Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Pride L.A.

There is a popular perception that animated movies are pure kid-stuff, designed to lure families to the box office and to generate lucrative marketing tie-ins.  After all, animation pioneer Walt Disney used this formula as the foundation for a financial empire that continues to dominate the entertainment industry today.  Of course, Disney’s films (at least the early ones) were also artistic triumphs, and there have since been numerous others that rival them in stature.  Nevertheless, even the most open-minded critics often tend to join the general public in considering “cartoons” as belonging to a separate-and-unequal category from live-action filmmaking, and often overlook them in any discussion of serious cinema.

This intellectual bias may often be warranted; but occasionally, a film like “Kubo and the Two Strings” comes along to challenge it.  Set in Ancient Japan, it’s the story of a boy who lives with his strangely afflicted mother in a cave by the sea.  Every night, she tells him half-remembered tales of his long-lost Samurai father; every day he spins them into adventurous yarns to entertain the nearby villagers- aided by magic which allows him to manipulate pieces of paper with the music from his shamisen. He is careful, though, to heed his mother’s warning and return home before nightfall, in order to avoid the watchful eye of his grandfather, the Moon King, who wishes to steal him away to his kingdom in the sky.  One day, however, Kubo lingers too long at a village festival, and suddenly finds himself caught up in an adventure of his own- aided by a monkey and a man-sized beetle, with his two terrifying aunts, the Daughters of the Moon, pursuing him every step of the way.

This deceptively simple setup provides the basis for a magnificent visual journey, full of magic, which blurs the lines of reality and challenges us to jump seamlessly between different levels of existence.  This is no small feat, and the fact that we never question it is a testament to the brilliance of its technical execution- the bulk of which was performed using the same basic techniques that took King Kong to the top of the Empire State Building over 80 years ago.  Though some assistance was provided by modern CG technology, most of what we see on the screen was achieved by posing models, one frame at a time, in front of a camera.  This painstaking effort certainly pays off; Kubo’s story comes to life with such palpable reality that the viewer might almost forget to be dazzled by it.

What’s impressive about “Kubo and the Two Strings,” though, is that its story more than lives up to the technical wizardry surrounding it.  Though it evokes the traditional folk tales of Japan, “Kubo” is entirely original, its screenplay written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler from a story by Shannon Tindle.  Even so, as guided by director Travis Knight, it maintains a strong sense of mythological authenticity as it delivers its own version of the classic hero’s journey; the mystical elements which comprise much of the story’s framework are presented as factual conditions of the plot, yet the deeply resonant symbolism they possess- a quality downplayed by most such films aimed at contemporary American audiences- is given equal weight.  Similarly, while the film doesn’t avoid sentimentality, it never manufactures it to generate an unearned emotional response; rather, it allows the story and its characters to provide it, in appropriate doses, when it arises naturally.  As a result, “Kubo” manages to amuse, frighten, touch, and surprise its viewers- whatever age they might be- all the way through to its lovely, delicate, and bravely bittersweet ending.

Of course, there are many other factors contributing to the film’s success.  Its visual design is a marvelous blend of stylization and historical detail, effectively transporting us to the story’s time and place from the very first frames- with the aid of a majestic and immersive score by Dario Marianelli.   As for the voice cast (led by Art Parkinson as the title character and including the likes of Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, and Ralph Fiennes), it must be mentioned that “Kubo” has drawn some heat for using mostly white actors.  Conroversy aside, those actors deserve credit for their fine work, which plays a big part in making “Kubo” into the special experience it is.

It’s a bit early to start making lists of the year’s best films, but when the time comes, I think it’s a safe bet that “Kubo and the Two Strings” will be on a few of them- anti-animation prejudices notwithstanding.  It fully deserves that honor.  It’s a multi-layered, visually stunning work which tells a powerful story without pandering to its viewers- and a film like that, animated or not, is very rare indeed.

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The Jungle Book (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in
The Pride L.A.

Rudyard Kipling was a product of his era.  An Englishman born in Colonial India, he grew into a prolific author and poet whose canon was informed by his childhood experiences there.  Though his literary gifts were undeniable, and much of his work is still widely read more than a century later, he has come to be seen as a champion of British Imperialism.  The world view of white-privileged conquerors, with their assumption of racial superiority over the indigenous populations they subjugated, is deeply embedded in the fabric of all his stories- including the much-beloved children’s tales for which he is most remembered today.

Needless to say, in a modern world keenly aware of the issues surrounding race, this makes him a controversial figure.  He is regarded by many as an unapologetic racist whose writing, even at its finest, was little more than propaganda for the cause of white supremacy.  Others vehemently insist that he was a humanist working from within the system to illuminate both the noble and ignoble traits of all people and thus promote a more egalitarian mindset.  Arguments and evidence are plentiful in support of either side, as well as of the myriad viewpoints which lie somewhere between those two poles.

Of course, the majority of modern moviegoers are unaware of this literary debate, which is undoubtedly why two major studios have both developed family-friendly blockbusters based on the most well-known of Kipling’s stories: “The Jungle Book.”  The first of these, directed by Jon Favreau from a screenplay by Justin Marks, is the Disney studio’s latest effort to remount one of their animated classics as a live-action film for the 21st Century generation.

Their previous version- the final film personally overseen by Walt Disney himself- was released in 1967, and though it has become a cherished favorite to those who grew up with it, at the time it was heavily criticized for taking Kipling’s rather solemn original and turning it into a rollicking, jazz-infused comedic showcase for a star-studded cast of voice talent.

This time around, Marks and Favreau have doubled down on that same approach, while also expanding the basic story framework to include elements from the Kipling tale (or rather, tales- what we have come to know as “The Jungle Book” is actually derived from several short stories concerning the man-cub, Mowgli, and his adventures in the jungle with his animal mentors).  The result feels like a satisfactory blend, a best-of-both-worlds crowd-pleaser which captures the serious tone and allegorical flavor of Kipling while still delivering the good-natured hi-jinks expected from a studio known for its fun-for-all-ages romps.

It’s also a technical masterpiece.  The use of CGI and performance-capture technology has yielded a breathtaking visual experience, giving us a lush and majestic experience of the Indian wilderness as well as remarkably believable depictions of the animals which comprise most of the cast of characters.  This latter element also benefits from superb vocal portrayals by the likes of Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong’o, and the always-welcome Bill Murray.  Perhaps most importantly, newcomer Neel Sethi gives an on-point performance as Mowgli, a remarkable accomplishment for a young actor whose work took place on a soundstage far removed from the world on display in the finished product.

Yet for all its excellence, this new “Jungle Book” feels somehow overdone.  There’s a “bigger-is-better” philosophy at play which detracts from its meticulously-constructed authenticity; a larger-than-life quality may be appropriate to the material, but is it really necessary, for instance, for King Louie to be the size of King Kong?  Although Marks’ screenplay does a good job of underlining the humanistic parallels with the animal kingdom, the sincerity of his intentions is steamrolled by heavy-handed execution, perhaps most tangibly in the manipulative orchestral swellings of John Debney’s score.  And on the subject of music, the inclusion of the best-known songs from the 1967 film not only seems perfunctory, but also jarringly incongruous within the realistic environment created to evoke the period and setting of the story.   .

These observations are, of course, likely to be immaterial to most of Disney’s target audience- perhaps rightly so.  After all, whatever his socio-political philosophies may have been, Kipling wrote his Mowgli stories to entertain, and “The Jungle Book” certainly succeeds in doing justice to that purpose.  Still, one can’t help but wonder how much richer it could have been made by a subtler hand, one that might have allowed for a bit of reflection on how to reconcile our modern sensibility with the more troubling issues contained in an iconic tale that, like it or not, is deeply ingrained into our cultural consciousness.  Perhaps we will find out in two years, when Warner Brothers releases their take on it.

Until then, this one will do well enough.

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Anomalisa (2015)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has completed only a small handful of features since his 1999 debut (“Being John Malkovich”), yet despite his relatively sparse output, his name and reputation loom large, particularly among those cinephiles whose tastes run toward the edgy and intellectual.  His narratives, which seem to flow from dream logic rather than dramatic structure, are more like psychological case studies disguised as heavily symbolic brain-teasers, inhabited by figures that feel less like individual characters and more like shattered fragments of a single personality.  His latest effort takes the form of an animated film, but though “Anomalisa” is markedly different in its execution, it is cut from the same unmistakable cloth.

Kaufman’s screenplay is adapted from his own “sound play” of the same title, and, for the second time (the first was for 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York”), he steps into the director’s chair, as well- though he shares it with co-producer Duke Johnson.  It focuses on Michael Stone, a successful self-help author who travels to a Cincinnati hotel in order to speak at a conference.  Though he is an expert on interpersonal relations, Michael is unable to distinguish people as individuals.  Everyone with whom he interacts possesses the same male face and voice- even the women- until he encounters Lisa, a young woman attending his seminar.  She is distinctively herself within the sea of homogeneous banality that surrounds him, and he begins to hope she can at last release him from the boredom and isolation he has felt for so long.

