Monday, 25 September 2017

The Freakier Side of Hamsters: Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia (aka Nobody makes love like Robert Lee Anderson)

There was a time, back in the late 90s/early 00s, when I was enough of a square that I would eagerly await each new installment in the "Now That's What I Call Music!" series. Totally uncool, I know, but I was a young teenager living off a meagre allowance, and they were an easy route to owning a good portion of the latest chart hits without having to invest in a wad of CD singles, and maybe, if I was lucky, I would also discover something new which had slipped under my own personal radar while I was at it. Now 44, which came out just before the dawn of the new millennium, was the best-selling "Now!" release of all-time, a title it still retains to this day (yes, they are still going, although I personally bowed out at Now 49). I was all over Now 44 back in the day. Now 45, by comparison, was the disappointing follow-up; even at the time, I thought the selection of songs was so much naffer and I didn't get nearly as much replay value out of Now 45. The release was defined by the overwhelming flavour of watery vanilla pop (with hindsight, Now 44 wasn't much better, but at least it didn't contain anything nearly as shuddersome as "See Ya!" by Atomic Kitten). If this was the taste of what the brave new millennium had to offer then frankly it was a bit of a letdown (but then the year 2000 was like that in general - for all the hype leading up to it I honestly can't recall a year in my own living memory more dispiritingly dull).

There was, however, one track of interest on Now 45. Lurking close to the end of the compilation, at track no. 19 on disc two, was this strange little dance tune by Cuban Boys called "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia". Hands down, that had to be the coolest song title I'd ever heard (and it still is). The song itself? It consisted largely of a looped sample of what sounded like one of the Chipmunks yodeling. Sounds pretty diabolical, right? Well, if you played right through to the end of the track, thinking this was nothing more than an inane children's party song, you were in for one heck of a nasty surprise. OH GOD, THE ENDING! I cannot describe just how unbelievably unsettling and incongruous it sounded tucked away amid a sea of bland and innocuous early 00s pop. I can only imagine the shock waves it caused among families who bought the compilation thinking that it would provide safe listening material for long Easter holiday road trips.

It would be easily to mistake "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia" for a mindless novelty dance single designed to cash in on the flavour of the month; that flavour being a bunch of dumb dancing hamster graphics we were all totally enamored with at the dawn of the new millennium. The "Hampster Dance" (yeah, that misspelling drives me nuts too) was an internet phenomenon from back when people were still in the process of really getting accustomed to the wonders of the web. Born from an act of sibling rivalry in 1998, when Canadian art student Deidre LaCarte was looking to outdo her sister's personal website for internet hits, it featured multiple GIFs of cartoon hamsters dancing to a seven-second loop of a chipmunkese sample of "Whistle Stop" by Roger Miller (better known as the opening song to Disney's 1973 film Robin Hood). It offered no useful purpose beyond kitschy novelty, but as we were quickly to learn, novelty alone can take you a heck of a long way on the world wide web, and by early 2000 the popularity of the site had suddenly exploded. For a whole generation of web novices, this was our introduction to the internet meme, when it became fashionable to flood the inboxes of everyone we knew with links to the thing. "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia" was a product of this warped, hamster-obsessed madness, using that sped-up seven-second sample of "Whistle Stop" as the starting point for the weirdest of dance numbers. (Please note that "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia" is not to be confused with "The Hampsterdance Song" by Hampton The Hampster, the website's official spin-off single, which came later in July 2000, and which really was a mindless novelty cash-in). The song garnered quite a cult following when it debuted on John Peel's show on BBC Radio 1 in April 1999 and became a hotly-requested tune among his listeners thereafter. When a single was finally released by EMI on 13th December 1999, it peaked at no. 4 in the UK singles chart. Cliff Richard, whose single "The Millennium Prayer" was competing with "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia" for the much-coveted Christmas No. 1 spot (back when the UK actually cared about such things), apparently dismissed it as "awful", but then who was he to be throwing stones? He was responsible for "The Millennium Prayer", for eff's sake! (In the end they both lost. Christmas No. 1 for that year went to "I Have a Dream" by Irish boy band Westlife.)

Still, Cliff wasn't alone in his sentiments, and really that's not surprising. The high-pitched yodeling of that modified "Whistle Stop" sample was always going to prove a bit much for some ears, and I suspect that many listeners who purchased Now 45 reflexively pressed the skip button five seconds into the track and went straight to Robbie Williams' latest "It's Only Us". Their loss entirely. They never experienced the delights of that spine-chilling twist ending. If "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia" had consisted of nothing but the "Whistle Stop" sample looped for over three minutes, then the naysayers might have a point. What makes it such an alluring oddity is everything else going on amid all the looping - the bizarre samples of dialogue interspersed throughout the song. I've been fascinated with those samples ever since I was a teenager back in 2000; with hindsight, it may even have marked the initial shifting of my musical tastes from the radio-friendly pop the "Now!" albums subsisted on to stranger, more disorientating electronica with tiny, bizarre details I could fixate on. Since I Left You by The Avalanches was still a number of months away, and within that time I'm sure that "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia" did a lot to whet my appetite for its monumental weirdness. Some of the samples used here are funny, some are odd, some are utterly skin-crawling, particularly that one at the very end that really caught me off-guard the first time I heard it. Here's what we hear as the music fades out:

"And this is your Uncle Don saying goodnight. Goodnight, little kids, goodnight! (Pauses) We're off? Good, well that oughta hold the little bastards!"

Uncle Don's reckless use of the word "bastards" was the major source of contention when the single was initially released without a Parental Advisory sticker (this was later redressed, although Now 45 carried no such warning) but what I always found downright sinister about the ending was the exaggerated cheerfulness of his sign-off coupled just how rapidly it descended into all-out bitterness. The origins of this particular piece of dialogue are easy enough to trace (to a point). "Uncle Don" was a US children's radio show that aired on WOR radio between 1928 and 1947 and was hosted by the eponymous Uncle Don, or Don Carney (real name Howard Rice). Anyone who's even vaguely aware of Uncle Don's existence has no doubt encountered the story that he was heard uttering "That oughta hold the little bastards!" at the end of one fateful broadcast, mistakenly believing that he was off the air. This dubious but highly prevalent piece of radio lore has been attributed to multiple children's radio personalities, although Uncle Don is the name unfortunate enough to have gotten predominantly stuck with it, despite there being no solid evidence that such an incident ever occurred, either on Uncle Don's show or anyone else's. Jan Harold Brunvand discussed this story in his 1986 book The Mexican Pet, while Snopes provides a very in-depth coverage of the legend in this article, which concludes by noting the injustice that, "the "little bastards" rumor may not have ruined Don Carney's career, but it certainly has unfairly sullied his reputation for nearly seventy years now."

