#292. Animated Classic Literature

Anyone who grew up during the late 1990’s is probably familiar with the PBS show, Wishbone. As a child soon to be headed into junior high, I enjoyed the show at face value, but deep down in my subconscious I was learning about classic literature. For years, these episodes were my only exposure to famous pieces of literature, and thus my only knowledge of their plots until I read some of them many decades later. Disney has also done a pretty good job of adapting many classic tales to the big screen. Through their animation studio, many fairy tales were memorably created and still remain almost as the de-facto versions of their source material. That being said, some of the adaptations weren’t as obvious as others. This week’s two films look at some classic literature in an animated format.

Treasure PlanetTreasure Planet
Year: 2002
Rating: PG
Length: 95 minutes / 1.58 hours

Up until the 21st Century, Disney had animated many well-known stories from various sources. From fairy tales to short stories to novels, much of their source material was in the public domain. Once the new millennium came around, they started to create some original stories like The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Lilo & Stitch (2002). While this trend has mostly continued, there were a few films animated during this timeframe that held to the formula of adapting classic literature. While being thinly veiled as something different, Treasure Planet (2002) was an almost-direct adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, Treasure Island, merely with sci-fi trappings available via new, 3-D animation techniques (with traditional, 2-D animation being interposed on top of it).

Just like any other teenager, Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has a longing for adventure. While Alponian solar cruising works for the time being, when he is given a map by the pilot of a crashed spaceship, he sets out to find where it leads. Despite the final words of the pilot warning Jim to “beware the cyborg”, one of the friends he makes while aboard the RLS Legacy is none other than half-robot cook, John Silver (Brian Murray). After taking control of the ship during a mutiny he planned, Silver lets Jim and some ousted leaders of the ship escape to Treasure Planet. Once on the planet, the original crew finds a robot by the name of B.E.N. (Martin Short) who has literally lost his memory. In searching for the robot’s missing piece, Jim discovers that the map is also able to open portals, including to the center of the planet where the treasure is stored. Unfortunately, this triggers the planet to explode, forcing them to abandon the treasure.

The Lion KingThe Lion King
Year: 1994
Rating: G
Length: 89 minutes / 1.48 hours

Most kids who go to see an animated film won’t necessarily pick up on the source material like their parents will. Even famous films like The Great Escape (1963) and Seven Samurai (1954) have received the animated treatment in Chicken Run (2000) and A Bug’s Life (1998), respectively. While I enjoyed these animated films as a child, it wasn’t until I was older that I realized I’d seen these plots somewhere else before. Unlike Treasure Planet (2002), it took me some time to realize The Lion King (1994) was William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in disguise. Even though it’s not a direct adaptation, many of the main characters are there. Simba is Hamlet, Scar is Claudius, and even Timon and Pumbaa are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Obviously, some of the more violent and dramatic moments from the play were toned down in the animation, but the main thrust of Hamlet still lies there in the African plains.

Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is the male cub born to Mufasa (James Earl Jones), the leader of a pride of African lions. Because Simba is now next in line to the throne, Scar (Jeremy Irons) sets about trying to kill both Mufasa and Simba so he can become king. While his plan to use a wildebeest stampede to kill them both only kills Mufasa, Scar convinces Simba it’s the cub’s fault and forces him into exile. Simba (Matthew Broderick), having now grown up in the jungle with his friends Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella), returns to the Pride Lands to confront his uncle Scar. Along the way, he is visited by the ghost of Mufasa, who tells him he is the rightful king of the land. Once back home, with the help of the lionesses, Simba fights Scar and eventually wins, sending him into exile. Unfortunately, Scar’s hyena henchmen have different plans, as they overheard him betray them to everyone.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 different Disney adaptations

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#260. Pixar

When it comes to cutting-edge computer animation, one name stands high above the rest: Pixar. With each film that they release, they perfect their techniques to create realistic environments and characters through the use of computers. While Dreamworks has had some limited success against the powerhouse that is Pixar, each and every time a Pixar film is released, they up the “wow” factor of the visuals they are able to create. While there was a time when Pixar was starting to lack in the plot department (something they usually emphasized), they seem to have fixed whatever their issues were and are now creating quality material once again. And even though they have started to rely on their own franchises to create new material (via sequels), they do occasionally have a new, brilliant idea. This week’s two films highlight some of the best that Pixar has to offer.