The above description may not read like the synopsis to an animated film, but “Anomalisa” is no ordinary animated film.  Shot in stop motion style, it utilizes puppets partly manufactured by 3-D printing, resulting in a somewhat unsettling effect that is simultaneously stylized and naturalistic.  It’s an effective style for the story being told; the world of the movie seems concrete enough to anchor it in reality, allowing us to forget the animated format as we are gradually drawn into the premise.  Much of the credit for this aspect of “Anomalisa” belongs to co-director Johnson, who supervised the creation of its technically stunning, intricately detailed animation.

The content of “Anomalisa,” while equally as creative as its visuals, is perhaps less innovative- at least to those familiar with Kaufman.  As with most of his work, it’s an observational fable that takes place within a Kafkaesque landscape of psychological dysfunction.  It challenges our ideas about the nature of identity and explores the effects of perception on our experience of the world around us.  It presents characters unable to make the emotional connections they desperately desire, who live in private bubbles of perspective and fumble blindly in their interactions with others.  And then there are the puppets; puppets have always figured prominently in Kaufman’s imagination, and here, they even take the place of live actors.  To say the film revisits Kaufman’s recurring themes is by no means a negative criticism, however.  On the contrary, those themes strike deep and resonant chords; they always yield new insights into our shared human experience, and the writer’s quirky imagination ensures that his work is always full of surprises.

Though the provocative ideas and visuals are the real stars here, credit also goes to the fine work of the voice cast.  David Thewlis (as Michael), Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Lisa), and Tom Noonan (as everyone else) eschew the usual exaggerated vocal styling of animation in favor of a nuanced, naturalistic approach.  Their effectiveness is likely due in large part to the fact that all three performed their roles in the original play, as well.  Composer Carter Burwell also carries over from the stage version (he actually produced it), contributing a delicate, moody score which perfectly serves the melancholy tone of the overall piece.

“Anomalisa” is certainly melancholy, even dark.  In addition to its complex and mature themes, it features profanity, full-frontal nudity, and even a somewhat explicit sex scene.  Needless to say, it is not for children, despite being an animated film.  Many adults might also have a hard time with it; its intellectualism, coupled with its stylistic conceit, creates an emotional distance that may leave some viewers cold.  This is a frequent issue with Kaufman’s introspective creations, but as always, those willing to stick with it will find that it has a lot of heart hiding under all its conceptual constructs.  There’s also a lot of humor in the mix.  Despite the philosophical weightiness of his material, Kaufman never takes himself too seriously; he somehow always manages to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, and it is this that makes him one of the most original voices in American film.  “Anomalisa” is a worthy entry to his canon, and like most of his work, it fully deserves to be called essential viewing.

Brave (2012)

Brave (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Brave, the 2012 animated feature from the Disney/Pixar powerhouse, directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, and based on Chapman’s original story about a medieval Scottish princess who, unhappy with her proscribed role as a courtly lady, resorts to magic in order to “change her fate.”  Intended as the Pixar Studios first foray into the realm of fairy tales, it features a highly contemporary viewpoint on traditional gender roles and offers a heroine who takes action to determine her own destiny, as well as reinforcing the importance of maintaining family bonds and assuming responsibility for one’s actions.  It also features a lush, technically dazzling visual style, geared towards its original 3D theatrical presentation, and an array of stellar voice talent.  Not as successful as many of the studio’s previous efforts, it nevertheless has garnered much praise and received several award nominations as best animated film of the year.

The plot concerns Merida, daughter of Fergus, the King of Dunbroch, a fierce warrior known as “the Bear King,” who carries the scars of his many battles and sports a wooden leg as a reminder of his encounter with Mor’du, a giant and seemingly demonic bear who haunts the surrounding forest.  Though the princess is a tomboy and a free spirit, encouraged by her doting father in her enthusiasm for adventurous pursuits (such as horseback riding, swordplay, and archery), her mother, Queen Elinor, maintains a tight control over her, preparing her daily with lessons in the more feminine activities that will someday be required of her as a great lady- elocution, music, embroidery, and the duties involved in the charge of a royal household.  Merida is displeased with the prospect of such a sequestered future, a fact which continually puts her at odds with her mother; their conflict comes to a head when the king’s three most prominent lords bring their sons to Dunbroch for a competition of skill to determine which of them will get the hand of the young princess.  Merida, refusing to bow to tradition, takes the field and defeats all three contestants, declaring herself the winner and claiming the right to be her own consort; Elinor, furious, reprimands her severely, causing the girl to run angrily into the woods.  There, she follows a trail of will-o-the-wisps to a hidden cottage inhabited by an old witch.  At first the crone insists she is merely a wood carver, but when Merida offers a priceless royal pendant as payment, she agrees to help the princess with a spell that will “change” her mother.  Returning to the castle with an enchanted cake, Merida presents it to Elinor as a peace offering; when the queen takes a bite, however, its effects are not quite what her daughter had anticipated.  The spell transforms Elinor into a large black bear- placing her in mortal danger from Fergus, whose previous experience with Mor’du has made him an avowed bear-killer.  Merida, horrified that her scheme has led to such a turn, must now serve as her mother’s protector as they go in search of a way to reverse the spell before its effects become permanent; their quest leads them to Mor’du’s hidden lair, where they discover secrets that link the monstrous bear’s fate with their own.  During their adventure, mother and daughter gain new appreciation for each other’s strengths and reforge the emotional bond that was broken between them- but they still must race against time- and the pursuit of the ferocious Mor’du- to break the witch’s spell before Elinor slips away forever, trapped in the body and mind of a bear.

Aimed at entertaining young audiences and stimulating their imagination as well as fostering healthy ideas about identity and self-esteem, Brave is unmistakably the product of the titans at Pixar, who have proven time and again their particular genius for producing works of cinematic art that also meet the needs of the popular marketplace; in addition, it marks the studio’s most technically advanced and visually complex effort to date, made with a completely re-written animation program (the first upgrade of the studio’s software in 25 years) and released not only in 3D but with Dolby’s new Atmos sound format.  It’s unquestionably a stunning treat for eyes and ears of any age, possessing a level of sensory realism previously unseen in animated filmmaking, yet still maintaining the whimsical and stylized design touches that mark it as a cartoon fantasy.  As always, the Pixar team has used their expensive toy box to create a truly polished and exceptional visual gem, rich with the kind of subtleties that elevate their work above and beyond that of more pedestrian artists whose attention to detail rarely reaches past the requirements of the plot.

Another aspect of the movie that meets Pixar’s usual high standards is the exceptional voice casting; utilizing a fine group of talented and prominent actors, but without the “stunt casting” of big stars solely for the sake of having their name in the credits, the characters of Brave are given as much dimension in their vocal personalities as the graphic artists and animator a have given them in their physical presence.  Merida is voiced by the charming and vivacious Kelli Macdonald, known for her work in such diverse fare as the films Trainspotting, Gosford Park, and No Country for Old Men, as well as for her role in the critically acclaimed HBO series, Boardwalk Empire.  Elinor gets her voice from the redoubtable Emma Thompson (another familiar screen veteran known for everything from her Shakespearean roles opposite former husband Kenneth Branagh and her Oscar-winning turn in Howard’s End to her more recent family-friendly success as Nanny McPhee), who bestows the maternal queen with warmth, wit, and intelligence; we sorely feel her absence when the character is magicked into a non-verbal bear.  King Fergus is played by Billy Connolly, perhaps Hollywood’s most quintessential Scot since Sean Connery, and Julie Walters lends her inimitable blend of dottiness and wisdom to the all-too-brief role of the witch.  Rounding out the main cast are Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, and Craig Ferguson, as the trio of comical lords who bring their equally comical sons to vie for Merida’s hand.  As a side note, no less than four of these cast members- Macdonald, Thompson, Walters, and Coltrane- are alumni of the Harry Potter franchise, perhaps insuring a bit of extra box office appeal for a sizable segment of devoted young audience members and representing, on second thought, a little bit of “stunt casting,” after all.

Still, in spite of all the stellar work that is obvious onscreen and on the soundtrack, ensuring that Brave measures up to the high standard of professional excellence that is the hallmark of Pixar, it is a movie that doesn’t quite manage to pull off the studio’s usual magic.  As conceived by Brenda Chapman, it is a new story in the familiar vein of traditional fairy tales, but with a completely original plot and a decidedly different focus; instead of offering the archetypal princess, whose happy ending is usually dependent on the love of a handsome prince, she built her fantasy adventure around a strong-willed, independent girl whose ambition is simply to win the freedom to be herself.  Rather than reinforcing old stereotypes, the tale of Merida presents a new kind of role model for young girls, one that encourages individuality and self-determination, while still embracing the importance of family relationships.  Along the way, key issues of communication and responsibility are explored, as well as the notion of learning from the stories and legends of the past; indeed, Brave includes a fairly lengthy checklist of subjects on its agenda, all of which are geared towards the conceit of reinventing the old-fashioned fairy tale format as a vehicle for teaching a modern lesson about self-empowerment and progressive thinking.  While there is an undeniably laudable sentiment behind an effort to create an appealing fable which promotes contemporary values instead of reiterating centuries-old moral imperatives, one can’t help feeling that the whole thing seems more than a little forced.