This apocryphal story was, of course, the inspiration for a plot point in The Simpsons episode "Krusty Gets Kancelled" of Season 4, in which Gabbo is caught calling his audience "little S.O.B.s" when he assumes that the camera is no longer rolling. The official episode guide book The Simpsons: A Complete Guide To Our Favorite Family, published in 1997, acknowledges the reference but misleadingly describes it as if it were indeed a real-life event:

"Gabbo's line, "That oughta hold the little S.O.B.s," spoken after the camera has been turned off (a gaffe repeated by Kent Brockman) is taken from a 1950s kiddie show in which the host asked, "Are we off the air?" and then said, "That ought to hold the little S.O.B.s for another week." He did not know he was still on the air and was summarily dismissed."

That A Complete Guide fails to provide any more specific details than "a 1950s kiddie show" should be a big enough tip-off that the story is of dubious authenticity (not that specificity is any guarantee of authenticity, but still, there is some decidedly dodgy phrasing going on in the above paragraph). Also, 1950s? I guess that's an example of a legend evolving over time and being adapted to the childhood memories of a whole new generation. Disappointingly, the guys on the DVD commentary for "Krusty Gets Kancelled" also seem to be under the impression that it's a true story, and they do specify the presenter as Uncle Don. Sullying the good name of an innocent children's radio host? That is a Bozo no-no.

What made the legend, specifically its association with Don Carney, all the more prevalent, was the inclusion of a supposedly "authentic" recording of the gaffe in a collection compiled by radio producer Kermit Schafer as part of his Pardon My Blooper! record series. Although Schafer presented all of the recordings in his compilations as genuine, many of them were actually staged recreations of on-air gaffes where no recording of the actual event existed (possibly because it never happened at all, as is the case here). If anyone in this scenario deserves to be called a bastard or S.O.B., it's Schafer. The Wikipedia page for "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia" claims that the dialogue heard at the end of the song is a direct sample of Schafer's recreation of the fabricated incident, but here's the weird thing - it doesn't match the recording that appears on Kermit Schafer's record Pardon My Blooper! Volume 1 from 1954. The dialogue isn't exactly word-for-word, and there are other differences too - notably, that in that version "Uncle Don" is audibly moving away from the mic as he says the offending statement, whereas here it's loud, clear and totally unabashed. It is, however, the exact same recording included in the above Snopes article. So...did Kermit Schafer create two different versions of the same incident? Did he decide that the original version featured on Pardon My Blooper! Volume 1 simply wasn't funny enough and decide to redo it? I actually find that quite plausible - the version sampled on "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia" does sound like it was purposely designed to play up the humour value of the scenario (at the expense of its credibility as an actual on-air gaffe); the "bastards" bit is spoken as loudly and as clearly as everything else in the recording, so you can't possibly miss it, and the faux Uncle Don's abrupt descent from kindliness to contempt is so much nastier and more abrasive in this version. What I'd like to know is where this second version came from - Schafer released sheaves of compilations of these alleged on-air bloopers, and I'm not sure if I really have the patience to trawl through them all. The only other possibility is that Schafer has nothing to do with this particular recreation and Snopes and Wikipedia have both got it wrong, in which case where does this sample originate? In any case, any help would be greatly appreciated.

That goes for pretty much every other sample in the song too. There are many of them, but the page on Wikipedia currently lists only one other source: the line "Don't be too happy...after some months of this you'll be smacking your lips at the thought of salt beef", which it notes as being from "the 1950s dramatization of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth". Not overly specific on Wikipedia's part, but the sample does indeed come from the 1959 feature film Journey To The Center of the Earth directed by Henry Levin, and is said by Arlene Dahl's character during the scene when the exploration team happens upon an underground valley of giant mushrooms.

The others though? I don't know. I've tried googling a bunch of them but only ever get led back to "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia". "Nobody makes love like Robert Lee Anderson"? Who on earth is Robert Lee Anderson? (Admittedly, I don't know if that's even an accurate transcription of the sample in question, as I've relied a lot on what lyrics sites reckon are the correct words. Back in 2000 I always heard that particular piece of dialogue as "Nobody makes love like that, Julie-Anne", which is certainly funnier.) There's the possibility that some of these audio samples aren't authentic originals but recreations in order to circumvent licensing issues. Heck, some of them may even be entirely original pieces of audio created specially for use in the song and, if so, that I'm just going on a wild goose chase here, but nevertheless I dream of one day compiling a comprehensive list of where everything in this song came from, if only to serve as a monument to my obsession and insatiable curiosity. I'm calling it The Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia Project, and it won't succeed without either a lot luck on my part or a lot of help, so if you do happen to know the origin of any of the unidentified samples within, be a dear and share that knowledge with me.

Anyway, I've babbled about this song for long enough; it's probably time I embedded the music video. Enjoy the creepy animatronic hamster:

PS: Despite my criticisms of it here, reading through the track list of Now 45 on Discogs I got a surprising - and disturbing - case of the nostalgias (which was still not enough to redeem that Atomic Kitten song, mind). I also forgot that "Imagine" by John Lennon was on there (having been re-released in December 1999) - it wasn't all bad then, though it might say something about the state of the then-current popular music scene that it took the presence of an old classic to give the release a whiff of respectability. I did have to smile upon remembering that Precious Brats feat. Kevin and Perry was also included, although god knows why - watching that movie back in 2000 was one heck of an awkward experience.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Logo Case Study: Guild Home Video

Stephen King is the in thing right now, with It smashing up the September box office, but if you're craving a really good King-related scare, you need not go all the way to your local multiplex and endure a bunch of kids rustling popcorn boxes in your ear. Instead, pick up a copy of the 1983 VHS release of Cujo by UK-based distributors Guild Home Video and immerse yourself in hands down the scariest viewing experience you're ever going to get out of a King flick - not because of the content of the film itself, of course, but because of what'll pop up on your screen right before it. Never mind a rabid St. Bernard or a shape-shifting clown demon, the Guild Home Video logo is all of your worst nightmares encapsulated in one fiendish burst of cold blue terror.

The graphics themselves are fairly tame, so the obvious nightmare factor here lies in that cheap, repetitive synth music, which sounds unpleasantly reminiscent of the kind of sonic experience you'd get when you were playing Bullfrog Productions' Theme Park and the game would crash during the ride simulations (an occurrence so freaky that it might be worth covering here in its own entry some time). The Guild Home Video copyright notice/logo has that same distinctively jammed, broken quality that makes it seem as if there is something very wrong with your VHS machine and which really underscores the threatening nature of the copyright text. And then the cruelest twist of all...just when you think the damned thing's over you have to endure an all more tortuously chaotic-sounding version which plays over the company logo. The logo itself isn't the most memorable-looking in the world, but at least the blue and pink stripes give it a relatively snazzy, colourful vibe.

