Showing posts with label Movies. Disney. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Movies. Disney. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

90s Kid's Christmas Movies

Tis the season for overly sentimental entertainment. This time of year, it's almost entirely socially acceptable to be moved to tears by cheesy movies. You better get your fill of these cryfests now; before you know it, you'll have to go back to sneaking a Hallmark Movie of the Wees when you're home alone with surplus stash of secret Kleenex.

There are so many classic Christmas movies from generations past, but there's something uniquely nostalgic about the Christmas films of our own generation. It's hard to imagine most of these achieving anything akin to the untouchable status of It's a Wonderful Life, but some are worth a repeat viewing or two. It may be too soon to say whether or not any of these will end up classics, but they certainly kept our generation entertained the first time around.

Home Alone

Home Alone gets my vote for hitching the fast-track to Christmas classic status. The movie was iconic in the way we'd come to expect from late director John Hughes. Home Alone follows the extended Chicago-based McCallister clan as they gear up for a big family Christmas trip to Paris. An angry eight-year old Kevin (Culkin) wishes his family would disappear following a fight with his older brother. To his surprise the next morning, his wish came true--or, at least that's the way he interprets his sudden solitude. In actuality, his family forgot him in their harried rush to the airport. His mother (Catherine O'Hara) realizes their oversight immediately after takeoff, but it's too late.

The movie follows Kevin's adventures, as the title suggests, while home alone. The bulk of the movie details his complex booby trap-based thwarting of some local burglars. It may not be the most realistic movie ever made and some may frown upon the cartoon-like violence, but Home Alone has genuine heart. Culkin is just so adorable in it, too, you can't help but feel some affection for him and his positive spin on his predicament.

To read the full Home Alone post, click here

Miracle on 34th Street (Remake)

Some movies just don't warrant a remake, particularly if still in popular circulation in their original form. The 1947 Miracle on 34th Street is assuredly a classic, though it's yet to be seen if the 1996 remake was wholly necessary. It was cute enough in a John Hughes type of way, which makes sense as he penned the screenplay and produced the movie. Whether or not it measures up to the original is questionable, though it follows the plot pretty straightforwardly. Interestingly, though, Macy's department store didn't want to be implicated in the remake, forcing the film to replace it with a fictitious department store in the remade version.

I'll admit there was some personal investment in this choice. As a child, Mara Wilson was the only celebrity with whom I shared a name, and I always rejoiced in seeing another Mara in the media. On the other hand, she's also Jewish like me, which is this case gives her Christmas wish a slight tint of irony.

Jingle all the Way

Like all native Minnesotans, I have a sort of built-in radar for all movies filmed in my home state. Minnesotans are innately armed with an arsenal of state-pride knowledge to deflect questions of how we could live somewhere so cold, touting movies like Fargo and celebrities like Prince as evidence of a state well-deserving of inhabitance. In 1996 we got yet another notch in our state fame belt with Christmas flick Jingle All the Way, meaning it will forever abide in my memory as a truly great movie despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

This movie is quintessential 90s, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad as fathers battling for the most coveted toy of the Christmas Season, Turbo Man. Throw in the late Phil Hartman as a Stepford-esque dad and you have a trifecta of solid 90s stars. Despite the big names the movie was generally poorly received by critics, but it performed decently in theaters and had non-discerning kids everywhere laughing in the aisles. Aside from the tragic death of Phil Hartman, it's no wonder Jingle All the Way's co-stars moved on to bigger things: Schwarzenegger to a gubernatorial career and Sinbad to unemployment and massive tax evasion.

The Santa Clause

Before they beat this franchise to death with its innumerable sequels, The Santa Clause was a movie set in the tradition of high-spirited holiday classics. Tim Allen stars as Scott Calvin, a divorced businessman dad who frightens Santa off his roof and finds only his vacant red suit atthe spot to which Santa fell. He follows directions from Santa's suit's business card to put on the outfit, following which he begins to transform into Santa himself. That is the aforementioned Santa Clause. Get it? Santa Clause? Like a contract? Oh 90s movie makers, are there any limits to your hilarious punnery?

The movie was both a financial and critical success, which is a pretty impressive feat for a kid's Christmas movie. It's not particularly innovative or groundbreaking, but it follows the successful family-friendly Disney formula to a tee. Too bad we can't say the same for Santa Clauses numbers 2 and 3.

Nightmare Before Christmas

I'll admit this one stands out in the bunch as it's not technically a children's Christmas movie. Disney chose to release it under its Touchtone label to promote it as a more adult offering. Despite the stop-motion animation format, this movie is downright dark and a bit scary for children. Actually, it was probably because of the stop-motion animation. That stuff is creepy.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is Tim Burton at his best. It's quirky, strange, and oddly fascinating. While it scared me to near-death as a child, watching it as an adult I can recognize that it's a truly great film. Burton actually manages to make us feel empathy for his grotesque creatures, which is no easy feat when we're dealing with skeletons and zombies.