Chapman, who had developed the project from the beginning, was initially named the film’s sole director- the first woman to be hold this position on a Pixar film- but was replaced by Mark Andrews halfway through production due to “creative differences.”. Whenever two or more visions clash in the creation of an artwork, either the conflict yields a hybrid solution that somehow transcends the original ideas, or- more often- a compromise that fails to live up to the potential of either; though Chapman’s contributions to the screenplay remained, as well as enough of her influence to warrant a co-directing credit on the final cut, and she has stated that her original intent comes through clearly in the film, one can’t help but wonder what Brave would have been like if she had been allowed to finish it as she planned.  In her original conception, for instance, the story would have taken place in the harsh highland winter, with a stark backdrop of snow for most of the film; such a bleak setting might have gone a long way towards providing, at least psychologically, a more authentic feeling of life in the Middle Ages for a young non-conformist.

It’s pointless, however, to speculate on what the movie might have been like, and in any case, the true flaw here lies in a screenplay- authored by both directors alongside Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi- which takes pains to present as softened, politically correct a portrait of medieval life as possible.  Not only are we given a highly contemporized version of family dynamics and an incomplete picture of the ironclad mandate to maintain social tradition, we are presented with a sanitized picture of the realities of the era; battle and warfare are just another comical aspect of the rambunctious male personality, with little hint of their horrific consequences, and the standard archetypal figures of myth and legend are repurposed through the prism of modern perspective.  There are no villains here- the stern parents are merely a little old-fashioned and need only a magical nudge to come around to a more permissive attitude, and even the witch is, more or less, a benevolent old soul.  The closest thing to an evil character is Mor’du, the demonic bear who is more an agent of dumb, blind chaos than an adversarial personality, and even he, ultimately, proves merely to be a misunderstood and unfortunate victim of circumstance- even if it is a circumstance of his own misguided creation.  More disappointing than this lack of a clear antagonist, though, is the story’s deflection of its central conflict into a cute-and-cuddly adventure quest in which mother and daughter work through their differences during their joint effort to solve a secondary problem. Of course, it’s all metaphor, but even so, it contains the suggestion that, once the women have things worked out between themselves, the opinions of the king or his lords will be of little consequence- a decidedly feminist undercurrent, when you think about it, which also has the somewhat dubious implication that it was the women themselves who perpetuated the social assignation of gender roles and the menfolk just went along with it.

Though arguments about believability or historical accuracy might seem inherently ridiculous when discussing a fantasy about magic cakes and ursine transmogrification, the setting for Brave makes the very premise of its story highly unlikely, at best.  Though history offers proof that there were, from time to time, remarkable women who defied cultural custom and strictures to become powerful and exceptional figures, the atmosphere and attitude here does little to suggest even a softened version of the harsh reality that would await such a girl at the inception of her dream to be different.  Today’s world deems an inclination to follow a different path to be an acceptable “lifestyle choice,” but in the 12th-or-so Century world that provides the background for Brave, the consequences for such a display of social heresy would be dire, indeed- as someone like, say, Joan of Arc would certainly testify.  To be sure, a story instilling modern ideas of tolerance and diversity is certainly possible in such a period tale as this, but when the magnitude of the cultural obstacles to be faced is diminished to the point of irrelevance, reducing the conflict to a simple disagreement between parent and child, the promotion of noble ideals comes at a high cost.  Teaching positive values to a future generation is a worthy undertaking, but reinventing history in order to do so is something akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Perhaps I’m being over-analytical.  I don’t mean to suggest that a movie aimed at family audiences should feature pestilence, rapes and beheadings.  Brave is not, after all, Game of Thrones, nor does it try to be; but it did seem to me, in watching this painfully correct girl-power fable, that in its effort to emphasize positive, nurturing attitudes it might be guilty of inadvertently perpetuating some not-so-positive ones.  This is the danger, for me, of presenting historical inaccuracies- and I’m not talking about using artistic license to fictionalize real events or mistakenly using the wrong heraldry to decorate a particular king’s armor, but the deliberate imposition of anachronistic attitudes and perspectives onto a place and time where they simply did not exist.  Even in a children’s story; to sanitize the past for modern consumption is a dangerous luxury, for in removing the unpleasant parts we risk creating a false sense of who we are today, and worse, we lessen awareness of those whose struggles got us this far- the real-life role models who might provide inspiration for those who must continue to work towards making a better world for future generations.  At the very least, such well-intentioned bowdlerization of our history creates complacency about our present, but at the worst it can foster a sense of entitlement and a lack of preparedness for the future- for as the saying goes, those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.

All that said, Brave is by no means a bad movie.  As discussed above, it is gorgeous to look at and its story is executed with the utmost professionalism and talent; and though the plot as a whole may fail to be as compelling as one might wish, the movie is filled with delightful set pieces (such as the archery tournament) and characterizations (Merida’s brothers, a trio of troublemaking toddlers whose antics prove an invaluable aid to the princess’ endeavors on more than one occasion) which make for a highly enjoyable 90 minutes.  There is no reason kids would not have a good time with this outing, particularly those who hunger for the kind of fairy tale magic associated with Pixar’s production partner, the venerable Disney Studios itself.  This, as noted, is the first time Pixar has tackled a Disney-style fantasy, their other films having all been modern-day stories; perhaps the reason, in fact, that Brave falls a bit short of the mark is that it is, ultimately, better suited to the Disney treatment than to Pixar’s.  The studio’s sensibilities, smart, hip, and irreverent, seem mismatched to this period tale; indeed, Disney’s Tangled, a recent attempt to bring their own traditions of classic princess fantasy into Pixar territory with computer animation and a contemporary mindset, was a more appealing package than this one is.  Both Disney and Pixar at their best, whether together or separately, make films that entertain young and old audiences alike; a family can truly enjoy the experience together.  With Brave, while the young folk may be delighted, their parents might be checking their watches a little more frequently than with previous Pixar films; they might well wonder what has happened to the disarming imagination of Toy Story, the transcendent surrealism of Up, or the masterful visual storytelling of the sublime Wall-E, surely one of the best examples of animated cinema- or any kind of cinema, for that matter- to be released within the last quarter-century.  Given Pixar’s remarkable creativity and impressive track record, I wouldn’t be too worried- the magic will almost certainly be back.  In the meantime, mediocre Pixar is still light years better than most any other “family-oriented” fodder being thrust into the marketplace to vie for your kids’ attention and the contents of your wallet.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1217209/

Cinderella (1950)

Today’s cinema adventure: Cinderella, Walt Disney’s 1950 animated adaptation of the classic folk tale immortalized by 17th-Century author Charles Perrault, a simple tale about a young orphaned girl, forced to work as a menial servant by her vain stepmother and stepsisters, who is granted a wish to attend a royal ball where her sweet nature and her beauty win her the heart of a handsome prince.  The first fully animated feature produced by the Disney Studio after World War II, it was something of a gamble, an expensive undertaking which would have likely resulted in bankruptcy had it failed to attract an audience; it did not fail, however, instead becoming an overwhelming success which provided the financial base for the expansion of the Disney company during the 1950s, paving the way not only for more features, but for the establishment of their television division and the beginnings of their theme park empire.  It remains one of their most enduring titles, commonly ranking near the top on lists of the greatest animated films of all time and continuing to enchant viewers of all ages as it inspires new generations of would-be princesses to believe in their dreams.

