“And this is the last of the Mowgli stories.”
So wrote Rudyard Kipling at the end of “The Spring Running,” one of the stories in The Second Jungle Book. Perhaps he thought so, but his stories about the bare boy raised by wolves in the jungle struck a chord with readers in the final months of the 19th century. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the stories still resonate — but perhaps not so much through words but through images.
Modern audiences might not be so likely to have read much of the original words. The Jungle Book was published in 1894, The Second Jungle Book in 1895, a time when India, the setting for the Mowgli stories, was a colonial empire of Great Britain. All of the stories, whether about Mowgli or not, are fables, geared toward giving moral lessons, largely through the use of anthropomorphic animals, most of which would more likely eat a fat human baby instead of raising him and teaching him the Laws of the Jungle. So let’s just set aside what we “know” about the true nature of jungles and animals therein and go with the flow here.
And, as fables, everyone, including Mowgli, speaks like they’re in a session of Parliament:
“I say ye do,” said Mowgli, shooting out his forefinger angrily. “Ye do run away, and I who am the Master of the Jungle, must needs walk alone. How was it last season, when I would gather sugar-cane from the fields of the Man-Pack? I sent a runner — I sent thee! — to Hathi, bidding him to come upon such a night and pluck the sweet grass for me with his trunk.”
Those words, like the opening quote, appear in “The Spring Running” when Mowgli is almost 17 years old, according to Kipling. But even in the first story in the first Jungle Book, “Mowgli’s Brothers,” he was quite the orator:
“Listen, you!” he cried. “There is no need for this dog’s jabber. Ye have told me so often to-night that I am a man (and indeed I would have been a wolf with you to my life’s end), that I feel your words are true. So I do not call ye my brothers any more, but sag [dogs], as a man should. What ye will do, and what ye will not do is not yours to say. That matter is with me …”
That’s from a 10- or 11-year old boy (Kipling isn’t exact on that).
Kipling uses Mowgli, a human among the wild animals of the jungle, to show what he feels is our place in the universe; None of those animals, even Bagheera the Panther, can meet his gaze, even though he be a mere boy. When he finally defeats Shere Khan the tiger, he is the unquestioned Master of the Jungle, even though, again, he’s just a man-cub, a hairless human. And that duality plays out in the three Mowgli stories in The Jungle Book and five in The Second Jungle Book. (Both books contain stories not related to Mowgli, some well-known in their own right: Her Majesty’s Servants, The White Seal, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Toomai of the Elephants, The Miracle of Purun Bhagat, The Undertakers and Quiquern.)
Both books are in the public domain, allowing others to adapt them as they see fit. The most famous probably is the 1967 Walt Disney animated film because, well, it’s Disney and we all have special memories of the bright and musical Disney cartoons, right?
What Disney did, of course, was to strip out any context, themes and morals of the Kipling books.
Granted, those themes and morals are of a colonial, racist society, but Disney’s scrubbings eliminated the story of anything meaningful. Disney reportedly asked the staff working on the project if anyone had read the book; none had. “Good, then don’t. Here’s the story I want.” (As reported in a 2007 documentary, The Bare Necessities: The Making of the Jungle Book). It also would be the last film Disney was personally involved with; he died before it was released.
Mowgli is reduced to a whiny, petulant boy out to just have a good time in the jungle. Baloo the bear is a lazy slob, looking for things to eat, a tree to scratch his back, and a good spot for a nap. Bagheera comes off a little better, except he’s mostly a nagging nanny.
Baloo, even though he’s described as a “sleepy brown bear” in the books, is the one who speaks for Mowgli, urging the wolves accept him as one of their own, saying “there is no harm in a man’s cub.” But Baloo also has a larger responsibility:
Baloo, the Teacher of the law, taught him the Wood and Water Laws: how to tell a rotten branch from a sound one or how to speak politely to the wild bees when he came upon a hive of them fifty feet above ground; … Then, too, Mowgli was taught the Strangers’ Hunting Call, which must be repeated aloud till it is answered … It means, translated. “Give me leave to hunt here because I am hungry”; and the answer is: “Hunt then for food, but not for pleasure.”
And Baloo is one tough teacher:
“Is there anything in the jungle too little to be killed? No. That is why I teach him these things, and that is why I hit him, very softly, when he forgets.”
“Softly! What does thou know of softness, old Iron-feet?” Bagheera grunted. “His face is bruised to-day by thy — softness. Ugh.”
“Better he should be bruised from head to foot by those who love him than he should come to harm through ignorance. … Is that not worth a little beating?”
In the books, Bagheera is the second to speak for Mowgli at the wolf council, but he also buys the boy’s acceptance with a fresh-killed bull “according to the Law.” He becomes a friend to Mowgli, often accompanying him on hunting trips and doing his part to explain the boy’s place in the jungle (which has the curious property of having only one panther, one bear, and one tiger). Despite being a panther, Bagheera seems to be more of a softy than Baloo:
“But think of how small he is,” said the Black Panther, who would have spoiled Mowgli if he had had his own way. “How can his little head carry all that long talk?”
Disney dispenses of the wolves early; we get a short scene with them at the beginning and that’s it. They don’t even get names. In the books, the wolves are Mowgli’s family, with Raksha, the Wolf Mother, ready to fight to the death to protect the man-cub. Some of the wolves become Mowgli’s friend, but others question his acceptance into the pack, a theme that lasts through all the stories.
Shere Khan the tiger may be the villain of the stories, but he has a point about men: they always bring trouble to the jungle. That’s the source of his hate for Mowgli; man-cubs of any sort have no place there. Disney, though, just makes him into an effete snob who hardly exerts himself to complete his quest.
In the books, what could be called the other villains, the Bandar-log, the monkeys, live in anarchy; there are no rulers, no government, no laws. This, in the eyes of Bagheera and Baloo, makes them contemptible:
“The Jungle-People put them out of their mouths and out of their minds,” Baloo tells Mowgli. “They are very many, evil, dirty, shameless, and they desire, if they have any fixed desire, to be noticed by the Jungle-People.”
These monkeys capture Mowgli and boast of their feat. Mowgli sees no value to a life just swinging from vines, but he’s stuck there until his friends mount a rescue. Even with their strength and claws, though, neither Baloo nor Bagheera can prevail against the sheer numbers of monkeys. Only Kaa can put a stop to all that nonsense. Yes, Kaa, the python, made into a third villain by Disney. Most of us might react to Kaa the way Indiana Jones does — “I hate snakes!” — but in the books, Kaa is a friend to Mowgli. He uses his hypnotizing eyes and silky voice to get Mowgli free of the Bandar-log, but then Kaa suggests the boy, bear and panther might want to leave because what comes next isn’t so pleasant, for Kaa is hungry and a monkey or two will make a nice lunch. (And for allowing himself to be captured by the Bandar-log, Baloo beats the crap out of Mowgli, something Disney did not bother to include.)
In the story “Red Dog” from The Second Jungle Book, Kaa has a big role in Mowgli’s plan to stop the invasion of the dholes, the savage dogs swarming into the jungle, killing everything, including wolves. Kaa carries Mowgli on his back down the river, slipping under the surface as the “little people” — bees — attack the massed dogs, blunting their main thrust as the wolves and other beasts attack their flank and eventually win the war. The description of this fight is the best action sequence of the stories, and it’s odd that the movies have essentially ignored it. But that would make Kaa a good guy, and who wants to make a snake a good guy?
And then there’s King Louie, the singing orangutan, who is a total fabrication. Orangutans don’t live in India, but Disney needed an excuse for another musical number, so we get Louis Prima singing “I wanna be like you” to Mowgli
Those musical numbers are what the ’67 film is essentially all about. The film wasn’t made to tell a story, it was made to showcase clever animation and snazzy songs. Everybody’s fond memories of the cartoon are pretty much wrapped around Phil Harris as Baloo singing The Bare Necessities, Prima’s I Wanna Be Like You and Sterling Holloway as Kaa trying to hypnotize Mowgli with Trust in Me. It’s all catchy, lively and colorful — all the things the Disney animators were great at doing. But does your pleasant memories of the cartoon also include the singing vultures in the form of the Beatles? It was a crass attempt by the Disney people to show how groovy and hip they were by aiming the number at ’60s teenagers. Disney wanted the actual Beatles to voice the characters, but John Lennon reportedly wanted nothing to do with an animated movie. (Yellow Submarine came out a year later, so what the hell, John?)