To read the full Nightmare Before Christmas post, click here

A Muppet Christmas Carol

Really, how many times can we retell this story? Apparently there's some demand for an infinite number of adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, leading to the nearly yearly permutations released in theaters or on TV. Regardless of the repetitiveness, the Muppets are kind of a sure thing for kids. I've said it before and I'll say it again: kids love puppets. That's usually the deal breaker on this kind of thing, so kids can overlook the fact they've probably seen this story three or four different times before and just focus on Kermit and Miss Piggy. Thank goodness for short attention spans.

We can't know for sure if any of these will become future classics, but we have a few viable 90s contenders. Give me a call in 20 years and let me know how it all plays out.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Well, ladies and gentlemen, the holiday season is upon us. Like it or not, each year stores start pushing their Christmas wares earlier and earlier. In a couple of decades, we'll probably be stringing lights in July. Despite the overcorporatization of Christmas, I always love the holiday season. No matter how cynical you are, it's tough to not feel even the tiniest bit festive. The music, the lights, the trampling of shoppers on Black Friday. It just makes my heart smile.

The Nightmare Before Christmas, however, did not make my heart smile. Or at least not at the ripe young age of 8 upon its theatrical release. It gave me not only the Nightmare before Christmas but also the Nightmare on Christmas and for about three weeks afterward. It's pretty safe to say all my Christmas cheer evaporated the second I saw that stop-motion animated child pull a severed head out of its gift box. I don't even celebrate Christmas, so I can just imagine the impact it had on those who did.

Now, of course, I recognize that the film is brilliant. It's a pretty magical movie, if you're willing to overlook some of the stomach-turning visuals and sight gags. Literally, the sights made me gag. I have a tiny admission to make, but you have to promise not to share this information. It's classified. Can we pinky-swear on this? Great, thanks. The truth of the matter is that I have an unnatural fear of stop-motion animation. Between this movie and James and the Giant Peach, I maybe got four hours of sleep between 1993-1996. Whew, I'm glad I got that one off my chest. Seriously though. If you ever so much as flicked a camera on and off between frames, I was not watching it. Period.

Somewhere around 16 I finally conquered my fear and watched The Nightmare Before Christmas the whole way through. I adored it, but I can certainly see why Disney pushed to release it under the guise of its Touchstone label. The movie is pretty unsettling, overall. It's dark--both visually and thematically--and it's a little heavy for children. Against the backdrop of upbeat Disney films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Nightmare was definitely the odd one out in their animation offerings. While the other Disney films were touting feel-good just-be-yourself messages, Nightmare had a much darker message on hand.

When I watch the trailer now, I marvel at the wondrous world created through the magical minds of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, the respective visual and musical geniuses behind the film. When I saw the trailer back in '93, I'm pretty sure my only reaction was "AHHHHHH!" It may also have involved running out of the theater, hysterical crying, and the eventual breathing into a paper bag.

The movie opens on "the holiday worlds of old" with a fairy tale air of mystery and enchantment in the voice-over. It segues quickly the the impaling of pumpkins on spears and monsters lurking under the stairs in the apt setting of Halloween Town. Their Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington, leads them in the Halloween festivities during which the residents of Halloween Town rejoice in their scaring antics. We soon learn that Jack's grown tired of his lot in fright-inducing life in "Jack's Lament":

While wandering Halloween Town's forests, Jack accidentally slips through the conveniently local space/time continuum into a mysteriously cheerful place called Christmas Town. The whole place is aglow with twinkly little lights, ice skaters frolic around a giant pine, elves sing cheerfully from their racing sleds. Jack is confused by the warmth and feeling of Christmas Town and its contrast to the horrifying head-throwing pastimes of Halloween Town.

Though he does not completely understand what exactly he's seen, Jack presents his discovery to his fellow Halloween Town residents. Halloween Town is, on the whole, not impressed. They point out everything awesome about their own beloved holiday and have complete tunnel vision against the happiness and joy of Christmas Town. Tough Luck, Jackie.

Despite their disinterest, Jack becomes completely obsessed with Christmas and hatches a plan to kidnap Santa and take his place. Sounds pretty foolproof, right? I really can't imagine any way this plan could possibly go awry.

Because it's a Tim Burton movie, we're to believe a crazed scientist (awesomely named Dr. Finklestein) cobbled together and then brought to life a rag doll who begins to develop romantic stirrings for Jack. Then again, we're in a magical Halloween-themed town teeming with spooky bats and roaming mummies, so that's probably the most realistic of our plot points. The movie allows you the luxury of complete suspension of disbelief, as you find yourself wanting to believe that it might just be the right thing to kidnap "Sandy Claws" and replace him with a blood-chilling skeletor. In the context of Halloween Town, it almost makes sense. This rag doll chick, Sally, has a vision that Jack's plan will end disastrously and attempts to warn him of the dangers of his Christmas-stealing mission.