The basic plot of Cinderella dates back to ancient times, and can be found in folklore from a wide range of cultures and eras.  One version even found its way into Shakespeare’s King Lear, albeit with a tragic twist, through the story of the mythic Princess Cordelia, who not only marries her dream prince but defeats her cruel and ambitious sisters with his army; another dark variation on the tale can be found in the stories of the Brothers Grimm, who included such details as the stepsisters cutting off portions of their feet and their being blinded by attacking birds.  The most familiar version today, however, arises from Perrault’s story, which added the iconic elements now indelibly associated with it, including the fairy godmother and the magic pumpkin coach; Disney’s artistic team used this as their source, eliminating some of the darker aspects and placing a heavy emphasis on the peripheral adventures of the heroine’s animal allies, which are played for child-pleasing comic effect.  Indeed, the main events of the plot comprise relatively little screen time, and the story is largely told through the behind-the-scenes perspective of the mice, whose machinations are largely responsible for Cinderella’s eventual triumph.  The film opens with a narrated prologue in which the tale’s background is set; Cinderella is the daughter of a widowed aristocrat who takes a second wife with two daughters of her own, hoping to provide his child with a motherly influence, but upon his premature demise this new stepmother becomes a domineering tyrant, forcing Cinderella to live the life of a servant while doting on her own vain and mean-spirited girls.  Despite her lowly existence, Cinderella grows into a lovely and sweet-natured young woman, befriending the animals of the household, including the mice and birds, and treating them all with kindness- even her stepmother’s spoiled and vindictive cat, appropriately named Lucifer.  One day, an proclamation arrives from the palace that all eligible young ladies in the kingdom are invited to a royal ball in honor of the Prince, whom the King hopes will choose a bride from among them; Cinderella hopes to attend along with her stepsisters, but their scheming and jealous mother burdens the girl with extra chores in order to prevent her having the time to prepare a suitable dress.  Her loyal animal friends manage to make a lovely gown from the cast-off scraps of the stepsisters’ wardrobes, but when the elated Cinderella rushes to join her family as they prepare to depart, the two selfish girls accuse her of theft, and rip the borrowed items from her dress, leaving her in tatters as they head off to the palace.  Her tears of despair quickly disappear, however, when a kindly old woman materializes, proclaiming that she is Cinderella’s fairy godmother; she promptly transforms a pumpkin into an elegant coach and the girl’s torn dress into a sumptuous gown, and sends her off to the ball- admonishing her, however, that she must return before midnight, when the spell will be broken and all her magical accoutrements will return to their original, non-enchanted form.  At the palace, the young Prince is bored and unimpressed by the procession of bachelorettes vying for his hand- that is, until the late arrival of a mysterious beauty, to whom he is immediately drawn.  They waltz together and wander the palace grounds- until the clock begins to strike midnight, when she hastily flees, leaving behind no clue to her identity except a single glass slipper, lost on the palace steps in her hurry to escape before the final chime can break the spell and reveal her lowly state.  Determined to find the mystery girl who has won his son’s heart, the King declares that the slipper will be tried on the foot of every maiden in the kingdom until a match is found, but Cinderella’s destiny may still be jeopardized by the efforts of her malicious stepmother, who is bent on seizing this last chance to secure a royal marriage for one of her own unpleasant children.  With time running out, it will be up to the heroine’s animal friends to come to the rescue and ensure that her “happily ever after” dreams will at last come true.

As with all of Disney’s early productions, the screenwriting and directing duties on Cinderella were handled by multiple individuals, working in concert under the tight supervision of Walt himself and in close collaboration with the chief animators.  It is a testament to the strength of Disney’s vision that these films emerged as cohesive works of art, blending the styles and influences of their various contributors together into a unified whole.  At the time of Cinderella, the studio had spent several years languishing under the budgetary constraints of wartime, when their output had been limited to the obligatory shorts- still popular, but eclipsed by the success of Warner Brothers’ edgier Looney Toons and Merrie Melodies cartoons- and omnibus features which packaged several of them together or mixed short animated segments with live action footage.  Though the great features of the pre-war era had earned them much acclaim and a formidable reputation, only the first of them- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs–  had been a bona fide hit, and full-length animation was too risky to warrant the considerable expense required for its production during the wartime economy; even so, the studio had honed its skills during these lean years, particularly in its recognition of the importance of music as a means to generate interest- and additional income- for their films.  Disney’s return to the field of feature-length animation was therefore bolstered by a deliberate effort to create songs which could not only add to the movie’s appeal, but which could become an asset in their own right, and Walt enlisted three established popular songwriters- Mack David, Jerry Livingston, and Al Hoffman- to compose tunes which could also be marketed on their own through the studio’s music division (the song rights for the previous films had been sold to other music publishers).  Even with this hedging of its bets, Disney was taking a major risk with Cinderella, releasing a family-oriented fairy tale into a market dominated by the grittier, world-weary cynicism and social commentary that had grown prevalent in post-war American films; but, whether by instinct, luck, or savvy foresight, Walt’s return to the medium which made him famous came at precisely the right time, heralding a revival of optimism and a growing taste for glossy fantasy that would mark the new and prosperous decade.

Watching Cinderella today, it’s remarkable to see the seeds of Eisenhower-era sensibility so clearly visible in its framework.  The “American Dream” is here encapsulated by the movie’s story of success earned by hard work and a positive attitude, and its focus on the feminine perspective emphasizes the role of women in that objectified way of life- namely, to strive for fulfillment through the ultimate life accomplishment of marriage to a successful man.  Cinderella, after all, is trained from the outset to be a devoted wife, with a deep attachment to her father and years of experience tending to every household chore; and her fitness as a mother is plainly seen in her nurturing relationship with her animal friends- particularly the two foremost mice, Jaq and Gus, who are more or less characterized as children in animal form.  Of course, the importance of beauty is also stressed, most strongly in the significance of Cinderella’s ball attire, with both the simple-but-charming dress constructed by the animals and the sumptuously dazzling gown into which it is magically transformed being afforded considerable weight in the film’s plotline.  Throughout the movie, even in the animal subplots, traditional gender roles are subtly reinforced, and the principal male characters- the human ones, anyway- are firmly established as the natural beneficiaries of masculine privilege, a status heightened by their identification as royalty in the hierarchy of the story.  On top of all these social foreshadowings, the visual design of the film is replete with precursors to 1950s fashion, from the rich color palette, to the lines of the clothing, to the predominance of old-fashioned Euro-elegance in the settings and decor.  As a final touch, the lush and dreamy music, at once catchy and soothing, fits directly into the mold of the popular songs that would dominate the sound of the coming decade- until the advent of Elvis and his rock-and-rolling ilk, that is.  In short, Cinderella, in the clarity of hindsight, looks very much like a blueprint for life in the ’50s, and one which may have had more influence on the shape of that decade than its creators had ever envisioned.

Aside from these signposts of its place in the timeline of cultural history, Cinderella also offers a look at the state of its art form at the time.  Despite Warner’s’ dominance in the realm of popular cartoons, Disney was still the undisputed master of the genre; nobody else could do the things they were doing, and their drive to continually advance the art was still strong, perhaps even more so after years of being held back by the war.  Even so, the creative juices flowing through Cinderella seem flavored less by the hunger of young visionaries than by the confidence of mature artists; there is an obvious delight in their work here, a feeling of seasoned professionalism taking enjoyment in showing off a hard-earned mastery.  There is also a softening in tone, a gentleness which marks a shift from the more heightened drama of such films as Pinocchio and Bambi to an easier-going sensibility more in keeping with the middle-of-the-road values the studio would come to represent over the coming decades.  This is not to say that Cinderella is devoid of drama or suspense; on the contrary, it takes full advantage of its creators’ cinematic skills in order to increase the tension in a story which is, to be quite frank, lacking in the type of high-stakes conflict found in the studio’s earlier classics- extreme perspectives, rapid editing, heavy use of light and shadow, and all the other tricks of the trade with which these animated filmmakers not only enhanced their storytelling, but which were imitated by live-action directors and thereby bore significant influence on the future development of cinema in general.  Even so, it is undeniable that Cinderella is more calculated, for want of a better word, in the sense that it makes a deliberate effort to evoke reactions to its narrative, rather than allowing its form to be a direct expression of the needs of the story itself.  This is, perhaps, an intangible distinction, and one which arises more from the nature of the story being told than a change in the attitudes of the artists, but it is a noticeable factor in the ongoing development of the Disney animation machine, and one which would later result in what many critics would characterize as a decline in the immediacy and relevance of their work.

None of those later criticisms apply, however, to Cinderella; it’s a fresh and heartfelt piece of entertainment, and whatever subliminal social agenda might be read into it by progressive modern thinkers, it transcends such retro-fitted concerns with its imaginative approach to a timeless story.  Sweet without being sugar-coated, funny without undermining its deeper themes, and stylish without being shallow, it is a fine representative of Disney at its magical best.  It goes without saying that the animation is stunningly executed; in their quest to infuse the film with a high level of reality, the animators turned once more to their technique of utilizing live action footage as a guide, filming a heavy percentage of the movie with real costumed actors and models in order to give themselves a reference from which to capture the illusion of real movement and expression.  This was not accomplished through rotoscoping- the actual frame-by-frame tracing of live footage- but by free-hand drawing to recreate the filmed sequences, a painstaking process, but one which affords a considerable amount of leeway for artistic interpretation.  In this way, the Disney artists seamlessly blend the realistic style of their human characters with the more overtly cartoonish animals, bridging the two worlds with the intermediate characterization of such comic figures as the King and the Stepsisters.  It’s a fully realized world, enhanced further by the magnificent work of the background artists and the conceptual designers.  I am not one to belittle the advances in technology which have given us the remarkable computer-generated wonders seen in today’s movie houses, but when confronted with the sheer beauty of a film like Cinderella, made all the more dazzling by the intangible influence of the direct human touch, it is difficult not to lament the all-but-lost art of hand-drawn animation.