King Louie, for all his friendliness, really wants the human secret, the “red rose” — fire. It becomes Mowgli’s main weapon against Shere Khan, but the ’67 cartoon just kind of tosses it off when Mowgli ties a burning branch to the tiger’s tail, sending him running off in a panic.
In the book, it’s a lot more complicated. Mowgli, who has been to the man-village to get the fire, brings it to the wolf council where the fate of Akela, one of the wolves who raised Mowgli, is to be decided. The boy is angry because Shere Khan had turned many of the wolves of the pack against him. He calls them dogs, then sets fire to the grass to show how he was master of it and how they fear it. “The Jungle is shut to me,” Mowgli says, but before he goes, he grabs Shere Khan, threatens him with a torch, calls him a coward and proceeds to beat him over the head with the burning branch “and the tiger whimpered and whined in an agony of fear.” Mowgli lets him go, warning “when I next come to the Council Rock, as a man should come, it will be with Shere Khan’s hide on my head.”
Mowgli takes work in the man-village as a buffalo herder. Eventually Shere Khan arrives in the neighborhood, but Mowgli, with the help of his remaining wolf friends, panics the herd and tramples the tiger to death. He then skins the tiger — not an easy task, according to Kipling — and keeps his promise when he returns to Council Rock. None of that appears in the Disney cartoon.
Mowgli might go back to the man-village, but Kipling has a dim view of the local citizenry and their “civilization.” Mowgli even meets a woman who might be his mother, but the people are afraid of him, accusing him of being a wolf-boy. They throw rocks at him, splitting his lip, and imprison the couple who might be his parents. In revenge, Mowgli gets the elephants to rampage through the village, destroying it (after sending the couple to safety).
That didn’t make Disney’s version, either.
Alas, 1967 is so 20th century, right? So in the 21st century, now that the movie-making tools have improved, Disney — the company; Walt’s still dead — has begun a quest to make nearly every animated film it ever made into live-action movies. The Jungle Book presents special problems; if you’re going to put a real boy in the jungle, then the jungle and all who live there must match that reality to be convincing. Making anatomically correct animals look like they’re mouthing English words is pretty hard. Few animals have the musculature or jaw structure for human speech; various attempts over the years have looked pretty silly.
Enter Jon Favreau and his team of computer experts. The 2016 remake of The Jungle Book looks as realistic as can be expected, and sometimes even beyond, even though the jungle, as it says at the end of the credits, exists only in downtown Los Angeles. We are immersed in the jungle, full of old, twisted trees, clinging vines, waterfalls and rivers, grasslands and cliffs. All this is a long way from the days of Pixar’s Tin Toy with its baby from hell.
So, with the technical details taken care of, that leaves the story. In the ’67 Jungle Book, the story was hardly there. In Favreau’s Jungle Book, the menace — the tiger wanting to kill the boy — is brought forward and the narrative in reaction to that theme — the boy realizing he’s a danger to his jungle friends — gives him a reason to leave the jungle.
Favreau dips more into the themes of Kipling than the ’67 movie did, but he still leaves out the colonial and racial issues. In Kipling, Mowgli can stare down any animal simply because he’s human, but Favreau’s Mowgli’s humanity flows from his ability to see, learn and react. He’s occasionally as petulant and stubborn as his ’67 self, but it’s not allowed to define him, nor does it prevent him from maturing.
Kipling has the tiger drift in and out of the stories, and the confrontation and resolution is a bit of the let-down. Favreau makes it the center of the story. Shere Khan is no snob, but a living, breathing force of nature. His reasons for hating Mowgli are clear, his determination to rid the world of the boy is the driving force of the story. All of the other animals defer to him — he is a predator, after all — and when he kills Akela — something even Kipling didn’t do — we know that merely tying a flaming branch to his tail isn’t going to cut it.
Unlike the ’67 Mowgli (and Kipling’s, too), Favreau’s Mowgli rejects confronting Shere Khan with fire. He steals a torch from the man-village, then does an Olympic torch run (while spilling fuel and igniting the jungle). Shere Khan accuses him of bringing destruction upon his friends, so Mowgli tosses the torch aside, leaving him only one weapon to save himself from the tiger’s rage: his cleverness as a tool-using human. (Granted, he gets help from the fire he accidentally started).
Favreau’s Mowgli is an active, thinking human kid, doing what comes naturally for humans in using tools. Bagheera, in trying to keep him a part of the wolf pack, had forbidden such. Baloo, though, recognizes these abilities by challenging Mowgli to get the honey from the beehives attached to high cliffs. The first attempt results in many stings, but he learns from his mistakes and engineers a clever solution, to the horror of Bagheera.
Favreau, in tune with the times, makes his Jungle Book a bit darker. Kaa is a huge, slithering menace, enticing the boy into her — Favreau does a gender switch here — coils by showing him how Shere Khan killed his father. The moment she opens her jaws to swallow the boy whole might be the scariest part of the movie.
Favreau also takes a page from Kipling and restores the elephants’ mystical status as the spirits of the jungle. Disney in ’67 made them bumbling fools, parodying the British upper class. But Favreau’s Mowgli, as part of his rebellion against Bagheera’s restrictions, bravely steps forward and uses his tool-making knowledge to help rescue a baby elephant. The elephants later return the favor by helping Mowgli rectify his mistake with the fire.
The ’67 Jungle Book is one of those back-to-nature wish-fulfillment stories, but the wilderness isn’t so genteel, as Kipling makes clear. His Laws of the Jungle include the protocols for the hunt — and the killing that follows. Several times Kipling mentions Mowgli making a kill, then presumably eating it raw. Neither Disney nor Favreau mention this aspect; indeed, we don’t see animals eating other animals despite the predator-prey relationship. Consumption is limited to bananas, berries, nuts and honey.
And what does Favreau do with King Louie? Instead of bringing in a species that doesn’t live in India, he brings in a species that did live there once but is now extinct. His King Louie is a Gigantopithecus, the last one of the hulking, massive species, a living metaphor for the true nature of the jungle and all that lives there, wild and unpredictable. The boy is small and meek before him — for a while. It takes all the courage and shrewdness he has to escape. Also physical agility against the surprisingly athletic ape.
These scenes, in stories and movies alike, take place in the Cold Lairs, the ruins of an ancient human civilization. For Disney and Favreau, they’re just places where the monkeys and apes gather; but Kipling takes a long paragraph to describe the fabulous treasure piled in heaps around the ruins. It’s guarded by a character not in any of the films, the Father of Cobras, a white snake with a long memory. And who takes Mowgli to this place? Kaa. Here the boy learns about human greed, but he doesn’t understand the concept until he takes an ankus made of gold, ivory and turquoise. He doesn’t even know what it is until Bagheera explains it to him, and in horror, he tosses it away. Eventually men do find the ankus, and before long six of them are dead after fighting over it. Mowgli returns it to the Cold Lairs, telling the white cobra to get help in making sure none of those objects ever leave the ruins again. Yeah, Kipling sometimes can be pretty heavy-handed in telling his fables.
Faverau handles Shere Khan the best of anyone, Kipling included, and the showdown is the best of the lot. The ugly anger of the tiger is shown face-on several times, and when he’s not on-screen, his menace still drifts through like a malevolent fog. Because of this, Favreau gives the boy himself the best story arc — Mowgli grows, finds his own bravery, stands on his own two feet in a direct one-on-one challenge to the tiger. Isn’t that what we ask of all our heroes?