Founded in 1979, Guild Home Video enjoyed a pretty healthy lifespan and were still distributing titles into the late 1990s, when a merger with Pathe finally brought an end to the brand. By then they'd adopted a much softer, gentler logo involving a director's chair, but anyone familiar with their earlier releases would never forget just what monstrosities they were capable of (and it didn't start with this one. I don't currently own any of their pre-1983 releases but it seems that the logo they used there was intent on evoking your very freakiest memories of The Exorcist).

Oh, but it's not all terror. The Guild Home Video release of Cujo does also have this at the start. Just in case you needed one last puff of happiness and rainbows before the stuff with the rabies gets underway.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Somewhere Down the Line (2014)

Somewhere Down the Line from Julien Regnard on Vimeo.

Somewhere Down the Line (2014) is a film by Julien Regnard that thematically recalls Old Fangs (2009), an earlier Cartoon Saloon short directed by Adrien Meirgeau and Alan Holly, in its exploration of coming of age, family turmoil and estranged relations, but with a more optimistic outcome. Like Old Fangs, which tracked an anthropomorphic wolf's trek into the deep dark woods of repressed childhood angst in an attempt to be reconciled with his bestial father, Somewhere Down the Line uses the visual metaphor of the journey to convey the emotional distance created between two soul pulled down different courses in life. Here, a man's progression from childhood to old age is represented as a literal car journey, the various relationships he forges and breaks within that time being illustrated in the succession of passengers he picks up and abandons along the way. There is no sense of destination to the journey; for the most part, its purpose is simply to move away from situations that have turned either sour or stale, to leave the past behind and venture out into the unknown in the hopes that something better lies ahead. Crucially, the protagonist's journey is entirely one-way; from the moment he ditches his quarrelsome parents he becomes a man perpetually on the run, learning how to abandon loved ones and never look back, until finally he winds up on the receiving end of that very abandonment.

Somewhere Down the Line contains little discernible dialogue, relying strongly on mood and atmosphere to convey the inner condition of its characters. It does so in a manner that underscores both the beauty of the surrounding landscapes and the quiet desolation of the journey. The road the protagonist travels is shown to be endless and largely uneventful, with long stretches in which we see nary a sign of other vehicles or human life. There is an apprehensiveness to the journey, a sense that one is driven to form attachments to fellow travelers simply to stave off that overwhelming isolation. Like Old Fangs, Somewhere Down the Line makes eye-catching use of colour and lighting to characterise the various stages of the journey and how this translates into personal progression (or regression) in the character's lifespan. The film is structured around an obvious symbolism involving the cycle of the seasons, signalling not only the temporal stages of the protagonist's life but also his emotional development in terms of his ability to connect with others. We open in the cold dead of winter, where the toxic relations between the protagonist's parents and his own entrapment as a helpless spectator to their non-stop quarreling are reflected in the thick layer of snow that has engulfed the surrounding countryside. Once the protagonist, still a young child, has seized the initiative to take control of the car and go his own way, the bleak grey of the skies gives way to a warmer, gentler glow. In learning not to be emotionally reliant on his parents, he enjoys the promise of freedom ahead, yet the persistent snow and ice suggest that his hurting and general reluctance to let others get close has persisted into adolescence/adulthood. It is only once he has pulled over and offered help to a group of young travelers whose own vehicle has broken down that we clear signs of this frigid atmosphere shifting; as he finds himself in the company of others and is implied to form a particularly strong bond with the mustached young man who takes the passenger seat beside him, the snow around him finally thaws. When this friendship is subsequently traded in for the promise of a romantic relationship with a young woman whose vehicle is out of commission, the green spring ambience continues to flourish; while it came at the cost of betraying his buddy and leaving him stranded, the protagonist's life has never been more alive with hope and the possibility of renewal. In both cases, the forging of a new bond, the emotional dependency upon another individual, offers promise but does not come without its degree of risk, as signified in the dark passage the protagonist takes through a forest once his new friends have joined the ride and, more saliently, the overturned car he later passes with his newfound love. The obvious pitfall is that the fresh hope birthed from their youthful union will one day give way to the same bitterness and anger that came to define his parents' relationship; for now, though, the young couple are at the peak of their passion, heading into a tunnel and emerging with a child in the backseat (could there be a clearer metaphor?) into the warm embrace of a bright, brilliant summer.

There is trouble ahead, however, for very soon the skies are darkening yet again and autumn sets in with the relationship between the protagonist and his partner beginning to mirror that of his parents before him. Their daughter can only observe helplessly as their increasingly rocky interaction transforms into physical turbulence, with the car swerving dangerously off-course and the bloodied gash on the side of the woman's face carrying the implicit suggestion of domestic violence (although less implicit than the device used in Old Fangs). At this stage, in a rare instance where we see a second vehicle appear on the road, the protagonist himself becomes the one left behind. Unable to repair his defunct vehicle, he is forced to continue his journey on foot, at which point the surrounding landscape once again falls under the grip of winter, signifying not only the protagonist's transitioning into old age but also his return to a state of complete isolation. This time, the isolation is born not of a desire for independence but of others choosing to shun him. Without a vehicle of his own, he finds himself enfeebled and at the mercy of others, and his efforts to hitch a ride with other motorists are ignored. Finally, help arrives in the form of a young female motorist who pulls over and allows him to share her car. Amid her display of tender compassion, turning up the car heater on noticing how cold he is, he becomes aware of the wooden horse dangling from her rear view mirror, and the film ends on his moment of realisation that he has shared a car with this individual once before. It is, of course, the same horse held by his daughter earlier on in the film, but we might recall that the horse's presence goes back even further, to when the protagonist himself was a child. The horse is a symbol of childhood innocence, but its reappearance at the end of the film also indicates a lingering connection between father and daughter which has endured their time of estrangement (unlike the two wolves in Old Fangs, who ultimately decide they are beyond reconciliation). The cycle of resurgence and abandonment that characterised the protagonist's own journey has, in effect, been broken, for it appears that a character has purposely gone backwards in order to be reconciled with one left behind. We do not see how their future father-daughter relations play out, but in this unexpected act of clemency we find hope, for the first time, of a broken bond being renewed, and with it the possibility that spring may come again.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

