#354. Gigantic!

How often do we catch ourselves staring upward at an object, in awe of its immense size? When tourists first experience the towering heights of the skyscrapers of New York, they come to grips with the scale of such structures. Sometimes, even the most mundane things in life can be awe-inspiring (or at least attention-grabbing) when reimagined as larger versions of their smaller counterparts. While some of this fascination with gigantic items stems from the art world, there have been many films that have delved into the idea that size matters. In the past, this required building sets to make the actors on the screen seem much larger than they were. Today, CGI can accomplish this task. Even so, some amount of visual trickery is needed to make the actors appear larger than life. This week’s two films examine what it means to be gigantic!

The Iron GiantThe Iron Giant
Year: 1999
Rating: PG
Length: 86 minutes / 1.43 hours

Giant robots are usually a sub-genre of science fiction often promulgated through Japanese manga and anime. While they cornered the market on giant monsters and the giant robots built to fight them (a la Godzilla (1954) and Power Rangers (2017), respectively) America is finally starting to catch up with such films as Pacific Rim (2013) and its sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018). Granted, most of the American giant monsters and robots before this point were in the form of enormous apes or alien invaders, like the eponymous King Kong (1933) or Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). All these giant robots and monsters were created in a variety of methods to make the audience think they are enormous, but there’s been at least one true giant to grace the big screen. In his best-known film role, Andre the Giant played the part of Fezzik in The Princess Bride (1987).

Upon the cusp of the start of the cold war, tensions are high between the United States and the Soviet Union. When a giant alien robot falls out of the sky and lands near a small town in Maine, the United States government is obviously suspicious of Communist involvement. However, what young Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) learns upon finding this Iron Giant (Vin Diesel) is that the robot is a calm and docile being with no understanding of the world he now inhabits. The robot does not want to be seen as an enemy, but his automatic defense mechanisms are activated to protect him from the assault of the United States military. Despite Hogarth showing everyone the robot is harmless, a trigger-happy government agent launches a nuclear missile against the robot that would likely wipe out the small town. It’s up to the Iron Giant to save the day and show he’s a hero, not a villain.

Honey, I Shrunk the KidsHoney, I Shrunk the Kids
Year: 1989
Rating: PG
Length: 93 minutes / 1.55 hours

Size is all about perspective. While humans think anything larger than they are is gigantic, an ant would find humans to be tremendously enormous. Plenty of films explore this shift in perspective. From the superhero comedy of Ant-Man (2015) to the social commentary of Downsizing (2017), being shrunk down makes the entire world seem bigger in comparison. Some family-friendly films explore this idea as well, including Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Epic (2013). Despite knowing how to interact with our human-sized world, like The Borrowers (1997) or The Secret World of Arrietty (2010), sometimes the humans shrunk down to these sizes have difficulty adapting. When toy cars are large enough to be real ones, and building blocks can be used as a shelter, it takes some problem solving to fashion the tools needed to survive.

Eccentric inventor Wayne Szalinski (Rick Moranis) is having trouble with his shrink ray. Every time he tries to shrink something, it explodes, thus making the ray gun too dangerous to use on humans. His children, Amy (Amy O’Neill) and Nick (Robert Oliveri) are tasked with cleaning up the house before their mother comes home. Meanwhile, the Szalinski’s neighbors, the Thompsons, are preparing for a fishing trip. Ron Thompson (Jared Rushton) accidentally hits a baseball through the Szalinski’s attic window and is caught by his brother, Russ (Thomas Wilson Brown), and forced to apologize to the Szalinskis. However, when the kids go up to find the baseball, the laser shrinks them down. After Wayne accidentally takes the kids out with the trash, they have to find their way back home in the wilderness that is their backyard. If they can gain Wayne’s attention, they just might be returned to normal size.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 enormously entertaining movies

#238. Beauty and the Beast

Contrast is the key to a good story. When two ends of a spectrum are forced together, the resulting interaction merely highlights their differences. Because two characters come from such different backgrounds, their misunderstandings of each other add conflict, which is essential to any story. Good vs. Evil. Right vs. Wrong. Rich vs. Poor. These familiar dichotomies have been used countless times in numerous plots. Perhaps the reason for this is the timeless nature of contrast. Another such contrast is that of Man vs. Woman. One is uncouth and primal; the other is refined and sophisticated. When this contrast is taken to its logical extremes, we arrive at the contrast of Beauty vs. Beast. While this contrast is generally relegated to monster movies, this week’s two films show some successful uses of the “Beauty and the Beast” plotline.

KingKing Kong Kong
Year: 1933
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 100 minutes / 1.67 hours

Monster movies sit right on the edge of horror films. In the early days of cinema, these pieces would be comparable to the science fiction pulp that was never taken seriously but was still popular, nonetheless. Most of these pieces would feature some enormous animal or mutated monster with a scantily-clad woman in its clutches. While these films do follow the “man vs. nature” plotline, the contrast of a woman to the monster invokes another layer on top of this common theme. The innocence of a woman taken away by a monstrous beast can be a metaphor for many things and is often a soapbox to comment on society as a whole. That being said, King Kong truly set the stage for many of these monster films, most of which only try to imitate the perfection achieved back in 1933.

Part of the timeless notoriety of King Kong (1933) comes from the special effects it utilized, many of which were years ahead of their time. These effects were able to bring an enormous gorilla into our world and have it interact with the people who invaded its habitat. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) was reluctant to bring a woman along on his next nature film, but since audiences wanted a dame on screen, he hired Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to come on an expedition to Skull Island. Once there, the natives kidnap her to offer a “golden” sacrifice to their god known as “Kong.” While the crew of the ship fights to regain Ann, Kong also fights to keep her. In the end, the crew wins, and Kong is carted back to New York, where his obsession with Ann leads him to climb the tallest building in town: the Empire State Building. When Kong is shot down, Denham remarks that “it was Beauty killed the Beast.”

