#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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#121. Mel Gibson

Many actors have controversial personal lives for a variety of reasons. Off of the screen they may be the violent, alcoholic, drug-addicted, racist, and overall crazy people the tabloids love reporting on, but on-screen they have enough talent to make us forget (albeit sometimes temporarily) of who they are as actual people. Mel Gibson is no exception. Established as an “action hero” with such film series as Mad Max (1980) and Lethal Weapon (1987), Gibson also has talent for other genres including drama in Hamlet (1990), historical in The Patriot (2000), and sci-fi in Signs (2002). But this week’s two films are not about Gibson’s acting career, per sé. While it’s difficult to see someone’s personal life when they’re acting, sometimes when they direct their beliefs emerge. This week’s two films examine Mel Gibson’s directing career.

The Passion of the ChristThe Passion of the Christ
Year: 2004
Rating: R
Length: 127 minutes / 2.11 hours

If there’s one thing that American audiences can’t stand, it’s subtitles. As such, it’s curious that Gibson would choose to present the violence of Jesus’ death in a way that would require audiences to read. If they wanted to do that, they’d just go to the Bible. Still, the powerful imagery seems much more alive with period languages being used (even if they probably would have all been speaking Greek anyways). This film was inspired by Gibson’s deep-seated Catholicism and is not meant as a verbatim recreation of the events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion. It’s more of an artistic interpretation of what had happened, but with the Biblical story set as its foundation. Two years later, Gibson released Apocalypto, another violent film with period language being used in place of English. In fact, both films have given him the niche of filming in dead or ancient languages.

There have been many films about the life of Christ, but few of them focused on the last hours of his life. With some flashbacks to provide background to the story, the brunt of the plot is based on the Stations of the Cross, which covers Jesus’ betrayal at the hands of Judas Iscariot and the resulting trials (both legal and physical) that Jesus had to endure before finally being executed by crucifixion. The entire ordeal is portrayed as an overly violent series of events which has induced criticism of the film, despite the fact that the crucifixion itself is a brutal process. It is granted that the Romans reveled in violence (just think about the gladiators of the Coliseum), so the beatings Christ received might actually be pretty accurate, all things considered. At any rate, Passion ends not with the defeat of the Son of Man, but rather with his victory over death.

BraveheartBraveheart
Year: 1995
Rating: R
Length: 177 minutes / 2.95 hours

Gibson had been acting for just over fifteen years when he made his directorial debut with The Man Without a Face (1993). And yet, Mel Gibson’s fame as a director didn’t actually come until two years later. In fact, on top of starring in the leading role, Gibson Directed and Produced Braveheart, which ended up winning him two Oscars: Best Director and Best Picture. The remaining three Oscars it won were for more technical merits, but the fact remains that this film cemented Mel Gibson’s status as a director as well as an actor. There’s no denying the cultural significance this film has had on popular culture, with the famous speech by Gibson’s William Wallace being oft quoted for other situations involving freedom. And let’s not forget about that blue war paint! In fact, a rise in Scottish tourism resulted because of the success of this film.

In the late 13th century, the king of Scotland dies and leaves a vacuum of authority with no heir to rise to power in his stead. As a result, King Edward (Patrick McGoohan) conquers the defenseless Scotland and wins the land for England. Because of this coup, William Wallace is sent to Rome to be educated and to be kept safe from the English. While Wallace (Mel Gibson) is gone, things get worse in Scotland, so when he returns to his homeland, he has to marry his childhood sweetheart in secret. Fighting against the injustice the Scots are experiencing on behalf of the British, Wallace gathers up a group of rebels who fight against King Edward in the Battle of Falkirk. And even though they were not victorious, Wallace still holds on to his ideals of freedom, even until his gruesome death. However, just like The Passion of the Christ, the ending of Braveheart shows a greater victory by the Scots.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 great Gibson epics

Bacon #: 2 (Lethal Weapon / Tom Atkins -> Lemon Sky / Kevin Bacon)

#115. Escape!

Have you ever just wanted to get away from it all? Just jump on a plane and go far away? Well, what if you’re trapped in a war camp? You obviously can’t just walk out the front door and not come back, since there’s probably a reason you’re being held there. Any type of prison usually induces some ideas of escape from its tenants. And why wouldn’t it? Living conditions in these institutions aren’t necessarily ideal and the fact of the matter is that most people who are trapped in these situations are likely to die while in the confines of razor-wire fences. Of course, it’s never easy to escape. Security measures are put in place to prevent such activities, so an escape is certainly a challenge. This week’s two films look at some great escapes where the main characters literally fly the coop.

