LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (2003) – Mighty sporting of the little black duck (and friends)

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At last, those tired spy-movie spoofs are right where they belong — right in the middle of a Looney Tunes cartoon.

I wouldn’t have thought that the sensibilities of a seven-minute cartoon could be stretched to feature length as well as in Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Not even Space Jam (1996) went for broke as much.

If you tried to diagram the plot for this movie, it would probably look something like several Looney Tunes strung together. It starts out with a harried movie executive (Jenna Elfman) firing and then trying to re-hire Daffy Duck. Then it turns into the story of a security guard (Brendan Fraser) who finds out that his father (two-time James Bonder Timothy Dalton) is, guess what, a secret agent. Then there’s the whole subplot about the Acme Corporation’s evil leader (Steve Martin) trying to turn the world’s human population into monkeys. And the mind still reels at Bugs Bunny and Daffy finding out that the Roswell UFO incident wasn’t a fake.

There’s probably only one man in Hollywood who could meld these shards of plot into a cartoon/live-action movie, and happily, the Warner Brothers hired him. His name is Joe Dante, who made his name in the ’80s directing cartoon-like feature films (GremlinsInnerspace). Dante has probably been licking his chops at the thought of doing a Bugs/Daffy feature ever since he had them do a cameo in Gremlins 2, and he has done himself proud. Even though the original Looney Tunes directors have long since gone to comedy heaven, Dante’s lead “actors” don’t seem to have aged a bit. It’s like finding a newly uncovered Marx Brothers movie.

As for the flesh-and-blood performers, Fraser, Elfman and the rest of the movie’s live actors, they’re admirably good sports, cheerily getting walloped around by hand-drawings. The only sour note is struck by Steve Martin, who overdoes trying to be even more cartoony than the cartoon characters.

In a year filled with typical Hollywood blockbusters, who could have guessed that Finding Nemo and this gem would be the year’s highlights? Some days, a movie viewer feels like Porky in Wackyland.

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It’s the Great Pumpkin, blog readers!

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For the 52nd(!) year in a row, the delightful “Peanuts” special “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” is being broadcast tonight (8 p.m. EST on ABC). There’s not much I can add to the half-century of praise this charming half-hour has received and deserved. In fact, The AV Club has said it better than I ever could — click here to read their review/tribute/plug of the show. And embedded below is the original promo for the special from 1966, when it initially aired on CBS. (And remember, it’s “When the Great Pumpkin comes,” not “If.”)

 

 

TOY STORY 3 (2010) – A toy valedictory

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Toy Story 3 was released in June of 2010, just in time to garner Father’s Day box-office, but it would have been more appropriate for high-school graduation day. The movie has an elegiac tone to it – with plenty of the expected laughs, but also with the throat-catching idea that we’re seeing the end of an era for a group of old friends.

And did I just write all teary-eyed about a movie with a “3” in its title? For that, thank the wizards at Pixar, who continue to maintain their standards of high quality and never forget to include a storyline with pulse-pounding heart. In a movie world where every successful trend gets copied to death, why can’t Hollywood pick up on this one?

The story here is that toy-owner Andy is heading off for college, dooming his childhood toys to a drab life in the attic. Most of the toys, including Buzz Lightyear (voiced again by Tim Allen) and cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), brighten up considerably when they hear they might be donated to a day-care center. Loyal cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) advises the toys to stick with Andy’s choice, but the others relish the thought of being endlessly played with. The remainder of the movie dramatically demonstrates the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Along the way, the veterans compete for screen time with new toy characters. These include Lotso (Ned Beatty), a seemingly huggy bear with a dark side that Darth Vader would be proud of; and Ken (of Ken-and-Barbie fame), who has a retro side we’d never imagined, and is voiced by Michael Keaton with all the gusto of a career comeback.

Happily, the old characters get some hilarious new quirks of their own. By itself, the results of switching Buzz Lightyear to Spanish-language mode might have won this movie its Best Cartoon Feature Film Oscar.

Funny thing is, just when you think the movie’s over, it finishes with a valedictorian scene that will have many moviegoers – including your faithful correspondent and his son – blubbering in the aisles. Again, that’s Pixar standing head and shoulders above the mass of indistinguishable CGI stuff. Just try and copy this formula, Hollywood – moviegoers everywhere are begging you.

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto: The ultimate love-hate relationship

BugsDaffyElmerFinalThe following is my entry in the My Favorite Movie Threesome Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from July 28-30, 2017. Click on the banner above to read bloggers’ tributes to real and fictional trios from throughout the history of cinema!

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(The following is based on viewings of the original series of Popeye cartoons produced and directed by Max and Dave Fleischer from 1933 to 1942. If you have not treated yourself to these delightful animated films, allow me to introduce you to them by way of my tribute-website. Click here to visit my site filled with reviews of these groundbreaking cartoons.)