Ignoring his fellow townspeople's ambivalence, Jack eagerly assigns new and exciting Christmas roles to his neighbors. They still don't totally get it, so you've got to admire their stick-to-itness.

Jack thinks crazy kids Lock, Shock, and Barrel (voiced by Paul Rebeuns, aka PeeWee Herman) would make excellent accomplices and enlists them to kidnap Mr. Sandy Claws:

Again, they're not totally on board with the real spirit of Christmas Jack is so adamant they find. Instead of bringing him back, they bring Santa to the even crazier Oogie Boogey. Oogie's a bit of a gambling man, and he's not against implicating our buddy Santa into his irresponsible debauchery.

Jack is one of those misguided good-intentioned saps that just won't quit. He boards his coffin sleigh and rounds up his skeletal reindeer, eager to do Santa's good work. He doesn't quite know what the children of the world will want, so he's pretty sure shrunken heads and poisonous reptiles will do the trick. Done and done. Sally, on the other hand, is not so pleased with the way things are turning out, especially regarding the increasing levels of dementia enacted by her would-be beau. Catherine O'Hara does not disappoint as Sally, though it's no A Mighty Wind.

The people of the world realize that there's an impostor Santa polluting their skies and filling their stockings with terrifying trinkets. The army shoots down his sleigh, after which Jack is presumed dead (or deader, I guess, considering he's already just a skeleton). Jack quickly realizes he needs to set things right, free the real Santa, and enjoy his own lot in life as the Pumpkin King. A quick revelation, sure, but this is a Disney film so it's all par for the animated course.

On their way to set things straight, Sally is captured by the vile Oogie. In an oddly chivalrous act, Jack acts even viler and breaks apart Oogie's outer shell to reveal the revolting insects inside. Excuse me, I'm going to go vomit. Be right back. Okay, still here? Anyway, Santa gives them a harsh talking-to before going on his gift mission, but gives them some happy snow to show that he's not holding a grudge. All seems to be as it was again, with the added bonus of a brewing Sally and Jack romance. I never thought I'd say a fictitious romantic affair between a skeleton and living rag doll would be adorable, but the movie really sells it.

Nightmare manages to be all sorts of contradictory things at once, both sweet and vile, sentimental and cruel, cute and frightening. It's Tim Burton's unbridled imagination at its best, giving us a well-developed fantasy world to scare and delight us. His signature style and attention to detail makes it almost like a real world all unto its own. Which is probably why I was so scared of it in the first place. I hope the ensuing nightmares are enough to tide you over until his version of Alice in Wonderland debuts next year. Then you'll get a whole slew of new things to fear. Until then, though, just enjoy the Nightmare.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hocus Pocus

In the spirit of Halloween, it seems worthwhile to hearken back to a time when the holiday was less about wearing lingerie and animal ear-handbands and more about giving ourselves movie-induced nightmares. Sure, we're trading one vice for another, but that's really just splitting hairs. You know, to put in our bubbling cauldrons and to bring forth from which a magical potion.

While there was no shortage of horror movies in the 90s, we also got some family friendlier fare thrown in the mix. 1993's Hocus Pocus gave us a little bit of spookiness with a better measure of humor to soften the impact. So what if I still have an insatiable urge to hide under the bed whenever I hear Sarah Jessica Parker singing "Come Little Children?" It's still totally worth it.

See what I mean? That is seriously creepy. Also, is it just me or does is she showing an inordinate amount of cleavage for this being a children's movie? I wouldn't have noticed at the time, of course, being far too traumatized by that haunting song, but now it seems marginally suspect.

Hocus Pocus is the story of three witches, sisters who are seeking to circumvent the aging process by giving themselves eternal youth. As we all know, the only means of doing this is by sucking the life out of a living, breathing, vital child. Now that sounds like a movie I want to take my children to. Hey kids! Guess what? Remember that time you forgot to make your bed? Well, do it one more time, and three terrifying witches will swoop into your room unannounced, extract your lifebreath, and leave your useless corpse strewn across the bed. I don't know about you, but I'd be fluffing the pillows and resetting the duvet the instant I heard that one.

The three Sanderson sisters, Winnifred (Bette Midler), Mary (Kathy Najimy), and Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) find their unsuspecting juvenile victim in Emily Binx. Her brother Thackery (because, hey, this is the 1600s and people were partial to the name Thackery) tries to intervene but is forced to watch as they drain the last drop of life from his innocent sister. Again, there's a way to start a children's movie.

Resisting the allure of Thackery's youth, the Sanderson sisters opt instead to doom him to eternal life in the body of a black cat. Conveniently, they give him the gift of speech, which I can't imagine is relevant in any other way than setting up a plot line for the present day story. After I saw it here and then later in Sabrina the Teenage Witch I just pretty much assumed it was a common practice to turn people in wittily quipping English-speaking black cats with eternal life.