The visual artistry here, as usual with a Disney production of this nature, is in the service of a story that, for all its simplicity and kid-friendly humor, strikes deep chords in the hands of these gifted artists.  Though contemporary audiences may quibble about the story’s pre-feminist underpinnings, Cinderella‘s message is not simply a reinforcement of the traditional belief that a woman’s place is in the home with a man to take care of her; rather, the emphasis is placed on the theme of believing in yourself and having faith in your dreams.  Likewise, though outward appearance is clearly a factor in the fantasy being portrayed- Cinderella must be lovely, after all, and the Prince must be handsome, just as the stepsisters cannot be anything but homely- it is not these surface qualities that are central to the plot; it is Cinderella’s kindness and good nature that make her deserving not only of our sympathies, but of the fierce loyalty of her animal friends and the help of her fairy godmother, and it is the selfishness and jealous vanity of her two stepsisters that make them truly ugly.  Disney knew what he was doing, too; Walt himself made cuts to the screenplay in order to remove episodes that implied less attractive qualities in his heroine, and great care was taken to ensure that her happy ending hinged not on her pretty face, but on the positive effects of her inner beauty.  Finally, the brightness of the slick romantic fantasy is countered by the palpably dismal atmosphere surrounding Cinderella’s family life; despite the extensive humor provided by the mice and the comic exaggeration of the stepsisters’ unpleasant personalities, the film makes clear the grim reality of its heroine’s existence, making the best of a miserable situation in which she is treated, essentially, as a slave and a prisoner, and victimized by the severe psychological abuse of her menacing stepmother- whose cold and calculated cruelty is no less horrific for the certainty that she will, in the end, fail to prevent her ward from finding happiness.

As previously observed, Cinderella is the result of extensive collaboration, and there is little point in reciting a list of names here; the names of the directors, writers, supervising animators and designers, all of whom deserve praise for their work, can easily be found on any number of other websites.  A few individuals, however, deserve to be singled out for their particularly notable contributions.  Perhaps most significant of these is Mary Blair, credited as “color stylist,” whose concept art featured a distinct array of primary hues but went beyond the creation of a color palette to infuse the entire film with her own subtly whimsical-but-elegant visual style; her work on this and subsequent Disney projects- including the creation of Disneyland- helped to define and influence the familiar “look” of much of the studio’s output throughout the next two decades.  Also important is the voice work done by a talented cast of Disney stalwarts, particularly Ilene Woods (as Cinderella)- who landed the role after friends recorded her singing voice and sent the tape to Disney without her knowing, and who ended up also modeling the character in the live action reference footage, a duty she would later repeat for other Disney heroines- and Eleanor Audley (as the Stepmother), whose chillingly austere vocal talents would be used again in another iconic villain role- the evil Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty– and in Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion” attraction.  Lastly, the aforementioned trio of songsmiths provide one of Disney’s most memorable and popular scores, which includes at least two songs that would become signature tunes for the studio (“A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and the Oscar-nominated nonsense tune, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”), and which yielded a number of successful recordings by popular singers of the era.

I must confess that though I am, perhaps obviously, an unrepentant fan of Disney movies (at least, of their canon of classic animated features), Cinderella has never been a particular favorite of mine.  Perhaps it is that my own taste runs towards the darker, more dramatic flavor of the studios original array of classics, or that the “princess” theme doesn’t have a strong appeal for me.  Even so, I am quick to acknowledge the superb artistry behind it; every frame is rich with the kind of imaginative detail that infuses the movie with a life of its own and separates a Disney film from the pedestrian efforts of lesser producers.  It contains many of the studio’s most beloved and iconic sequences, such as the architectural construction of Cinderella’s would-be party dress by the determined crew of mice and birds, the architectural construction of the fairy godmother’s magical creation of the coach and gown, the lovely scene in which a scrubbing Cinderella sings harmonies with herself while reflected in floating soap bubbles, and the ethereal beauty of her rendezvous with Prince Charming (who is, incidentally, never referred to by that name- nor any other, for that matter).  The character animation is superb, bringing to life one of Disney’s most disturbing villains in the Stepmother- a completely human monster who is more terrifying than many of the supernatural antagonists created for the studio’s other films- as well as the delightfully engaging mice, Jaq and Gus, and their nemesis, Lucifer the cat, whose ongoing conflict provides much of the film’s real action as well as its comedy.  Lucifer, in particular, is a marvelous creation, with an instantly recognizable feline personality and just the right balance of menace and silliness to make him both a tangible threat and a buffoonish foil for the antics of his rodent quarries.  All in all, there is a lot to love about Cinderella, a radiant and charming piece of filmmaking with its heart in the right place, no matter what accusations may be leveled by modern-day social critics; even if, in the end, I can’t say it places as highly on my personal “best of animation” list as it does on so many others, I still recommend it heartily, without reservation, as a fine example of Disney artistry in its prime.  In the end, or course, my opinion- or that of any other critic- is irrelevant; Cinderella is a classic, destined to remain with us for a long time to come.  After all, it has appealed to generations of children- and quite a few grown-ups- as strongly as it did upon its first release, over a half-century ago, and all those little princesses certainly couldn’t be wrong.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042332/?licb=0.9790095793792765

Lunacy/Sileni (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: Lunacy (Šílení), a darkly comic 2005 horror film by celebrated Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer; based on two short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and drawing inspiration from the writing and philosophies of the Marquis de Sade, its an odd, quirky and disturbing foray into the horror genre by a director known for his odd, quirky and disturbing movies, featuring his trademark mixture of macabre puppetry and animation as well as his usual surrealist influences.  Like most of Švankmajer’s work, it initially received little attention outside of Europe (and the few remaining “art house” theaters), but it has since found an audience, alongside the rest of his canon, among the ranks of his loyal international cult following.

Though it begins, ostensibly, in a present day-setting, the story is quickly drawn anachronistically into the 18th Century, as its protagonist, Jean, is befriended by a wealthy and mysterious marquis (in full period garb) who travels by horse-drawn coach and is attended by a mute servant.  Jean is plagued by recurring nightmares in which two leering goons accost him in his sleep and attempt to forcibly restrain him with a straight jacket; after one such dream causes him to destroy his hotel room in a somnambulant struggle, the marquis comes to his aid by paying for the damages, and then invites the young man to travel with him to his home.  Jean soon discovers, however, that his new benefactor possesses a cruel streak; during his stay he is subjected to cruel pranks- including a bizarre and secretive nocturnal interment- and surreptitiously witnesses a blasphemous ritual in which God and morality are denounced and a young woman in chains is beaten and raped.  Eventually, he accompanies his host to a local asylum, where he is persuaded to remain as a voluntary patient in order to receive treatment for his nighttime disturbances.  His agreement to this arrangement, however, is in reality spurred by the presence there of the girl abused in the black mass, whom he fears to be trapped within the sinister machinations of the marquis and his friend who runs the institution.  Vowing to rescue her and expose the sadistic purposes of her captors, he sets about discovering the hidden truth of the hospital- a place where the inmates and staff are virtually indistinguishable, where chaos and debauchery seem to rampage unchecked, and where a dark secret lies hidden behind the walls, waiting to be set free.

Švankmajer (who provides a spoken introduction to the film in which he plainly states its purpose and emphatically proclaims it not to be “a work of art”) draws the  inspiration for his narrative from Poe’s stories, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether and The Premature Burial, but the underlying thematic premise is derived from the views espoused by the notorious Marquis de Sade- upon whom the film’s primary antagonist is clearly based.  The argument of both the real and fictional marquis- that man is a product of nature, cruel and carnal by design, and that notions of God and morality are false constructs based in fear and designed to impose control over the weak and foolish- is the central idea which fuels the story, alongside the added intellectual exploration of two opposing methods to governing the insane: absolute control and absolute freedom.  As to the latter, the director states unequivocally in his prologue that the state of the modern world is a combination of the worst aspects of each of these methods, but- apart from this rather glib assessment- his film offers no real support for this theory beyond the extrapolations that can be made from the allegorical elements of the scenario.  Regarding man’s bestiality, however, Švankmajer gives us plenty of meat- literally.  Providing a sort of running commentary to the action are short segments, produced with the filmmaker’s familiar stop-motion techniques, featuring slabs of raw meat animated into performing various activities reminiscent of basic instinctual behavior- such as eating, fighting, and sexual intercourse-  continually reinforcing the idea of humanity as mere senseless flesh driven by primal impulses.  These vignettes, intercut with the main action, also serve to give Lunacy much of its “creep” factor, though as always in Švankmajer’s films, there is good amount of tongue-in-cheek humor that makes us grin even as we cringe.  On a less abstract level, within the narrative proper, the idea of man’s natural urge towards sex and cruelty is illustrated repeatedly in scenes best left for the viewer to discover for himself, with Jean and his enigmatic damsel-in-distress as the only representatives of sanity- as equated to decency, that is.  However, in keeping with the film’s source material, not to mention its creator’s penchant for surrealism, it is never exactly clear that our assumptions are true, and the question of what constitutes sanity- or decency, for that matter- is one which Lunacy leaves unanswered, choosing rather to provide cynical observation on the basic state of humanity.