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ABOVE: Bluto as Sigmund Freud??

Sometimes, a character’s psychological quirks are so conspicuous that you can’t help commenting on them, pretentious as it might sound. After multiple viewings of Popeye cartoons, I’d have to say that the psyches of Popeye & Co. are ripe for picking as well. And so…the doctor is in.
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Popeye

Popeye puts on a very elaborate facade to disguise a very damaged psyche. It is assumed that he got his nickname (and his condition) from a very violent brawl. Nevertheless, to have such a moniker as your only given name — he is never referred to in any other way, in the comic strips or the movies — is to have a major loss of identification and individuality.

Further, other than his belligerent father — who, at first, does not even want to be rescued from imprisonment on an island, much less reunited with his son — we know almost nothing about Popeye’s formative years. What of his mother? Was Popeye perhaps born illegitimately, and is that why he looks upon single mother Olive Oyl’s upbringing of baby Swee’Pea with nary a shrug? This man appears to have psychological scars he finds far too painful to be re-opened.

Popeye compensates for his multiple pains in the same way many men do — with his over-abundant machismo. He has built up his upper torso to the point that his muscles look abnormal. He also deludes himself into thinking that downing cans of raw spinach at pivotal moments make him stronger-than-average. While spinach does have well-known nutritional value, there is no evidence that instantly absorbing such spinach will provide abnormal musculature in just a matter of seconds. Therefore, we can conclude only that spinach serves as a placebo for Popeye — a way for him to swallow his internal pain when circumstances become too much for him.


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Olive Oyl

Though this is never specifically stated in the cartoons, one surmises that Olive Oyl gave her heart to a man who was the love of her life, only to be deserted by him and left with his baby (Swee’Pea). It was after this heartbreak that Olive decided she would never again leave herself so vulnerable to one man’s machinations. Thus, she has two rivals for her affections (Popeye and Bluto), and she constantly wavers between the two of them in a classic example of passive-aggressiveness.

She also has difficulty maintaining a home and a job. In the early cartoons, she is seen living in a large (if not lavish) house, but later she is reduced to residing in a shabby apartment. In each cartoon that shows Olive at work, she is always at a job different from the previous ones (child caretaker, stenographer, scriptwriter, etc.). This, too, indicates the instability into which she was thrown when her erstwhile lover left her.

Lastly, even the only two men with whom she will associate often physically abuse her — each one pulling her by a separate arm, sometimes knocking her unconscious, getting her head used as a door knocker when Popeye calls on her, etc. Olive’s sweetness and outward cheer belie a case of extremely low self-esteem.


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Bluto

Simply and obviously, Bluto is the classic bully. He feels he can get what he wants only through loudness and brusqueness, and he has accomplished so little in life that he derives satisfaction only from tearing down other’s achievements.

Bluto is especially annoyed by Popeye, the one person in the world who stands up to him. Nearly all of Bluto’s encounters with Popeye end in a violent fight, usually lost by Bluto once Popeye downs his spinach. One would think that Bluto would eventually admit defeat and deal with his sense of rage, but he continues to fight Popeye every chance he gets.

This battle — both between Bluto and Popeye, and Bluto and himself — has gone on for so long that, as with Wile E. Coyote and his single-minded pursuit of the Road Runner — it is the fight itself that has become Bluto’s reason to live. In the few instances where Bluto and Popeye try to remain civil, the old pattern emerges and they come to blows all over again.

Most troubling of all is Bluto’s documented abuse of animals — horses, parrots, monkeys, etc. — which is a blatant symptom of psychotic behavior. In a way, it’s almost a relief that Bluto has Popeye to beat up, so that he doesn’t inflict his hostilities on others around him (though Olive receives her share of Bluto’s abuse too, as noted above).

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Sadly, Bluto’s rage and lack of self-reflection briefly resulted in his having a split personality, his other persona going by the name of Brutus. Fortunately, this lasted for only a brief period in the 1960’s.

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In conclusion, my pseudo-psychological musings only prove how well-rounded and -thought-out these delightful characters are. I encourage you to seek them out, on YouTube and wherever you can find them.

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1996) – My all-time favorite Disney movie