VHS Verve: Rock-a-Doodle (1991)

Even the most hardcore of Don Bluth devotees find it difficult to defend what became of the man as the world entered the 1990s. It's no secret that Bluth's career did not thrive alongside that of his old friends at Disney once their Renaissance era had kicked into gear - All Dogs Go To Heaven had fared poorly against The Little Mermaid and his next picture, Rock-a-Doodle, was such a disastrous flop that it forced Sullivan Bluth Studios into liquidation and put an end to Bluth's partnership with Goldcrest Films. This time, Bluth had the good sense not to release the film in direct competition with Disney's latest offering, Beauty and The Beast (which was critically acclaimed, surpassed Mermaid at the box office and made history by being the first animated to feature to receive a Best Picture nomination), purposely delaying the US release until spring 1992 (it was released earlier in some foreign markets) when Disney would be out of the picture and the only major competition would be from Kroyer Films' Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. Ferngully wasn't exactly a monster hit, but it still had little difficulty in crushing Rock-a-Doodle at the box office. It didn't help that Rock-a-Doodle endured an even greater critical thrashing than Dogs before it. Whereas Dogs does have a following of ardent defenders who'll insist that it was a misunderstood masterpiece all along, it seems that nobody wants to fight in poor lonesome Rock-a-Doodle's corner. To countless Bluth admirers, this is the film that destroyed their hero, and for that they'll always revile it.

Unfortunately for Bluth and his fans, Rock-a-Doodle's misfortunes were to set the tone for his career path throughout much of the 1990s, with a string of low-key releases that were clobbered by the critics and barely noticed at all by the public, who were too busy lining up to see The Lion King for the umpteenth time. It took until Anastasia in 1997, once Bluth was hired as a creative head of the newly-formed Fox Animation Studios, for him to put out a film that achieved any kind of critical or financial success, and even then it was a very fleeting comeback. After Titan A.E. flopped in 2000, Fox Animations Studios was no more and Bluth was once again pushed off the map, apparently permanently this time (I haven't been paying much attention to what he's been doing lately. Is he still spending a lot of time on Kickstarter?). "Dude, what happened?" is a common exclaim, but to me it's evident that Bluth has always kind of sucked at story construction. It was less obvious earlier on in his career because he was consistently being propped up by someone else's vision. The Secret of NIMH was based on a novel by Robert C. O'Brien, and Bluth follows O'Brien's story pretty faithfully for the first two thirds (then he majorly diverges in order to make Jenner into a more traditional antagonist and it all goes to hell in my opinion). An American Tail and The Land Before Time were made in association with Amblin Entertainment, and Steven Spielberg exercised a lot of creative control in determining how those films turned out. All Dogs Go To Heaven was Bluth's first attempt at an original story where he got to call the shots, and that film has major narrative problems, particularly in the third act, where a huge chunk of the resolution rests upon a stupid singing alligator that Bluth randomly pulls from his backside. Rock-a-Doodle might strike one as a pretty major slide into the maelstrom - an avalanche of storytelling discord that makes Dogs seem entirely comprehensible by comparison - although many of those issues are still cut from much the same cloth as that infernal alligator.

Before I decided to cover it here, I'll confess that I had never actually watched Rock-a-Doodle in its entirety. As a child, I'd caught bits and pieces of it here and there, but I'd never been able to discern just what the hell the plot was supposed to be. I vaguely recall seeing a featurette on the film in an episode of Rolf's Cartoon Club and having a very hard time accepting that the scenes with the twee barnyard animals and the super-sexualised female pheasant (Jesus Christ, I feel so dirty just looking at her) were from the same movie. After referencing the film in my respective reviews for The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go To Heaven, however, I found that my morbid curiosity had swelled the point that I simply had to get hold of a copy and see what all the fuss was about. The only trailer on this VHS is for Felix the Cat: The Movie, which promises to be "a landmark in cinema enchantment". Uh-huh. Actually, that film never figured in my own childhood and I didn't discover it until I was already into my 20s and happened to fish the DVD out of the bargain bin at my local supermarket. For a quid I couldn't possibly say no. We'll get to Felix, I promise.

What does Hallilwell's Film Guide have to say this time?  "Excellent animation is rendered pointless in a poor and confusing narrative." Hmm, actually I think that Halliwell's is being rather generous in calling the animation "excellent". Rock-a-Doodle is not a bad-looking film but it isn't a breathtakingly amazing one either. It's largely on a par with much of what Disney was doing for the 1980s, but by 1991 Disney had seriously upped their game, and Rock-a-Doodle is plainly not in the same league as Beauty and The Beast or The Rescuers Down Under.  It's also not in the same league as All Dogs Go To Heaven, which at least had the benefit of pleasingly fluid character animation. Rock-a-Doodle contains only one particularly showy or ambitious piece of animation, and that occurs in the opening sequence, where we glide through outer space and across the surface of the Earth, finally swooping down upon a barnyard and coming face-to-face with our rooster lead. It's a nice sequence, although I couldn't help but think how much grander it would have looked with a Beauty and The Beast-sized budget. Visually, Rock-a-Doodle remains a very characteristically Don Bluth film, with drab, murky backgrounds and characters whose designs are an unsightly combination of tweeness and grotesqueness.

Rock-a-Doodle was adapted (albeit very loosely) from Chantecler, a satirical play by French dramatist Edmond Rostand which first debuted in 1910, about an idealistic rooster who believes that he controls the diurnal cycles with his crowing and the derision heaped upon him by his rival, a blackbird with a far more cynical outlook on life. Actually, Rock-a-Doodle's mere existence might be of vague interest to Disney history buffs, for it was born from one of that company's most infamous discarded projects. An animated film based on Rostand's play was an idea that Walt and his crew had been intermittently revisiting since the 1940s, but it had never gotten particularly far off the ground. Animators Ken Anderson and Marc Davis made a heartfelt attempt to revive the project in the 1960s but were shot down during a notoriously punishing pitch where the Disney executives apparently scoffed at the very idea of a feature film centred around a galline protagonist. To them, there was something about the humble barnyard fowl which made it inherently unsuited to stardom, and that was enough to doom the project from the outset. Bluth, however, saw the potential and, once he had cast off the Disney shackles and established himself as an independent animator, decided to take his own stab at a Chantecler movie - it's pretty clear, however, that the finished product had little to do with Anderson and Davis's original vision. In fact, without having seen Rostand's play, I'm going to hazard a guess that Disney's Oliver and Company was a lot more faithful to the basic narrative of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist than Rock-a-Doodle was to that of its own source, despite Rostand's play already featuring an anthropomorphic cast. For one thing, I'm not clear where Bluth got the (completely deranged) idea that transforming a fable about idealism vs cynicism into an animated lover letter to Elvis Presley was the perfect way of modernising Rostand's play for the New Kids on the Block-loving children of the early 90s.