Kipling, once Mowgli skins Shere Kahn, has the boy take the tiger’s hide back to Council Rock to show all the other animals and declare he is lord of the jungle, something neither Disney nor Favreau picks up on. But someone who did was Edgar Rice Burroughs. His hero was raised in the jungle, too, by apes instead of wolves, after his parents die. When he kills the domineering ape, he declares himself lord of the jungle. Burroughs’s hero, Tarzan, also is white, the Lord Greystroke of Britain. Kipling’s Mowgli might be a stand-in for the human race, but at least he’s a native. (Neel Sethi, the lone human in Favreau’s version, is Indian-American; the voice actor on the ’67 cartoon was white). Kipling’s Mowgli is closest to being the feral boy raised in the jungle (aside from the stiff and formal jungle speech), allowing him to dispense with civilization’s benchmarks from manners to jobs. Also clothes, as Kipling makes clear several times:
Akela … gave one piteous look at Mowgli as the boy stood all naked, his long black hair tossing over his shoulders in the light of the blazing branch that made the shadows jump and quiver.
The animals, of course, don’t wear anything either, but they have fur covering almost everything, so they aren’t particularly bothered by nudity. Mowgli isn’t either except when he dons a loincloth when he goes to the man-village. Some artists for the various book versions handle this with coy poses, strategically placed branches and dark shading to preserve dignity. Others adopt the Disney-Favreau device of having Mowgli wear a loincloth, thus saving us from embarrassment. No explanation as to why or where it came from, but Favreau’s Mowgli does have scratches and scars on the his skin, illustrating the vulnerability of unprotected flesh in the jungle.
One way to understand the differences in the three versions is to look at the audiences they were meant for. Kipling was writing for the sons and daughters of a worldwide empire who knew they had the mandate from God to improve the lot of the “primitive” races. We see the language as stilted and awkward, but this was the way the 19th century reader saw the world — formal, serious and fairly humorless. Children of the upper classes were being prepared to make sure the sun did not set anywhere on the British Empire and Kipling was doing his part to educate them (even though he wrote the books in Vermont).
In 1967, Disney’s main audience was the Baby Boomers, the sons and daughters of the people who had been through the Great Depression and World War II. Those parents wanted their children to have what they never could and to live in a world without fear or hatred. Disney and others responded with happy, tuneful, colorful and bright stories, although they did have their dark moments — evil queens, Bambi’s mother being shot, puppies destined to be skinned and made into coats. At the end of the movie, though, evil was banished and everyone started living happily ever after.
Favreau’s audience is more accepting of darkness; look at all the post-apocalyptic stories out there. They’re also less forgiving of ignoring those darker aspects of life. Favreau’s Mowgli faces an enemy out to kill him, but Shere Khan isn’t the only danger. There are stampedes, mudslides, giant snakes, floods, drought and fire itself that could do harm. Mowgli does have friends who help, but in the end, he has to face the dark alone and survive or not on his own abilities.
What’s really interesting here is how none of these guys know how to end Mowgli’s story. The basic plot is that Mowgli is human, and as such, he must return to that world.
Kipling might have said there were no more Mowgli stories, but he did write one in which the adult Mowgli helps a white colonial biologist with his studies. He even gets a pension, even though he still wears little and still lives in the jungle. This is all explained in In the Rukh, a story that does not appear in the Jungle Book collections. Indeed, it was written in 1893, before the Jungle Book stories appeared, so Kipling might have been indulging in a little retconning to explain his hero. Or he just liked the name “Mowgli.” Even if we set that story aside, Kipling does age his boy hero and moves him back and forth between jungle and civilization, but there’s no mention of a wife or significant other.
In the ’67 Disney version, Mowgli slowly moves toward the man-village with pressure from Baloo and Bagheera. He fights this right up until he sees a cute girl from the village singing with the voice of an adult. Nothing’s stronger than instant love, says Disney, so the last we see of him, he’s dazedly following the girl into the village. Baloo and Bagheera congratulate themselves and dance back into the jungle, best friends forever now, and everyone lives happily ever after.
The last scene in Favreau’s version is the same as the first scene, Mowgli racing with the wolves. He lost the first time, but he wins the second, as if barely surviving an encounter with a tiger makes one fleet-footed. He’s also a little taller (one of the downsides of child actors: they grow up), perhaps a little more mature. But he’s still in the jungle; talk of going to the man village has stopped. Mowgli, Bagheera and Baloo share a tree as the final scene ends.
Where does Mowgli belong? We’re saddened by Kipling’s version; Mowgli’s still in the jungle but needs a pension to survive. Disney’s is too pat; what father is going to let a half-naked wild wolf-boy within 20 feet of his daughter? And Favreau just ends on a Disney happy note (sans any girls).
The answer is probably within us. We don’t want Mowgli to “become human,” at least not completely. We want him to stay among his real family, we don’t want to question whether he can really be happy without a human family. Just continue to swing through the trees and swim in the rivers, Mowgli.
Oh, and don’t grow up. Forever free, forever young.
With the special showings to privileged people and backers just hours away and the general opening for everyone else days away of the new Stars Wars movie,
The Hype Awakens Revenge of the Corporation The Monetization of Fandom The Force Awakens (hereinafter known as Star Wars 7 or SW7), a review of the protocols to ensure that the common consumers are given the fullest opportunity to spend as much as they can and beyond and will do so with the correct attitude. That is, with open wallets and shut mouths.
Corporations with no connections to the movie business whatsoever, as they have been doing all of 2015, will be doing promotions both serious and silly as per orders and guidance from the Walt Disney Company. As the time for the
suckers common movie fans to be allowed to view the movie approaches, these efforts will increase this week until almost everything else has been pushed aside and all media outlets, personal blogs, online sites, TV commercials, podcasts, “factual” programs on the few remaining radio stations and “neutral” articles appearing in the few remaining newspapers will have some kind of mention of Star Wars as many times as possible. Intrusions of unwanted and unsanctioned “news” material‑ presidential campaigns, climate change, terrorism, interest rates, food poisonings at chain restaurants, police-citizen clashes, immigrants, natural disasters and such ‑ should be expected, but Disney representatives will be working closely with media CEOs and their minions to assure that not too much time is wasted on those issues and time better spent presenting articles and related material about the Star Wars 7 movie. Non-cooperating media venues will be cut off from future coverage ‑ including but not limited to press junkets, one-on-one interviews with Disney celebrities, access to “leaks” ‑ of Star Wars, Marvel Universe, Pixar, Muppets or any Disney-owned entertainment venues for a period not less than ten years (by which time, it is felt, such discordant organizations will have faded away).
(And sometimes, help just falls out of the heavens ‑ so to speak ‑ from the unlikeliest places. Last week, a NASA scientist discussed how to build a Death Star out of asteroids. Don’t you just love those “scientific” nerds?)
Beginning at the Thursday, Dec. 17 first screenings and continuing until the end of the year, special crowd control officers will be deployed to theaters across the country to ensure that no less than 90 percent of common customers buy tickets for Star Wars 7. Although some officials at the company and associated investors would rather see a higher mandatory percentage, it is felt that allowing some customers to see other movies opening/still playing (sort of like standing on a beach as a hurricane come ashore, as it were) will count as a public-relations gesture to show that the Disney company can be lenient. (Besides, a Disney film, Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, is one of those movies still playing. Unfortunately, it needs the help as it is not performing to Disney standards. This is unacceptable and an internal review has already been launched.)
There have been rumblings among stockholders and other investors that the income from the already released Star
Warts Wars 7 merchandise has not generated enough billions of dollars, that many were expecting trillions. The Disney company urges patience; after all, the movie, as of this date, hasn’t even been released yet. The mountains of cash are still to come, believe it.
The campaign since the announcement that SW7 will be a reality has worked well. Anticipation is at a fever pitch, and thanks must be given to the PR and marketing departments. The little tidbits that have been allowed to dribble out have caused massive reactions among what’s laughingly called “fanboys.” (It has been hysterical to watch). And in another brilliant move, film reviewers will not be given advance screenings so their judgmental articles about the film won’t be seen before the mass audience is
snookered lured ordered allowed in. Who needs ’em? Yeah, fuck you, movie reviewer, and the Prius you rode in on.
So I’m not a real fan of Star Wars (hey, really? gosh). You may see the above as a cynical take on studio motives, but I say there’s more than a few grains of truth in there. Ever since the original Star Wars in 1977 became a monster hit, the reaction by money people switched from “What the hell is this??” to “Cash cow, we gotta get our hooks into it.” Entertainment became a strictly a secondary consideration.