Finding NemoFinding Nemo
Year: 2003
Rating: G
Length: 100 minutes / 1.67 hours

It is somewhat unfortunate that the Animated Feature Oscar was not introduced until the 21st century, because some of Pixar’s early works would certainly have won. While Toy Story (1995) took home a Special Achievement Oscar for being the first, full-length computer animated film, it wasn’t until Finding Nemo (2003) when Pixar would take home the coveted gold statuette. From that point until 2012, they have taken home most of the Best Animated Feature Oscars for the years they have released a film (the exceptions of course being for Cars (2006) and Cars 2 (2011)). Two of Pixar’s films have even gone so far as to have been nominated for Best Picture: Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010). Time will tell if this year’s Finding Dory (2016) will follow in its predecessor’s footsteps and snag another Oscar for Pixar.

After Nemo (Alexander Gould) is stolen by a scuba diver during a field trip, his father, Marlin (Albert Brooks), sets out to rescue him. Marlin’s urge to protect his son is strong due to an incident with a barracuda that killed his wife and almost every unborn child the two of them were going to have. Along the way, Marlin befriends a ditzy fish by the name of Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) who helps him along the journey from the Great Barrier Reef into Sydney, Australia. Despite the setbacks of the deep of the ocean, a minefield, a collection of recovering sharks, and a swarm of deadly jellyfish, the two manage to safely get to their destination. Meanwhile, Nemo has been integrated into the society of fish occupying a dentist’s aquarium. Through their help, they eventually get him out of the dentist office and back into the sea. Once there, it still takes some luck to rejoin the father and son.

The IncrediblesThe Incredibles
Year: 2004
Rating: PG
Length: 115 minutes / 1.92 hours

Early on in Pixar’s films, it was clear they didn’t want to animate people. I don’t blame them, since the “uncanny valley” is a difficult gap to cross. With main characters being toys, bugs, monsters, fish, and cars, The Incredibles (2004) was their first foray into having people as main characters. While these films are rare for them, they are gradually getting better at it. Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008), Up (2009), Brave (2012), Inside Out (2015), and The Good Dinosaur (2015) all have humans in main roles, but the way they’ve been able to keep these characters from falling into the uncanny valley is to render them to look more cartoonish than realistic. While they might seem out of place in the hyper-realistic settings, these humans aren’t rejected by our brains. I look forward to what the characters from The Incredibles will look like in their 2019 sequel.

Even though the “Glory Years” of superheroes are long gone, Robert Parr (Craig T. Nelson), the super formerly known as Mr. Incredible, longs to continue crime-fighting. His entire family struggles with having superior abilities, but being unable to use them in public. When Bob is contacted by the mysterious Mirage (Elizabeth Peña) with an opportunity to test out battle droids on Nomanisan Island, he jumps at the opportunity. Unfortunately, the purpose of the droids is much more sinister, since their creator, Syndrome (Jason Lee), wants to create a world where he alone can make normal people “super”. Suspicious of her husband’s activities, Helen Parr (Holly Hunter), aka Elastigirl, follows him to the island. When she finds her children are with her, the entire family teams up to take down Syndrome and stop his nefarious plans.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 perfect Pixar pieces

 

#259. Andrew Stanton

It’s strange to think that it’s only been a little more than thirty years since a small group of CalArts graduates founded the animation studio known as Pixar. While there are a lot of familiar names associated with early Pixar, each of them has had their hand in directing, writing, and producing many of the timeless classics that revolutionized film as we know it. One of these founders was none other than Andrew Stanton. While he has helped to write most of Pixar’s early films, he has also directed a few of them as well. That’s not to say that Stanton hasn’t worked outside of Pixar, but it certainly comprises the majority of his contributions to the world of film. As a Writer/Director, Stanton is able to see his vision come to life in many award-winning ways. This week’s two films highlight some of Andrew Stanton’s work.

John CarterJohn Carter
Year: 2012
Rating: PG-13
Length: 132 minutes / 2.2 hours

One of Stanton’s strengths has been creating stories that resonate on an emotional level with the audience. However, when the source material already exists, it can be difficult to remain true to it while also creating a story that connects with the viewers. Sometimes, in order to do so, a large amount of money is needed to make it happen. This was the case with John Carter (2012). While Disney took a risk with Stanton, who had proven himself as a director and writer many times before, the box office receipts were less than exemplary, thus quashing any hopes for sequel films. It’s a little unclear to me why this film flopped, but perhaps its failure might keep Andrew Stanton working exclusively with Pixar for some time to come. Not that this is a bad thing, but it would be interesting to see Stanton break out of the Pixar mold and succeed in doing so.