Chicken RunChicken Run
Year: 2000
Rating: G
Length: 84 minutes / 1.4 hours

If there’s anything that animation is good at, it’s anthropomorphising animals in such a way that we can relate to their plights. I doubt many of us ever consider what happens on a farm, let alone from the perspective of the animals. While many human activist groups stage protests on behalf of mistreated and oppressed animals, it’s always more interesting to see animals rise up and fight for their own justice. When we see the world through their eyes, a simple egg harvesting operation ends up looking more like a gulag than a business. Fortunately, since it is animated, the tone is generally lighter than other war-camp type movies, even though the main thrust of the conflict still remains. Of course, it also means that chickens have lips and teeth, which is a little weird.

When one chicken by the name of Ginger (Julie Sawalha) has the talent to escape from the farm of Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy, the only reason she doesn’t is that she wants to escape with her friends. Unfortunately, it’s easier for one chicken to escape, but incredibly difficult for many to fly the coop at the same time. This is partly due to the lack of skill and motivation from the others, but soon all that changes when an American rooster by the name of Rocky (Mel Gibson) falls from the sky and into the fenced farmyard. Rocky, as it turns out, is injured and wants to escape the farm just as much as Ginger does. As such, he is able to rally the troops with his stories of the outside and soon everyone is going full tilt toward a new plan to escape: flying to their freedom.

The Great EscapeThe Great Escape
Year: 1963
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 172 minutes / 2.86 hours

Probably the most iconic escape movie of all time, The Great Escape has given us a lot of great moments. Whether it’s whittling away the time in the cooler or the memorable score by Elmer Bernstein, this film has been referenced a multitude of times since its release. In fact, the aforementioned Chicken Run is incredibly similar to the plot of this World War II POW adventure. However, unlike the Pacific theater film of similar content, The Bridge on the River Kwai, there is no agreements or working with their captors here. To a greater point, while very few people truly escaped in The Bridge on the River Kwai, there were a surprising amount of prisoners who managed to get outside the confines of their Nazi-controlled prison. And yet, just getting past the guards is only half the battle.

The trick with Prisoner of War camps is that everyone who has been captured has military experience. You’re not dealing with your run of the mill criminals here, and they’re being held only for the fact that they’re fighting for the other side. As such, the Nazis think they have created an escape-proof POW camp and have put many of their troublemaker prisoners inside. Unfortunately, when you get that many escape artists together, they’re bound to think of a plan. When Hilts (Steve McQueen) is brought to the camp, he quickly gains the reputation of “the Cooler King”, since he gets sent to solitary confinement more often than not for his escape attempts. And yet, while in the cooler, Hilts comes up with a plan to escape that will also allow almost one hundred others to escape with him.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 flights to freedom

#114. Aardman Animation

Just like Disney is known as the master of classical animation and Pixar is known as the master of computer generated animation, the master of stop-motion clay animation (or claymation for short) is most definitely Aardman Animation. This British based animation studio started out with some short films which were very well received. Over the years, they have moved into more feature length claymation films. Even if they use computers to aid in their productions, their style is still distinctly that of their origins: claymation. And yet, what I find most charming about the works of Aardman Animation is their humor. Their comedic style is distinctly British and can sometimes be just plain goofy. This week’s two films look at some notable feature length films from the talent at Aardman Animation.

                         Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-RabbitYear: 2005
Rating: G
Length: 85 minutes / 1.42 hours

Going back to the Disney and Pixar comparisons, if Disney’s mascot is Mickey Mouse and Pixar’s is Luxo Jr., Aardman Animation was founded on the success of Wallace and Gromit. Even though they had a few short films and TV spots, it wasn’t until they started making shorts with an eccentric inventor and his dog that they hit upon something special. While they had won an Oscar for Best Animated Short before, Aardman Animation won two more with the Wallace and Gromit shorts The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave (A Grand Day Out and A Matter of Loaf and Death were only nominees). When it came time to make a feature length film with the dynamic duo, it was no wonder that the Academy Awards smiled on Aardman again with a win for Best Animated Picture for Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Most of the charm of Wallace and Gromit comes from Gromit who (being a dog) must resort to non-verbal actions to convey his emotions. As such, a lot of the comedy comes from how Gromit reacts to the ridiculous situations that Wallace gets them into. Always the inventive entrepreneur, Wallace’s most recent venture is one of pest control. Delivering the service of removing unwanted rabbits from gardens, Wallace attempts to get to the root of the problem with a brainwashing invention that doesn’t quite work right. As a result, now there is a mysterious 6-foot tall rabbit rampaging across the countryside. Unfortunately, whenever the beast appears, Wallace is nowhere to be found, so it’s up to Gromit’s plethora of skills to figure out the mystery of the Were-Rabbit and to stop it from striking again.