Now, George Lucas definitely set out to make something entertaining. The first Star Wars film ‑ A New Hope, as it later became known ‑ made such an impact because Lucas was in love with old science fiction (hereinafter called SF) movies, serials and old TV shows and he made the world in the movie look like something that could exist, solid and real, not something automatically cheesy and ridiculous. The story itself is as old as humanity, as has been mentioned ad nauseam. Being a “space” adventure adds nothing to this story: Light sabers are swords, Jedi masters are wizards, X-wings are horses, the Millennium Falcon is a pirate galley, the Emperor is an evil witch-king, the Death Star is a windmill, Princess Leia is a damsel in distress. (Yes, admittedly, a kick-ass damsel, but stop and ask — how many other women are there in the original trilogy?)
The packaging was part of the appeal, the characters were another. The hero, Luke, is as bland as heroes in these stories tend to come, but, again, as usual in such stories, he’s surrounded by characters who are much more interesting. The plot? Callow youth reluctantly goes on journey that ends with the collapse of the social order and he’s hailed a hero for causing that.
(In this discussion of the Star Wars films, I do not include the prequels or whatever they’re called. They made such a mess of what the original trilogy had established that I just pretend they don’t exist.)
So, what can we expect from the third trilogy? More of the same. This isn’t an independent film exploring the vagaries of human emotions . This is an action franchise. The plot , as based on what’s been discussed all over the web and seen in the trailers, is about some kind of resistance fighting some kind of empire-leftovers. Dogfights ‘twixt A-wings and TIE fighters are in the mix. (In the trailers, some of these take place in the atmosphere of a planet, so they look at least a little realistic. These kinds of dogfights cannot happen the same way in space, but I have a hunch that’s going to be ignored just as it was in the originals.) Looks like there’s going to be a scene in a cantina, maybe even the same one as in the first movie. (SW7 supposedly takes place 30 years after Return of the Jedi, so if the cantina is still in business, that’s a remarkable accomplishment. Those wretched examples of scum and villainy sure are loyal.)
And there are new things, too. Can’t afford to piss off the merchandisers. There’s a droid call BB-8, a rollicking, rolling machine whose purpose I can’t fathom. And is that a love interest for R2-D2, all pink and cute? (Will there be a love scene ‘twixt the two? Better hope not.) And what about C3PO? Is he just his irritating self, no love interest for him? And while the X-wings and TIE fighters are leftovers from the originals, they’ve been “updated,” so of course that means a whole new toy line. Don’t want to be caught with 30-year-old versions, do we? And, of course, all sorts of other machines, weapons, space ships, characters too numerous to mention. So fanboys, get them wallets open. Time’s a-wastin’!
What SW7 won’t have is Darth Vader (unless they go the comic-book superhero route and say “He’s not really dead, he just looked it.”) Vader is one of the greatest villains to menace the heroes on-screen. Even my jaded self remembers the thrill when he first stepped through the smoke to the thomp-thomp of John Williams’ music. Man, I had high hopes for him. I didn’t want him to be human, I wanted him to be a physical manifestation of the evil Emperor’s hate, coalesced into this humanoid form that cannot exist outside of the mechanical suit. A truly evil being, with no remorse and no humanity whatsoever. Alas, he was just someone’s dad who once gave in to lust and thus allowed himself to be turned to the dark side. (See, teen-agers? Stop that fooling around before it’s too late.) So with Vader dead (we think), we need a new villain. The trailers have showed us some guy in a dark mask vowing to continue Vader’s work. See? More of the same. Vader-light will give the heroes hell until he’s taken down by those same heroes. Luke Skywalker might be that hero, but since we haven’t seen Luke in the trailers we don’t know what he’s been up to these last 30 years.
One of the things I’m hoping for in this new trilogy is a career boost for John Boyega. (His character is Finn, an odd name for the SW universe. Could be worse, though, he could’ve been Capt. Phasma (Capt. Phasma? Sounds like someone out of those cheesy ’50s TV SF shows). Boyega was terrific in Attack the Block (2011) as the guy who first causes alien monsters to invade his neighborhood, then takes the lead in getting them out, even to sacrificing his own freedom. That character had an edge, an uncompromising sense of right. Those rough edges probably have been sanded off for SW7, but I hope he stashes the money from these movies in the bank and then chooses some challenging parts in future movies. Luck, Mr. Boyega.
What Should Happen in SW7 but is Highly Unlikely: The rebels, after successfully bringing down the Empire, have split into factions and the years spent years fighting among themselves have finally resulted in a government that in order to solidify its position, turns into something worse than the Empire ever was. (The Empire grew out of trade disagreements; this government rose out of ideological conflict.) In order to try to regain the ideals and hopes ( a new new hope, in other words) of the original rebellion, a new rebellion flares with
Princess General Leia in command. A new generation of young rebels answers the call, including at least one new force-sensitive warrior, who has to face a new almost-Sith lord, Luke Skywalker He is such an emotional wreck that the new Emperor-wannabe has twisted Luke’s mind into believing what he’s doing is righteous and correct. Instead of destroying Luke, she (yes, please, let the new Jedi warrior be a woman) helps him see where it all went wrong and after a painful self-examination and purge of the dark side, turns around and tries to save the new rebellion and redeem himself.
And what of Han and Chewbacca? I have no clue. The trailers show them back on the Millennium Falcon, but why? That ship was a wreck in the original trilogy, 30 years later it should be scrap. And if it had been kept up, perhaps the current owners aren’t too happy about giving it up to these old dudes with vainglorious boasts about the old days and their part in the Empire’s demise. Perhaps Han went rogue again, abandoning Leia and any children, and he and Chewie went back to their old smuggling ways and Han is now the new Jabba. Redemption is required all around.
Well, as you can see, my ideas have nothing to do with the actual SW universe. The fans must be placated, they must like the new Star Wars, otherwise they might not shell out as much of their money as they’re supposed to. Yeah, that’s cynical, but I will allow that the movie might have a few nice surprises for me. I also have no doubt it will be an entertaining, wild romp in the SW universe and just might well bring a totally new take to the story.
However ‑ keep this in mind, padawan. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (awakens? I thought the force was a big part of the New Hope-Strikes Back-Return pantheon; where’s it been the last 30 years? wouldn’t a better title be The Force Re-awakens?) was directed by J.J. Abrams. The same J.J. Abrams who destroyed the Star Trek franchise.
If you’re going to tell a story that suggests the dinosaur-killing asteroid missed, then you should be prepared to follow through and explore the ramifications of that idea.
If you’re going to let several million years pass before your story begins, you should allow for “nature” to progress for all living creatures, not just a few. All of your creatures should be subject to the same rules that all of the other living things — plants, animals, birds, insects, bacteria — are subject to. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a misshapen ecology.
You’ll end up with The Good Dinosaur.
Basically, the film makes no sense as a story. It’s beautiful to look at, and an occasional interesting moment arrives and leaves, but overall it looks like the result of one of those “I know!” ideas that people have and they get all excited and have what they think are dynamite ideas and they work hard on them, but no one ever steps back and says “I don’t think the pieces are connecting very well.”
Pixar being Pixar, they never do things by half measures, as seen in the incredible landscapes that are based on U.S. government geological maps and data of Wyoming and Montana. It’s not all one-to-one correlation, there are made-up mountains and rivers and such, but the real places served as a base for software programs. Real mountains rise in rocky splendor, real rivers flow through canyons with liquid movement, real trees make up the forests, real clouds from puffy to intimidating thunderheads fill the skies — or so it looks. A common reaction from a viewer might be “I’ve been there.” Maybe not that exact spot, but you’ll be reminded of a hike, or camping in a forest, or fishing in a favorite river bend, or climbing up mountain sometime in your real life.
The details don’t just apply to the grand landscapes, either. One scene takes place in a shallow river edge where the water is just a few inches deep. We see how the light dances on the water surface, we see the sunshine reach the flattened, smooth stones that line the riverbed and we see it all bathed in a golden glow of late afternoon light.
But then we see a toy dinosaur made of green Plasticine as if some kid had dropped it there. Its skin is a smooth, featureless shape, its toes are just lumps of clay and its face looks like it was drawn by a 10-year-old.
The story was written for 10-year-olds, too.