The two clans of Martian inhabitants, the Tharks and the Therns, are in conflict over control of the world they both call “Barsoom”. While the native Tharks claim their right to Barsoom based on their claims of first ownership, they are losing the war against the technologically-advanced Therns. However, when a stranger by the name of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) appears, bearing super-Martian strength and agility, the Thark chieftain realizes that their savior has arrived. Meanwhile, after meeting with the Therns, John runs across Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins), the Princess of Mars, and is immediately struck by her beauty. In the ensuing battle between the two Martian clans, Carter does his best to achieve the outcome that suits him, but can this outcome also appease the Therns and the Tharks as well?

Finding NemoFinding Nemo
Year: 2003
Rating: G
Length: 100 minutes / 1.67 hours

It wasn’t long after Pixar was founded until Stanton was picked to co-Direct one of their films. A Bug’s Life (1998) was Pixar’s second film, but the first for Stanton in the co-Director’s chair. Five years later, Stanton would take full Director privileges for the first of his Oscar-winning films: Finding Nemo (2003). Another five years passed before Stanton directed another Oscar winner: WALL-E (2008). Despite the minor setback with John Carter (2012), Stanton followed up his initial success this year with Finding Dory (2016). While we’ll have to wait until the results from the Academy come back, Stanton could be looking at earning his third Oscar through his work with Pixar. Since he directs a film every four years or so, I look forward to the effort that he’ll put forth in 2020 and the amazing visuals he’ll be able to harness by then.

Nemo (Alexander Gould) is the only son of Marlin (Albert Brooks), a clownfish who lives on the Great Barrier Reef. Due to an incident that killed his mother and all of his siblings, Nemo has a deformed fin that makes it difficult for him to swim. While on a field trip, Nemo is captured by a scuba diver and eventually finds himself in a dentist’s fish tank. The “prisoners” there learn of his plight and hatch a plan to return him to the sea. Meanwhile, Marlin learns of Nemo’s capture and sets out to rescue his son. Along the way, he runs across many different fish, sharks, turtles, and pelicans who all help him on his quest to recover Nemo. Sticking with him for most of the journey, Dora (Ellen DeGeneres) ends up linking the father and son together, even if it took some time to do so (due to her memory problem).

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 stupendous Stanton works

Bacon #: 2 (A Bug’s Life / Richard Kind -> Queen’s Logic / Kevin Bacon)

 

#118. The Circus

Step right up, folks! Welcome to the precursor of visual effects and the multi-theatre format. This summer blockbuster venue would come into town each year and set up to entertain the masses. Different attractions fill the many rings of the circus, so you can watch whatever you want, whether it’s dangerous animal taming or high-flying acrobatics! But don’t forget about the sideshows that are filled with makeup-laden clowns, magicians practicing sleight-of-hand, as well as deformities the likes of which you’ve never seen. Of course, don’t forget about the midway, which has since evolved to the small arcades present in movie theatre lobbies. See? Even though modern movies evolved from stage-plays, there are many elements that were taken from the circus. This week’s two films show us the magic involved with the circus.

A Bug’s LifeA Bug's Life
Year: 1998
Rating: G
Length: 95 minutes / 1.58 hours

If there’s a defining feature of a circus, it would have to be the diverse amount of talent that resides within the many rings of its tented coverings. There are the superhuman abilities of the strong men, the dexterity and agility of the acrobats, the slapstick hi-jinks of the clowns, the mystical sleight-of-hand of the magicians, and the fearless resolve of the animal tamers. Each one of these individuals brings a different skill to the table that can be used to entertain. And yet, when put toward other purposes, these talents can be used to accomplish almost anything that these performers put their minds to. Even though the circus bugs in A Bug’s Life are a small part of the plot as a whole, their contributions to the cause of the oppressed ants certainly prove their use in ways that lie outside the standard boundaries of the circus tent.

Imagine you’re a part of a struggling circus comprised of a variety of bugs. While the crowds in the city are sparse (and usually just a bunch of rowdy flies), when an ant from a far away colony comes with a job offer, you’d better take it! Of course, what was understood to be a gig to entertain the hordes of ants turns out to be anything but. There’s no time for entertainment as these ants are fighting for their lives and are hoping that you’ll bring some warrior skills to the battle against some grasshoppers who are set to come and take all of the ants’ food by the end of fall. But since there’s no money in it for you, the circus packs up and leaves, since the misunderstanding has been cleared up. And yet, what’s the right thing to do? After a conscience check, you’re all back at the anthill to use your skills to take on the grasshoppers.