Of course, Bluth's take on Chantecler was also influenced by the then-recent success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), which accounts for the film's misguided (and entirely pointless) efforts to combine live action with animation. Our main character is a young boy named Edmond (so named, I assume, as a tip of the hat to Rostand), played by Toby Scott Ganger, who gets transformed into a cat through the curse of a villainous owl (we'll get to him later). As a human, Edmond and his world are portrayed as live action, but once transformed into a cat he becomes a cartoon creation and finds himself part of an animated world populated by anthropomorphic creatures. The two worlds collide only briefly, during two separate sequences - when Edmond is initially cursed and then at the very end of the film - which is fortunate because the technique is implemented with a terrible naivety. The thing about Roger Rabbit (as I mentioned in my review of Hollywood Dog) is that it worked because the animation and live action were amalgamated in a manner that was, above all else, amazingly believable. You could buy that the live action characters and toons really were part of the same physical universe, as opposed to the latter merely being pasted on top of it, and that Roger and Valiant were genuinely interacting. Roger Rabbit had the budget (with Spielberg on board, securing funds was never an issue) and the persistence of vision (with Richard Williams handling art direction, you could guarantee that every individual frame of animation was going to be damned well perfect) to pull that off; Rock-a-Doodle looks extremely primitive by comparison, and is less convincing even than earlier attempts at mixing live action with cartoons (eg: Disney's The Three Caballeros from 1944). There's also the nagging question as to why Bluth felt that the narrative merited the combination in the first place, other than to latch ahold of the Roger Rabbit bandwagon - Edmond could have been animated in both his forms, or even a cat from the very beginning, and the story would have required little tweaking, while the film would at least have had the virtue of visual consistency. The answer, I think, is that Bluth was going for something akin to The Wizard of Oz, where you have a story split between two contrasting worlds, each with its own very distinct mood and aesthetic - in fact, the live action portions of the film are frustratingly reminiscent of Oz, right down to Edmond being separated from his family and connected to the "fantasy" portion of the film via a storm, and the "it was all a dream - or was it?" ambiguity of the ending. It was certainly very ballsy of Bluth to attempt to mimic one of the most beloved pictures in the history of Hollywood so closely, but alas, it does not pay off - there's no sense of wonder or enchantment when Edmond becomes a cat and gets mixed up with the animated critters, because both worlds are so flat and ill-defined. It's not helped by the awkward story structure, which struggles to set up the two worlds and intertwine them in a smooth and coherent way.

The film opens with an animated prologue, in which we're introduced to the character of Chanticleer (Glen Campbell) and his alleged sun-raising abilities. Chanticleer is universally beloved by the diurnal folk for apparently bringing them sunlight every morning, until one fateful occasion where a mysterious rooster shows up right before dawn and forces Chanticleer to fight for his territory. Chanticleer is able to fend off the challenger, but is distracted from his usual crowing duties and subsequently exposed as a fraud when the sun rises without him. Scorned by the very animals who once adored him, Chanticleer decides that there's no longer a place for him on the farm and sets off for the city. The film then abruptly transitions into a live action sequence where we see Edmond and his mother (Dee Wallace) reading the story from a picture book. Edmond's father (Stan Ivar) walks in to report that a massive storm is breaking outside and he needs the family's help in securing the home from impending flood. Much to his chagrin, Edmond is ordered to stay in his bedroom because he's deemed too small to be of use. Edmond decides that he can fix the problem by calling for Chanticleer to come and raise the sun, thus ending the storm (in addition to Oz, this portion of the film blatantly takes a few cues from The NeverEnding Story). Chanticleer doesn't answer the call, but he does attract the attention of a few other animated varmints who show up at his bedroom window, and that's where things start to get weird for him.

One of Rock-a-Doodle's few really notable distinctions is that it provided Phil Harris (famous for playing Baloo in Disney's 1967 adaptation of The Jungle Book, Thomas O'Malley in 1970's The Aristocats and Little John in 1973's Robin Hood) with the final role of his career - Harris retired from acting thereafter and passed away in 1995. Here he voices Patou the dog, a character taken from Rostand's play (although once again I'm willing to bet that the Patou we see here bears little relation to the original character created by Rostand - one of his defining traits here is his neverending struggle to tie up his shoelaces). Harris turns in a noticeably less energetic performance than he did in any of his Disney roles, and I don't know if that had more to do with Harris's age or a lack of enthusiasm for the script. The only cast member who appears to be having any kind of fun with with their material is Christopher Plummer, who voices the aforementioned villainous owl, the Grand Duke. Plummer plays the Duke with an enjoyably hammy pomposity, breathing ample life into what is essentially a pretty weak excuse for an antagonist; the Duke opposes Chanticleer because...well, he's an owl and owls are nocturnal, and it stands to reason that owls would prefer a world where the sun doesn't shine so that their reign of terror can finally begin, correct?

"Owls will deafen us with incessant hooting!"

The Duke does not want Chanticleer to return and is outraged that this meddling kid is attempting to make contact with him, so he resolves to devour him and be done with it. He turns Edmond into a cat because they're easier to eat than human children (makes sense - owls have to swallow their prey whole, after all), but before he can do the grisly deed Patou waltzes in and rescues Edmond. It transpires that Patou and his friends have taken a wrong turning and wandered into Edmond's house while attempting to reach the city. They realise that they made a grievous error in driving Chanticleer away and will be doomed to a world of stormy darkness if the rooster does not return and make the sun shine again and...okay, hold up a second, already we're running into a serious problem with narrative messiness here. Let's go back and reconsider that prologue. It doesn't quite mesh with how the rest of the film plays out and contains a number of elements that I suspect were intended for a different version of the story altogether - the mysterious rooster who showed up to challenge Chanticleer, for example, feels as if he should have held greater narrative significance, but he's casually explained away (in Patou's voiceover narration) as an agent sent by the Duke and then never mentioned again. There's also the massive inconsistency as to whether Chanticleer's crowing actually is responsible for making the sun rise or not. Apparently it is, or else the characters wouldn't be in this predicament, but this contradicts what we see in the prologue, where the sun blatantly is shown rising by itself. The animals have concluded that they misjudged the situation, but it's never explained what actually was going on. Was it all just trickery on the part of the Duke? If so, then do he and his minions have sun-raising abilities of their own? Obviously, the Duke would have to believe that Chanticleer's crowing really could raise the sun or it would be futile to get rid of him. Again, I suspect that there was once an earlier version of the story where Chanticleer couldn't raise the sun and the Duke's motivation was somewhat different, before Bluth decided to introduce the whole aspect of Edmond being sucked in from his human state and having to stop a storm which was affecting both worlds; the prologue looks to have been salvaged from this version and Patou's narration tacked on to fill in a lot of the cracks, but it isn't exactly watertight.

Edmond puts a dead raccoon on his head, reveals that he regularly visits the city and agrees to show the other animals the way. He sets out, leading a motley crew consisting of Patou, Peepers the mouse (Sandy Duncan), the bespectacled brains of the operation, and Snipes the magpie (Eddie Deezen), the frenzied comic relief. There's a sequence where they have to escape from Duke's minions via an aqueduct and Snipes' claustrophobia nearly does them in, but before long they arrive safely at the city know what, already I have another question. Is this supposed to be the same city that Edmond says he's been to many times as a human child? For story purposes we're led to believe that it is, only it too seems to be populated mainly by anthropomorphic animals. I say "mainly" because there's a scene where the cat, dog, mouse and magpie are inside a diner and I'm really not clear as to whether the other patrons are meant to be humans or beasts (with Bluth's grotesque character designs it's very hard to tell); if the former, then I'm amazed that none of them are in the least bit perturbed by this assortment of disease-carrying vermin strutting around their eatery in plain sight. This leads us into one of Rock-a-Doodle's biggest problems; namely, that the world-building is frankly shit. I'm not exaggerating when I say that it's among the most head-scratching I've ever seen in a motion picture. The confusing amalgamation of live action and animation doesn't help matters - given that the environmental fallout caused by Chanticleer's absence is implied to be responsible for the storm in Edmond's world, we're left to conclude that the humans and talking animals do indeed inhabit the same physical universe, although the film doesn't really give you a handle on whether Edmond is still in that same world in a different form or has somehow slipped into a freaky alternate version where everyone is a cartoon animal. The Wizard of Oz, by contrast, made it painstakingly clear where Kansas ended and Oz began.

Edmond, Patou and the others discover that, since leaving the farm, Chanticleer has transmogrified his talent for crowing into a full-on Elvis Presley pastiche and made quite a name for himself as the headlining act at a nightclub run by sleazy vulpine manager Pinky (Sorrell Brooke). Pinky is our secondary antagonist; once he gets wind of the fact that Chanticleer's old friends are looking to bring him back to the farm, he conspires to prevent Edmond and co from ever making contact with him. Pinky should already have ample motivation for doing so, because he's an avaricious prick who obviously doesn't want to lose his club's star attraction, but just to make the story seem a little less disjointed it's revealed that he's working in league with the Duke as part of a grand conspiracy to keep Chanticleer from returning to the farm and raising the sun. That Pinky happens to know the Duke feels like a real stretch and merely accentuates just how messily integrated are the assorted narrative threads. Again, there's the underlying sense that we're watching parts of several different stories which have been cobbled together in a half-baked attempt to create a whole. Pinky tries to keep Chanticleer distracted by having one of his lesser acts, Goldie the sexualised pheasant (Ellen Greene), pretend to fall in love with him. Goldie initially resents having to perform in Chanticleer's shadow but later ends up falling in love with him for real; we have be told rather than shown this however (again, through Patou's blatantly tacked-on narration), as their relationship receives practically no onscreen development. Ultimately, Goldie is more a plot device than character, as well as a creepy bit of eye candy thrown in the hopes of baiting a few fanboys (influenced, I assume, by the wild enthusiasm heaped upon Jessica Rabbit, who as a character had more substance because she was also such a great femme fatale caricature). Greene attempts to inject a bit of her Little Shop of Horrors charm into the role but is given precious little work with. In fact, Chanticleer himself doesn't fare massively better; we see him perform a handful of Elvis routines but don't actually get to spend that much time with him behind-the-scenes. For the alleged hero of the piece, he's kept at a curious distance throughout. I strongly suspect that the bitty little snippets we see of Chanticleer's foray into celebrity are remnants of an earlier script where his city adventures actually were at the forefront, before the decision was made to shift the focus onto Edmond. Perhaps Bluth decided that those Disney execs were onto something when they questioned if a chicken had what it takes to keep an audience engaged for 70-odd minutes. More likely, he concluded that the movie needed a young protagonist in order to make it more accessible to children.

So, Chanticleer and Goldie fall in love, and then Chanticleer signs a picture deal, and this is another issue I have with the film's narrative - the time frame (just like everything else) is extremely confusing. Are we supposed to conclude that the entire plot takes place over the course of a single night? Without Chanticleer to raise the sun the world exists in a state of eternal night, of course, but for Chanticleer's career and his relationship with Goldie to progress as they do we would ideally be looking at weeks and weeks worth of development here. Maybe Edmond and his friends really are away for that long, but I'm not sure how that fits in with his parents still struggling to protect the home from flooding, or with the animals who are forced to sit out the adventure back in Edmond's bedroom, having to fend off owls with a flashlight and a couple of dying batteries. It's also puzzling that none of the city-dwellers appear to notice that the sun has disappeared from the sky - outside of a couple of newspaper headlines, it barely gets a mention at all. It's almost as if the city exists in its own private bubble and is impervious to what's going on elsewhere in the world.

The city portion of the story contains a lot of padding, as Edmond and friends try to get past Pinky's efforts to stop them meeting Chanticleer. We get a sequence where Pinky bans all cats, dogs, mice and birds from entering his nightclub, so patrons who fall into those categories (Edmond included) attempt to circumvent this blatant discrimination by dressing up as penguins and - hold up, penguins ARE birds, you morons. There are also a handful of sequences involving the Duke's runty assistant, Hunch (Charles Nelson Reilly), who pursues Edmond and co to the city and makes multiple attempts to pick them off, only to be tripped up by his own crippling lack of co-ordination every time. Hunch is a pretty dreadful character who serves no useful narrative purpose other than to give the Duke some kind of second-hand connection to the action once it's shifted well away from him. In many respects, he feels like an attempt to recreate Reilly's character Killer from All Dogs Go To Heaven, in being a scrawny, ineffectual underling who's frequently abused by the big bad, but with a greater emphasis on making him comedic. I very quickly learned to groan whenever Hunch appeared onscreen.

Eventually, once we've dicked around in the city for long to enough to finally progress to a climax, Chanticleer realises that his friends want him back, he and Goldie unite with the others, Peepers pressures Edmond into committing grand theft auto, and there follows a hypnotically frenetic chase sequence in which they escape from Pinky and his minions. I cannot do justice to how just how amazingly, deliriously bonkers this entire sequence is. There's a bit where Peepers tries to persuade Edmond to climb down the rear of the stolen car and unlatch a trailer which is hindering their escape. Edmond points out just how stupidly dangerous this would be, so Peepers yells at him for being a sissy and attempts to climb down and do it herself, only to be ambushed by Hunch and go sailing away with the trailer. Given how aggressively snotty Peepers had just been with Edmond, I had to laugh at how well it worked out for her. We get an utterly bizarre moment where Edmond retreats inside his own skull (don't ask) and is plagued by a bombardment of self-doubts before finally getting a hold of himself, grabbing the steering wheel and turning the vehicle back around to rescue Peepers. I guess this is supposed to be Edmond's big revelatory character moment, where he overcomes everything that's been holding him back until now, only the way it's done it just looks like another pie of non-sequitur weirdness. For one thing, the notion that Edmond's this shrimpy little guy hampered by the self-doubt that he's too small to accomplish anything is not something that the film's been particularly consistent on - it comes up toward the start, when Peepers first asks Edmond to lead them to the city, but Edmond doesn't seem to have much trouble taking charge of the group from there on in. I also feel there may have been more appropriate ways of showing this than in having Edmond be hectored because he's reluctant to endanger himself by climbing down the rear of a stolen car traveling at breakneck speed. Let's be real, Edmond is only supposed to be about six years old here. What kind of message is this sending to the kids in the audience?

Anyway, Edmond, Chanticleer and friends end up inside a helicopter (again, don't ask) and fly back to the flooded house to do battle with the owls, who are currently preparing to feast on the critters left behind. During the inevitable showdown between Chanticleer and the Duke, the former struggles to regain the confidence to crow while the latter shows off his entirely arbitrary talent for swelling himself to enormous size (I'm sorry, what?). Edmond tries to act as Chanticleer's cheerleader, so the Duke knocks him unconscious and Edmond subsequently doesn't get to see it when his rooster pal lets out a mighty crow and causes the sun to come hurtling back across the sky. The Duke's final fate...well, I'm not going to spoil it for you here, but rest assured that it's every bit as stupid, nonsensical and eye-poppingly warped as everything leading up to it. In other words, it's absolutely perfect.

The owls have been defeated, but the animals are sad because of the harm that's come to Edmond during the confrontation. As they gather around his unconscious body, they're shocked to see him morph back into a live action human boy, whereupon we see a hand tenderly mopping his brow...and suddenly we're back in Kansas (or wherever) again, with Edmond's mother assuring him that the storm has passed and everything is now fine. Edmond tries to tell his mother of the role that Chanticleer played in stopping the storm, but she insists that Chanticleer isn't real and that his story is only make-believe. Left alone in his room, Edmond picks up the storybook he was reading earlier, only for the characters to leap from the pages and start dancing with him (in a sequence so visually appalling that it makes Hollywood Dog look like Roger Rabbit). Blatantly, the film was looking to evoke same kind of feeling you get at the end of The Wizard of Oz, where all the evidence points toward it being a dream, but you get so caught up in the fantasy world that, much like Dorothy, you want believe that it was a real place. Unfortunately, that's all negated here by Patou's intrusive voice-over, which makes it very plain that we're supposed to accept all the Chanticleer stuff as real. Certainly, it would make far more sense if it was a dream - it would account for the huge number of plot holes/internal logic failures the story unloads on us, along with the film's generally scrambled and delirious tone - but having Patou comment on Edmond at the end and how his mother "never knew what really stopped the storm" robs it of all potential ambiguity. I've read that Patou's voice-over was added in quite late in the game, when test audiences struggled to make sense of the story, and I find that very believable - the narration feels awkwardly implemented all throughout, either because it explains things rather poorly (the prologue), tells us things we should ideally be shown (eg: Goldie falling in love with Chanticleer for real) or spoils key events before they happen (Patou assures us during Goldie's very first scene that she'll end up joining the good guys, presumably to placate parents who complained she was of dubious character). It feels for all the world like a last ditch attempt to give some semblance of coherence to a Frankenstein's monster of a story which wasn't pulling together convincingly. I argued at the beginning of this review that story construction was never Bluth's strong point, but what makes Rock-a-Doodle a particularly woeful example, I think, is that it's just so obvious that the story got cut up, revamped and sewn back together so many times that it never settled on any clear sense of what it was about or the world and characters it was trying to convey. I don't know if Bluth had tight deadlines to work toward or if the film was in danger of running over budget (I'm led to believe that Goldcrest Films, angry at how little All Dogs Go To Heaven had made, gave him a hard time during this production), but I guess that at some point he decided to cut his losses, mash together 70-odd minutes worth of material and just hope that the damned thing would break even. Not the greatest career move when your mortal enemies were already at the point of bagging a Best Picture nomination.

The Verdict:

There's no denying that Rock-a-Doodle is a horrible, horrible piece of film-making. The narrative is flimsy and aggressively chaotic (in a manner that reeks of endless haphazard rewriting), the combination of animation and live action does not enhance the experience dramatically or aesthetically, and its attempts to rip off the story framing devices of The Wizard of Oz wholesale are both jaw-droppingly audacious and incredibly misguided. And yet, I have to admit that I rather enjoyed it, in a way that I didn't The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail or All Dogs Go To Heaven. It plumbs such remarkable depths of weirdness, inanity and all-out mindfuckery that in the end I had to surrender every shred of reason and common sense and just go along for the ride. Everything about it, from the grotesque delirium of the animated city sequences to the cornball artifice of the live action scenes with Edmond and his family, is so bizarre and tonally misjudged that it offers up a perverse kind of pleasure. I'm actually amazed that this film doesn't have a more robust cult following - it has "midnight screening" written all over it. And I do have a strange kind of admiration for how authentically (if unintentionally) nightmarish it is, with its endless labyrinth of twists, turns and sensory bludgeonings; in terms of replicating just how unsettling and dislocating the experience of dreaming can be, it rings far truer than did Dorothy's adventures in Oz (so much so it feels a cheat that Edmond apparently isn't dreaming). I know that many Bluth fans see this film as his fall from grace and hold little more than contempt for it, but for me it may well be his one moment of accidental genius, sandwiched in between a lot of triteness and mediocrity, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with a penchant for the weird and inexplicable. Holy shit, a Don Bluth movie I actually liked? Is that the earth I feel moving beneath my feet right now?