Well, let’s be fair. While the story is typical Disney-Hollywood fare, it’s been around since someone thought that morals and lessons are important ingredients for stories. A frightened youth loses/has already lost one or both parents must face his, hers, fears and learn how grow up emotionally and mentally in the world. This generally requires a journey, help from unexpected friends, advice from an old sage or two, a threat or two to be overcome, and a triumphant return home.
The twist here is the youngster is a dinosaur, an apatosaurus named Arlo. True to the story, he’s the runt of the litter, and as the runt, he’s afraid of everything, including the family “chickens.” His older brother, Buck, and sister, Libby, dump on him for being such a weenie. He botches every task his father assigns him in trying to make a
man dinosaur of Arlo. Poppa builds a corn silo, and it’s good, so he gets to put his mark — a footprint — on the side. Buck chops down trees with his tail, and it’s good, so he gets to make his mark on the silo. Libby plows the field with her face, and it’s good, so she gets to make her mark. Momma does something extra — she’s the mother, what extra does she need to do? — and gets to put her mark on the silo. Arlo is a dweeb so he doesn’t get to put his mark there. (Buck and Libby, being competent and obedient, are like all the competent and obedient siblings in these stories: They don’t get to go on an adventure. They stay home and do extra chores to make up for the missing runt. That’s what you get for being normal, people.)
So — Poppa gives Arlo one last chance: trap the critter that’s been eating the family’s winter stash, then bash his head in with the club he’s going to be holding in his mouth. Of course, Arlo fails, and Poppa finally gets mad and makes Arlo come with him to chase after the critter. In the chase, Arlo gets hurt — of course — and Poppa gets swept away in a flash flood. Of course. Arlo, wracked with guilt, vows to do better, so the next time the critter shows up, he chases him and falls into the river and is swept away. Let the adventure begin!
This is a story that could be told with anyone — and, apparently, any thing — in the title roles. There is nothing in Good Dinosaur that shows how putting dinosaurs as the central figures can change the story. It’s just humans in dino disguise. But, it’s the meteor, see? It missed, and —
That’s the “I have a great idea!” moment. The meteor missed, and everything changed. Except it didn’t. As has been pointed out elsewhere. these dinosaurs never got the advantage of natural selection, the process that favors physiological change that gives a species an advantage in survival. They don’t have hands (except for the T-rexes and we all know how funny their hands are, giggle snort), they don’t walk on two feet, they don’t shrink in size so they don’t need as much food to survive the winter, they don’t even evolve feathers or fur. (Some raptors have a few feathers, Pixar’s bone to evolution, but even after all these millennia, the raptors never developed the ability to fly.) So they’re stuck with plowing the fields with their faces ’cause they didn’t develop many tools, either. To water the crops, they must suck in great amounts of water and blow it all back out like land-borne whales. They lift rocks and branches with their teeth, and, as Buck demonstrated, use their tails to cut down trees. (And those tails slice through easily, despite not having developed any bone or a hardened shell.) We see woven ropes knotted around containers, but we don’t see how the weaving is done. They’ve built themselves a dugout house — which has to be packed pretty full when everyone’s home — but we don’t see any outhouses. Maybe they just poop in the river. (It’s like in Pixar’s Cars — the characters drive up to the gas pump but have no hands or arms to pick up the nozzle, jam it into their own sides and squeeze the trigger. Some things humankind is not meant to know.)
This is where evolution got the dinosaurs when the meteor missed — hardly anywhere. The most realistic dinosaurs in the film at the beginning when we see the errant meteor blaze a trail overhead and some grazing dinos look up for a moment, then go back to grazing. That scene looks like it was
stolen lifted borrowed from the “Rite of Spring” section of the first Fantasia movie.
Everything else gets to evolve, though. Trees — both evergreen and deciduous — flowering plants, fruit-bearing plants, insects, birds (wait — birds? did some dinos evolve after all?) snakes (with hands, no less) and insects. Especially fireflies. Oh, the dinos do love them fireflies. In fact, maybe only fireflies. I saw no clouds of stinging flies, no dino blood-sucking mosquitoes, no biting ants, no multi-legged horrors crawling out from under a rock just as you’re dropping off to sleep.
The biggest beneficiaries of evolution in this universe are the mammals. This is actually where Good Dinosaur got a few things right. In the days of real dinosaurs, mammals were small, timid creatures trying to avoid getting stomped/chomped by the ruling species.
But this is not the world of real dinosaurs, or dinosaurs that act like real dinosaurs.
Tyrannosaurus rex has become to be known, through the fossil evidence, as a fearsome meat-eater. According to Pixar, though, if left alone they would evolve into — cowboys, complete with folksy, western accents and slang. Oh, they’re big and have huge teeth, but they evidently they don’t eat their own kind (i.e., other dinosaurs). They fight off rustling raptors by chomping down on them hard — then hurling them away. After a hard day of rustler flinging, they sit around a campfire and tell tall tales. And what are they cowboys of? Big, hairy, shaggy beasts — mammalian beasts. You’re supposed to read “buffalo” here, but “cowboys” is a Texas thing, don’t y’all know, so we’re gonna call ’em “longhorns.” And longhorns they are, a sort of amalgamation of buffalo and steer. Well, then, you ask, did horses evolve so that the “cowboys” could have something to ride on? No, they did not. The T-rexboys must chase the herd on foot. We also don’t see them, y’know, chowing down, either. Do the T-rexes slaughter the beasts, then roast them over an open fire? Or do they just jump on one and rip the thing apart with their teeth and swallow raw chunks, including the innards? Alas, we never find out. Someone decided such questions are too intense for young viewers, but I’d bet money some of those young viewers are asking that very question.
So there are some large mammals in this world. Which brings us to another set of mammals, without whom we’d have nothing to empathize with: humans. (Did the filmmakers, in addition to saying “what if the meteor missed?” also ask “what if humans walked with dinosaurs?” which opens a whole other paleontological/theological can of worms.) Remember that critter that kept getting into the dino family food? That was a feral boy, age indeterminate, who doesn’t talk, doesn’t walk on two feet, scratches himself and thumps the floor with his rear leg like a dog, and howls like a dog. He’s an orphan, of course, lost and alone, so he makes friends with the clumsy dinosaur, helping him find food, protecting him from threats such as the snake-with-hands, and goading Arlo into action, usually by biting him. However, as feral as he is, he’s still civilized enough to wear a breech clout (made of bark and leaves, evidently). All the humans wear something, though the “domesticated” dinosaurs don’t. (They don’t have genitals, either, so reproduction among them is one of those mysteries humans etc., etc.) We can’t have naked humans in a Hollywood movie, even feral ones (Mowgli, Tarzan), but it makes the dinosaurs that much more cartoony, separating them from the humans. The dinosaurs may be civilized, but they’re reptiles, after all, they’ll never amount to much. Later, when the boy meets a pack of humans, they all have clothes, too. Where do the clothes come from? Do the humans have a pact with the T-rexes to get the pelts of the longhorns who ended up as dinner? Are there other large mammals around that the humans hunt? Have humans developed tools to make them? The short scene with them gives us no clues.
And, yes, I said “pack” of humans. The humans communicate by howling, and they move mostly on all fours, However, their evolution gave them the same arms and legs we have now, which have developed to help us stand. We no longer are built to move like that, despite we see on the screen, and it looks difficult. Still, the last we see of the boy he’s standing on his own two feet. (If that isn’t a metaphor for the whole movie, I don’t know what is.)
All of the mammals, human and otherwise, fit better into this world than the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs are these plastic creations superimposed on the landscape; the mammals live in it.
Well, anyway, the boy — eventually we learn his name is Spot, arf, arf, arf — saves Arlo’s butt and they become fast friends. (Spot is more interesting as a character than Arlo, IMHO.) Arlo learns bravery and finds maturity by in turn rescuing Spot from ravenous pterodactyls, a flash flood (again) and against all other odds the writers can think of and —
Spoiler: Arlo goes home, and because he did something good, gets to put his mark on the silo next to Poppa’s (those prints are mud, how do they stay put in the rain?) because he’s now a hero because he saved the life of the boy who’s head he was supposed to bash in ’cause the boy was stealing their winter food but because Arlo failed to do that, he and Poppa had to try and catch the thief but they got caught in a flash flood that killed Poppa which made Arlo very sad and angry and later chased the boy again but got lost and without the help of the thief he would have starved to death, been trampled or killed in a flood and so he saved the thief from being eaten/drowned but was
man dinosaur enough to send the boy with his own people and finally made his way back after the harvest was in. Yup, he deserves a mark all right.