The Greatest Show on EarthThe Greatest Show on Earth
Year: 1952
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 152 minutes / 2.53 hours

When you think of the circus, you immediately think of Ringling Brothers. When you think of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, your mind will immediately go to their slogan, “The Greatest Show on Earth”. But one would ask, “What makes it the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’?” Is it the animals, the acrobats, the sideshows, or the clowns? I would wager that those elements help to create a great show, but in order for it to be acknowledged as the “Greatest” requires a bit more. What really makes it the “Greatest Show on Earth” is the people who put their blood, sweat, and tears into both their performances as well as running the circus as a whole. Like any machine of excellence, it can only run to its maximum effect if every part is working together. This Best Picture winner shows just what it takes to put on the Greatest Show on Earth.

I can’t say it any better than DeMille’s opening remarks, “We bring you the circus – that Pied Piper whose magic tunes  lead children of all ages, from 6 to 60, into a tinseled and spun-candied world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter; whirling thrills; of rhythm, excitement and grace; of daring, en-flaring and dance; of high-stepping horses and high-flying stars. But behind all this, the circus is a massive machine whose very life depends on discipline, motion and speed . . . a mechanized army on wheels that rolls over any obstacle in its path . . . that meets calamity again and again, but always comes up smiling . . . a place where disaster and tragedy stalk the Big Top, haunt the backyards, and ride the circus rails . . . where Death is constantly watching for one frayed rope, one weak link, or one trace of fear. A fierce, primitive fighting force that smashes relentlessly forward against impossible odds: That is the circus. And this is the story of the biggest of the Big Tops . . . and of the men and women who fight to make it — The Greatest Show on Earth!”

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 cinematic circuses

#117. Hired Warriors

With bullying being an increasingly serious problem, we start to see that it’s been around much longer than we’d like to admit. Now granted, the scholastic bully is a more modern problem, but they have existed in many forms for many decades. Still, the question remains: how does one deal with a bully? Generally, bullies are stronger and more confident than the ones they pick on, so one option is to hire someone who is much stronger and much more confident to fight the bully on your behalf. And yet, people won’t just fight your battles for you for free, so these fighters often have to be paid for their services. Even though the title of “mercenary” can be looked down upon, sometimes they are necessary. This week’s two films look at two sets of mercenaries who fight for the little people (figuratively and literally).

Seven SamuraiSeven Samurai
Year: 1954
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 141 minutes / 2.35 hours

Dealing with one bully may be difficult, but dealing with a whole gang of them is nearly impossible. When the enemy is a faceless mob, there’s no way to really stop the harassment. Now, let’s say you want to hire someone to fight for you. That’s great, except you don’t have any money. How would you get someone to fight for you when you can’t even begin to pay for them? Most warriors will only fight for themselves or their ideals, so the only other option is to get them to get them to pity your plight. And yet, occasionally you’ll run across a warrior that will actually fight for the underdog pro bono. Unfortunately, since these warriors are hard to come by, it’ll still be a difficult job to repel the attacks of the mob of bullies. Still, a handful of warriors is better than nothing.

Bandits usually get whatever they want, especially if they’re harassing downtrodden farmers. Everyone’s got to eat, so the bandits figure that stealing the farmers’ crops is a simple way to keep their bellies full. Of course, after a few harvests, the farmers have had enough. Heading into town to seek out some help, they find a samurai who’s down on his luck. Since he also has to eat and has not had as many opportunities to do so, he takes up their offer of giving him three square meals a day to help defend their crops. After the samurai gathers six more to help the villagers, they teach the lowly peasants how to fight for nothing more than three bowls of rice a day. The true test of the warriors comes when the bandits return: is the farmers’ plight enough for them to fight and even die for?

A Bug’s LifeA Bug's Life
Year: 1998
Rating: G
Length: 95 minutes / 1.58 hours

One of the earliest stories of bullying comes from the animal kingdom in the form of one of Aesop’s many fables. While the “bullying” is actually done by the ants in this version, by allowing the grasshopper to starve because he did not plan ahead for the winter, Pixar has taken this idea and flipped it on its head. After all, grasshoppers are stronger than ants, so why shouldn’t the grasshopper bully the ants into giving it all of their food? Does this sound familiar? Well, it should, because A Bug’s Life is loosely based on the aforementioned Seven Samurai. However, ants don’t really have the skills to hire samurai, so they do the next best thing: hire some bigger bugs. Once again, the crop of these farming insects is at stake on the gamble of some hired fighters.