If this weren't already a traumatizing enough beginning for a children's movie, the three sisters are subsequently arrested under suspicion of practicing witchcraft and hanged for their alleged crimes. There's nothing quite like a good hanging to get a children's movie going. It's that secret ingredient that really gives it that extra kick.*

Before their executions, the Sandersons thought fit to cast a spell that would bring them back to life if an innocent virgin just happened to enter their historic home and light their ominous black-flamed candle. This of course begs the question of if they could imbue that much foresight into their deaths, why couldn't they just witch themselves alive in the first place? Lucky for Disney, kids aren't especially adept at plot investigation, so we all just sort of went with it.

The cat version of Thackery Binx makes it his unending life mission to stop the curse from being fulfilled, but it wouldn't be much of a story if he was just really really good at it. To his credit, he kept it pretty safe for oh, say, 300 years, and we would all get a bit sloppy after working the same gig for that long. Some pesky local modern-day kids come across the house and of course feel compelled to light the black flame candle. Because that's what teenagers do to be rebellious: go around from haunted museum to haunted museum unobtrusively lighting lights.

So we've got our witches back and the unavoidable hi-jinks ensue. They gather up some of their undead friends and make a night of it, as they've only got until sunrise to suck some serious lifeblood. It's Halloween, of course, meaning lifeblood-filled children are frolicking about carefreely through the streets blinded by their love of free candy. I have to say, it's not looking too promising for their sticky-fingered futures.

Somehow our villains end up at a Halloween party, where they're mistaken for well-costumed entertainment. Bette Midler performs her requisite over-the-top musical number ("I'll Put a Spell on You") and entrances the town's partying adults into an endless night of dancing. Really, endless. The witches leave them to die from dance-induced exhaustion. Sounds like a good party.

A few more plot twists and we've got our singing enchantress Sarah summoning the town's innocent and undoubtedly delicious children. Soon the witches have our heroes and their young companions in their grasp and everything seems pretty doomed. Of course, this is Disney, so we get our all-important last minute rah-rah the-kids-win moment, and it's a happy ending after all. Binx turns back into a human, which is super, of course, because he's 300-something years old and I'm sure all he wants is to be a teenager forever, Twilight style. Okay, fine, that didn't happen, instead he sort of creepily passes through to the afterlife to chill with his dead sister. How...sweet.

The movie was panned by critics, who obviously couldn't see it for what it was: a silly, over-the-top, campy film filled with gimmicks and cliches. In other words, a Disney movie. Over the years, however, the movie's developed quite a loyal cult fan base who delight in its ridiculousness and pure camp. It's morphed into a sort of Halloween classic, the type of movie that gets yearly TV play and is somehow designated a classic despite the fact that it didn't perform especially well in theaters. Regardless of its route to becoming a Halloween staple, Hocus Pocus has all the makings of a good children's movie. Well, except for the witchcraft, hangings, and de-lifeblooding. We'll just overlook that.

*By kick I mean nightmares, nightmares, nightmares

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


The 90s were the age of the animated Disney renaissance. The preceding decade or so had brought us mildly disappointing and unmemorable cartoon offerings like The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective, none of which held any sort of long-standing appeal. Following the release of 1989's The Little Mermaid, however, Disney animation began changing its tune. Literally, in fact. With catchy, catchy songs.

While it had seemed the Disney glow was fading under the growth of rival animation studios, by the late 80s they opted for a different route to success. While their animated films were still primarily marketed at children, they soon began weaving in more adult themes and nuances, seeking to appeal to a wider range of movie-goers. Sure, it doesn't quite seem so envelope-pushing when cartoon woodland creatures today are making all sorts of innuendo-laced jokes, but at the time films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit were pretty innovative in their quest to lure in adult viewers.

Riding high on the coattails of 1991's spectacularly well-received Beauty and the Beast, Disney Animation Studios released Aladdin in 1992. Based on a story from the 18th century Arabian nights, Aladdin was strong in the Disney tradition of completing reformulating the story that served as the basis of their plot. For a film to be properly Disney-ified, you see, it's necessary to strip down the original plot to a few major points and then whitewash over the rest of the film with well-placed jokes and musical numbers.

Some of these changes were definitely a positive step, especially for poor attention-spanned American audiences. If they'd stuck to the original story they'd be saddled with a Disney princess named Badroulbadour. I much prefer Jasmine, don't you? Even if she was a little slutty-looking in her harem pants and midriff-baring off-the shoulder bra thing she was prone to wear. I guess it's a step down in exposure from a sea-shell bra at the very least.

Aladdin featured a teenage main character, a sort of animated teen hearthrob for the under-12 set. Aladdin was probably not a role model by any definition of terms, as a street kid swiping loaves of bread at the market, though admittedly while acting cavalier and scantily clad. Although he's an orphan, Aladdin still seems to have the heart of gold credential necessary to get his resume for hero past the big guys at Disney. He's also a hell of a spontaneous singer while dodging the heavy hand of the law.

Meanwhile, the tyrannical Jafar and his squawky Gilbert Godfrey-voiced parrot companion Iago are seeking the "Diamond in the Rough" to unlock the treasure of the Cave of Wonders. Just as our pal Aladdin is getting cozy with princess-in-disguise Jasmine around the marketplace, he's captured by Jafar. Jasmine is strong-willed and pseudo-feminist in the way that's only possible while advocating for her rights while donning a skimpy outfit, and she demands for Aladdin's release. Jafar wants him for his own means to a genie-filled lamp end, tells her he's dead, and continues with his evil plan in typical Disney villain fashion.

Jafar (also in disguise) convinces Aladdin to go into the Cave of Wonders, but warns him that he must not touch anything else. This is a classic case of kid-in-a-candy-store as Aladdin and monkey sidekick Abu enter the jewel-encrusted, gold dripping, treasure chest overflowing cavern. With the help of a renegade magic carpet, Aladdin and Abu are saved and even manage to escape with the coveted lamp. From the lamp, of course, is our Genie, played by Robin Williams. Observe, some of his admittedly humorous but somewhat worrying insanity:

The genie wants nothing more than to be free, but for the moment he's at Aladdin beck and call. Aladdin wishes to be a prince and the genie turns him into Prince Ali fabulous he Ali Ababwa. Catchy, right? Abu gets the star treatment as well as his royal elephant, and off they go to the palace to get in line as a potential suitor for the illustrious Jasmine.

Jasmine's father, the Sultan, had been more or less under Jafar's spell and was this close to betrothing his one and only daughter to the tyrant when the Prince Ali parade came to town:

Jasmine, of course, refuses to be bought and sold. Like all girls do when they're in a huff, she retreats to go chill out with her tiger by the fountain. Though this is clearly the point where he should just tell her the truth and vie for her hand as a peasant, that would make an awfully short Disney movie. Plus, we've got more stuff to sing. Aladdin comes to Jasmine's window offering a magic carpet ride. Wink wink, nudge nudge. There was actually mild controversy surrounding this scene, as some people heard Aladdin whisper something about taking off her clothes. To say nothing of the "magic carpet" double entendre. Touche, conservative America.

They kiss, and just as things are working out and the lovebirds seem to be in the home stretch, Jafar smacks them with a pretty serious roadblock. Jasmine and the Sultan are hypnotized, Aladdin is thrown in the ocean, yada yada yada, Genie saves the day and we're back in the game.

Of course, it's not the home stretch yet. Aladdin had promised to use his final wish to set the genie free, but he starts getting greedy toward the end. Jafar's crazy bird sidekick kidnaps the lamp and once in Jafar's posession, the genie is forced to serve this crackpot tyrant. All sorts of crazy stuff goes down. Abu is a toy. Jasmine gets submerged in slowly ticking hourglass sand. The carpet is reduced to a ball of yarn.

Luckily Jafar isn't all that bright, and Genie tricks him into wishing himself in Genie servitude with a handy lamp encasement. Aladdin comes clean, wishes the genie to be set free, and Jasmine is allowed to marry Aladdin. We all live happily ever after. All together now: aww.

Recounting that just now, I realize it's a pretty complex plotline. The movie was more than just kid's entertainment, it was an actual movie that happened to be animated. It had action, adventure, danger, and plenty of singing and dancing. What more can you ask for?*

*Except for Steve from Full House to be the voice of Aladdin. Oh yeah, because you got that too! Schwing!

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Parent Trap

Ah, innocence. Once upon a time, even our most troubled of starlets were just wee littles children struggling to break into the business under the crow-like watch of their obsessive stage parents. Yes, those were the days. When 11-year olds could be goaded and herded to open modeling calls and Jell-O commercial auditions, their parents seeking their vicarious big break. And we wonder why child actors grow up to have all manners of complexes.

Regardless of her current lot in life, back in 1998 Lindsay Lohan was a cute little befreckled redhead with a hell of a British dialogue coach. She starred in the ultimate suspend-your-disbelief-or-exit-the-theater-now movie, playing a set of intercontinental twins separated at birth. A remake of the 1961 original of the same title, The Parent Trap pushed the limits of reason with its endless array of uncanny coincidences. Though the film wasn't winning any medals for sense-making, it had a certain charm in its ludicrousness.

Lohan plays dual roles as Hallie Parker and Annie James, two ordinary 11-year old girls living on either side of the Atlantic ocean. Hallie lives with her single dad (Dennis Quaid as a totally believable DILF), a vineyard owner in Napa Valley. Annie lives with her single mother, Elizabeth (the late talented Natasha Richardson), a glamorous British wedding gown designer. Naturally, neither of the girls knows much about their mysteriously absent second parent, but conveniently has one half of a torn picture of the parent they've never met. I think we can all see where this is going.

Here's where things get a little dicey on straight-up believability. Miraculously, despite the incredibly vast physical proximity, both Hallie and Annie are sent by their respective caretakers to Camp Walden for Girls. In a series of none-so-friendly encounters, the two quickly become rivals, challenging one another to fencing matches and high-stakes poker games. You know, like all 11-year old girls do. The usual.

No one seems to say much about the fact that the two are absolutely, undeniably identical. Sure, the British one's got a stuffy long haircut and the considerably more with-it Northern Californian sports pierced ears, but other than that they're two identical girls separated by an accent. Not one of their friends or counselors remarks to their respective twin pal, "Hey, have you noticed that girl is your twin sister? Maybe instead of feuding, you two should make some effort to sort this whole thing out."

That would be too easy. Then again, the counselors seem notably absent from the film. I can only imagine the liability issues the camp's insurance company faced for lack of proper supervision. For such a reputable camp, the girls seem to
be pretty much on their own.

Continuing on this poorly-supervised theme, the camp staff becomes so unspeakably fed up with their feuding twin charges that they send them to (gasp!) the isolation cabin. Yes, that's right. The punishment at this camp is going to some podunk cabin with the person you hate to duke it out completely unsupervised. Oh, and you get to bring scissors and needles! Makes perfect sense, right? Good, I'm glad you're coming with me on that one.

After a freakishly long period of time without questioning their obvious physical same-ness, the two warm to one another and begin discussing their lives. They find not only that their birthdays are on the same day, but that their half-pictures of their respective mystery parent fit together to form a full picture. Who would've thought? I know I was shocked. A mischevious plan to switch places is quickly hatched and since no adults have stopped in to check on the two, they're able to get away with crazy shenanigans like cutting each other's hair and piercing ears in a horribly painful needle-and-apple manner.

Oh, and I can't leave out my favorite part in which Hallie has to master the handshake that Annie does with her butler. Did I not mention she had a butler? Because she's English, you see. In American movies they all have butlers. Anyway, the spectacular handshake goes a little something like this (performed by Hallie in disguise, who passes the butler test with flying colors):

Both girls do some careful stepping to try to fit in with their newly acquired parents, and generally do pretty well minus a minor misstep here or there. Okay, so Annie's fam is tad flabbergasted to hear her professional-grade assessment of the dinner wine, and Hallie's brood is marginally suspicious of her suddenly proper manners, but all in all things seem to be going pretty okay. That is until we meet the obviously gold-digging Meredith, the pretty young thing dad Nick is planning on marrying. Because in Disney movies we can't just let people make their own major life decisions, the girls decide this would be a great time for an intervention via the good ol' twin switcheroo.

The twins scheme that their parents will have to see each other during the exchange process and will obviously fall madly and deeply back in love. Children with separating parents, take note: just make your estranged parental units switch you with your twin from across the globe in a grand elaborate plan. It's a pretty airtight method.

The twins along with their house-help cohorts plan a recreation of their parents' meeting on a cruise ship. Everything goes swimmingly (boatingly?), with both remarking that they remain hazy on the details of their split in the first place. Unfortunately for Hallie and Annie, their parents don't immediately reconcile their disparate lives in a wave of passionate impulse but rather more mundanely decide the kids can go visit each other from time to time. Obviously a second-tier backup scheme was necessary to clinch this reunion, so the twins refused to tell their parents who was who until they took them on a family camping trip.

The vile Meredith tags along and mom Liz backs out at the last minute, making for an interesting crew. The girls of course do everything in their power to completely and totally piss her off:

Meredith gets so angry over their antics that she demands Nick choose between herself and his daughters, an ultimatum that obviously expels her from the family. Naturally, Elizabeth and Nick get back together, and everyone lives happily ever after. Even the butler and housekeeper, who despite their mildly ambiguous respective sexualities also end up engaged by the end credits. Altogether now: awwww.

Sure, the movie's not necessarily the most realistic story in the world, but it delivers the fantastical goods in pure Disney fashion. The all's-well-that-ends-well predictability makes the movie satisfyingly unbelievable. Overall, it's a fun film, but more importantly it provides us with a handy time capsule of little Linds so we can remember her as she was: cute, freckly, and according to the following interview, loving the attention. Yikes. That certainly sounds like some dark foreshadowing:

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Toy Story

It's tough to imagine a time when computers didn't reign over every and any thing. Though the computer animation-less past seems distant, there was once a time before we bowed down to our benevolent microchipped masters. While now computer images are pretty ubiquitous in animation, just fifteen years ago it was a new and innovative technology seeking to revolutionize animation as we know it. Oh, and to tell us stories about cowboys and astronauts. Mainly the cowboys and astronauts thing.

While now Pixar is a booming enterprise churning out hit after adorable, heartwarming computer animated hit, back in the early 90s they were still in the startup category. Sure, it had been around 10-odd years or so, but it had yet to give us a full length feature film. In a decade that gave us Disney gold like Aladdin and The Lion King, expectations for animated movies were riding particularly high.

Luckily, the good people at Pixar delivered the goods. Pixar garnered some attention through their Oscar-winning short Tin Toy, a computer-animated film featuring a poor little abused tin soldier named Tinny. Tinny hides from his frighteningly abusive baby master and finds a slew of other quivering, humorously traumatized toys. Thus began the initial spark of the idea for Toy Story, which was at first set to star our pal Tinny. In the likely case that you've never seen the 1988 Pixar short film, here's your chance:

Pretty impressive for 1988, no? Sure, everything's a little wobbly and the action's a little choppy, but overall a valiant triumph for our friends at Pixar. Once the deal was signed to develop a feature-length film, producers updated their initial conceptions of the characters and Tinny morphed into the flashier astronaut Buzz Lightyear. All seemed to be going swimmingly for the Pixar folks.

Until, of course, big bad Disney came in and crushed their adorably lifelike computer-animated dreams. The script was going through a too-many-cooks scenario, suffering through innumerable rewrites and changes. In 1993, Pixar presented to Disney series of storyboards backed by a rough soundtrack. The work-in-progress featured seriously hostile and bitterly sarcastic incarnations of Buzz and Woody. Not exactly the kind of characters you'd go home and beg your parents for expensive video games of their further exploits.

Needless to say, Disney hated it. In fact, they really, really hated it. So much so that they put the kibosh on production. After some begging and pleading, the Pixar team was given an ultimatum: turn this film into something that will put butts in the seats or you're out of the game.

Original storyboard panel from Toy Story. We can only assume this frame depicts the original a-hole Woody.

Disney was also clear about its aims as financial guardian angel: the movie better be a serious cash cow. Disney was seeing falling ticket sales and saw computer animation as a potential vehicle to rev up their sales. One of Disney's major requests (and criticisms of the first draft) was that the movie appeal to both children and adults. Back at the drawing board, Pixar developed quirky little personalities for a slew of toys baby boomers (read: the people buying the tickets) would relate to: GI Joes, Slinkys, Mr. Potato Heads, and so on. With a renewed sense of purpose, Pixar set out to get back on track with the project.

Scrapping much of the initial work, Pixar's animators and writers worked diligently to make the movie stop sucking so horribly. Enlisting the virgin voice talents of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, the movie began shaping up. By the time of its 1995 release, the film had been sufficiently desuckified and far surpassed Disney's expectations by becoming a runaway success.

After so many reformulations, rewrites, and re-animations, Pixar somehow managed to pull it off. The movie told the story of Woody, a walking, talking cowboy toy who reigned supreme as favorite toy in Andy's bedroom.

Unfortunately, someone a bit more heroic was lurking in the wrapped birthday gifts. Woody is displaced by Buzz Lightyear, a newer, flashier astronaut toy. Really, much flashier. I mean, the guy had lights. How do you even compete with that when your main claim to fame is a pull-string with a few crappy recorded phrases? As you can imagine Woody becomes incredibly jealous, aiming to eliminate Buzz and once again reclaim his throne as top toy.

Meanwhile, horrifyingly terrifying toy torturer kid next door Sid is blowing up army men and reconstructing doll/robot hybrids. Buzz vows they will give him his comeuppance, but the other toys are justifiably skeptical. I mean, did you see Sid? That kid is scary, man.

Woody and Buzz get lost on the way to a family outing to Pizza Planet, but manage to stow away in a delivery truck. Buzz mistakes the claw machine for his spaceship and the two are stuck inside. They are unluckily captured by the sadistic Sid, and forced to bear their fate with plastered-on painted grins.

As you can imagine, hilarious antics ensue and the pair are forced to buddy up to battle Sid Vicious and his evil dog Scud. Buzz finds out he's just a toy, not the real Buzz Lightyear as he'd originally imagined. Yadda Yadda Yadda, heartwarming bonding and a daring rescue mission later, the toys are again safe and sound in Andy's house. A happy ending, minus a new puppy with untapped toy torturing potential.

The film was an enormous critical and financial success and spawned an extremely popular sequel. So popular, in fact, that its financial input outstripped the original's by over $100 million. Now that's popular. And lucrative! Color me impressed, then computer animate me so I can get in on some of this cash.

Though Pixar has since moved on to new things, our Toy Story pals are far from forgotten. In fact, they will be returning to a theater near you sometime around summer 2010. Here's the trailer to hold you over until then. They're hyping it up a lot, which is hopeful. This extremely long-awaited sequel comes so late in the game that Andy is headed to college. My, how the computer animated years fly by.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey

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The ballots are in and the votes have been tabulated. It's official: children love talking animals. There's just something special about anthropomorphic house pets that really drives them wild. And who can blame them? They're undeniably adorable.

The Disney Corporation is well-aware of this fact and has been milking it since its humble steamboat-driving mouse beginnings. Disney's 1993 remake of its own 1963 movie (The Incredible Journey) was no exception. Based on the novel of the same name by Sheila Burnford, the 1963 version featured our furry friends sporting the somewhat less-appealing monikers assigned to them by Burnford: Bodger, Luath, and Tao. Disney must have recognized that the ever-shortening attention spans of 90s children would likely oppose these unfamiliar names and thus replaced them with the snappier Shadow, Chance, and Sassy.

Poster from the original 1963 film. Image via

People of all ages seem to have an uncharacteristic response of sympathy to animals in movies. We could all carelessly watch hundreds of people getting blown to bits in some form of super-advanced special effect explosion and never bat an eye or miss a beat on the popcorn-gobbling. Portray a dog in any form of mild discomfort, on the other hand, and the crowd will weep uncontrollably.

Homeward Bound was no exception. It had a distinctly heartstring-tugging cuteness that made us collectively "awww" over our motley crew of four-legged protagonists. We willingly oblige to completely abandon our usual veneer of disbelief and briefly believe that these animals are feeling what the voice actors claim. It was both easy and enjoyable to get caught up in the magic of the film and root for these pets the whole way through.

The movie begins with a voiceover by Chance, describing his hard-luck life: abandoned, sleeping on the streets, and scavenging in garbage cans. We learn that eventually, this lifestyle led to his imprisonment. You sort of feel bad for this voice, until the camera pans over the voice's source: a hearty American Bulldog. Surprise! Chance is a dog! I never would have guessed it from all of those movie posters and cinematic previews. That voice-over had me fooled. Then again, I was eight, so I'm willing to legitimately plead ignorance.

Chance (voiced by Michael J. Fox) was adopted by a loving family who already has two pets in tow: Sassy the Himalayan cat (Sally Fields) and Shadow the golden retriever (Don Ameche). Chance describes the family's children as belonging to Sassy and Shadow respectively, cementing our understanding of the film's pet-centric view. I spent much of the opening scenes deliberating over why little girl Hope had chosen to name her beloved cat after a teen magazine.

Shadow and Sassy are well-behaved, but Chance is somewhat of a rebel and a bit rough around the edges. The family leaves the pets under the care of a neighbor as they make their exit to San Francisco. They say their goodbyes and are off on their happy, petless way. The pets aren't about to stand for this sort of abadonment, though. Shadow immediately begins to worry about his owner, and convinces the whole gang that they should hightail it it out of there and go find their now-absent human companions.

Here's where our promised Incredible Journey begins. Shadow, Chance, and Sassy make their way into the wide wilderness, embarking on a scenic trip through a stretch of Pacific Northwestern national forest. They navigate their wild, unfamiliar surroundings and weather the less-than-hospitable outdoor conditions. They continue to do adorable animal things, like scoop for fish in the river and cower in the presence of truly terrifying grizzly bears. Really, cute stuff. Here's where I learned some of my most valued childhood lessons, namely that "Cats rule and dogs drool." Or at least it provided me with a mantra of self-reassurance when my parents brought me a cat in lieu of the dog I begged for.

The movie takes a tear-jerking turn when our pal Sassy is swept away by the river and thrust into the pounding falls. Even as a child, this scene made me cry. Shadow and Chance, how could you? You just let your prissy feline friend be smushed by 10,000 pounds of beating water. For shame. Luckily, Sassy is rescued by some class of forest ranger and is quickly nursed back to pre-waterfalling health. She hears her friends barking and scurries off to meet them. Sure, this chance encounter is unlikely, but we're talking about a gang of domesticated animals off on a wilderness adventure. We can concede the smaller improbable situations when we accept the larger one.

As you can imagine, innumerable hilarious hijinks ensue, such as the see-saw style catapulting of a rogue mountain lion. Pure wildlife comedy gold, I tell you. But then, the unthinkable: Chance is attacked by a pesky porcupine. I will forever remember the sage Shadow instructing him, "Whatever you do, don't lick yourself!" Despite being all quilly, Chance soldiers on and the group continues on their way. They somehow manage to rescue a lost child, but in the midst of the celebratory reunion are sent to an animal shelter.

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Long (incredible, really) story short, Sassy escapes and frees her canine companions. Just when everything seems to be looking up, Shadow falls into a pit. Despite valiant rescue efforts, Shadow is resigned and asks the others to go on without him. By this point, of course, the whole audience is sniffling. A dog dying on film is like onion-chopping for moviegoers: you can pretend all you want that it doesn't effect you, but your eyes are going to water uncontrollably whether you like it or not.

The pets' family is back home and very down about the loss of their furry friends. Then suddenly, like magic, they hear a bark in the distance. Chance come rollicking in, followed by littleSassy. The oldest son is dejected, realizing his dog isn't coming home. In a moment of admittedly corny by nonetheless heartwarming movie magic, Shadow slowly limps over the hill and is reunited with his beloved owner. All is well in the world.

What can I say? I'm a sucker for happy endings. It just goes to show you: if you really love your animals, you'll leave them with irresponsible neighbors with questionable pet-sitting credentials, the pets will escape and embark on a quest into the abyss, they'll encounter hilarious and dangerous obstacles, and will then come prancing on back to you full of wisdom and experience.

At least that's the way I understood it.

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