Dude, you’ll probably be saying, you’re putting way too much into this, man, it’s just a cartoon. And you’d be right. On the surface, the film can be a delight for all of the things we expect in a Pixar movie. But there is also something missing, something that pulls against the movie as a whole.
Pixar filmmakers are known for their meticulous and thoughtful preparation and production, not afraid to revamp or shut down a film they don’t think is working. This one reportedly got one of those revampings, but I think they went off on the wrong track. Instead of going where the idea took them, they put on the brakes and switched to an easier route. Questions they should have asked: After 65 million years, what would a dinosaur society look like? What would the dinosaurs themselves look like? Can tools really be used by picking them up in your mouth? (Though Arlo later does knock a pterodactyl out of the air by throwing a club that way)? Would humans develop a canine sense of smell and locomotion? Would humans and dinosaurs really get along? (Or, as Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, would they just eat us?) Instead, they gave us a kiddie cartoon with some of the most realistic settings ever seen in an animated movie. They pulled back from where the idea was taking them in favor of just another coming-of-age story. They spent a lot of time and effort in getting the settings perfect, but they are not extrapolations of landscapes of the age of dinosaurs. Walt Disney constantly was trying to make animated films “real,” but sometimes going real undermines all the other elements of the film. Realistic mountains and clouds, but cartoony dinosaurs, the central element of the film. It does not work.
There was so much potential here that was lost. I just wish the creators had the courage to follow some of the more interesting aspects of their great idea.
Popular culture in the United States is like that mythical worm that eats its own tail.
An Ouroboros it’s called, a self-devouring beast that could eat itself right out of existence. That last foot or so, where the mouth swallows the head, must be a bear.
U.S. pop culture, though, likely won’t have that problem because it’ll just keep finding new stuff to devour over and over again to eternity.
What brought all this talk about ouroboroses (ouroborosi?) was two movies both animated and both based on child-like nostalgia. Childhood, you mean, don’t you? Not necessarily. Child-like is a better description, in my view.
The first is The Lego Movie, and at least the creators didn’t insult anyone’s intelligence by pretending it’s not a long commercial. (Yes, it is. If it’s not, then where are the other toys? In the Pixar Toy Story series, toys from different manufacturers appear in speaking roles. In this movie, it’s Legos and only Legos.) Generations of children around the world have grown up with Legos, so the marketing is already three-quarters done. Through the years, the company hasn’t sat on its laurels, it’s adapted its product for whatever popular culture meme is in force at any given time. A long way from the humble carved-wood toys it started out with, and if you don’t believe it, look at the CGI movie the company made about itself and how its founders took Mr. McGuire’s advice and went into plastics.
I don’t remember playing with Legos when I was a kid. I did have some plastic brick-like things with the holes and tabs, but they were all red with some longer white pieces. They might have been Legos, but it’s more likely they were some off-brand. My main construction set was the wooden Tinkertoys. A couple of my friends had Erector Sets, made of metal and you had screws and bolts to piece the thing together. So when are the Tinkertoy and/or Erector Set movies coming out? Not soon, evidently; a Lego sequel already has been approved. Money talks, and Lego is there to collect.
The movie itself has been a big seller, and deservedly so because it’s actually good. It’s flashy and humorous for the kids and satirical and metaphorical for the adults. It suffers from the same thing that nearly every American animated film suffers from: action crammed in for the sake of action. Afraid of losing their younger audience, the makers put in speedy chases and complicated fight scenes while the adults are forced to sit through it until the next plot development. Fortunately, it has voice actors such as Morgan Freeman, who seems to be having a ball sending up the Wise Old Man cliché.
The movie also has an interesting take on what Legos actually are for. On one hand, you’ve got those who build under strict real-world rules, erecting buildings and skyscrapers, regular cities with streets and traffic. On the other hand are those who are more free-form in their creations. This idea sifts through the entire movie as the Lord Business tries to lock down everything and everyone in its place. An adult who wants a nice, tidy, realistic city. The less strict, a child, say, has the Millennium Falcon come out of nowhere to help the good guys. Why not? To him, there’s nothing wrong with mashing pop culture together.
The movie also wants to suggest that conformity is a dead end and life needs spontaneity to advance. This is illustrated by the reluctant (and, admittedly, clueless) hero, a construction worker who spends his days following the rules and going to work as a member of as team and who must leave it all behind to fulfill his destiny. But he can’t do that alone; he needs help. So he trades one team for another. Granted, the methods of the second team are unorthodox, but he still is a cog in a larger wheel. So, has the lone hero really turned his back on conformity?
The Lego Movie, despite its name, wasn’t made with actual Lego pieces being manipulated frame-by-frame. A daunting task, that would be, but man, think of what it would look like! Instead, it’s CGI, a cop-out. Computers make everything too easy any more.
The other nostalgic movie uses the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show of the ’60s as its source. This I do remember; coming home from school and turning on the TV to cartoon shows on the local stations (before the time was taken over by network talk shows, infomercials and soaps). Rocky and Bullwinkle was done in what’s called limited animation. That form was popular because it was cheap and the channels were filled with Quick-Draw McGraw, Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear, all execrable examples. Rocky and Bullwinkle had style, though, more imagination and great writing with wit and intelligence.
Besides the adventures of the titular characters, the show also had various short segments, such as “Fractured Fairy Tales” that pretty much destroyed the fairy tales we’d learned when we were younger. “Peabody’s Improbable History” featured a dog who had a time machine he’d use to teach his boy, Sherman, a lesson in history. They’d find things weren’t happening they way they were supposed to, so Peabody would have to take action to set things aright. And to set up the show-ending pun.
Why a dog? Who knows, but we can imagine Ted Key, the show’s developer, saying to himself, “Well, every boy needs a dog, so why shouldn’t a dog have a boy?” Just a silly thing to make the segment that much more off-beat, to poke a finger in the eye of convention. (Ted Key, by the way, also drew and wrote the one-panel cartoon Hazel that appeared in a weekly magazine for many years. Talk about a broad field of interest.)
Now jump ahead fifty years or so to a conversation that begins with something like “Hey, you know what would be neat? A movie about Peabody the time-traveling dog and his kid, what’s-his-name, Grant, McClellan—what? Oh, yeah! Sherman!” So Mr. Peabody and Sherman, a big, CGI, 3-D animated movie is born. And, being a Hollywood movie, we must have a back story. In the Key cartoon, we didn’t care how a dog came to own a boy, it was the show’s set-up, it didn’t matter. But I suppose a 92-minute movie needs it all explained.
Well, not everything. Mr. Peabody doesn’t explain why Mr. Peabody is the only talking dog in the movie, but it does explain why he was forced to educate himself and make his own way in the world: nobody wants to own a smart-alec dog. Fair enough, but he knows so much he becomes insufferable. It would have been nice if just once he could step aside and say to his guests, “You know, I’ve studied many things, but I was never able to squeeze in bartending lessons. Perhaps you’d like to take a shot at mixing us drinks. ‘Take as shot,’ get it?”
And we now know how Sherman became his son: An abandoned baby found in a cardboard box in an alley, already wearing round glasses. Not such a stretch, actually (except for the glasses). And, of course, there are complications. A boy with a dog father isn’t exactly going to be popular at school. Enter Penny Peterson, bully, who goads Sherman into biting her. (At least she’s not the popular-girl-stereotype bully; she’s a bully because she thinks she’s the smartest girl in school. A smart girl, who wants to be smart. At least there’s some eye-poking going on here.) This brings the evil family services agent in to threaten to take Sherman away ’cause, you know, dogs aren’t fit to be fathers to human boys.