Švankmajer has built his unique reputation with decades of imaginative filmmaking, blending live action with animation in ways that are at once deceptively simple and devilishly clever.  Influenced by an early career in puppet theatre, he has brought his traditional stagecraft sensibilities into his cinematic language, establishing himself as a genuine auteur with his shorts and feature films that incorporate not only the aforementioned stop-motion techniques, but claymation, a mixture of realistic and stylized scenery as well as puppets and live actors (and sometimes live actors dressed as puppets), and a generally theatrical style possessed of unmistakably ancient roots that stretch back to the Commedia dell’Arte and beyond.  Lunacy, however, like many of his recent works, utilizes a greater proportion of more-or-less straightforward live action footage; indeed, apart from the previously described meat-in-motion sequences, it contains relatively little of Švankmajer’s familiar visual trickery.  This is not to say the movie is short on the director’s usual delight in showmanship; throughout the story are numerous sequences that clearly draw from his love for the stage- the black mass, viewed from the perspective of an unseen audience (Jean peering through a window), is blatantly theatrical, and a tableau vivant of Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le peuple is later staged by the marquis at the asylum, a nod to the historical de Sade’s direction of plays featuring other inmates when he was at Charenton asylum- as well as to Marat/Sade, the famous avant-garde dramatization of those real-life “productions.”  In addition, the trappings of theatre are scattered throughout the film- costumes, wigs, false facial hair- and the marquis’ entire persona seems to be a sort of performance, as if he is always centerstage in the theatre of his own life.  All of this plays into Švankmajer’s eternal fascination with illusion and the tricks of perception that allow us to be deceived by our own minds, which in turn fits neatly into the Poe-inspired horror scenario, hinging as it does on this very idea; further, the subject matter gives Lunacy‘s theatricality the specific flavor of true Grand Guignol, a style named for the 19th Century Parisian theatre that popularized the staging of horror spectacles, steeped in gore and blasphemy, known for inducing a kind of sexual response to their sensationalistic thrills- which is, of course, highly appropriate in a piece so infused with the spirit of De Sade.

Lunacy is not, of course, a play, and though it borrows much from the theatrical milieu, it also revels in its cinematic nature.  Švankmajer’s understanding of his medium is absolute; he directs with the confidence- even the cockiness- of someone like Hitchcock or Kubrick, delighting in his offbeat style and audaciously presenting his subversive ideas with imagery that is as indelible as it is absurd.  That Lunacy is a self-proclaimed horror film makes little difference in the director’s approach; the choices and tactics he employs are no more horrific than those in any given Švankmajer film, and indeed, he shows considerable restraint here, leaving many things to the imagination that might, with a different director behind the camera, be exploited for their full shock potential.  Providing shock has never been of interest to Švankmajer; rather, he prefers to unsettle us, to disturb the comfort of our psyches by inundating it with the illogical and the impossible, simulating the peculiar flow of a dreamlike consciousness where the contradictory makes perfect sense and the ordinary seems unnatural and menacing.  He creates a hallucinatory landscape in which the demons of our imagination appear before our eyes in all their unexpected familiarity, and because he is so good at doing so, the things he doesn’t show us are all the more potent.

Lunacy, like all of Švankmajer’s films, is ultimately beyond the realm of standard criticism; it exists as a thing unto itself, and to this whimsically macabre visionary’s loyal legion of acolytes, it is one more perfect creation in a body of work that, thankfully, continues to grow.  That said, however, watching his effort at a bona fide horror film (though truthfully, in my view, all of his work could be classed as such) is something of a disappointment.  Given the genre into which he has ventured, one might expect a hitherto unseen level of grotesquery, if not in outright terror and gore, at least in the ferociousness of his approach; but although the film contains several highly effective set pieces (the aforementioned black mass- with its mixture of the arcane, the blasphemous, and the erotic- pushes a lot of buttons for those uncomfortable with such improprieties, and the entire premature burial sequence is a mini-masterpiece of evoking chills with atmospheric story-telling) and it maintains a palpable sense of dread and impending doom throughout, it seems strangely subdued- particularly given its influences from Poe and de Sade, neither of whom could be called masters of restraint. It’s true that the film is meant to be comedic as well, albeit in the darkest sense; but again, this can be said of most of Śvankmajer’s work.  Furthermore, his narrative- despite the anachronisms, non-sequiturs, and other occasionally jarring surrealist ornamentation- is uncharacteristically straightforward, linear, and grounded in a relatively concrete reality (with the exception of the ongoing interpolation of animated meat, that is).  Taken on the whole, Lunacy is less engaging than his Faust, and less disturbing than his Lewis Carroll adaptation, Alice, both of which push the limits of our preconceived boundaries with more enthusiasm and, consequently, linger in our memories far more pervasively.

Comparisons with his other work aside, Švankmajer’s horror film is still an impressively imaginative piece of work, capturing in its unorthodox framework both the delirious psychic instability that makes Poe’s stories feel like a fever dream and the perverse thrill that lies at the heart of de Sade’s nihilistic hedonism.  It’s not terrifying- though parts of it may cause faint hearts to beat faster- and its eventual conclusion is predictable for anyone who even a passing familiarity with the conceits of horror fiction; nevertheless, it succeeds better, both on an intellectual and a deeply primal level, than most of the formulaic, shock-oriented thrillers churned out by the mainstream film industry in its pursuit of teenage dollars.  Of course, its bizarre stylization may prevent many casual audiences from finding it appealing; Švankmajer’s movies are not for every taste, certainly, though in truth, Lunacy may be more accessible than much of his more directly avant-garde work.  As for those with more eclectic tastes, those who are already indoctrinated into the peculiar joys of this Czech master may find, as I did, that Lunacy fails to generate the same deliciously mind-twisting effects as some of his other projects- though doubtless there will be those, with whom it strikes a particular chord, who will quickly adopt it as a new favorite; those adventurous cinema enthusiasts who have yet to see a Švankmajer film, however, are likely to find it a pleasant introduction to a strange and darkly wondrous world unlike anything they have seen before.  It’s as good an introduction as any, and if it leaves you wanting more, you can take comfort in the fact that a five-decade body of work exists, awaiting your discovery.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0407236/

Faust (1994)

Today’s cinema adventure: Faust, the 1994 feature by celebrated Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, a surrealist take on the classic German legend in which a scholar trades his soul to the Devil in exchange for worldly knowledge and experience.  Set in modern day Prague and incorporating the director’s trademark blend of live action with stop-motion animation, claymation and puppetry, as well as his disturbingly textural use of sound, it represents the culmination of Švankmajer’s long fascination with the tale and stands- along with his other highly distinctive work- as a major influence on more well-known directors such as David Lynch, Tim Burton, and Terry Gilliam.

Presenting its own loose adaptation of the familiar morality fable, Švankmajer’s film borrows elements (and, occasionally, entire scenes) from previous versions by the likes of Christopher Marlowe and Goethe, as well as from the early folk stories of its origin, more or less faithfully following the traditional structure of the narrative; but thanks to the director’s surrealist sensibilities, it recasts the tale in the form of a nightmarish hallucination centered around a nondescript middle-aged everyman who stands in for the mythic scholar.  When this hapless protagonist is handed a flyer in the street, upon which is printed only a simple map of the city with a location marked in red, his curiosity- coupled with some unusual occurrences in his apartment- leads him to a mysterious, ruined theatre; there, after donning costume and makeup, he begins to read from a charred and tattered script, setting in motion a hallucinatory cycle in which he enacts the role of Faust.  Assisted- and manipulated- by an assortment of other “actors,” human and otherwise, his own identity merges with that of the character he plays, and it becomes clear that his own fate is being determined by the scripted events of the ancient drama in which he has become enmeshed- in which he strikes a bargain with Mephistopheles, an agent of the Devil, to instruct him in the secrets of the universe and guide him through the pleasures of earthly life for a period of 24 years, after which he will surrender his soul to be damned into Hell for all eternity.

A dark and moralistic story like this one, born of the same dour Germanic heritage that yielded the Grimm fairy tales and other such cautionary parables, could easily be translated to the screen laden with the ponderously heavy trappings of deep tradition and humorless Puritanism; likewise, given the fact that this legend has provided the inspiration for countless adaptations and re-inventions (from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Brian DePalma’s The Phantom of the Paradise), the familiarity of its basic plot and its themes make it challenging, to say the least, for any artist attempting a new version to find a fresh approach that might prevent predictability and redundancy from undermining the proceedings- and the audience’s interest in the outcome.  In Švankmajer’s hands, however, the entire well-known saga is transformed into an audaciously non-traditional package of surprises, each one as delightful as it is disturbing, appropriately dark in tone but laced throughout with macabre, tongue-in-cheek humor, and loaded with the peculiar blend of the cinematic and the theatrical that gives this director a reputation for visual magic that is unlike the work of any other.  A self-proclaimed surrealist, Švankmajer creates a movie that captures the peculiar flow of nonsensical logic one follows in a dream, making the experience of watching Faust feel thoroughly like a visit to the realm of the unconscious; he tells the story clearly and succinctly, but he does it through a deeply symbolic progression of seeming non-sequiturs, building a mass of perplexing puzzle pieces that fall seamlessly into place as the narrative resolves itself.  By transposing the story deeply into a hallucinogenic reality in which rules of plausibility and common sense no longer apply, the director not only allows himself free use of arcane and metaphoric artistic conceits, he manages to frame his oft-told tale in such a way that every development seems completely new and unexpected, giving us the opportunity to discover its hidden meanings and significant themes by discovering them from an unfamiliar perspective.