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    I must be a movie-going anomaly, because I consider The Disney Studio’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame the best animated feature ever made. Victor Hugo purists have complained about the movie’s liberties (particularly with the comic relief of the three gargoyles, which I admit is a bit of a stretch for sidekicks). And the story, of course, is way too dark for anyone expecting a lighthearted Disney cartoon. But then, perhaps that’s part of the point.
    The movie was directed by Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. Those names are worth noting because they also directed Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which was the first-ever animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Obviously that gave the duo some clout to make pretty much what they wanted. They certainly chose one of the darker stories to animate, and it showed at the box office when it grossed only (only?) $96 million. But it is a story superbly told on all levels.
    The film’s opening scene tells, in song, how the hunchback was stolen from a gypsy by Claude Frollo, an evil judge (changed from a priest in the original story) who has a huge hang-up about gypsies. Frollo sees that the child is physically deformed and intends to drop him down a well, until a priest shames him into keeping the child as his own. He condescendingly names the child “Quasimodo” (meaning half-formed) and keeps him locked in a bell tower where he learns to ring the bells for the city of Paris. And in that first ten minutes, you’re thinking: These Disney guys are really serious.
    From there, the movie introduces Esmeralda (voiced by Demi Moore) and Frollo’s troubled officer Phoebus (Kevin Kline), both of whom come to befriend Quasimodo. Yet the movie doesn’t go for easy answers, and when the movie (controversially) ends happily, it feels quite earned. Because along the way, Quasimodo certainly needs a friend or two. Voiced by Amadeus’s Tom Hulce, he does a song called “Out There” in which Quasimodo expresses his longing to simply get out in the real world one day, and it beautifully lays the groundwork for everything that follows.
    That song is part of an unjustly overlooked score by Disney vets Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, and it’s only one element of the most underrated work you’ll find in animation. There’s an astounding scene where Frollo privately confesses his lust for Esmeralda, and as G-rated numbers go, it’s a pretty hard G.
    But I found it refreshing that the Disney group was willing to take some chances here, unlike their much safer audience-pleasers, such as the politically correct Pocahontas. For all of its happy ending, the movie doesn’t cop out, either. (SPOILER SENTENCE!) Quasimodo doesn’t get the girl, but he gets something much better — he acceptance he has always craved. Disney movies have offered a lot less palatable messages. And for those who think that a Disney cartoon shouldn’t rattle anyone, I say: Remember what happened to Bambi’s mom?[

 

WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (2005) – Say cheese!

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I’m very late to the party where Wallace & Gromit are concerned. They’re the clay-animated subjects of three critically acclaimed British shorts, most of which I’ve watched in stupefied silence. But with their feature-length film, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, something clicked, and I now consider myself a W&G fan.

British humor is rife with eccentricities, and this pair has enough of them to fill a book. Wallace (lovingly voiced by Peter Sallis) is an inventor of outrageous gadgets, and he lusts over cheese, his favorite food. Gromit is Wallace’s sidekick-dog, who rolls his eyes at Wallace’s latest blunders but nevertheless helps him out of trouble.

The movie’s story is that Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter) is preparing for the annual vegetable contest that her family has held for over five centuries. Everyone is concerned about rabbits destroying their prize veggies. Enter W&G with their Anti-Pesto service, which vacuums up the wayward rabbits and stores them in a humane manner.

For this, Wallace earns Lady Tottington’s respect but becomes an unwitting rival for her affections. Wallace’s nemesis is Lord Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes), a hunter who longs to marry Lady T. solely for her fortune, and who wishes to shoot all pests, be they four-legged or human.

Then there’s the titular monster, who’s set on ruining the veggie contest, and who eventually causes Wallace a great deal of guilt.

The plot sounds far more complicated than it plays out. The movie breezes along at 85 minutes and offers a lot of laughs. It also has a surprising share of pathos, particularly as played out on the multi-expressive face of Gromit. He’s a clay-animated Chaplin who says more with a facial expression than many characters do with a page of dialogue. Can we nominate him for Best Animated Actor?

Another of this movie’s virtues is its handmade-ness. Clay animators struggle hard to hide their labors. But every once in a while, if you look closely, you can see a fingerprint on one of the clay “actors.” In these days of sanitized CGI cartoons, I find that kind of charming.

A SINGLE LIFE (2014) – Setting a new record for longevity

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The following is my second of two entries in The 2nd Annual ‘ONE’ of My All-Time Favorite Cartoons Blogathon, hosted at this blog from Nov. 11-13, 2016. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ entries on a variety of animated films!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The Oscar-nominated A Single Life is only two-and-a-half minutes long, but it’s probably the best one-joke cartoon since Bambi Meets Godzilla.

A lone woman is about to enjoy a pizza when a knock comes at her door. She opens the door and finds a small package containing a 45 RPM record of a song titled (guess what?) “A Single Life.” She starts to play the record while eating her pizza, but at one point the record skips. The woman returns the record needle to the correct point but discovers that, during the skip, a bite of her pizza went away.

The woman plays with the record needle and finds that she can make the pizza bite reappear and disappear. When she investigates further, the woman discovers that placing the needle at different points on the record can actually take her to different points in her life. If you had a favorite “trippy” song that you’d swear could take you through time and space, you haven’t heard anything yet.

About the only other thing I can say without giving away the surprises of the cartoon (embedded below) is that it, like life itself, is over much too quickly. So enjoy it while you can — life and the cartoon, that is.

(If you enjoyed this blog entry, click here to read my first entry in this blogathon, about the Mickey Mouse cartoon Mickey’s Garden.)