Mr. Peabody has Penny and her parents over for dinner in an attempt to fix things. He tells Sherman not to tell Penny about the WABAC machine, so of course he does. Hijinks ensue. The past is as a messed-up place as it was in the ’60s, and Mr. Peabody is hard-pressed to fix the things that Sherman and Penny have screwed up. We meet historical characters, and they all seem to be a gregarious lot. Da Vinci especially, who owes a great debt to Mr. Peabody for getting the Mona Lisa to smile. (See what I mean about Peabody? He can do no wrong, even when he’s the butt of the joke.) And then it all threatens to collapse as the past is crashing into the present and Mr. Peabody—and Sherman, who has by now gained confidence with the help of Penny—try to send everyone back to their respective whens and correct the time stream. Well, mostly. Touches of 21st century culture went back with each historical figure, suggesting that the present Sherman & Peabody tried to fix isn’t really. But perhaps that’s for a sequel.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman as a computer-animated movie looks generally fine, the backgrounds are lavish, the time-warp stuff is dazzling. However, it does suffer from crammed action (see above). And while it was nice the animators stayed with Key’s character designs, they went too far. Those kids would never be able to support those heads on those scrawny necks. Key could get away with it because his Sherman hardly moved, but a three-dimensional child running, jumping, falling and spinning needs muscles and bones in his neck.
Other parts of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show have been plucked out and turned into modern movies, but the less said about them the better. Fortunately, Mr. Peabody and Sherman rises well above those and is an entertaining movie. Still, though, the question of why arises. Both this movie and The Lego Movie suggest there are no new ideas in Hollywood, that the past, our childhoods, are going to be scraped clean and everything run through the technological improvements again and again. Look at comic superhero movies—icons from the past made into film after film, and then rebooted for a new generation before the old generation even has a chance to age much. The recent awful Lone Ranger movie is a sign of this self-devouring trend. Pixar is going to make a third Cars film, a second Incredibles film, and is working on a second Finding Nemo film. And now we hear of plans to make 3-D movie with the characters from the comic strip Peanuts. It just doesn’t stop.
Nostalgia is a nice thing, and remembering the past is important. But we also need to think about the future, we need to see new ideas, not constant rehashing of the old. It’s hard, really hard, to present something totally new; just look at what happened to The Iron Giant. But everything was new once; even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. A hundred and fourteen years ago it was new, but you have to start somewhere.
Or, as Mr. Peabody might say, sometime.
Update March 2: Frozen got the Oscar, Let It Go got the best song Oscar, but Disney’s short film, Get a Horse, didn’t. That Oscar went to Mr. Hublot. Nice to see an outsider get this one.
A Disney animated film is up for an Oscar, no surprise, but no film from Pixar is, which is … shocking.
I know many people disdain Disney animated films as products of the big fantasy factory that shovels out carefully calculated products geared first, to make lots of money and second, earn a bunch of awards. Plus, they perpetuate the “girls should be princesses” trope, or they’re full of sappy songs, or they’re wrecking the source material. All perhaps true in one form or another in the past, but this year the studio released a film that pushes back against some of those tropes.
Frozen will deserve the win beyond being just a Disney film. It’s already won the best-film Annie from the International Animated Film Society (IAFS), which is animators giving other animators awards.
At first glance, the Disney “princess” factor is in full play here with not one but two princesses, daughters of the king and queen of Arendale. Princess Elsa possesses the talent to create ice and snow at the wave of her hand, while her sister, Anna, doesn’t (why one has it and the other doesn’t is never explained; it’s one of those things you just have to go with). When they are girls, Elsa accidentally injures Anna seriously enough to require some odd rock-borne magic from the chief of trolls to save her life.
To prevent this from happening again to Anna or anyone else, the king and queen lock Elsa away with instructions to suppress her power, to never use it again, to never let anyone else see it, to deny its existence. (Fill in your favorite metaphor here.) The king and queen go on a journey, but their ship sinks. Elsa, the oldest, becomes queen, but on her coronation day, she refuses to approve Anna’s marriage to handsome Hans. In the ensuing argument, Elsa’s power is unleashed and she flees, leaving Arendale locked in a permanent winter. Anna, believing she was the cause of Elsa’s anger, chases her to try get her to come home, but that leads to more disaster, which plays out to the point where Elsa is about to be executed by a usurper to the throne.
Two princesses? Throw in a comedy relief from a talking snowman and an clever deer sidekick, some songs, and we’re off again rolling merrily along on the Disney marketing juggernaut. Another brilliant success for the giant corporation swallowing everyone’s childhood.
Except—there are things going on here that keep the film from being Just Another Disney Cartoon. There are lessons to be learned, especially about throwing yourself at the first handsome prince you see. And that favorite “true love will save you” theme Disney loves to milk again and again gets a different interpretation here. Both of these add a dimension to Frozen that moves the film from the usual Disney offering into something more complex—and much more satisfying. Even the sappy songs get a remake. The Oscar-nominated song Let It Go is not just a princess pining for her prince to show up and carry her off to a “happily ever after” ending but a bold statement about acceptance of self against all opprobrium.
Is any of this due to the influence of Pixar? Pixar was cleaning Disney’s clock with the Toy Story series, Monsters, Inc., Wall-E, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Cars—films that were winning Oscars almost every year. So, to handle the competition, Disney bought Pixar. Two Pixar executives, John Lassiter and Ed Cantwell, became Disney animation executives and brought some of the Pixar operating procedures along, and it seems to be paying off. The last few Disney animated films have been big improvements over earlier ones that didn’t do so good (Atlantis, Treasure Planet). Tangled showed the seeds of this change when Rapunzel, known for her long, long, blond hair, sacrificed it all for her “true love.” The film was sassy, funny, a bit subversive, and had one of the best horses in animated films.
Then came Wreck-It Ralph, which should have won the Oscar for best animated feature for 2012. Yes, Vanellope von Schweetz can be irritating, but the film has heart and soul. It lost to Brave because Brave was a Pixar film and Pixar films are always better than Disney, right? Not this time. Brave was gorgeous to look at, but it was flawed in story and character. It just did not rise to the usual Pixar heights. Normally, we’d expect the same kind of situation this year, but (horrors!) Pixar’s 2013 film, Monsters University, wasn’t even nominated. (It did not deserve to be. A pleasant film, but it didn’t break any new ground like its predecessor did.) And then we find out that Pixar isn’t going to have a film at all in 2014.
Does this mean Disney is sucking the life out of Pixar? Has Disney decided that the best way to deal with the upstart is to hollow it out and transfer the creativity to it? Will Pixar be relegated to making more hum-drum sequels to Cars and Monsters, Inc.? I prefer to believe Pixar delayed its next film because it wanted to ensure the film lives up to its standards. Pixar does has a couple of interesting-sounding films in its release schedule, so I’m not ready to give up on them completely. But I am concerned.
These three films—Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen—represent yet another renaissance for Disney studios, the first since the Little Mermaid–Beauty and the Beast–Lion King–Aladdin tetralogy of the late ’80s, early ’90s. For a while, the quality was slipping (except for the really subversive Lilo & Stitch) until these came along. I just hope the creators are careful and don’t slavishly imitate these in their future films. Signs of a formula are evident already: Frozen‘s princesses as children bear a resemblance to Vanellope of Wreck-It Ralph; as adults, they resemble Rapunzel of Tangled; Olaf, the talking snowman of Frozen, resembles in both design and sound King Candy in Wreck-It Ralph; the handsome prince of Frozen shares the same DNA with the handsome thief of Tangled; Sven, the reindeer of Frozen, has a lot in common with Maximus, the horse in Tangled. And though no one stopped and sang in Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled and Frozen are harbingers of the return of songs to Disney animation movies. That’s OK, mostly, but it can be overdone.
Frozen has been in development for a long time. James B. Stewart, in his 2005 book, Disney War, about the Michael Eisner years at the studio, describes a creative meeting of animators he was allowed to attend with Eisner on June 11, 2003. Among the films discussed was one based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale The Snow Queen, something that had been in the works long before then. That’s now Frozen, the gender-neutral name given because studio execs are convinced boys won’t go see a film about girls. That’s why the tale of Rapunzel was called Tangled. It’s all reportedly based on the not-so-good showing of The Princess and the Frog, but I doubt giving that film a neutral name (Day of the Frog? The Magic Frog? The Frog and I? The Frog Dairies? Beauty and the Frog-beast? The Little Frog-maid? The Frog King? Froggie Goes a-Courtin’?) would have attracted that many more boys.