That perspective, shrewdly, moves the Faust story out of the medieval past and into a milieu more relevant to a modern audience; Švankmajer doesn’t exactly update his drama, but rather rehearses it within a contemporary framework.  Our protagonist is established from the outset as a decidedly present-day figure, emerging amidst a crowd of commuters from a subway station- just another anonymous drone.  He is drawn into the web that will seal his fate by a pair of men passing out flyers on a street corner, a sight so mundane in our modern world we scarcely take notice; this, of course, sets up a recurring theme for Švankmajer, that of the mystical contained within the ordinary, a motif that manifests itself throughout the film and tempts us, like Faust, with the promise of secret wonders hiding just beneath the bland surface of our everyday lives.  In our demystified era of utilitarian buildings and dehumanized masses, we long for the thrill of the unknown, a glimpse of something mysterious behind the mask of our predictable, well-ordered existence; such a revelation, however, is as unsettling as it is exhilarating, a source of terror as much as enlightenment, and therein lies the essence of Faust.  To obtain the key to this secret world, we must be willing to sacrifice our very selves, to give up everything that defines us- our souls, if you will; for to be privy to the secret workings of the universe is to be torn irrevocably from our humanity, confronted with an absolute power that renders our previous understanding meaningless and dissolves our identity by shattering the precepts upon which we build our relationship with the world.  In a modern age full of the smug assumptions and easy explanations derived from centuries of scientific exploration, the idea of an unseen order to things is perhaps even more terrifying than it was to our superstitious forefathers, whose imaginations conjured the tale of Faust to warn against delving too deeply into the hidden mysteries of life.  They feared the cost of knowledge and worldly experience was the loss of the soul, but we who have embraced these things may be more frightened by the possibility that they were right.  Švankmajer’s Faust, then, is about the rediscovery of the soul by modern man, and the disturbing notion that he has already sacrificed it.

That Švankmajer conveys all this in his movie is remarkable; but convey it he does, in a manner which gives testimony to his skills as an artist and a visual storyteller.  How he does it, exactly, is beyond the power of words to describe, and at any rate is best left to be experienced firsthand. Suffice to say that, in order to bring our modern sensibility into the mystical world of his story, he takes us into the last remaining stronghold of magic, the realm of the theater.  By trapping his protagonist into a re-enactment of an ancient text, not only does he provide the obvious metaphor of man’s fate being dictated by his repetition of the patterns of the past, he opens the door for his own use of all the tricks of the trade in the service of creating his goofy nightmare.  Puppets, both life-sized and miniature, stand in for other characters- and occasionally, for Faust, too- and interchange with live actors; painted backdrops appear in naturalistic settings, and vice-versa, patently theatrical objects and occurrences manifest in the real world, and events move freely back-and-forth between the containment of the theater and the expanse of nature, underscoring Švankmajer’s dissolution of the boundary between reality and illusion; dialogue is recited, arias are sung, ballet dancers perform, and an audience observes the proceedings, though most of Faust’s key scenes take place “backstage,” at least ostensibly.  Of course, the director’s familiar techniques of stop-motion animation are directly drawn from this theatrical background, and fit in seamlessly here- particularly effective is his claymation rendition of Mephistopheles, growing from a ball of clay into a vaguely humorous demonic face that then transmutes into a mirror image of Faust’s own appearance, giving us, once again, the mystical inside the familiar.  Throughout the film, Švankmajer utilizes all these devices to draw us along on this metaphysical journey, using his surrealist tactics to provide cryptic images that simultaneously amuse and appall us- an egg baked inside a loaf of bread, a baby transforming into a skull, a severed leg wrapped in plastic, a puppet demon sexually assaulting a puppet angel, and countless other blasphemous delights- and, in the end, achieve their cumulative goal of revealing the film’s underlying mystery.  It’s worth mentioning, too, that Švankmajer also indulges his usual fascination with food, offering us numerous important scenes that revolve around eating; he also provides his trademark, hallucinatory soundscape, a collection of rustling, scratching, rattling noises that crosses the sensory boundaries to make us feel the surfaces we hear- and creeps us out, in the bargain.  The entire film, ultimately, has this effect- it’s something akin to visiting a haunted house at Halloween, in which we want to feel our skin crawl and our hair stand on end, but we want to giggle with glee over the pure silliness of it all.

Jan Švankmajer is something of a national treasure in his native Czechoslovakia, and rightly so.  His visionary work, at once quirky and powerful, represents the kind of purely artistic sensibility that is rarely found in modern cinema; with the personal spirit of a true auteur, he makes certain his films are distinctly his own, and whether or not audiences respond is not his concern.  Though much of his work has been rarely seen in the U.S., thanks to Cold War restrictions and prejudices that impaired his ability to distribute it on this side of the Iron Curtain (and, sometimes, even to produce it at all), he has gained a steady and growing following among fans of animation, surrealism, and cinema in general.  His decidedly adult adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (simply titled Alice) is partly responsible for breaking him through into Western culture, but many of his other films- including this one- have been championed by critics and other filmmakers alike, and the ready availability of the digital age has now made it possible for almost anyone to partake of the disturbing delights he offers.  Since Faust, like all of his films, is virtually impossible to describe- even stills fail to capture it, since Švankmajer’s visual sense is so connected to motion and juxtaposition of images- I strongly recommend a viewing.  I can praise it all I want, but, ultimately, it’s a movie that speaks far more eloquently for itself.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109781/

Pinocchio (1940)

Today’s cinema adventure: Pinocchio, Walt Disney’s 1940 animated feature, based on the classic children’s story by Carlo Collodi, about a puppet bestowed life in answer to a kindly woodcarver’s wish for a son.  As the follow-up to Disney’s first foray into feature-length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it represented an enormous leap forward in the development of the art form, with the animators taking huge strides to overcome the difficulties they encountered- and correct the mistakes they had made- with their first effort,  resulting in a visually stunning masterpiece which has, in many ways, never been surpassed.  In particular, Pinocchio represents a watershed moment in the advancement of effects animation (as opposed to the character animation at which Disney’s artists were already adept), with its extensive depiction of such elements as fire, smoke, magic, and especially water, creating a dazzling and fully realized environment in which this metaphorical fairy tale can be played out.  Additionally, thanks to the use of live action footage and articulated models (maquettes) as a reference for the animators, the film incorporates a level of realism which enhances its ability to engage and transport its audience, as well as featuring inventive angles and perspectives which would directly influence the advancement of cinematic technique in live-action filmmaking.  Finally, Disney’s development of the multi-plane camera, which allowed the combination and separate manipulation of different layers of imagery within a single shot, yielded an illusion of depth which prefigured the use of 3-D technology, and helped to narrow the gap between live-action and animated filmmaking- a gap which grows ever smaller to this day.

Of course, it could go without saying that Pinocchio, as with all of the Disney features released during the initial Renaissance of the studio, has become a classic, revered as an iconic milestone in the genre of animation and beloved by generations of audiences as a cornerstone of family entertainment; indeed, critical appraisal of the film has been almost universally positive from the moment of its release, though the outbreak of WWII prevented it from becoming financially successful until it was reissued several years later.  However, though its status as a pinnacle of animated art has never been questioned, there have been numerous dissensions over the years regarding its content.  Much of the criticism revolves around the divergences Disney made from the source material in order to make a more marketable film: Pinocchio was transformed from a sarcastic, mischievous hooligan into an inexperienced, innocent naïf who is only led into trouble through his good-hearted gullibility, and his design was softened to resemble less the pointy-nosed, spindly marionette of the book than the real boy he will eventually become; the cricket, a minor character in the original story, was developed into a central figure and anthropomorphized to the point that, in the words of his supervising animator, Ward Kimball, “the only thing that makes him a cricket is because we call him one;” and a number of bizarre and/or gruesome incidents and characters were either removed or revised in order to present the story more as a heart-warming fable than as a cautionary tale.  The objections to this sanitization of Collodi’s novel stand alongside countless protests surrounding the studio’s similar treatment of other classic sources, fueling the long-standing criticism of the studio for “Disney-fying” its material- producing films that subvert the original intention of the authors and sugar-coat their messages for the sake of appealing to the broadest possible audience.

