#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


#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.

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)

#103. William Shakespeare

As I’ve mentioned before, every story has been done in Hollywood. Many of the original plots come from re-packaging classic stories in different cultural settings. Of course, it doesn’t help that a long time ago one guy wrote a lot of plays that essentially covered all the best stories.  This guy was William Shakespeare. In fact, even if a plot is original, it is often compared to the works of this prolific playwright. As such, why not just make a film about the plays directly? That way the movie is directly compared to the source material and how closely it has adapted the written word. And if that doesn’t work, why not make a story about the guy who was the best at making stories? This week’s two films just so happen to be Best Picture winners that either used William Shakespeare’s work as a foundation, or his life as an inspiration.

West Side StoryWest Side Story
Year: 1961
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 152 minutes / 2.53 hours

In order for some of the timeless themes of Shakespeare to be fully understood by modern audiences, they must be put in modern packaging. No one really cares about the King of Denmark, the Emperor of Rome, or some silly teenagers whose families are fighting. This is why there have been a few adaptations of some of Shakespeare’s well known plays into modern settings. Films like 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew) and She’s the Man (Twelfth Night) adapt the romantic comedies of Shakespeare into high school themed interpretations in order to connect with audiences that could care less about the Victorian era. This doesn’t mean that the classic interpretations of Shakespeare’s work aren’t successful, since Romeo and Juliet has been nominated several times for Best Picture and Hamelt has won. However, West Side Story modernized Romeo and Juliet, and actually won.

For this version of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is Tony Wyzek (Richard Beymer), a white teenager and former gang member of the Jets (= the Montagues) that mainly occupy Manhattan (= Verona). Juliet is Maria Nuñez (Natalie Wood), the sister of Bernardo (George Chakiris) (= Tybalt), the leader of a rival gang of Puerto Ricans, the Sharks (= the Capulets). When Tony and Maria meet at a dance, they immediately fall in love, despite the fact that they are deep within the entanglements of gang warfare. As the two lovebirds plan a way that they can be together, harassment from both gangs lets them know they need to do so in secret. And while West Side Story does not have the exact same ending as Romeo and Juliet and some racial tensions have been thrown in the mix, it is still a good interpretation of the classic tale of star-crossed lovers.

Shakespeare in LoveShakespeare in Love
Year: 1998
Rating: R
Length: 123 minutes / 2.05 hours

Even though modern versions of Shakespeare’s plays can make it easier for those who don’t want to watch something by The Bard to sit through some classic literature, sometimes you just need the classic approach. Certain actors like Lawrence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh started their acting careers on the Shakespearean stage and have taken that talent to the screen as well, since both have appeared in more than a few faithful film adaptations of his plays. And yet, there is one film that expertly combines many of Shakespeare’s plays together in one semi-fictional story, and that film is Shakespeare in Love. Oftentimes authors will draw from their experiences and the people around them, so this film merely imagines that William Shakespeare wrote in much the same way.

While West Side Story is the story of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare in Love is the story of the writing of that story. Will (Joseph Fiennes) has just found out that his benefactor has stolen his girlfriend. As such, Will burns the play he was writing for said patron, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. What was once going to be a comedy will now be rewritten as a tragedy. Unfortunately, since much of the script is unusable as a comedy, Shakespeare gets a serious case of writer’s block. That is, until he meets Thomas Kent. Thomas is an impressive actor, but with a slight twist: Thomas is actually Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Will and Viola immediately fall in love and now the words flow freely for Shakespeare. Unfortunately, it is a love that cannot be and must remain hidden. How long can the two lovers remain together before being found out?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Best Pictures with The Bard