "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs"), Madeline Kahn (last seen in "Mixed Nuts"), Bonnie Hunt (last seen in "Jumanji"), John Ratzenberger, Brad Garrett (last seen in "Stuart Little 2"), and Hayden Panettiere (last seen in "Remember the Titans").

RATING: 5 out of 10 matchsticks

Bee Movie

Year 4, Day 16 - 1/16/12 - Movie #1,016

BEFORE: As I said last night, I don't care much for bees. Or honey, which is really bee spit. Never really saw the attraction. I got stung by a bee on my tongue once, when I was very young - it was sitting on my ham sandwich at a picnic, and no one had given me the memo about how bees were no good to eat, I guess. I spent the rest of my childhood trying to avoid them, mostly successfully.

Last night's film was produced by Tom Hanks, and tonight's film was produced by Jerry Seinfeld, making his first appearance in my countdown. The voice of Larry Miller carries over from "The Ant Bully", though.

THE PLOT: On a special trip outside the hive, a bee's life is saved by Vanessa, a florist. As their relationship blossoms, he discovers humans actually eat honey, and subsequently decides to sue us.

AFTER: As in "The Ant Bully", there's a number of great animated sequences here, taking advantage of the bug's size and P.O.V. Flying around, evading traffic, bouncing on a tennis ball - some very inventive visual stuff. To me this is what people should be doing with CGI, using it to look at life from otherwise unfilmable perspectives, not just creating fantastic other worlds like "Avatar" - but taking a look at our own world from other angles.

Lots of cleverly written stuff, too - some definitely have Seinfeld's take on the little eccentricities of human life. Since the main character is a bee and knows nothing about human society, it leads to a lot of questions. Why do some people prefer artificial sweeteners? Why do people list strange skills like "eating with chopsticks" on their resum├ęs? What's up with balloon bouquets?

And most notably, what's life like inside a hive? (Hint: it looks a lot like it does in those Honey Nut Cheerios ads) Yes, it's a giant factory, and each bee has a job to do. From pollen collecting to cleaning up, each bee is a assigned a job, and will work that job until he dies. Which apparently isn't that long.

But Barry B. Benson (Seinfeld's voice) is more than a mindless drone, he wants to get out and see some of the world before he starts work, and so he starts up a conversation with a human, in violation of bee law. (As we know, all animals can speak English, they're all just careful not to do it around people.) And he gets to the bottom of the honey industry's dirty little secret. No, not that honey is bee spit, the other one.

If the hive is a factory, then the honey farm's artificial bee enclosure is more like a concentration camp - where the enslaved bees are not allowed to keep any of the fruits of their labors. Geez, did PETA bankroll this film? Because if you follow the logic, then what about fish farms, and chicken ranches? And cows and pigs? No, no, that way madness lies...

Barry's lawsuit against the honey farms has unexpected consequences - as you might expect. And he's got to rally the bees together to make things right again, as you might also expect. The ending gets a little fantastical (call Mythbusters - is that even possible? I doubt it.) so I've got to call shenanigans. Also, is all pollen chemically the same, or are there different kinds? I should look that up.

I did enjoy the in-jokes, especially the homage to "The Graduate", with Barry floating on a raft in a pool of honey, and his parents talking to him about his future. But the cameo by Sting was a non-starter.

Hey, they never found out why the number of honeybees in America was declining a few years back, right around the time this movie was released in fact. I just looked up "colony collapse disorder" on the Wikipedia, and it just highlights how much we don't really know about bees and how they work. I reluctantly acknowledge that if the bees all disappear, we humans are going to be in quite a bit of trouble, with no pollinated plants.

Also starring the voices of Renee Zellweger (last seen in "Chicago"), Matthew Broderick (last seen in "Family Business"), John Goodman (last seen in "King Ralph"), Kathy Bates (last seen in "Valentine's Day"), and Patrick Warburton (last heard in "The Emperor's New Groove 2"). Vocal cameos from Chris Rock (last seen in "Head of State"), Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, Ray Liotta (last seen in "John Q"), Rip Torn and Megan Mullally (last heard in "Teacher's Pet").

RATING: 7 out of 10 crash helmets