(As last year, a Disney short cartoon is also nominated. When Get a Horse, which precedes Frozen in the theaters, starts, you think you’re going to see an old black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoon resuscitated from the vaults, but then characters start falling out of the cartoon as if they were landing in the theater. When this happens, the characters are in color and rendered by computer much more realistically [as much as a talking mice standing erect wearing shorts or skirts can be]. Kudos to the directors, Lauren MacMullen and Dorothy McKim, for making an engaging little blast from the past. The problem is, it will probably get the Oscar simply because it’s a Disney film. I just wish some of the independent and student animators would get more recognition in this category.)
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If Frozen has any competition, it’s going to be The Wind Rises, perhaps Hayao Miyazaki’s last film (he’s said this before). Miyazaki is the genius behind Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and many other Studio Ghibli films. The film might be handicapped by its subject matter, the man who developed the warplane known as the Zero, which was one of the weapons that allowed the Japanese Empire to conquer so much territory in World War II.
Why that topic? It indulges Miyazaki’s love of flying, something that works its way into almost every Miyazaki film. Plus, it’s a story about holding onto one’s beliefs and persevering despite setbacks and roadblocks, another favorite Miyazaki theme.
This is all based on what I’ve read about The Wind Rises because I haven’t seen the film. It doesn’t open here until Feb. 28, two days before the Oscar show. Miyazaki won the writing award Annie from IAFS (though he wasn’t there to collect it) which is why this film could rain on Frozen‘s parade.
(One of three lifetime achievement awards IAFS handed out this year went to Katsuhiro Otumo, who directed Akira, the film that kickstarted (to coin a phrase) the anime boom in the United States. His films are what we think of when we say “Japanese anime” [see Steamboy and Metropolis, where he was the screenwriter], This year, Possessions, one of the four films in Short Peace, an anthology of Japanese short films Otumo helped produce, received an Oscar nomination for animated short film. Otomo’s contribution, Combustible, was shortlisted but not nominated.)
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The Croods (Dreamworks Animation) makes no attempt to copy a Disney princess. The teen-aged Eeep isn’t a tiny-waisted, perfectly coiffured, shy and delicate thing, she’s a rough-and-tumble stone-age girl with a yen for adventure. She’s stocky, has a low forehead, freckles and a wide face. She’s engaging, though, showing that with little effort, not all women have to look like models to succeed. The design of the characters won an Annie, which was a nice recognition for this film.
The story essentially is about the clash of Neanderthals and more “modern” humans, such as the Cro-Magnons. This isn’t stated, but the brutish, timid nature of Eep’s family is contrasted against the new guy, Guy (clever, huh?), who has a forehead, narrower features and knows how to make shoes, build fires and can lead them to the Land That Won’t Blow Up. We get very little of Guy’s background, why he’s alone and where the rest of his tribe is. (There’d better be some others, otherwise Eep’s brother, Thunk, is left forever without a mate because the Croods seem to be the only survivors of their people. This certainly makes it easier [and less expensive] for the producers, but it does leave a lot of holes in the story that viewers might ask themselves at the end.)
The best word I can find for The Croods as a film is amiable. It doesn’t break new ground, the characters for the most part are enjoyable to watch and the story of a family trying to cope with huge changes in environment, immigration and acceptance of outsiders. Sometimes the slapstick gets a little much, but it stays on track for the most part. There are several entertaining moments, such as the one spoiled by the trailer when Eep gets her first pair of shoes. That moment is funny, but it comes in a larger scene where it turns out that in order to make it to the new land, the family, which to this point didn’t worry about their feet much, finds that protecting them suddenly is a matter of survival.
At the end, though, The Croods does what Disney films do all the time and that is shy away from the sad ending. This might be because of some execs and staffers once worked for Disney, but also keep in the mind Steven Spielberg is a partner in Dreamworks and Spielberg has an aversion to sad endings. In The Croods, the father, Grug, who has evolved from a man who protects his family from any kind of change to a man who reluctantly accepts it and then does whatever he can to ensure the family’s survival, is facing death by volcano. We get a few minutes of the family grieving, but then father appears almost miraculously unhurt. It undermines the story, because the last scenes are of the family gamboling in their new home, with the unanswered question are they the only humans on the planet? And from this bunch the rest us evolved?
Oh, the humanity.
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Despicable Me 2 (Illumination/Universal) is about change, too, with the continuation of the development of Gru from evil villain to loving father. In the first Despicable Me, because he was pretty well into his life of villainy, it was an easy arc to follow as he fell in love with the three orphan girls he’d originally adopted as part of an evil plot and his willingness to throw it all over for their sake. Now that that’s been established, any follow-up is going to lose that edge.
So it is with DM2. Gru seems to be happy with his lot as a dad, taking good care of his charges. Having him fall back to his evil ways and ignoring the girls is right out as a plot line, so something else has to explain why he would get back into the game. So we have him being recruited against his will by the Anti-Villain League or something to help thwart the nefarious plans of some other bad guy (who, it turns out, also is a father but what the relationship with his son is and what happens to him at the end isn’t really explored except for a gratuitous scene to make him hateful).
This means most of the film is taken up with Gru as Dad. Gru must go underground, but here “underground” is a shopping mall, giving an excuse to include the girls. And have one fall for a boy, giving Gru’s father-instincts something to work against.
The film is given over to Gru’s new life, sometimes too much so. Yes, the girls do have a father now, but they also need a mother. So a new character whose only purpose is to eventually become that mother is introduced. Fortunately, Lucy Wilde is a fairly eclectic figure, confident, competent and ditzy all at the same time. This appeal prevents her from becoming just a one-note character. And, of course, the girls fall in love with her and she with them, so there will be no evil-stepmother stuff here.
And, of course, there are the minions. What a marketing masterstroke! Disney must be jealous. Little fuzzy creatures with their own language whose main job seems to be just being utterly silly. In DM1, they were assistants in the evil plots; in DM2, they’re assistants in cleaning house, watching the kids and producing the inedible jelly that Gru chose as his means to become a legitimate businessman. But the bad guy comes up with a way to turn the cute yellow guys into awful purple evil minions who can chomp on anything (and who must have super-duper digestive systems). But Dr. Nefario, who had left Gru’s employ over the bad guy-good guy thing, saves the day when he realizes what the jelly really can do.
DM2 is pleasant enough; no real challenges here. It has excellent visuals, especially when thousands of purple minions are climbing the building trying to get Gru. And there are some genuinely funny moments and lines in here, showing that writers, animators and other creators aren’t just phoning it in despite this being a sequel. Among the many pieces of old songs you’ll hear are original works by Pharrell Williams, who adds a distinctly different flavor to the usual animated soundtrack. Disney could take a lesson here.
A pleasant enough film, but does it have a chance to beat Frozen or The Wind Rises? No. If it does, though, like The Croods, it’ll be one of those big upsets a lot of people like to see in the Oscar races.
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The fifth nominee is Ernest & Celestine (GKIDS), which I haven’t seen. It’s available only on Region 2 DVD (which is pretty much everywhere else but the United States), though Amazon says the Region 1 DVD will be released in June. UPDATE 23 Feb.: The film opens March 14 in New York and Los Angeles (that coastal thing again) then expand to the rest of the country with an English-language soundtrack.
The film looks like a traditional hand-drawn animated film, but these days, it’s hard to tell. The story is about the relationship between a bear and a mouse in a world where bears live on the surface and mice in the underground tunnels and both hate each other. It looks good and it’s been getting high praise from the film festivals it has played in.
If it doesn’t win, and it’s unlikely to, the nomination at least brings attention to it, the same way it did for The Triplets of Belleville (2003) and The Secret of Kells (2008). Both certainly differ from the American style of animated films, but both are outstanding examples of animation possibilities. (But they were foreign, you see, and Americans generally don’t like foreign films, and so they would have been overlooked without the nominations.) The producers of Ernest & Celestine are the same ones who produced both of those films, so we can probably surmise that the quality of the film will be good.
And who knows? Lightning might strike. And it wouldn’t upset me that much, either.