Hopper (Kevin Spacey) and his gang of grasshoppers is disappointed to find that the ants they’ve been bullying don’t have the food that they have come to collect. These downtrodden insects are shocked to find that the tinkerer of the group, Flik (Dave Foley), has accidentally doomed them to starvation because Hopper is now asking for more food in less time, with no time to gather food for themselves. In the guise of banishment, Flik sets out to find some bigger bugs that will fight for the ants. When he finds them in the city, he gets them to come back to the anthill, but under some false pretenses. While these warrior bugs cannot fight, but instead excel at acting and vaudevillian routines, they still help the ants with a plan that could drive the grasshoppers away.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 free soldiers of fortune

#036. Dreamworks vs. Disney

Anyone from an economics background could tell you that a monopoly does not induce a spirit of creativity. If one group controls the entirety of an output, what motivation do they have to be innovative? Disney has been the epitome of feature-length animated features for almost a century. Other animations studios may have come and gone, but Disney remained. This monopoly over the animated film market was finally challenged in 1998, when the fledgling studio known as Dreamworks released its first full-length animated feature, Antz. This was a firm stand against Pixar (a Disney subsidiary) and it’s 1998 film A Bug’s Life. Now that computers have made it easier to do feature-length animated films, more studios have stepped up to try and take on the Disney giant. While Dreamworks has seen varying levels of success, they have held their own against the Disney empire and still continue to release films to this day. This week’s two films highlight some representative works of both sides of this animation battle.

How to Train Your Dragon
Year: 2010
Rating: PG
Length: 98 minutes / 1.63 hours

Being the new kids on the block, Dreamworks took a while to really find what works in an animated film. While Disney and Pixar focused on story and plot, Dreamworks tended toward gags and franchising. Their first real hit came in 2001 with Shrek, which took Best Animated Picture in the Oscars, heralding their arrival as an animation studio. Even though Dreamworks tends to rely on sequels (generally going out to 4 films) and high profile voice actors, it wasn’t until 2010 and their release of How to Train Your Dragon that they really were able to get down to the root of a great film: story. Even though Dreamworks hasn’t really done many classically animated films (for which Disney is well known), they came in on the ground floor of the fledgling computer generated imaging (CGI) animated films, which really gave Disney a run for its money.

How to Train Your Dragon is definitely a departure from the standard Dreamworks fare, which saw a definite shift in 2008 with Kung-Fu Panda. It seemed that in 2008, they finally grasped what computer animated features could be capable of, and fully utilized that to provide a very action packed film. With 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon, the action and spectacular visuals were there, but fused with a great story; which comes as no surprise as it was directed by the same duo that gave us Disney’s Lilo and Stitch. Themes such as “Brain over Brawn” and “Anti-discrimination” were definitely deeper than the simplistic plots that seemed to dominate the Dreamworks landscape. As Dreamworks continues to grow and mature, I look forward to the films they’ll create to compete with Disney and Pixar.

Aladdin
Year: 1992
Rating: G
Length: 90 minutes / 1.5 hours

Even though Disney initially used Pixar as their CGI powerhouse, they’ve gradually been able to make these types of films, for which this year’s Wreck-it Ralph looks like a pure Disney classic. And yet, if there’s one thing that Disney has been known for, it’s the classically animated films of the 20th Century. These feature-length films were certainly impressive when you come to think about what goes into making 90 minutes of animation, all drawn by hand. And yet, with 50 animated films, Disney has seen various levels of success over the years, which helps to evolve the studio to match changes in society, while still holding to a high standard of quality.

Aladdin is definitely in the short list for my favorite Disney films (along with Tangled and Sleeping Beauty). I think this is partly due to the protagonist and main focus being on a guy, instead of a princess, for which Disney set the standard. In fact, Aladdin flipped that format on its head by having the street-rat pursuing the princess Jasmine, with whom he had fallen in love, instead of focusing on the princess longing for true love and waiting for her prince to appear. This also provides an interesting twist to the prince/princess formula, since it enforced the importance of riches and background instead of true love, which shouldn’t be restricted by such societal boundaries. Aside from its non-traditional Disney approach, Aladdin is still a fun film filled with action, adventure, comedy, love, and magic. All the elements that have made Disney successful in the past.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 animation powerhouses