Beauty and the BeastBeauty and the Beast
Year: 1946
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 93 minutes / 1.55 hours

Inside every man lurks a beast. Most can control their baser urges and interact with the fairer sex in everyday situations. However, whenever we act out of line, we can be accused of being a “beast.” That being said, sometimes we are misunderstood and merely long for a woman to get to know us better to see that we’re not that bad. After all, women can make men do foolish things sometimes (like climb the Empire State Building, for instance). Unlike the aforementioned monster movies, fairy tales have beasts in a more romantic context. These beasts tend to be men who found themselves in unfortunate, magical circumstances and therefore a beast in exterior context only. For the beautiful woman who can see past the rough outer covering to the tender heart within, many riches (both literal and metaphorical) await her.

Once again, part of what sets this film apart from its counterparts is the excellent special effects used to create the magical grounds where the Beast (Jean Marais) whiles away his time. One day, a man (Marcel André) appears in the forest surrounding the castle, lost, penniless, and tired. The magical castle leads him inside where he falls asleep, only to be awakened by the roar of the Beast. In his hasty retreat, he remembers a request from his daughter, Belle (Josette Day), and takes a rose from the garden. This triggers the Beast’s appearance and a bargain to trade the father’s life for the imprisonment of one of his daughters. Belle takes it upon herself to be held by the Beast, eventually learning the tragic circumstances of his transformation. She is released for a week when her father falls ill, but this event triggers the death of the Beast at the hands of both Belle’s brother and her suitor.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 beauties and beasts

#237. Peter Jackson

Some directors are well known, not because they have made a lot of films, but because the films they have made impacted society so heavily. Because of these directors’ gravitas, we welcome any film they choose to create with much anticipation. Unfortunately, many of these directors can’t live up to their breakout success. Directors like the Wachowski’s (with The Matrix (1999)), M. Night Shyamalan (with The Sixth Sense (1999)), and Neill Blomkamp (with District 9 (2009)) have all created fantastic films, but their follow-up creations have been less-than-stellar, critically speaking. Usually, we see a steady decline in quality as these directors continue to create, essentially cementing them as “one-hit wonders.” This week, we’ll be examining some of the better-known works of one of these directors: Peter Jackson.

                                  The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Year: 2003The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Rating: PG-13
Length: 201 minutes / 3.35 hours

Critics of literary adaptations have always held certain works in the highest esteem. They say that “it could never be made” and “the book will always be better.” The Lord of the Rings was just such a book. While there were a few adaptations in the 1970s, none were treated with as much care as the trilogy created by Peter Jackson. Shot over a few years, all three films in their extended format thoroughly cover the fantasy epic loved by millions. Unfortunately, a decade later, Jackson would go on to “George Lucas” himself by directing a prequel trilogy that had lost a lot of the elements that had made the original trilogy work so well (much like Lucas did with Star Wars). The Hobbit is a short prequel novel to the Lord of the Rings, and many felt padding it out to three movies by using the Lord of the Rings’ appendices was unnecessary.

Some of Peter Jackson’s success with The Lord of the Rings came from his previous works in the horror genre. Films like Bad Taste (1987), Braindead (1992), and The Frighteners (1996) gave him the experience to create the ugly creatures that embody the evil forces led by Sauron in Middle Earth. These orcs, trolls, and wraiths are genuinely terrifying, especially when collected, en masse, to counter the forces led by Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) marching on Mordor. Meanwhile, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) complete the last leg of their journey, surreptitiously sneaking behind enemy lines to arrive at Mount Doom: the volcano that created Sauron’s one ring of power. As the armies of men distract Sauron’s gaze, the two hobbits struggle with the temptation of evil in their penultimate quest to destroy the ring.

King KongKing Kong
Year: 2005
Rating: PG-13
Length: 187 minutes / 3.12 hours

How many of us have that one film from our childhood that influenced us to no end? Did you ever set up your action figures to recreate scenes from Star Wars? Would you take your LEGO figurines and use them to film stop-motion re-enactments from Harry Potter? In these regards, Peter Jackson is as much one of us as he is a big-budget Hollywood director. As a child, one of the main influences which inspired him into making movies was that of King Kong (1933). Even with limited resources, he would try to remake it with models he had made himself. Many decades later, just coming off the high praise for the aforementioned Lord of the Rings series, Jackson finally had the money and technology to make his dream a reality. In 2005, Peter Jackson would go on to remake his favorite film of all time: King Kong.

A film about making movies, King Kong follows out-of-work actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) as she comes upon hard times during the Great Depression. In a stroke of good luck, she is discovered by Carl Denham (Jack Black), an enthusiastic director who wants to shoot his latest project on location: Skull Island. This mysterious island that time forgot ends up being much more dangerous than anyone could imagine. With enormous insects, once-extinct dinosaurs, and the eponymous King Kong (Andy Serkis), the small crew barely makes it away alive, let alone with the massive gorilla in their cargo hold. Once back in New York, Denham decides to put the beast on display, but when it escapes and takes Ann hostage, she tries to let everyone know that Kong is mostly harmless. Unfortunately, the beast meets its demise atop the Empire State Building, falling to its death on the streets below.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 giant Jackson blockbusters

Bacon #: 2 (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King / Elijah Wood -> Beyond All Boundaries / Kevin Bacon)


#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 faster and less expensive. 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 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 excellent 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 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 simply because a longer film means 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 (1993) has undoubtedly revived the art. Its influence is seen in many other stop-motion films including Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012). 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) bored with his holiday of Halloween. When he goes wandering into the woods, he finds a portal to the realm of Christmas. 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, ideas are often explored 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 had 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 (The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995)), Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) 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