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’ 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.)

MICKEY’S GARDEN (1935) – Mickey Mouse’s bad trip

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The following is the first of my 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’ thoughts about some of their favorite animated films!

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A 1935 page from “Good Housekeeping” promoting the cartoon.

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Practically everyone has a stake in the “Who’s the bigger hero in pop culture” sweepstakes, whether it’s The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones, or Batman vs. Superman.

When it comes to cartoons, me, I’m a Bugs Bunny man. Mickey Mouse is just too domesticated for me, especially for a character that started out as an anti-social, country-tainted rodent.

But there’s one chapter in the Mickey Mouse chronicles that’s as hallucinogenic as anything I’ve ever seen: Mickey’s Garden.

The cartoon starts mildly enough, with Mickey and his dog Pluto going hunting — for bugs that are destroying Mickey’s home garden. They don’t have to go hunting for very long. Pluto soon ends up in an on-point position that’s probably the ugliest “pose” you’ll ever see for Pluto.

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How ugly? This ugly.

Mickey sees insects swarming all over his vegetables and quickly sprays them with poison from the extermination gun he’s holding, causing the bugs to exit in fear. Just the sight of these weird bugs, who look like escapees from a Max Fleischer cartoon, is enough to tip you off that this cartoon is going to be very trippy.

The bugs go into hiding (in holes that they “draw shut” as though they were sleeping-bag zippers). Mickey continues his rampage until he realizes he’s out of poison. He runs off to refill his gun, and the bugs, once again safe, return to pig out at the garden.

Mickey returns to his shoot-out with the bugs, but the gun quickly gets jammed, so Mickey uses a tree branch to try and unclog it (rather stupidly aiming the gun right at himself all the while). Meanwhile, Pluto’s attempt to subdue one of the bugs results only in his getting his head stuck in a pumpkin. Panicking, Pluto runs around wildly, eventually ramming the plunger of Mickey’s gun, unjamming it at just the wrong time. The poison sprays all over Mickey, causing him to fall backwards on the ground and wildly hallucinate (a great bit of animation, as the Earth around Mickey becomes gravity-free and wavy).

When Mickey regains consciousness, he finds that he and Pluto are now bug-sized, while the actual bugs tower over the duo. Guess who’s the hunter and who’s the prey now.

It doesn’t help matters that the bugs have been drawn to the vat containing Mickey’s poison mixture and, far from being done in by it, drink it up happily as though it’s bootleg liquor. Armed with their enormous size and drunken sense of power (and the cartoon is only halfway over at this point), they have a field day terrorizing Mickey and Pluto.

For an animated milieu that’s usually pretty subdued, the remainder of the cartoon has some of the wildest imagery that Disney would conjure up prior to Fantasia). One wonders if the makers of the Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine didn’t have a look at this short before proceeding with their movie; some of this cartoon’s villains have similar character quirks and end up meeting very similar bad ends.)

I’ll leave it to you to discover the rest of this cartoon’s glories (the cartoon is embedded below). Suffice to say, for an unheralded Mickey Mouse cartoon, it’s rather visually astounding, particularly since it’s practically dialogue-free and the images have to carry the day (which they do, superbly).

(If you liked this blog entry, click here to read my second entry, about the recent Oscar-nominated cartoon A Single Life.)

A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY (2012) – Graham Chapman tells a few stories

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The following is my entry in The Monty Python Movie Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from Oct. 1-3, 2016. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ reviews of group and solo efforts from the members of the British comedy group!

 

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If you’ve fantasized that the Monty Python troupe could get together one more time for one final, very special episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” A Liar’s Autobiography could be just about enough to fulfill your fantasy.

It certainly isn’t for the Pythons’ lack of trying. Based on the late Graham Chapman’s semi-autobiography of the same name, the movie uses Chapman to “narrate” his own story. (He recorded an oral version of his book shortly before he died of throat cancer in 1989.) And in best Python, multiple-casting style, most of the voices in this animated film are provided by nearly all of the remaining Python members, even Carol Cleveland. (The only holdout was Eric Idle, who was having a row with the other Pythons at the time of filming.)

The main difference between the movie and “Flying Circus” is that, other that a few clips from live interviews and the “Circus” TV series, the entire movie is animated — quite boldly and bawdily (by 14 different animation companies, no less). Otherwise, Chapman turns his life into a flight of fancy worthy of “Flying Circus,” starting out at actual points of fact in his life and then veering off into far more interesting and humorous flights of fancy.

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Chapman was quite frank about both his homosexuality and his battle with alcoholism, and those subjects get Pythonesque treatment here, with no holds barred. But it’s also fascinating to see how humor got him through more mundane aspects of his life — his formative years with parents who never quite “got him,” his collegiate years with self-satisfied professors, and his eventual boredom with the Hollywood lifestyle once he became famous.

As with most Python-based work, if you’re not tuned into their sense of ultra-dry humor, this movie is unlikely to make you a convert. As for myself, I enjoyed it the way I’ve enjoyed most of Python. It’s refreshingly honest about subjects from which more conservative folks simply shy away. It’s well-animated on all counts (think Monty Python meets Yellow Submarine). Plus, it’s damn funny.

 

TINY TOON ADVENTURES (1990-1995) – A cartoon work of art

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The following is my second of two entries in my ‘One’ of My-All Time Favorite Cartoons Blogathon, being held at this blog on Nov. 6-8, 2015. Click on the above banner, and read entries about terrific ‘toons that these bloggers just can’t resist!

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Steven Spielberg is already immortalized in Hollywood for far more noble ventures — but for me, if he’d never been responsible for anything but Tiny Toon Adventures, he’d have a huge place in my heart.