Chicken RunChicken Run
Year: 2000
Rating: G
Length: 84 minutes / 1.4 hours

The first Oscar that Aardman Animation won was for an animated short called Creature Comforts. In this short, they used audio from interviews conducted in a “man on the street” style that were then used as a basis for the visuals, which were zoo animals being interviewed about their living conditions. As such, it became apparent that Aardman was skilled at bringing animals to life, so when it came time for them to make their first feature length film, the main characters that they landed upon were chickens. While it would have been nice to see Wallace and Gromit as their first feature length film, the fact remains that Aardman needed to get its name out there before bringing forth its pride and joy. Chicken Run is a classic, recognizable plot with some choice American influences, while still retaining Aardman’s British wit.

Evoking imagery from many war-camp films, Chicken Run tells the story of a handful of chickens who feel oppressed in their current farm environment. As they are forced to produce a set number of eggs, the chickens who can’t cut it mysteriously disappear, never to be heard from again. Then, in flies Rocky (Mel Gibson). This American Rooster crashes the party and gives many of the hens some hope of escape. Unfortunately, Rocky can’t fly, so this grounded bird must rely on the ingenuity of the others to help him escape as well. And yet, the farm’s owners get a machine that will help them make more money with the chickens that don’t make enough eggs. Soon, it’s a race against the clock to escape as the egg quotas are raised and the machine becomes operational. Will the hens fly the coop in time?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 amazing works by Aardman Animation

#113. Stop-motion

When it comes to animation, CGI dominates the market because it is quick and cheap. With Moore’s Law enhancing computing power every 18 months, it’s just going to get quicker and cheaper. And yet, there is a charm to the other animation styles that you just don’t get with computers. When the art is more hands-on, it feels less sterile and its flaws add to the effect of showing the amount of work that went into it. While classical, hand-drawn animation has always been the root of any animation style, I have found that the animation that tends to be more impressive and immersive is that of stop-motion animation. This style is so hands-on you can occasionally catch the animators’ fingerprints on the models. This week’s two films look at some fine examples of stop-motion animation.

                                               The Nightmare Before ChristmasThe Nightmare Before Christmas
Year: 1993
Rating: PG
Length: 76 minutes / 1.26 hours

Stop-motion animation is not a new technique by any means. In fact, in the early days of film, this style was used for some of the more impressive special effects, the most notable example being the 1933 classic, King Kong. And yet, films that are shot entirely in stop-motion (instead of just in-part like King Kong) are more of a modern attraction. Due to the labor intensive process of stop-motion animation, most of these pure stop-motion films were animated shorts. A feature length production would take much longer purely due to the fact that a longer film meant that more shots need to be taken. Add to the length the numerous characters involved in a feature length plot and now the task is truly daunting. Fortunately, for the artistic style conveyed in this film, the effort was absolutely worth it in the end.

While it wasn’t the first feature length stop-motion animated film, The Nightmare Before Christmas has certainly revived the art and its influence is seen in many other stop-motion films including Coraline and ParaNorman. Tim Burton’s macabre vision was brought to life through the direction of Henry Selick, who has since directed other stop-motion films. In The Nightmare Before Christmas, we find Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon) is bored with his holiday of Halloween. When he goes wandering into the woods, he finds a portal to the realm of Christmas and suddenly, inspiration strikes! If being in charge of one holiday isn’t enough, he’ll be in charge of two. After all, how hard can it be to pull off Christmas? Jack thinks he’s figured out the formula, but now he just needs to get all of Halloween on board with him.

Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Year: 2005Walace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Rating: G
Length: 85 minutes / 1.42 hours

Since shooting feature length films (let alone stop-motion ones) can be expensive, often ideas are done in short films to test out characters and settings before moving up to the big leagues. One such example is that of Wallace and Gromit. This man and dog duo had received critical acclaim in three short films (two of which won Oscars for Best Animated Short), so it was only a matter of time before they got a full movie to play with. Perhaps the simplest medium in which to perform stop-motion animation is clay, and the Wallace and Gromit films show just how impressive this simple substance can be. What’s also nice about stop-motion animation is that it can be filmed much in the same way as a regular live-action film because the cameras are the same, only shooting one frame at a time.

As was the case with the two Oscar winning shorts (which are The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave), Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a quirky mystery that quickly gets out of hand when Wallace (Peter Sallis) uses one of his many inventions in order to solve a problem. What’s the problem, you ask? Well, the vegetable gardens of many of Wallace’s neighbors are being attacked by some pesky pests: rabbits. Having figured out the best way to catch them, Wallace decides to attempt to brainwash the rabbits into not liking vegetables anymore. Unfortunately, his experiment goes awry and soon there’s an enormous rabbit on the loose that only comes out during the full moon. It becomes apparent that Wallace is unable to solve the problem, so it’s up to his trusty dog Gromit to save the day once again.

2 sum it up; 2 films, 2 stop-motion sensations