Thankfully, it is not my role to determine the validity of either of this viewpoints here; though it seems to me they are criticisms based on opinions of what the film should be, rather than reactions to what it actually is.  Pinocchio is, first and foremost, exactly what it was intended to be: a visually stunning and highly entertaining work of art.  Whatever social or literary obligations the Disney artists might have disregarded, they succeeded beyond reasonable expectation in their goal to create a finished project that holds up to every standard of excellence- not only does Pinocchio exhibit a still-breathtaking mastery of technical skill, it features an intricate, meticulously executed artistic design that is evident in every frame.  From the dozens of whimsical clockwork devices on display in Geppetto’s humble cottage, to the rustic Italian Alpine village in which the story is set, to the garish and foreboding over-stimulation of Pleasure Island, to the wonders of the undersea world where the climactic segment takes place; the entire film vibrates with a life and personality that can only result from the passion and enthusiasm of its creators.  Even more remarkable is that all this dazzling work is never gratuitously applied, but is wholly dedicated in service to the story: the quantity and humor of Geppetto’s constructions speak volumes about his character, the lurid excess of Pleasure Island clues us into the menace lurking behind its surface, the painstakingly immersive depiction of the ocean environment transports us there with Pinocchio- every tiny detail serves a purpose, and instead of overwhelming us and reminding us of the artificiality of our experience, the richness and variety on display here draws us in and gives us the feeling that the world of Pinocchio is just as real as any place we have seen in our own lives- and perhaps even more so.

Of course, no matter how fully-realized this spectacular world may be, it must be populated if the story is to be told.  The characters in Pinocchio– even the minor ones- are as richly developed as the elements which surround them, designed and animated to such specific perfection that the breadth of their characterization is visible in every frame they inhabit: Jiminy Cricket, with his instantly likable blend of gentility and earthiness; Honest John the Fox, the picture of tawdry pretension and avaricious hunger, and his mute sidekick Gideon the Cat, a sort of skeevy Harpo Marx; Stromboli, a menacingly immense combination of flamboyance, volatility and mean-spirited cruelty; Lampwick, the ultimate hoodlum, cocky and uncouth, yet ultimately pitiable as he suffers the direst fate of any character in the film; even Monstro the whale, aptly personifying the unstoppable, chaotic wrath of the universe; and, of course, Geppetto, lovably dotty and infinitely kind, with his pets, Figaro and Cleo, the lovable kitten and goldfish pair that provide gentle comic relief with their yin-and-yang interplay as they respond to the various events taking place around them.  As for the star of the show, Pinocchio is crafted as the epitome of innocent boyhood; his sweet nature and his excitement for the brave new world before him are his defining characteristics, and he is in a constant state of action, exploring possibilities, embracing experiences, and honestly seeking to please- even when he lies to the Blue Fairy, we get the sense he is doing it as much to save her from disappointment as to save himself from trouble.  As a result, he comes off as a plucky and enthusiastic young hero, instead of the cloying and disingenuous brat he could so easily have become if his creators had chosen to make him deliberately cute or precocious.

The personalities of all these now-iconic characters are a completed by a collection of carefully-chosen voices.  Pinocchio was the beginning of a long Disney tradition (now standard for animated productions but at the time unprecedented) of utilizing seasoned and recognizable talent to provide the vocal contributions to their films, featuring Cliff Edwards (as the cricket, a then-popular singer well-known for his work on Broadway and early talkies), Walter Catlett (as the charlatan fox, another Broadway actor familiar to audiences at the time for a string of high-profile character roles in films like A Tale of Two Cities and Bringing Up Baby), Christian Rub (a distinctive and much-loved radio and film performer who not only gave Geppetto his voice but was used as a physical model for the character as well), Evelyn Venable (a popular screen ingénue renowned for her beauty, austere but warm as the Blue Fairy), and Dickie Moore (as Pinocchio, a seasoned child actor with several high-profile live-action roles under his belt).  All of these, as well the other, lesser-known voices, fit their parts to perfection, as definitively as any live-action cast embodies their characters.  It is impossible to imagine any other voices coming from the figures onscreen in Pinocchio– which is yet another testament to the gifted artists who brought them to life, incorporating the nuances of the already-recorded dialogue into their final rendering of the film, an effect that is perhaps not too unlike that of a motion-capture suit of today transforming an actor’s personality into an animated form.

As if all this sublime artistry were not enough, there is still the perfection of the musical score.  Music plays an important part in every Disney classic, and it has never been better than in Pinocchio; the background score by Paul J. Smith is an indispensable part of the film’s character, as are the songs of Ned Washington and Leigh Harline, which are interwoven seamlessly to it throughout.  Though all of these songs are well-known by generations of children who have grown up with them, one in particular (“When You Wish Upon a Star”) has become not only the signature tune of the Disney empire but an anthem for optimists the world over; as crooned by Edwards over the film’s opening credits, it sets a tone of wistful longing and lets us know that in the end, though there will be much adversity to be faced, everything will come out right.

It’s hard not to gush about Pinocchio: by way of disclaimer I have to admit that it was my favorite Disney movie as I was growing up, with its metaphor of “becoming a real boy” providing me with much food for thought on my way through childhood and adolescence.  Despite this personal bias, I feel completely justified in my enthusiastic assessment of this film.  It is still, over 70 years later, consistently listed as one of the top ten animated films of all time, and it has provided immeasurable influence not only on the art of cinema, but throughout popular culture in general.  It is widely considered the pinnacle of achievement by the studio that created it (no small feat, considering their impressive track record) and it set a high standard for so-called “family films,” providing stimulating entertainment at all levels of maturity rather than just presenting formulaic pablum designed to occupy juvenile minds for 90 minutes- an egregious cheat still perpetrated by far too many so-called artists who churn out such sub-par, straight-to-DVD fodder.  Though today’s high-tech animators can render remarkable imagery that looks far more realistic than anything in it, Pinocchio can hardly be called crude or primitive- it is a work of pure art, exquisitely produced using techniques which have fallen out of fashion in an era that seems only impressed by the newest innovations in a rapidly accelerating parade of obsolescence.  Thankfully, it hasn’t gone anywhere: it is still out there, in home video cabinets the world over, captivating yet another generation of young minds and reconnecting parents to their own childhood, and thanks to painstaking restoration and the ready availability of high-resolution formats, it looks as good as new- perhaps even better (see, I do like technological advancement).

As for those who complain that the movie is not an authentic representation of Collodi’s novel, I think it is only right to point out that several other screen versions have been made of Pinocchio, many of them striving to remain much closer to the source material.  Without exception, they have all bombed, both critically and financially.  Perhaps the latest incarnation, currently in production and starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, can break that unfortunate cycle; but until it, or yet another attempt, succeeds, the Disney version will continue to reign supreme.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032910/

Fritz the Cat (1972)

Today’s cinema adventure- Ralph Bakshi’s 1972 feature debut, his adaptation of R. Crumb’s underground comic, Fritz the Cat.  The first animated film to earn an “X” rating, it met with a lot of resistance and outrage from the mainstream, and Crumb hated it, disowned it, and tried to get his name taken off the credits- but it ended up being the most financially successful independent animated feature of all time.  Written and directed by Bakshi, the film follows Fritz as he takes a personal odyssey from a life of “hanging out” and looking for a good time through a drug-inspired pursuit of revolution- with plenty of shockingly permissive bad behavior along the way.  Voiced by Skip Hinnant (known for his work as part of the ensemble on the classic educational show, The Electric Company), Fritz is hardly a typical cartoon hero: far from cute, barely likeable, and nobody’s idea of a role model, he indulges in one ill-advised misadventure after another, motivated by selfish hedonism even when he is ostensibly acting for what he views as the greater good.  He serves as a sort of counter-cultural Candide, a naïve fool who fancies himself a sophisticate, and as such is at the mercy of a world more corrupt and complex than he imagines; in short, he is the kind of phony that the truly hip despise, and his journey of self-discovery in this worst-of-all-possible-worlds is a vehicle to expose social and political hypocrisy from every source, including (and especially) from our hero himself.  This ambitious agenda may have been beyond the scope of Crumb’s original work (he certainly thought is was), but for Bakshi, it was important for the film to make a statement, which it most certainly does- in between scenes of anthropomorphic animals having sex and taking drugs, that is.  Not that his intention was to shock: geared towards a drug-friendly youth culture, loaded with tons of juvenile sexual, political and racial humor, and mercilessly critical of both the radical left and the extremist right, the film is clearly aimed at an audience who shares his uncensored sensibilities.  At the time of its release, it was one of those films that generated protest and controversy from people who more than likely never saw it, and was cheerfully received by a target audience hungry for the kind of frank, turned-on content it offered.  Forty years later, most of its shock value and its topicality are long gone (one can see comparable content on any given episode of Family Guy today) and across the gap in time much of the film’s anarchic zeitgeist seems more than a little tiresome- as I suspect, to the more mature viewer, it did even then.  Still, as a piece of history, it is fascinating to watch: the animation, though primitive and almost quaint to modern eyes, was innovative and ground-breaking at the time; it presented adult subject matter and content never before seen in animation and completely changed the industry, breaking the stereotype of cartoons being only for children; and it vividly captures a particular social strata of 1960’s culture that is often ignored by popular memory.  I won’t say that you’ll enjoy it, but if you’re intrigued by looking through a window to a bygone era- and you’re open-minded and adventurous- you’ll be glad you watched it.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068612/