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When this TV cartoon was first publicized in 1990 (the 60th anniversary of Warner Bros. first talking cartoon, and the 50th anniversary of the “birth” of Bugs Bunny), I cringed. I felt a little comforted when veteran Warners cartoon director Friz Freleng said he saw a preview of the series and thought it looked as good as any theatrical cartoon. When the cartoon finally debuted, I thought I’d died and gone to animation heaven.

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The characterizations are obviously a nod to the “classic” Looney Tunes characters. Buster Bunny is obviously patterned after Bugs, Plucky Duck is a distant relative to daffy Daffy, and so on. The connection is even more obvious because the Tiny Toons attend Acme Looniversity, where the Looney Tunes veterans tutor them in the art of getting laughs. Well, the Toons have obviously earned their diplomas, because they do the job quite well on their own.

The gags and pacing are top-notch, and the pop-culture level is easily up to that of “The Simpsons.” (How many kids’ cartoons would even attempt a parody of Citizen Kane, let alone pull it off?) Production of the TV series has long ceased, but happily, most of the best of the series is available on home video.

A good intro to the style is the direct-to-video feature “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” worth the price of the rental just for its caricatures of Hollywood stars. But the acme (so to speak) is the tape “Tiny Toons Music Television,” with a number of MTV-style videos of classic and obscure hits performed by the Tiny Toons.

(I’ve posted a clip from that episode below. It’s probably my favorite “Tiny Toons” segment, their hilarious interpretation of They Might Be Giants’ song “Particle Man.” In another nod to Looney Tunes history, that boxer/wrestler who always came up a cropper in Chuck Jones’ Bugs Bunny cartoons such as Rabbit Punch finally holds his own with Plucky Duck here.)

As critic Manny Farber once said about the original Looney Tunes cartoons, the great ones are masterpieces and the bad ones aren’t a total loss.

(If you’ve enjoyed reading this blogathon entry, please click here to read my first entry on the 1935 Popeye cartoon The Spinach Overture.)

My new Twitter.com Live Tweet: POPEYE & FRIENDS

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If you’re “of a certain age” (i.e., mine), you remember the pre-DVD and -Internet days, when we were at the mercy of TV programmers as to when we could see our favorite movies and cartoons. That brought about the golden age of kids’ shows hosted by local celebrities.

I always fantasized about hosting one of those shows. But since that era of TV is long gone, I’ve taken it upon myself to do the next best thing: Host a Live Tweet of classic cartoons every Sunday night at Twitter.com! No re-inventing the wheel for this one — just like the old TV shows, I’ve given it the umbrella title of Popeye & Friends, and it’ll be a weekly half-hour of cartoons featuring Popeye and whatever other “classic” cartoons I can dig up on YouTube.

However, for the first segment this Sunday (Oct. 4), I’m sticking strictly with Popeye, showing four of my all-time favorites from the Fleischer Bros. era:

I’ve already reviewed 3 of the 4 cartoons at this blog; click on their titles above if you’d like to read my critiques of them. Otherwise, “tune in” to Twitter.com at 7:30 p.m. on Sun., Oct. 4, use the hashtag #PopeyeFriends to follow along and comment on the cartoons, and have a happy second childhood with us!

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto in BLOW ME DOWN! (1933) – Popeye unchained

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

You gotta love any Popeye cartoon that starts with our hero commandeering a small whale as though it was a ship. (When Popeye reaches port, the whale even helpfully extends its back from himself to shore, staircase style.)

We soon find that Popeye has come to a small Mexican town, full of bandits who’d love to intimidate Popeye, except he’s more ornery than they are. (One of them flashes a toothy, smug smile at Popeye, who promptly turns it into Chiclets.)

Popeye has bought a “bouquet” (apparently a Mexican word meaning “a single flower”) for his “petunia” Olive Oyl, who’s a saloon dancer here. What she lacks in talent, she makes up in improvisation; when two spittoons accidentally get stuck to her feet, she dances with them still stuck on.

Into the saloon walks Bluto the Bandit, whose chaotic gunfire scare everyone out of the saloon except Popeye. Just to let Popeye know who he’s dealing with, Bluto helpfully stares at a nearby “Wanted” poster of himself (which helpfully stares right back at him).

Bluto tries to intimidate Popeye with his fancy shooting, but then Popeye chews up Bluto’s gun and spits out makeshift bullets. Bluto calls in some reinforcements, but when Popeye pulls out the spinach even before the seventh-inning stretch, we figure Bluto ought to get out while he’s behind.

Bluto tries to steal Olive, and naturally he doesn’t get very far with that either. Her cries for help cause Popeye to come bashing through her door (which quickly reassembles itself, out of courtesy I guess), only to find Olive using a club to play a variation of “The Anvil Chorus” on Bluto’s skull. So what’s to save?

For a big finish, Popeye gives Bluto a punch that literally knocks him around the world. For some reason, this isn’t too surprising.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCanCan

Popeye and Olive Oyl in WIMMEN IS A MYSKERY (1940) – So is conception, in this instance

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Popeye proposes marriage to Olive Oyl, and she tells him she will give him an answer the next morning. While Olive sleeps on it, she has a dream of domestic life with Popeye’s offspring.

This cartoon introduces the bratty, Popeye-cloned quartet that served as the Fleischers’ answer to Donald Duck’s roguish nephews. (Here, the boys are named differently from later cartoons; they’re Pep- , Pup- , Pip- , and Peep-Eye.) By any name, they ought to be enough to induce Olive to purchase a lifetime supply of birth control.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCan