Thursday, 28 December 2017

Animation Oscar Bite 2005: And superheroes come to feast/to taste the flesh not yet deceased...

77th Academy Awards - 27th February 2005

The contenders: The Incredibles, Shark Tale, Shrek 2

The winner: The Incredibles

The rightful winner: The Incredibles

The barrel-scraper: Everything else. But Shark Tale in particular.

Other Notes:

2004 must have been a heck of a slow year, if this was really the best line-up the Academy could scrape together at the end of it - a Pixar pedigree versus a mediocre DreamWorks and an absolute rock-bottom DreamWorks. A friend of mine who loved The Incredibles complained that, though he was pleased to see it win Best Animated Feature, it felt like a pretty hollow victory when all it had to contend with were Shrek 2 and Shark Tale. And he was right. How lousy for The Incredibles.

One of the things I really appreciated about The Incredibles back in 2004 was its freshness; thematically and tonally, it didn't didn't resemble any Pixar film before it, its fusion of pulpy superhero antics and sharply-observed suburban satire seeming more akin to a kind of blockbuster take on The Simpsons than to the wistful re-immersions in childhood fantasy that had characterised their earlier output. I know that some Pixar fans aren't big on Brad Bird and feel that his snarky tone was out of step with Pixar's style, but I couldn't disagree more - in my opinion, his was the new and unique voice Pixar urgently needed at a time when they were at the peak of their commercial success and couldn't afford to grow complacent. It was reassuring to see Pixar willing to step out of their comfort zone and try something a little different (as opposed to Renaissance Disney, who went the Happy Meal route and expected audiences to be happy with the same formula over and over).

I'll be honest about Shrek 2. I didn't hate it nearly as much as I feared I would. I mentioned in my commentary on the 2002 award that I wasn't wild about the original, but the sequel actually addressed a number of my quibbles with it - for example, the addition of Puss In Boots did a lot to improve the main character dynamics and to undercut Donkey's irritability (not that I didn't still want to punch the ugly-ass ass in his over-sized kisser) and it didn't feel nearly as bileful in terms of its Disney mockery. It was still a flimsy story that had little reason to exist outside of cashing in on the public's goodwill toward the original, however. (Side-note: I was in Australia when I saw Shrek 2, for which I am very grateful, as the UK release had some phenomenally stupid localisations added in.) It also showed off, more than the original Shrek, a growing bugbear of DreamWorks' output - namely, their assumption that a mere pop culture reference could be substituted for a joke in itself. Hence, Shrek 2 is choc full of utterly useless references to Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings, among others, which are only there because..."well, you like Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings, don't you?" Shark Tale was the result of that line of thinking carried out to a nauseating extreme - "Hey audiences! We assume that Jaws and The Godfather are things you're vaguely aware of and obviously you love Will Smith and Jack Black, so wouldn't you like a movie where they play piscine versions of themselves and make a whole ton of Jaws and Godfather references?" Turns out, a lot of people didn't care for the results, and Shark Tale marked the beginning of a certain backlash against DreamWorks animation, which still wasn't enough to keep it from being nominated for Best Animated Feature. Like I say, a heck of a slow year.

The Snub Club:

....having said all that, we know that, as per the rules of this award, there would have been at least five other films submitted for consideration, or else it would not have been presented at all. Which means that there were at least five films the Academy deemed less worthy of nomination than Shark what the hell could they have been?

(Oh, and a small disclaimer: "The Snub Club" is where I'll be giving a general overview of some of the year's animated output that didn't make the nominees list. Not all of these were necessarily submitted for consideration in the first place, however.)

One of the unlucky five+, I'm assuming, was Disney's Sweating Bullocks - sorry, Home On The Range, which at the time was officially announced as being their last traditional 2D animation feature, much to the heartbreak of many an old school Disney fan the world over, including yours truly. Home On The Range was another of Disney's leftover projects which had been kicking around in Development Hell for way too long, and by this stage their aspirations weren't very much higher than to get it out there and move on. The film was met with near-total indifference by the public, and with near-total scorn by those aforementioned Disney fans, who were at least hoping to see the form go out with a smidgen of its dignity intact. Like Brother Bear before it, Home On The Range was hopelessly out of sync with the zeitgeist of the 2000s, although by far its biggest problem is that the story has absolutely no momentum behind it; by the time the heroes have overcome their self-loathing and saved the farm, the film barely feels like it's even gotten going. Oh, but I did appreciate that pun at the expense of that godawful horse movie DreamWorks Animation had released a couple of years prior; it almost made the entire experience worthwhile.

Elsewhere in 2004, Nickelodeon unleashed The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie, notable for being the last in a line of theatrical feature films based on the company's catalogue of TV cartoons that had followed the surprise success of The Rugrats Movie in 1998 - until early 2015, that is, when SpongeBob was apparently still popular enough to receive a second theatrical outing. The 2004 offering was largely squeezed out of the limelight by The Incredibles and had a decent but underwhelming run at the box office; that it failed to top the 100 million+ domestic gross of The Rugrats Movie was ultimately regarded as a disappointment. Nickelodeon weren't the only ones to attempt to capitalise on the perceived market for these theatrical TV spin-offs - early in 2004, Disney Television Animation had released Teacher's Pet (spin-off to a television series I'd never even heard of, which shows how out of the loop I'd become), which bombed pretty hard and helped spell an end to the trend.

We also had Robert Zemeckis's unpleasant visual experiment The Polar Express, which was animated using motion capture and did not exactly go down a treat with most who laid eyes on it (if I'd been a kid in 2004 and my parents had dragged me to see The Polar Express I suspect I'd still be having nightmares to this day). Actually, in 2010 the Academy revised their rules specifically to exclude motion capture animation from this category, which I'm certainly not losing any sleep over. Motion capture has its place in modern cinema (see Andy Serkis's repertoire) but I never much got Zemeckis's fascination with hurtling head-first into the Uncanny Valley. Then again, I never much got Zemeckis period. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a great movie, but Forrest Gump is the absolute pits.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Prancer (1989)

Let's take a look at another forgotten Christmas flick that haunted the back alleys of my youth. Nowadays, you won't find John Hancock's Prancer (1989) featured in many Top 10 Xmas Movies lists, but there was a patch throughout my childhood when it was guaranteed to pop up on TV schedules in the run-down toward Christmas. It was one of those movies you tended to watch, not because it made for amazingly compelling viewing, but because you urgently needed something to kill the time on Christmas Eve. Prancer is an infinitely more genteel experience than One Magic Christmas, although it is in many respects as much a curiosity, grounding strange and sentimental fantasy within the context of a downbeat (albeit more muted) family drama, and being most intriguing for its central metaphor about coming to grips with the grieving process, as represented through the titular deer.

Like One Magic Christmas, Prancer deals with a young girl experiencing a crisis of faith in Santa, albeit on entirely the opposite side of the spectrum. Six-year-old Abbie was in danger of getting her innocence crushed prematurely by the hardship afflicting herself and neighbouring families. Here, protagonist Jessica Riggs (Rebecca Harrell) is close to nine years old and around the age that you'd expect a child to become slightly less incredulous about the existence of a chubby man in a red suit who can reputedly squeeze down every chimney on Earth over the course of a single night. As her peers casually declare that they've outgrown such an infantile notion, Jessica clings to her belief with an almost religious reverence; in fact, it's made explicit early on that Jessica has conflated her belief in Santa with religiosity, arguing that if Santa doesn't exist then maybe Heaven doesn't either, and if that's the case then where is her deceased mother going to spend eternity? Therein lies the real root cause of Jessica's reluctance to take her first steps toward joining the adult world; her fear of growing up is clearly spurred by her fear of becoming ever more detached from her mother, whose untimely passing has understandably torn a gaping hole in her psyche. Jessica's memories of her mother are buried deep within in her childhood, and indulging in the fanciful whims of yore is what enables her to retain her sense of connection to her mother. Whether the film wants us to see Jessica's fierce devotion to childhood custom as admirable or symptomatic of her being in dire need of counseling is up in the air; I suspect the former, although Jessica's fixation is pushed to somewhat alarming extremes, particularly during a scene where she screams at the top of her lungs at her long-suffering friend Carol (Ariana Richards, whom you might recognise as the future Lex from Jurassic Park) for daring to admit that she's now past believing in Santa and also has second thoughts about Heaven. I'm certainly of the opinion that Jessica treats Carol very poorly - there's a scene later on in the film where she falsely accuses Carol of failing to keep a secret and then never apologises, even when she learns of her misjudgement.

Jessica revers Santa as serious business because her love of jolly old Saint Nick was instilled in her by her mother, and to do otherwise would be an affront to her mother's legacy. Despite Jessica indicating the aforementioned scene that she believes a deity (primarily as a means of facilitating her belief in a Heaven), it seems that the centre of Jessica's religiosity is actually her mother, as illustrated in another scene where she's glimpsed presenting a toy teacup to a photograph of her mother in a manner reminiscent of a religious offering. Once again, Jessica's honoring of her mother's memory is rooted in the world of childish play pretend, as represented by the teacup. Needless to say, Jessica is not the kind of girl who relishes change, but her world is threatened by it. Her father (Sam Elliott) isn't able to connect to her in the way that her mother did, and with the family's apple farm having fallen on hard times he doubts that he'll have the resources to provide for her for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Jessica's aunt Sarah (Rutanya Alda) is spending more and more time in the family home, ostensibly to help out with the running of the farm, although it later becomes apparent that Mr Riggs is looking to get her better acquainted with Jessica so as to smooth the transition when Jessica is inevitably transplanted into her care. Jessica may have little in common with her gruff, no-nonsense father, but she's nevertheless horrified at the prospect of being uprooted from her family home (we don't get to spend enough time with Aunt Sarah to form a judgement as to whether she'd be a good mother substitute for Jessica or not, but the fact that she shares her name with the crazy cat lady from Lady and The Tramp is possibly meant to be a turn-off in itself). Jessica has an older brother, Steve (John Joseph Duda), but there's no threat of him going anywhere as he and Mr Riggs have a thread of common ground in that Steve is able to pull his weight by doing errands around the farm. Mr Riggs plainly doesn't know how to handle Jessica, and she's hurt by the insinuation.

Unlike One Magic Christmas, Prancer keeps the tragedy of its scenario predominantly understated, offering a grand total of only two really unsettling images throughout. The first of these occurs at the start of the film, when Jessica and Carol are walking home from school and happen to witness a local Christmas display comprised of Santa and his eight reindeer (in the form of kitschy plastic ornaments) being strung up across the town, only for one of the reindeer to become loose and fall onto the road, where a passing car makes short of work of it. As the shattered reindeer is declared out of commission and carted away, Jessica is deeply concerned for the welfare of the garish decoration, and troubled that the powers that be are seemingly quite content for Santa's sleigh to be pulled by only seven reindeer. She also notes that the fallen deer was the third from the front, and concludes that it was Prancer, the third reindeer named in the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas". Looking up at that egregious gap in Santa's line-up, she feels that a great unbalancing has just occurred within the natural order, to the extent that the image of that tumbling reindeer continues to haunt her in her sleep. Later, as Jessica is wandering through the local woodlands, she happens to run into an actual flesh-and-blood reindeer - a creature which, as noted by Dr Benton (Abe Vigoda) a surly veterinarian with a heart of gold, wouldn't ordinarily be roaming as far down as Michigan. Right off the bat, we can tell there's something very peculiar about this reindeer. It shows no fear of humans and will allow Jessica to walk right up to it. Occasionally, it also emits a strange twinkling from its antlers, which for a while is our only major hint that this deer may be magically inclined.

For the most part, Prancer plays its subject matter straight, as down-to-earth drama where all hints that anything fantastical is happening remain squarely on the sidelines. Which is not to say that it doesn't encourage the viewer to make some freaky leaps of faith at times. Jessica notices that the reindeer has an injured leg and concludes that it must be none other than Prancer, whom she saw fall and get separated from Santa and his seven reindeer brethren earlier that week. I'm left pondering if the film really wants us to assume that there's a literal connection between the reindeer decoration that took a tumble at the start of the film and this injured reindeer showing up in the woods outside Jessica's home. Jessica explicitly makes the link, but unless this flesh-and-blood reindeer's life force was somehow connected to that tacky plastic monstrosity, I'm not sure how that's even meant to work. Nowadays, I find it easier to read the film as a parable for loss, grief and letting go, with Prancer the reindeer serving as a kind of metaphor for Jessica's mother, and Jessica's fervent desire to restore Prancer to his rightful place on Santa's sleigh signifying her need to make peace with her mother's departure. We might even see the reindeer as the literal manifestation of her mother's wandering spirit, a reading which feels all the more persuasive given the ghostly, haunting presence the reindeer gives off during its first couple of appearances. With that in mind, the link between the real and fake reindeer becomes less puzzling, the gap in the display pointing to the parental void that Jessica feels all too deeply in her life. Jessica and her father later encounter the reindeer together while driving home in the dark. Upon noticing its injured leg, Mr Rigg's first instinct is to pull out his shotgun, insisting that the most sensible course of action is to put the creature out of its misery. In this, we see shades of his attitude toward his troubled relationship with Jessica - rather than attempt to heal what's broken, he'd prefer to give in and terminate it altogether.

Fortunately, the reindeer disappears before Mr Riggs can take a shot at it, but Jessica later discovers it hiding out in the barn with her family's cattle and, concerned that her father will kill it if he finds it there, manages to relocate it to a shed on the other side of the farm. She achieves this by luring the wounded reindeer out with a trail of Christmas cookies, which it feasts on eagerly. I'll be the first to admit that I know little about reindeer nourishment, but cookies do strike me as a pretty odd item to be feeding them, particularly in bulk, and it's here that Prancer's arc takes a turn from the charmingly uncanny into the just plain goofy. The reindeer's early appearances do a wonderful job of capturing the magnificence of the animal and keeping it at a safe enough distance for it to seem genuinely awe-inspiring. As we get closer to the creature, it inevitably loses much of its mystique, and when we're at the point that Prancer is indulging his fantastic appetite for sugary, tree-shaped biscuits, he's reduced to performing the kind of dumb pet tricks one would readily encounter on YouTube (or, this being 1989, America's Funniest Home Videos). Later, when Jessica persuades Dr Benton to tend to Prancer's wound and insists that he's the most beautiful thing she's ever seen in her life, Benton observes that he "looks like a cow with antlers", and yeah, when you look him closely enough, he kind of does.

Jessica attempts to keep the infirm Prancer's spirits high by reading him the infamous "Yes, Virginia There Is A Santa Claus" editorial (you know, the one that makes the bizarre assumption that a child who doesn't believe in Santa can be won over by appealing to their enduring belief in fairies) as her mother used to do for her. Jessica's interactions with Prancer indicate that her desire to fill the gap left by her departed mother is twofold. She strives to keep her legacy alive by assuming the role of the caring parental figure who reads cheering bedtime stories to her weakened dependents. At the same time, she demonstrates her yearning for the affirmation she used to receive from her mother and isn't finding in her father, telling Prancer that she loves him and asking plaintively if he loves her too. Despite her attachment to the beasr, Jessica's ultimate goal is to reunite him with Santa's team in time for their all-important delivery on the night before Christmas, and she formulates a plan to release him at a site called Antler Ridge on midnight December 23rd.

There is something sweetly noble about Jessica's desire to help this wounded creature, even if comes from a slightly loopy place, although there are points where Jessica's (willful?) naivety becomes a little much to bear - like when she seeks out a mall Santa (Michael Constantine) with a Polaroid of the reindeer, asking him to pass on a message to the real Santa that she has Prancer and of her plans to reunite them. Unsurprisingly, the mall Santa can't make good on her request and hand her Polaroid to the being he impersonates for a living. Instead, he hands it in to a local press office, who are inspired to use Jessica's emotional problems as the basis for a condescending fluff piece about the preciousness of a child who still believes in Santa, which in turn has the entire community gushing. The title of the piece is "Yes Santa, There Are Virginias". Oh barf. It's around here that the film introduces a plot element about Jessica inadvertently coaxing out the Christmas spirit from her uncaring community, even its more cynical members like Dr Benton and Mrs McFarland (Cloris Leachman), a cartoonish recluse who runs around brandishing a shovel (with just case) whenever she spies the children sledding too close to her flower garden. The idea that Jessica's delusional fantasies have redemptive value for the rest of the town is by far the film's most toe-curling, coming off as an attempt to milk the warm festive fuzzies from what would otherwise play as a sad, haunting drama about a child's unresolved grief for her dead mother. It's not helped by the heavy-handed extremes to which it insists on belaboring this point, to the extent that it incorporates a scene where a priest uses the story as a basis for a sermon in which he spells out what I presume to be Hancock's intended takeaway directly to the audience. I can't help but feel that all this talk of Jessica's saintly virtue is undermined by it occurring in the very same scene where Jessica viciously chews out Carol based entirely on false assumptions. Earlier, Jessica had shown Prancer to Carol and made her promise to keep him a secret. She assumes that the townspeople come to learn about Prancer because Carol blabbed, unaware that it was her own misplaced trust in the mall Santa that let the cat out of the bag. (What's regretful that we don't even see Jessica and Carol talk to one another again for the remainder of the film; they do smile in one another's direction toward the very end, so we can probably assume that they reconciled, but I'm not a fan of how this particular thread is essentially left hanging.)

Jessica doesn't welcome Prancer's newfound celebrity, for she knows that her father won't be thrilled once the news reaches him. By this point it wouldn't have mattered anyway, for Prancer has taken it upon himself to go for a wander around the farm and into the Riggs' home, where he surprises Mr Riggs by causing all kinds of havoc round the property. His degradation from noble beast to circus critter is finally completed when Mr Riggs sells him to a local merchant who wants to exhibit him for profit. The film then transforms into a proto-Free Willy, with Prancer confined to a ridiculously small pen (there's barely enough space for him to turn around in there) and forced to endure the local yobs flicking snowballs at his nose. Feeling betrayed by her father, Jessica resolves to run away from home and cut Prancer loose during the night, and finds unexpected solidarity in Steve, who accompanies her out of concern for his sister. Things take a disastrous turn when Jessica attempts to pry open the roof of Prancer's enclosure by climbing atop it, believing that Prancer can be persuaded to fly out, only to fall and hit her head in a brutal (if bloodless) manner (that's the second of the film's two mildly disturbing images). As Steve runs to get help, Prancer suddenly manages to tear open the cage himself. He wanders past Jessica's crumpled body and into the street, as if momentarily tempted to make a bid for freedom while he has the chance, but ultimately decides to return to Jessica and lie beside her until help arrives. It's an immensely sentimental moment that nevertheless enables the reindeer to regain a little piece of its mystique, for in assuming the role of the nurturing, protective parent, we again see the subtle suggestion that the reindeer embodies something of her departed mother.

After being discharged from hospital, a bedridden Jessica is left the bitter aftertaste of reality sandwich permeating through her gullet, as she admits to Aunt Sarah that it probably is time that she came down from her cloud cuckoo land. Jessica is now ready to accept that the creature she's been nursing all this time is just an ordinary reindeer, and not the magical flying sidekick of Santa, but it seems that everyone else around here isn't quite so willing for her to let her give up on her mission that easily. Shaken by the shock of nearly losing her, Mr Riggs finally summons the will to speak openly to Jessica, assuring her that he loves her and would miss her terribly if she was sent away. Jessica admits that she ran away because she wanted to test his devotion to her, not because she didn't want to be with him anymore. As a symbol of their renewed bond, Mr Riggs reads the final portion of "Yes, Virginia" to Jessica, thus affirming his newfound willingness to step up and fulfill the needs that her mother had previously always satisfied. I remember coming across the "Yes, Virginia" editorial when I was about Jessica's age and not being overly impressed with it, shutting the book when I got to that, "You might as well not believe in fairies!" line (and no doubt killing one or two fairies in Neverland in the process), but I suppose there is an alternate way of interpreting its conclusion that Santa Claus lives forever and ten times ten thousand years from now, will continue to make glad the heart of childhood. By the end of the film, Jessica seems to accept that she can't cling to her old ways forever, but as she moves forward in life she can find new ways of enabling the heart of childhood to endure, by bringing inspiration and encouragement to those around her in much the same way that her mother did for her (perhaps that's what the whole "Yes, Santa, There Are Virginias" thread was supposed to represent, but I wish it had been handled better).

Finally, Mr Riggs reveals that he purchased Prancer back so that Jessica can release him at her scheduled time and place. Jessica isn't so sure that all this is necessary any more, but the entire town have turned out to bid Prancer farewell, eager to see Jessica complete the narrative she sold them, and she decides not to let them down. Mr Riggs drives Jessica out to Antler Ridge with Prancer in the back of the truck; once there, Jessica tells Prancer that she loves him and wishes she could keep him but understands that she has to let him go (serving, no doubt, as a proxy for the heartfelt farewell she longs to give to her mother, now that she's able to release her grief and move forward with her life). Prancer then turns and flees into the woodland, whereupon Jessica follows his tracks and sees that they lead all the way up to a cliff edge and disappear. Jessica fears that Prancer has fallen to his death, but her father reassures her that he probably managed to fly and find his way back to Santa. He tells her to listen closely and asks if she can hear sleigh bells; as the two of them stand there embracing, Jessica assures him that she can. It looks as if the film is all poised to end here, on a note of haunting ambiguity. Unfortunately though, having spent its entire running exercising admirable restraint in its depiction of the fantastical, it ultimately can't resist tossing in some physical proof of Santa's existence in the final moments, having him manifest as a silhouette in the night sky and showing Prancer rejoining his sleigh team. Or maybe this is pure symbolism, an illustration of how the void in Jessica's life has finally been filled, now that she's strengthened her relations with her father and achieved some form of outlet for her feelings toward her mother (in addition to providing some pay-off for the smaller kids in the audience who'd be inclined to take the story at its surface value). That's all well and good, but I'd still prefer if it wasn't there at all. It's an ending that would have had more potency if it had just allowed the audience to draw their own conclusions.

We close with an aerial shot over Jessica's town. Whatever perspective this is intended to symbolise (Santa's sled team doing their annual rounds? The ghost of Jessica's mother as she floats on her merry way? One final moment of catharsis for Jessica as she achieves a kind of emotional freedom?) it's a beautiful shot, and enables the film to go out on a visually captivating high.

The Verdict:

As a kid, I was never overly enthralled by Prancer, which always struck me as just a little too thin and plodding and with only the titular reindeer providing much in the way of interest. As an adult, I find it more of an intriguing oddity now that I can grasp its subtext about letting go of grief, accepting change and finding renewed purpose in moving forward. As a family drama, there is certainly a lot to recommend it - the troubled relationship between Jessica and her father is handled with a delicate understatement, and the ghostliness of some of its nocturnal outdoor shots gives off a marvelously atmospheric chill (if I'm to believe there are unseen forces at work in this world, it's in the quiet shadiness of those woodlands). I like much of what this film attempts. And yet it's only partially successful, thanks to its periodic tendency to dip into mawkishness and didactism - the "Yes, Santa, There Are Virginias" and Ms McFarland's attic scenes are good reasons to be appreciative of the fast forward button on your remote. Should my local cinema ever decide to show a screening of this film, I would positively leap at it, if only for the experience of seeing the closing aerial shot on the big screen. Sadly, you don't get the luxury of a fast forward button with the theatrical experience, but you've got to take the rough with the smooth.

Oh, and in the process of researching for this review, it came to my attention that this film apparently received a belated direct-to-video sequel called Prancer Returns in 2001. Well, I'm not even going to think about touching that one (if at all) until we're closer to December 2018. For now I think I'm all Xmas-ed out. To all a good night.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

One Magic Christmas (1985)

What's the edgiest Christmas movie of all time? A lot of people will scream "Die Hard!" and think they're being subversive. You dorks! Most people say Die Hard; it's now officially the conventional answer. Some people will say "It's A Wonderful Life" and also think they're being subversive. And yeah, in their case there is a valid argument to be made. It's A Wonderful Life is primarily remembered for its joyous, life-affirming conclusion, but it does force its hero (and by extension, the audience) to crawl through five football fields of shit-stinking foulness before we get to that point. The film earns its happy ending, but it's a grim and heavy-going experience for the most part (there's that joke in an episode of The Simpsons where Lisa gets hold of an alternate ending of the film that bears the label "Killing Spree Ending", which actually isn't too left of field the way George's story was going). If, on the other hand, your idea of an edgy Christmas movie is One Magic Christmas, a 1985 Disney film directed by Phillip Boros and starring the late Harry Dean Stanton, then you would become a much more intriguing person in my eyes and I'd probably make a point of talking to you more at our next dinner party. I loved this movie as a kid, though with hindsight I'm amazed that I could stomach its jaw-dropping moroseness. I had my heart ripped out by Benji The Hunted and I couldn't watch A Christmas Story because it spooked the living bejeezus out of me, but I was apparently fine with this. It's a film about a family who have some of the most horrible things imaginable happen to them around Christmastime, the kind of terrible tragedies that make George Bailey's plight seem relatively genteel, although you would never have guessed it from the entirely innocuous-sounding title.

In a more perfect timeline, I'd be bringing you this review from my parents' old tape recording of the film from (I think) 1989, which would have been stuffed with an array of contemporary adverts and idents. Unfortunately, while my parents were avid archivists of absolutely everything that flashed across their screen in the late 1980s (back when the VHS recorder was still their shiny new plaything) they knew next to nothing about VHS care and a sizeable portion of their recordings were wiped out in the mold epidemic of 2005. So many great and unique moments from UK broadcasting history lost to time because nobody told my parents that storing your VHS tapes against an outside-facing wall was a bad idea. But before you get too weepy-eyed you should also know that they insisted on recording everything in Extended Play. Meaning that it would have looked like crap anyway.

One Magic Christmas stars the late Harry Dean Stanton as Gideon, a strange and solitary figure who spends much of his time lurking in tree branches and playing the harmonica. He could be mistaken for the neighbourhood vagrant, but he actually has a far more improbable agenda up his sleeve. Gideon was once an ordinary mortal, but gave his life to save a boy from drowning (as per Gideon's account, I'm actually not clear on how he managed to save the boy at all, since he apparently couldn't swim) and by his virtue was reincarnated as a "Christmas angel", a being employed (by Santa, it seems) to rekindle the seasonal cheer of those whose spirits are particularly low around December 25th. This year his assignment is Ginny Grainger (Mary Steenburgen) a thirtysomething mother who hardened her heart to the holiday long ago; we're informed that she's a particularly sorry case because she can't even summon the will to say, "Merry Christmas". As it turns out, there's little in Ginny's life to be merry about. Her family have fallen on hard times ever since her husband Jack (Gary Basaraba) was made redundant, which has ultimately led to them facing eviction from their company-owned home (we learn all this from a particularly exposition-heavy conversation the family have early on while visiting a shopping mall). Ginny is managing to keep them a whisker above the poverty line by working as a cashier at a supermarket, where her bullying boss Herbie (Timothy Webber) does little to boost her morale. Meanwhile, the youngest of the family, six-year-old Abbie (Elisabeth Harnois), is beginning to question the existence of Santa, having been troubled by comments that he might pass over the poorer families in her neighbourhood this year, and by her mother's own dour outlook on the season. And it only gets more and more harrowing from there on in. Here's what our friends at Halliwell's Film Guide have to say:

"Decidedly downbeat Christmas fantasy: daddy gets drowned, mother is a nut, and the angel looks like a tramp. Santa Claus puts in an appearance for a happy finale, but It's A Wonderful Life should sue for plagiarism." 

Actually, Halliwell's is wrong about at least one of those details. Jack doesn't get drowned; rather, he gets gunned down whilst attempting to intervene in an armed robbery. A character does get drowned, but it's someone else's daddy, who also happens to be the person who pulls the trigger on Jack. Halliwell's were absolutely right about this being downbeat.

As for that "plagiarism" jibe...I can see where Halliwell's is coming from, although I'm sure that One Magic Christmas would prefer to view itself more as taking inspiration from Capra's film in crafting a modern fable about a family in crisis at Christmas. There a number of plot elements in One Magic Christmas that were visibly lifted from It's A Wonderful Life, and I don't think the film really makes any bones about that - the Graingers live in a town called Medford, which is obviously intended to call to mind Bedford Falls. At the same time, Ginny's embittered aversion to all things yuletide has obvious shades of that other classic and much-recycled Xmas staple, A Christmas Carol. Ginny is basically George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge combined into a single character, possessing both the former's rotten luck and the latter's misanthropy. A Christmas Carol and It's A Wonderful Life already have a few story beats in common, in that they both involve characters who, through a brush with the supernatural, learn what a tremendous impact their personal actions have had on the world around them and the difference that a single person can make; One Magic Christmas was presumably an attempt to transplant that same basic premise into a 1980s setting, with a protagonist whose seasonal cynicism springs from an entirely relatable place. For Ginny, the bugbear of the holiday season lies in its crass commercialism and its celebration of materialism that is well beyond her means; a stressful hassle that makes her current financial hardship seem all the more salient.

Ostensibly, the film does pivot on the somewhat condescending viewpoint that if you dislike Christmas then there's something inherently wrong with you; the very existence of these Christmas angels pretty much hinges on that (unless there are also Easter and Labor Day angels this film doesn't tell us about, I assume a person in this world is free to grumble about either of those without having a peculiar-looking stranger interfere with their lives). What makes Ginny's cynicism obviously problematic is the way it's inadvertently threatening to swallow up Abbie's innocence prematurely. Ginny is a sympathetic character, although she's perhaps not well-attuned to the impact her negativity is having on her daughter, who is struggling to consolidate the harsh reality of what's around her with the idealistic image of Christmas she sees in greeting cards and department store displays. To Ginny, this is a childish fantasy that Abbie must inevitably grow out of, but to Abbie this kind of whimsical escapism is a necessary part of reassuring herself that there are good forces at work in a world that seems increasingly cold and uncaring to her. To an extent, Abbie is having to learn to accommodate the purity of fantasy with the messiness of life (Abbie asks her mother at one point if she believes that, if Mrs Claus had children, she would ever be crabby with them), but she's troubled by how little space is being made for her own wide-eyed flights of fancy. Abbie is concerned that, with the all stresses the family have had to endure, her letter to Santa has been overlooked, and it's Abbie's burning desire to get a letter posted out before Christmas that drives a good chunk of the drama in the film. Abbie's interests aren't in acquiring more presents; we never actually learn what she asks for in her letter. Rather, she's motivated by a need to connect with that magic, to not be cut off from the joy and wonder that make Christmas so appealing to her. The discrepancy between mother and daughter is at the heart of the film, and it's genuinely heart-tugging. It would have been all-too easy to make a character like Abbie cloying, but I think you do feel for her as this vulnerable child who's getting dangerously close to getting her spirits dashed yet somehow always manages to cling on to some tiny shred of hope.

Meanwhile, Jack represents the alternative to Ginny's hardened cynicism, in that he's a dreamer who hasn't fully lost touch with his inner child. He's obviously too big to plausibly believe in Santa in the way that Abbie does, but he advocates the grown-up equivalent, in suggesting that maybe Santa is representative of "the nice spirit that's around at Christmastime". Personally, I grew up to be more like Ginny than Jack, so I find his miniature lectures on the matter a bit yawn-inducing. Finally, the older Grainger child, Cal (Robbie Magwood), has blatantly lost his fervor for Santa, but has a sensitivity toward Abbie's need to keep the faith. Note that Cal is by far the most expendable character in this film. He's there, more-or-less, so that Abbie can have someone closer to her own age to voice her concerns to, but the story could easily have been rewritten not to include him at all. His most notable contribution to the film is to throw in a random Honeymooners reference that confused the snot out of me as a kid and which I only got later on because Fry from Futurama obligingly explained it. ("He's just using space travel as a metaphor for beating his wife!")

(At first I was pondering if Abbie's crisis of faith about the existence of Santa is somewhat undermined, from a dramatic standpoint, by the fact that the viewer gets reassurance straight off the bat that, yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus in this world, for we hear him giving Gideon his assignment in the opening scene. Then again, he identifies simply as "Nicholas", so perhaps we're not meant to piece it together that they are one and the same.)

Out of a job, Jack spends his days repairing bicycles for the neighbourhood kids and is nursing ambitions of starting his own bicycle repair shop, but Ginny won't give the idea her blessing, arguing that they can't afford to be gambling their savings at a time like this. Ginny is also dead set against Jack's suggestion that they use a portion of their savings to buy expensive presents for the children; to her, toys are little more than junk from Taiwan that will be broken in a couple of days anyway. This is again intended to reflect Ginny's narrow-minded cynicism towards holiday custom (she sees only the materialism in gift-giving, not the joy and excitement that it can bring, particularly for small children), but she does have a point when she argues that they need to keep their savings set aside in case of a dire emergency (the example she gives is in case one of them gets ill, which given their luck so far doesn't seem like such a far-fetched prospect). Ginny is often played up as being a real stick-in-the-mud, but for much of the time she's merely tasked with the burden of having to be the sensible one in her family. It's also not as if the children will be waking up to empty stockings on Christmas day; Ginny went shopping earlier and clearly did her best to pick out fun and meaningful presents on a shoestring budget. It's evident that Ginny cares deeply for her family, and that her greatest priority is never anything less than to get them through this rough patch.

Unbeknownst to both parents, Abbie has forged a friendship with Gideon, thanks to her tendency to wander around the neighbourhood unattended after dark. The scenes with Abbie and Gideon are probably the film's most ill-judged, tonally speaking - we know that Gideon's intentions are all good and innocent within the context of the story, but there is something inherently sinister about anything involving a shadowy stranger approaching a small child when her parents aren't around and ensuring her complete confidence, particularly at the film's climax when he invites her to come away with him to the North Pole. If you think this is a case of me willfully subverting family entertainment with my own unholy thoughts, it's really not - I defy anybody over the age of sixteen to watch these scenes and not get a slight chill down their spine. I get that Gideon is supposed to look scruffy and unconventional for an angel, to illustrate that kindness and virtue come in all guises, but the fact that he acts like a villain from a PSA on the importance of stranger awareness is a tiny bit offsetting given that he's supposed to be the voice of reassurance in this film. Gideon explains to Abbie who he is and that he's come to help her mother regain her lost Christmas spirit (he demonstrates his angelic prowess by repairing a snowglobe gifted to her by her great-grandfather); he tells her that this can be achieved if she can be persuaded to post Abbie's letter to Santa herself. Unfortunately, that's no easy task, for Ginny interprets her daughter's pleas over the letter as further whining for material goods that the family can ill-afford. On the night before Christmas Eve, Ginny and Jack have another disagreement about the feasibility of Jack's bicycle shop idea, following which Jack disappears down the street and Ginny fails to console him by singing the title song from Lost In The Stars. Ginny takes the opportunity to deposit some letters off at the mailbox but passes over Abbie's letter to Santa. She gets confronted by Gideon, who chews her out for her lack of Christmas spirit and then royally freaks her out by revealing that he inexplicably knows her name. At this point, all of the Christmas lights in the neighbourhood ominously short-circuit. As it turns out, our waltz through the darkness is just getting started.

The full horrors really kick into gear the following day, when Ginny has to work long hours and Jack attempts to circumvent her stance on splashy Christmas gifts by withdrawing the money from the bank in her absence. Ginny gets wise to what he's doing and ditches work to try and stop him, pressing one of Herbie's buttons too many and getting herself fired in the process. Meanwhile, there's another character, Harry (Wayne Robson) who up until now has been lurking around the sidelines of the story; he appeared earlier on as a disgruntled customer at the supermarket and only that morning Ginny saw him unsuccessfully attempting to flog his possessions at a gas station as she was filling up before work. Harry is another family man who's fallen on desperate times, and to emphasise the tragedy he always has his silently disappointed-looking son in tow. Harry's desperation is such that he's prepared to go a step further than the Graingers; when he tells his son to "go and wait at the bus station for a couple of hours, there's something I've gotta do", we know that that's not good. Harry walks into the bank with a gun at the same time that Jack's in there and causes a hold-up, during which he takes a young woman hostage and threatens to shoot her if anyone blocks his escape. Jack politely implores that he let the woman go, so Harry shoots him (with little provocation, I might add). Harry then flees the scene and makes his getaway in the Grainger's car, which was parked right outside, and where Cal and Abbie just so happened to be waiting in the backseat. Oh bugger, is there a way this scenario could possibly get any worse? You betcha. Harry assures the two children that he won't hurt them, insisting that he's never hurt anybody in his life. Um, excuse me, Harry, you just shot and killed a man (the children's father, no less, although you probably don't know that) with minimal provocation, so perhaps you shouldn't be attempting to pass yourself off as a good guy who got caught up in a bad situation? The police attempt to enforce a roadblock as the vehicle goes over a bridge, which causes Harry to panic and lose control of the car, sending himself and the children hurtling off into the icy river below. Well, that escalated quickly.

There's a heart-breaking scene where Ginny is sitting alone crying in her bathroom when she gets the message that Cal and Abbie have been found alive and well - everyone assumes that they were released by Harry prior to the crash, but in actuality they were saved by Gideon. You might be questioning why Gideon didn't also intervene to save Jack and Harry, if he had the power - the answer is that this is all part of Gideon's grand plan. See, Gideon actually appeared before Ginny the night before and warned her that some bad shit might go down the next day and that she should not feel afraid (presumably, this is the film's way of attempting to reassure the viewer that, no matter how ugly the story is about to get, they should stick with it as it's ultimately going to end well). He also told Ginny that she would need to seek him out later on and where to find him. So yes, he knew what he was doing. I'm not 100% clear if Gideon actually engineered this entire tragedy or if he somehow knew in advance that this would happen, but either way, if the whole point is to give Ginny a punitive crash course in what's important in life, then the film suddenly takes on a disturbingly mean-spirited vibe, as this is definitely a very extreme way of illustrating that point. For one thing, I don't think it's fair to suggest that Ginny is somehow "responsible" for what's happened simply because she didn't exhibit enough Christmas spirit. She affected the outcome in the way that all things can be said to have affected all outcomes if you trace them back far enough, but ultimately Harry's a sane adult, and he's accountable for the fact that he chose to pull a trigger on Jack, not Ginny. It also seems to me that there is one really significant victim who's been forgotten in all of this - Harry's son, whose fate is never actually addressed. He lost his father too, and there's nothing to suggest that his mother is still around, so what's to become of him? His situation is potentially even more tragic than the Graingers' if you stop and think about it, yet the film gambles on the assumption that you won't. Ultimately, Harry's son has no real narrative consequence other than to underscore his father's desperation and to make his actions seem less despicable (since he's driven by the need to provide for someone else).

In practice, though, the whole scenario just proves to be a roundabout way of getting Abbie to visit the North Pole (thanks to Gideon's teleportation skills) and speak to Santa (Jan Rubes), so that he can retrieve an old letter from his archives and get Abbie to pass it onto Ginny. (Given that Santa is basically God in this film, I do like that he's depicted as a very human, imperfect figure; every time a mortal's name is brought up, he has to pause for a few moments to remember whom it refers to.) Abbie makes her way back home with the letter in hand and finds Ginny frantic because she believed that she'd lost her again. As Abbie retires to bed, Ginny opens up the letter and is shocked to find herself holding a missive that she penned to Santa in 1959, back when she still believed in the magic of Christmas and wanted a Mr Potato Head (another reference that was totally lost on me as a small child and that popular culture, in this case Toy Story, obligingly explained to me a little later in life). It's a letter to Santa, but it's clear that the actual dialogue going on here is between Ginny's past and present self; she's given the opportunity to reconnect with the innocent and hopeful child she once was, reminding herself of what Christmas once signified for her and instilling her for the first time with a sympathy for Abbie's own desire to be a part of that experience. As such, she's finally spurred to go outside and post Abbie's letter, and in doing so inadvertently presses a giant reset button (symbolised by the neighbourhood lights suddenly firing up again); she finds herself miraculously back in the evening of December 23rd, and who should be strolling around the corner but Jack, who is alive and well and apparently has no memory of ever being gunned down in a hold-up.

I did wonder if perhaps the events of that Christmas Eve were simply a dark alternate fantasy that Ginny had ventured off into (similar to It's A Wonderful Life and the Christmas Yet To Come portion of A Christmas Carol), and that this is what the disappearing/reappearing Christmas lights were intended to signify. However, I don't think so, as Abbie was actually the one who had most of the agency therein, and in that sense it's somewhat bizarre that only Ginny seems to retain her memories of their brush with alternate Christmas 1985. Maybe Abbie saw too much in traveling all the way to Santa's workshop and so it was imperative that she had her memories wiped. Anyway, the thing about those respective visions experienced by Bailey and Scrooge is that, for how grueling and horrific they were wont to get, their primary purpose was never to punish their recipients so much as to grant them insight into the fruits of their actions and what a terrible place the world would be if nobody looked out for anybody else. In Ginny's case...not so much. For the most part, it's Abbie's resolve, trust and devotion toward her family that's really tested throughout the latter stages of the film, as she first seeks out Gideon and then makes her journey to the North Pole to ask Santa for his help. Ginny may perform the final, all-important action in putting things right again, but she spends most of the alternate timeline helplessly enduring all kinds of horrific emotional torture because her husband is murdered, her children are kidnapped and ostensibly drowned, and then her daughter wanders off and disappears into thin air. In some respects, it is nice that it ends up being a joint effort, a combination of Abbie's unbroken innocence and Ginny's renewed clemency, so that the mother-daughter relationship that drives so much of the story ends up being the key to its redemption. But again, I find myself questioning if Gideon really had to be quite this hard on Ginny simply because she originally declined to post Abbie's letter to Santa. She ends up with a renewed appreciation for what she has and a realisation that things would be so much worse if her loved ones were taken away, but as I say, her underlying love and commitment to her family were never really in doubt anyway. Yeah, Gideon's plainly a jerk (even if he is played by someone as cool and dearly-missed as Stanton), but then I never thought that Clarence from It's A Wonderful Life was all that much of a charmer either (in fact, he's actually my least favourite part about Capra's film).

The ending of the film has a sort of Groundhog Day air about it, with Ginny getting to relive her Christmas Eve again but doing everything right this time. She buys a camp stove from Harry at the gas station, giving him enough money to afford a decent Christmas for himself and his son (well, $50, which admittedly won't last them long, but perhaps we're supposed to assume that Ginny's act of kindness and generosity toward Harry did something to bolster his own faith in humanity). She stands up to Herbie and convinces him to let her have time off to watch a local lights display with her family. Finally, she writes out a cheque to Jack, giving him enough funds to get his bike shop rolling and officially giving the proposal her blessing. In the closing scene, she wanders downstairs at just the right time to see Santa stocking up some additional presents under the family tree. He wishes her a merry Christmas and, for the first time, Ginny manages to say it back. Santa then spirits himself away into the night sky, as Gideon gazes on from amid the trees.

The Verdict:

That should've been called One TRAGIC Christmas, amirite?


I still love this movie, although I have to admit that I find it a stronger, more honest experience during the first half when it's more of a down-to-earth drama about a family struggling to make ends meet at Christmastime, with only the sequences with Gideon the angel threatening to drag it into the realm of airy fantasy. The gulf between Ginny and Abbie's respective outlooks on the season is poignant and well-observed, illustrating how, with enough time and experience, the things that once seemed the most beautiful and magical might end up betraying us in being exposed as hollow facades. Also, thus far I've focused mainly on the story and the characters, but the cinematography also bears mentioning, as much of it is fantastically beautiful. Alas, the screenshots I've used here simply don't do justice to it.

When we get to the second half the film descends into heavy-handed didacticism and becomes almost risible in terms of how shockingly, appallingly catastrophic it insists on getting. I'll admit that I still get a tremendous amount of emotional catharsis from the climax; I'm moved when Abbie goes to the North Pole to implore Santa to bring her dad back to life, I choke up when Ginny reads out her letter from 1959, and I even cry when Ginny posts Abbie's letter and Jack is suddenly restored to life, I'm such a sucker for the film's merciless manipulations. It all ends happily, but I think its efforts at providing a contemporary equivalent of the It's A Wonderful Life/A Christmas Carol formula (hardship and horror, followed by a well-earned dose of feel-good redemption) don't quite get the balance right, resulting in a film that's just too odd and dour for its own good. I wholeheartedly recommend it as an "alternative" Christmas movie for those of you who've had your fill of other "alternative" Christmas films like Die Hard and A Christmas Story, though you'd have to share my extreme gluttony for punishment to get through several key scenes.

To return to my original question, could this really be the edgiest Christmas movie of all time? Well, it depends on your definition of "edgy". It's the most tenaciously depressing Christmas movie of all time, no question, and the fact that it also happens to be a Disney called One Magic Christmas in itself gives it a weird tonal dissonance, but it's probably not the darkest of all time, even if we stick purely to the family pantheon. I mean, Home Alone is a pretty ugly story, and it doesn't even have the luxury of ending well. Like I say, the Graingers clearly love one another, even when they have their disagreements, and during times of hardship we can be confident that they're all going to support one another. The McAllisters...well, we have to ask ourselves if we're really happy at the end when this future serial killer is reunited with his smarmy negligent clan, and they're just allowed to carry on as if everything's normal? Christmas movies are an odd bunch.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Ivor The Invisible (2001)

As the winter solstice approaches, we also get closer to that annual UK tradition of embracing your inner masochist and snuggling up with Raymond Briggs' special patented brand of emotional devastation. Ever since 1982, families have been introducing legions of unsuspecting young children to Jimmy T. Murakami's adaptation of The Snowman, a beautifully-animated 27-minute film that leaves you wailing out for the sadness and desolation of the world, as is all par for the course with any Briggs encounter. As I noted in my review of When The Wind Blows, I cannot think of another storyteller who has perfected the art of tearing out his readers' heartstrings with quite as much merciless precision as Briggs, all while beguiling them with warm pastel tones and round-faced, benign-looking characters.

Which is not to suggest that I'm down on Briggs, far from it. Although I stand my opinion that The Snowman has the saddest ending to any fictional story, of any medium, I do ultimately look upon it as a very positive story, one that celebrates life and friendship while acknowledging that all things must eventually pass. The final action of James/the young David Bowie, is to reach inside his pocket and discover that the scarf he gained during last night's excursion still remains - important in narrative terms, as it demonstrates that his encounter with the magical snowman wasn't a dream, but it's also a tangible reminder of the brief but powerful connection the two of them shared, one that will bring him warmth and comfort in the chilly days still to come. Thanks to the events of that night, James/Bowie is left a sadder but richer individual, as signified by his ownership of that scarf. It's not an easy ending to take, but it's hard to imagine any other ending that would carry the same kind of emotional weight.

The Snowman was such a roaring success that Channel 4 were obviously eager to repeat the trick, and in the 35 years since its debut the pantheon of Briggs adaptations/specials slowly but surely crept up in number (although we still don't have an adaptation of The Man, which has been at the top of my wish list for years now). With the exception of Father Christmas (1991), which is an unusually lighthearted Briggs romp, none of them are exactly what you'd call feel-good television, even when they wholeheartedly embrace such values as love, compassion and childhood curiosity (and actually, Father Christmas is quite a bit grimmer than you perhaps realise at first glance, if only because Jim and Hilda from When The Wind Blows make a cameo, goading me to believe that it takes place in the same universe and that jolly old St. Nick was ultimately killed in a nuclear blast). There have been one or two missteps among them (Snowdog? No thank you), but on the whole they've been a strong bunch and very worthy of being spoken of in the same breath as The Snowman, even if none of them have ever really rivaled it in terms of cultural impact. Right now, I want to champion the Briggs' special that I personally rate as being the most underrated of the lot - Ivor The Invisible, which debuted on Channel 4 on 24th December 2001. This special isn't as well-remembered as some of the others (possibly because there's nothing at all festive about the story or setting, which makes it harder to promote as a fixture of holiday viewing) and that's a damned shame, because it's one of Briggs' stranger tales, and every bit as emotionally searing as the rest.

Ivor The Invisible was directed by Hilary Audus, who worked as an animator on Father Christmas and whose previous director credits included another Briggs adaptation, The Bear, in 1998, and two Halloween-themed specials, Pumpkin Moon (2005) and The 13th Kitten (2006). Unlike most one-off Briggs specials, this one wasn't adapted from an existing book and was instead an original screenplay penned by Briggs especially for television. It doesn't wreck all-out emotional devastation on quite the same level as The Snowman or When The Wind Blows - unlike those two Briggs adaptations, everybody makes it through the story intact, so perhaps it's easy to come away with the impression that it's one of Briggs' more lightweight stories. Instead, it's sad in a subdued, understated way, the tale of a friendless outsider who desperately wants to belong, only to have their outcast status ultimately reaffirmed. It explores a recurring theme in Briggs' work - that is, the friendship between a child and a strange, supernatural being that's ill-fated from the start (also seen in The Snowman and The Man). A boy named John (Albey Brookes) wakes up to discover that a enormous invisible being has taken up residence in his bedroom. He befriends the creature, whom it's evident leads rather a sad and lonely existence, and the two of them have fun creating mischief together and causing endless confusion for the adults in John's life; that is, until the creature's antics get increasingly out of hand and the novelty gradually wears off for John. Finally, John tells the creature to go away, seriously hurts its feelings and...that's it. The end! Yeah, it's a really barebones story, but watching this back in 2001 I found myself yet again with my heartstrings torn mercilessly from my body and lying in a slashed and bloodied heap before me, as I contemplated that same bleak sense of desolation that had gripped me all those years ago as a four-year-old watching The Snowman for the first time. Curse you, Briggs, you did it again!

The invisible creature cannot talk (the extent of its vocalisations are a muted, radiophonic workshop-style bleeping it emits while interacting with John and his environment), but it does have a rudimentary grasp of written English and is able to communicate with John by writing words in his bedroom mirror. Its first message is an extension of friendship; it asks him to "be my frend" (the creature is a terrible speller, something that we'll later discover it's all too ashamed of). The one nugget of information that John is desperate to know, but the creature won't divulge, is its name; when he asks, it responds by scribbling "No" into the mirror, which John initially misreads as "Ivo", prompting him to name his new friend the closest human name that he can think of, Ivor. At first, John is charmed by the idea of having an invisible companion, but his enthusiasm begins to sour when he discovers Ivor's penchant for playing pranks and causing mischief. Although Ivor instructs John not to tell anyone else about it, its playful and inquisitive nature mean that it can't help but interfere with everything going on around it, wrecking all kinds of havoc and undermining adult authority in all its forms, from John's mother, father and Aunt Barbara (Jane Horrocks, Timothy Spall and Alison Steadman) to a surly local park keeper (David Haig) and John's emotionally fragile teacher Miss Gibson (Emma Tate). Eventually, John's best friend Leila (Archie Panjabi) gets wise to Ivor's existence and forms her own attachment to the creature, but things go a step too far when Ivor causes a major upset at a zebra crossing and makes off with the Belisha beacons, prompting an angry mob to pile up on John's doorstep. At this point, John realises that his new friend has no sense of self-preservation and could potentially bring serious trouble to his family's household, so he asks Ivor to leave.

As I say, it's a very thin storyline, but what keeps it from becoming little more than a series of sketches in which Ivor creates mischief and John cringes with embarrassment are the moments in which the two friends are shown bonding and attempting to comprehend one another. John is fascinated by the mere existence of a creature as fantastic as Ivor, and his thoughts swiftly turn to the puzzling and, in some cases, really quite revolting implications of sharing one's physical living space with invisible giants (John notes that Ivor eats and deduces that it must therefore also excrete, and wonders if this process too is entirely invisible and if a layperson would have any means of knowing if they were about to walk into invisible giant faeces). His invisible chum isn't quite so interested on ruminating on the ins and outs of its own being, however, telling John that it what it really craves is a conventional existence like his own. Ivor understands the power of language in connecting with and being affirmed by others and hopes that it can overcome its physical limitations if it at least has a decent education behind it, hence its insistence to John that it wants to learn to read and spell. Ivor's invisibility represents a massive obstacle to normality and yet Ivor's friendship with John may also depend on it, as is hinted in Ivor's early reluctance to share their true identity with John. Ivor's yearning to belong is counterbalanced by an obvious need to hide. But what is Ivor hiding, exactly? We get a small hint when Ivor first confides in John its greatest desire, by typing, "i wan to be normal" on John's personal computer, which is initially misspelled as, "i wan to be norman" - on repeat viewings, we might catch the Freudian slip that clues us into Ivor's biggest insecurity around John. For there is a final twist regarding Ivor's true identity, which is revealed when John instructs Ivor to go but first implores them to share their real name. Realising that they now have little to lose, Ivor writes their true name in the living room mirror: Beryl. John's new friend was a female all along!

It seems that Ivor purposely concealed this information from John, for fear that he wouldn't accept her otherwise, and perhaps those fears were well-grounded. The revelation comes as a huge shock to John, who angrily berates Ivor/Beryl for not being what he thought she was (even though that was all based on pure assumption on his part). I'm not convinced that this twist ending entirely works, in part because I don't really buy John as the kind of guy who'd actually care one way or the other. I get that Briggs is making a point about prejudice, as well as playing with the audience's assumptions, but here's the thing - John's best friend, Leila, is a girl. He doesn't exactly strike me as a raging misogamist. This paradox becomes all the more salient when Leila shows up at the house and John shares with her, with unbridled disgust, that "Ivor" is really an invisible female named Beryl. She gets annoyed with him, for obvious reasons.

In the end, John and Leila admit that they both like Ivor/Beryl and are clearly saddened by the idea of having to go their separate ways, but they recognise that things have gotten too out of hand with her around. Ivor sheds an entirely visible tear and writes her final message, "see yoo", in the living room mirror; she accepts that she's wrecked too much havoc for John and his community to have any place therein. Whereas The Snowman told the story of a wonderful moment in its young protagonist's life that simply couldn't last, chiefly because the circumstances wouldn't permit it (as soon as the sun got in the slightest bit overbearing, his snowman friend was a goner), here we have a connection that must run its course because what's already in the characters' natures proves incompatible. Ivor is simply too larger than life for these folks to handle. And it's a heart-breaking conclusion. We know that Ivor isn't a bad soul and that none of her actions have been ill-intentioned, as evidenced in her display of kindness toward Miss Gibson after pushing one of her practical jokes too far. We end up sorely wishing that this could have gone another way. But Briggs being Briggs insists on the upset.

Ultimately, Ivor The Invisible seems to purposely avoid much in the way of closure, beyond the sense that Ivor's relationship with John has reached its natural conclusion. It is rather troubling that we never get to see how things pan out with regard to John's family and the angry mob outside; the last we see of this particular story thread, John's father is headed to the door to face them, and it's unclear quite how he's going to explain this situation. Above all, we never learn terribly much about the titular character - in addition to the scatological problems posed by John, there are also the obvious questions regarding what, exactly, Ivor is, where she came from, if there are any others of her kind, etc. None of these are ever addressed in any meaningful detail, and perhaps the story remains all the more haunting and effective for withholding this information. It keeps its central character an enigma, having us experience her entirely from John's perspective, and when she leaves at the end there's a sense that all we've seen is but a tiny snapshot in her never-ending quest for friendship and acceptance, a brief chapter in which she drifted into John's life before overstaying her welcome and having to move onto the next thing, whatever that might be. As Ivor makes her departure and floats off into the distance, she still carries the Belisha beacons she stole from the zebra crossing earlier - partly, this is for the benefit of the viewer, so that they have some visual means of tracking Ivor as she heads her own way, but it also signifies that, for better or for worse, wherever Ivor goes her carefree and playful spirit remains fully intact. An utter downer of an ending for sure, yet there is something curiously comforting about those final images.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Animation Oscar Bite 2004: Big Fish

76th Academy Awards - 29th February 2004

The contenders: Brother Bear, Finding Nemo, The Triplets of Belleville

The winner: Finding Nemo

The rightful winner: Finding Nemo
The barrel-scraper: Brother Bear

Other Notes:

One of the nice things about doing this retrospective is that it's given me more of an incentive to finally catch up with some of the nominees I missed out on in previous years. I wasn't quite dedicated enough to hunt down a copy of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius for my commentary on the 2002 ceremony, but The Triplets of Belleville is one of those films that's been sat on my to-see list for as long as it's existed, and it really shouldn't have taken me this long to get acquainted with Sylvain Chomet's enchantingly grotesque, (virtually) dialogue-free romp through the freakier fringes of French society (and beyond). Chomet's richly illustrative style is always a treat to look at (the titular city of Belleville being a masterpiece of background design) and there's some wonderful visual wit throughout, a good chunk of it involving Bruno the morbidly obese bloodhound and his ongoing dispute with the train that passes dangerously close to his family's window every day. At a time when traditional animation was being given the cold shoulder by the major Hollywood studios (see below), it must have been heartening to see a 2D animation from overseas roar to life with so much unique flair and character.

Anyway, the CG fish movie won, a result which surprised absolutely no one in 2004. Of the three years for which this award had been running so far, this one was probably the easiest to call. 2003 was the year of Finding Nemo; the film had smashed all kinds of box office records and become the highest grossing animated film to date, both domestically and worldwide, making the humble clownfish, a creature previously renowned mainly among hobbyists, into a household name. Whatever merits The Triplets of Belleville might have had, it seemed unlikely that this small French arthouse film would snatch victory away from the Hollywood giant that had dominated zeitgeist in recent months. To demonstrate how out of sync I was with that zeitgeist, back in 2003 I thought of Finding Nemo as the disappointing follow-up to Monsters, Inc, although it has grown on me a lot in subsequent years and I certainly can't begrudge it taking the award here. Its underwater world is brilliantly realised - anthropomorphised enough to feel warm and familiar, while still retaining that all-important alien, otherworldly quality (and the film truly excels when it full-on embraces that deep sea uncanniness - the two strongest sequences are those involving the angler fish and the whale, two of the least humanised marine lifeforms encountered on Marlin's travels). This is Pixar's most "punchline driven" film to date (by which I mean that the final line plays like the punchline to an overarching gag that the entire rest of the film has merely been laying the stage for) but that punchline is a genuinely hilarious one, so it's all good.

Meanwhile, Disney's fortunes continued to dwindle, with the apathetic response to Brother Bear proving yet another nail in the coffin for traditional 2D animation (at least where Hollywood was concerned). By this stage, the colossal box office failure of Treasure Planet had pretty much already sealed its fate, and Brother Bear stood little chance of turning things around. Compared to the zippy, adventurous energy of Finding Nemo, this modest fable about a bear-hating Inuit who gets turned into a bear and learns the error of his ways couldn't help but seem hopelessly old-fashioned, a sign that Disney were struggling to adapt to an animation marketplace that had already moved on from them. If you're a Disney buff then you've no doubt heard the story that it entered production due to Michael Eisner's unshakeable conviction that bears are the most merchandise-friendly of animals, and that it started out as an ursine version of King Lear before undergoing multiple rewrites; the end-result feels like a torpid attempt to recapture the atmospheric grandeur of The Lion King that had all of its enthusiasm swallowed up somewhere in the process. The film's most interesting feature (aside from its genuinely very beautiful sunlight animation) is in how it marries the last of that waning Happy Meal DNA to a total tonal uncertainty; above all, Brother Bear is a film beleaguered by an alarmingly visible sense of self-doubt (the Disney film most comparable to it in that regard is The Fox and The Hound). I might actually earmark this one for a more in-depth review some time in the future, because it is quite a fascinating specimen in terms of what it reveals about Disney's own veering off into the wilderness at this point in time.

This was also the year that kick-started Pixar's run as the kings of this award, after the disappointment two years prior when Monsters, Inc lost out to Shrek. Soon there would be no stopping them. Well, except where Lightning McQueen was involved.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

VHS Verve: Benji (Takes a Dive) at Marlineland (aka Benji strikes a blow for western capitalism)

Benji, the huggable hero who went on to traumatise an entire generation of kids (not to mention provoke one of the most heated exchanges of all time between Siskel and Ebert) with his 1987 film Benji The Hunted, starred in a curious variety of projects throughout his career, but none more mind-bendingly bizarre than this ABC special from 1981. It's such an eye-popping head trip that it makes Benji The Hunted (that freaky fable about a dog with a high IQ) seem entirely conventional by comparison. This special didn't feature in my own childhood, but if it had done, I'm pretty sure I'd be debating years later whether it actually happened or was simply the result of some abnormal neurological activity induced by consuming one Panda Pop drink too many. By all accounts, it doesn't feel real. Even when it's right there unfolding before your eyes, it's a challenge to contemplate that such a thing could ever actually exist. It's utterly bonkers from start to finish.

Note that, at this stage in "his" career (and indeed, for most of "his" career), Benji was played by a female dog named Benjean, the original Benji having passed away a year after release of the first Benji film. As with all Benji productions, the special was helmed by Joe Camp.

Benji (Takes a Dive) at Marineland first aired on ABC on 10th May 1981, and was later released on home video as part of the Children's Video Library range, along with another Benji special, Benji at Work. The special takes place at the Marineland aquarium in Florida, the major draw being that Benji has traveled there with the intention of becoming the first dog ever to scuba dive (or so we're told - I'm aware that people who take their dogs scuba diving are a thing, but I couldn't say with certainty if Benjean was officially the first dog ever to take up the practice). The big problem is that Benji only gets to scuba dive at the end of the special, and this doesn't yield more than a couple of minutes worth of footage. The special itself is twenty-two minutes long, so the obvious challenge Camp had was in how to fill up the remaining time. Talk a bit about the technical aspects of scuba diving and how you facilitate things so that a dog can accomplish it? Nah, that would surely bore the kids at home to tears. Give us some background information on the history and work of the Marineland aquarium? Sounds just a bit too conventional. Why not just throw some random nonsense together involving singing fruits, communist dachshunds and some of the cheapest, most grotesquely-rendered sock puppets you've ever laid eyes on? Ding-ding-ding, we have a winner!

That's right, there are singing fruits in this thing. Why? I have no idea. Don't ask me what Camp was smoking when he wrote this.

So Benji has gone to Marineland to become the first dog ever to scuba dive, and lurking in wait for him on the beach are the two puppets who'll be guiding us through this historic occasion: Lana Afghana, a mermaid variant who happens to be part fish, part Afghan hound, and Benji's "manager" B.W. Puggit, a Texan pug. These two are not a pretty sight. On the visual appeal metre, I'd place them squarely beneath the Feebles and the Huggas, but somewhere slightly above the Pipkins (that's the British puppet series, not the novelty duo). Their distinctly frugal, homemade quality (like they were cobbled together from whatever odds and ends Camp found lying around his basement) is already hard enough to bear, but what really pushes them into all-out nightmare territory are their awkward and highly distracting mouth movements. Lana's jaws flop about gracelessly in a manner that barely syncs up with her dialogue, and whenever Puggit speaks his entire snout breaks out into an unsightly collection of twists and wrinkles, almost as if his mouth is a vortex through which the rest of his face is frantically trying to escape. There's a running gag throughout the special where Lana repeatedly smacks Puggit with her fishy tail, either to fend off his unwanted advances (which is somewhat problematic from a modern perspective, but at least Lana remains wholly on top of the situation) or because of his tendency to waffle on self-importantly. Puggit informs Lana that Benji has volunteered to make the historic dive as a gesture to promote unity between the species, but when Lana interviews Benji first-hand, he "tells" her that he's in it purely for the fun of it.

Composer Jesse Davis (who had previously performed a song for Camp's 1976 film Hawmps!) then treats us to a calypso interlude featuring his back-up band, The Mulberry Squares, and that's where our musical fruit come in. The name "Mulberry Squares" is an obvious nod to Camp's production company, Mulberry Square Productions, although making the band into literal pieces of anthropomorphic fruit possibly carries the pun a bit far. Honestly, I can just about grasp of the relevance of having two canine sock puppets present a program about a scuba diving dog. It's silly, but it's cute (the idea that is, not the sock puppets themselves). I can cope with one of the dog puppets being part fish because of that whole aquatic connection. But it's when these singing fruit appear onscreen that the special truly betrays its intentions of dragging the viewer down the path of complete and utter absurdity. Like, what? What the devil is this, Camp?

The song that Jesse Davis and the Sausage Party Rejects are performing contains numerous refrains of the line, "I don't know, can a dog survive when he scuba dives?" On second thought, perhaps the singing fruit were added in an effort to distract kids from the unsettling insinuation that Benji might perish if his scuba diving adventure goes at all haywire. I get that the idea is to hype up how bold and adventurous Benji is for "wanting" to accomplish this amazing feat, but with all the emphasis they put on the indeterminate outcome they make it sound as if Benji is being used as some kind of test subject here.

The first signs of our paper-thin story thread finally surface when we meet our villain, a dachshund-type puppet named Boris Todeth. Most references I've come across to this special have Boris down as some kind of Nazi dog (presumably because of his militaristic uniform and German accent), but this being 1981 the Cold War was far more topical than Nazi Germany, so I suspect he's actually supposed to be a Soviet spy (and doing a bang up job of looking entirely inconspicuous if he is). Boris comments that he'll never allow a "western capitalist" dog to be the first at anything and sets about to sabotage Benji's mission by stealing his specialist equipment. We then get a short sequence in which Benji comes nose-to-nose with some dolphins at the aquarium and doesn't seem to like them much. Jesse Davis starts up with a reprise of his number, whereupon Benji finally tires of his discouragement and sends him hurtling into the dolphin pool.

Lana and Puggit are talking to Mareineland manager Cecil Walker (himself), who informs them he's invited several major newspapers and television networks to cover Benji's historic dive, but a number of them have questioned the authenticity of the event, some even suspecting it of being nothing more than a cheap publicity stunt. To determine the odds of this, Lana switches over to Jimmy The Beak, a bookmaker who happens to be a rather lopsided-looking bird puppet (as if there's something seriously off with his balance receptors). Jimmy muses that if it were actually possible for a dog to scuba dive then conventional wisdom might dictate that older celebrity dogs like Rin Tin Tin and Lassie would have accomplished it by now, but gives odds of 8/5 in favour of the dive being genuine on the grounds that it often pays to root for the underdog. Meanwhile, Boris learns that Benji's all-important custom-made diving equipment is being guarded by a shark and eventually manages to swipe it after feeding the shark sleeping pills (this does not occur onscreen, with Boris conveniently cackling about his dastardly misdeed for the audience's benefit, but perhaps that's for the best).

He then looks up and sees Benji "confronting" him from the wall of the tank (in actuality Benji doesn't look like he's paying much attention at all) and knocks him into the water (I'm not sure, but I don't think Benjean was expecting that to happen). As Benji scrambles for dry land, Boris finds Lana and announces that he, and not Benji, will be making the historic dive, then attempts to make a move on her. Repulsed, Lana smacks him with her fishy tail and sends the Stasi fleabag flying - whereupon he magically transforms into a rubber ring with ears. I'm not kidding, they literally dress up a rubber ring in clothing similar to Boris's and throw it to the dolphins to bat around for a bit. To call it hilariously shoddy-looking would be a serious understatement.

Benji gets up to a bit of water-skiing, while Boris manages to escape the dolphins and elude Benji on a skateboard (the techniques used to hold Boris on that skateboard are a lot better than rubber ring effects). Boris makes it to a platform above another tank and taunts Benji by announcing his plan to put on the diving gear there and then and dive in, instantly wrecking Benji's chances of being the first dog ever to scuba dive. Suddenly Lana appears and tosses a fish into Boris's mouth, prompting a dolphin to leap up from the tank below and grab the fish, dragging Boris down into the water with it and giving Benji the opportunity to retrieve his stolen diving equipment.

Finally, after all that madcap puppet filler, we get what we came here to see: Benji donning a helmet and oxygen kit and going for an underwater paddle. As far as I can tell, the footage of Benjean scuba diving is genuine, though it is interspersed with footage of sharks and other marine life that Benjean blatantly had no contact with in real life (which were presumably thrown in in the interests of adding more variety to the visuals). Jesse Davis performs another song and lingers around the underwater observation area with his fruit chums, but this sequence is very light on puppet antics, instead allowing the viewer space to marvel at the sheer beauty of Benjean's underwater movements. It's an extremely charming sequence; there's something about the gentle grace of that submerged doggie paddle that's just so wonderfully soothing to the spirit.

The special rounds off with a brief epilogue, in which Benji hops onto a boat with Jesse Davis and sails off into the sunset, as Cecil Walker and the assorted puppet characters bid him farewell from the beach and a close-up shot of Lana reveals a solitary tear rolling down her frugal felt cheek.

The Verdict:

Remarkably, the moment where the dog puts on a scuba suit and goes for an underwater dive turned out to be most sensible aspect of this entire special. The rest of it is so hypnotically goofy it makes Goofy look like Pluto and, needless to say, you have to love it for that. There wasn't a massive amount of tonal consistency between the various projects Benji cropped up in throughout his career, but this one surely takes the cake for sheer, unabashed absurdity. It's hard to imagine any Benji adventure getting any stranger and more wildly surreal than this one.

...then again, there was that TV series where Benji was best buds with a WALL-E prototype and a kid from outer space. Well, let's consider these things one at a time.