Incidentally, I don't know if Kenneth Anderson or Marc Davis ever saw Rock-a-Doodle, but if I were them I'd certainly be pissed that the world ended up with this version of Chantecler and not my own, all because some Disney suits back in the 1960s had this bizarre prejudice against stories about chickens. Neither Anderson nor Davis lived to see Chicken Little in 2005, when Disney had apparently reversed its own stance on galline protagonists (perhaps Aardman's Chicken Run had convinced them there was nothing to be afraid of), but I'd imagine that would only have been extra salt in the wounds. Chicken Little is easily the single most regrettable thing to be sitting in Disney's "animated classics" canon right now; that the main character is an animated chicken is definitely the least of its problems.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

VHS Verve: Sebastian's Party Gras (1992)

Let's take a closer look at Sebastian's Party Gras, the follow-up to Sebastian's Caribbean Jamboree from 1992. From what I can tell, this was a more low-key release than its predecessor, with international distribution, if any, being more limited - I was unable to find any evidence that the sequel was ever released in the UK and had to import my copy from the US. Like the original, this special went hand-in-hand with an audio release of the same name, but according to Discogs, only appeared in cassette format (Jamboree also got a CD release). I mean, I'm assuming that the original did reasonably well if they even bothered making a sequel at all, so I'm going to attribute this decreased enthusiasm to the then-recent success of Beauty and The Beast, which had surpassed The Little Mermaid at the box office by a significant margin and went on to be nominated for Best Picture, confirming that the Disney Renaissance was indeed well underway. The Little Mermaid had served its purpose but was now yesterday's news, and promoting a weird little Mermaid spin-off like Sebastian's Party Gras was likely no longer a top priority for Disney (which is not to suggest that Ariel was entirely forgotten in 1992 - that's when her spin-off cartoon debuted on the Disney Channel, after all). In my opinion, though, this is easily the better of the two Sam Wright/Sebastian spin-offs, chiefly because it's more a lot more focused on Sebastian than Jamboree, where the cartoon crab had only a supporting role. Party Gras attempts to be more story-orientated than its predecessor, which didn't consist of a whole lot more than Wright singing, dancing and occasionally exchanging words with Sebastian on the side. In both cases, all of the animation used is 100% recycled from the original feature, meaning that the efforts to give Sebastian his own story were severely limited to what could be cobbled together from existing footage. The result looks goofy, is goofy, is entirely aware of how astoundingly goofy it is. Party Gras makes no attempt to cover the sheer ludicrousness of its central scenario, and the whole thing is tremendously good fun.

Once again, we have Caribbean crooner Samuel E. Wright teaming up with his cancrine counterpart Sebastian to put on a calypso-flavoured show at Walt Disney World, Florida. This time, however, the proceedings are complicated by the interference of Sebastian's boss King Triton (Kenneth Mars), who's none too thrilled to learn that his crab underling has been hanging out with a human, mortal enemy of all things marine, and demands that Sebastian break off his partnership with Wright. This crushes Sebastian, who's grown to look upon Wright as his tightest of chums. Triton permits him to work with Wright one more time, at tonight's Disney World concert, but instructs him to let Wright know that they can never be together again. There's a certain air of soap opera melodrama to their exchange, which almost makes it seem as if Triton is commanding Sebastian to break off a romantic relationship out of sheer jealousy, and Mars's hilarious performance plays right into the spirit of this - compared to the movie proper, where Triton could be genuinely threatening, here he's been given a distinctly campy edge which enhances the wonderfully ridiculous tone.

Meanwhile, Wright kicks off Party Gras as he did in Jamboree, by touring various Disney World locations with a young team of back-up dancers in tow. For the most part, this functions as a shameless bit of "Come to Disney World! We have palm trees and studio lots!" promotion, although there is a great bit where Wright fools around with a creepy-looking "mannequin" at a ticket kiosk (I'm confused - is this based on something you can actually see at Disney World?). Before the concert itself gets underway, Wright has a brief backstage meeting with Sebastian, who's still struggling over how to break the unfortunate news to his human friend. Wright and Sebastian don't actually interact all that much this time round - in fact, once Wright goes on stage Party Gras turns into a fairly straightforward concert film, with Wright performing for a crowd and not much else. Once again, Wright turns a spirited selection of Caribbean classics and pop covers (including a delightful reggae-themed take on The Beatles' "Octopus's Garden") and his energy and charisma go a long way, although visually there's not really anything here to match some of the eye-popping weirdness seen in some of the sequences of Jamboree (the strangest moment involves a floating brass ring that appears at the end of one song). Some might therefore find it a little duller than its predecessor, but what keeps it consistently hilarious throughout is that underlying story thread involving Triton - throughout the concert, he's watching Wright perform on a magical all-seeing bubble (wasn't that Ursula's toy in the original film? Hmm) and regularly makes comments between songs on how much the kids seem to love Wright, ergo he's maybe not such a bad guy. Finally, he reaches the startling conclusion that, "That Sam is alright."

Sebastian, totally unaware that his tyrannical boss is having an unexpected change of heart, decides that he cannot break the news to Wright in person and leaves him a note after the show. Before Wright gets a chance to read it, he's approached by this Disney World suit (not sure who he really is, as he's not credited at the end) who congratulates him on putting on one of the best concerts of all-time and invites him to be the grand marshal of the Disney World Party Gras parade. Sam cannot wait to share this news with Sebastian, and is consequently crushed when he reads the note and realises that his cancrine comrade has permanently left him.

Under the sea, meanwhile, Triton is having to admit to Sebastian that Wright is a pretty cool guy, and if Sebastian wants to carry on performing with him, he has his royal blessing. Overjoyed, Sebastian goes swimming back to Wright; before he can impart the good news, however, Wright tries to assure him that he understands why they can no longer be together and begs Sebastian not to try to explain. Again, there's the inescapable air of two lovers having to go their separate ways. Finally, Sebastian gets a word in edgeways and tells Wright that they can be together after all. Wright is over the moon, and suggests that he and Sebastian go celebrate their reaffirmed union at the Party Gras parade. We then get a glimpse of this parade as the end-credits role.

There were no more Sebastian/Wright concert films after this - understandably so, as they probably had stretched the concept (not to mention all that recycled animation) about as far as it could go with this one, and I'm quite happy to leave things on that note of warm reassurance that nothing under the sea or above can possibly come between Sebastian and Wright. Today, Jamboree and Party Gras still hold up as wonderfully endearing products of their time, and even if The Little Mermaid did end up being somewhat put in the shade by the Best Picture-nominated success of Beauty and The Beast, we Mermaid fans can take solace in the fact that Lumière never got a video half as cool, let alone two.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

A is for Antelope: The Roysters ad that scarred me for life

There was a time, as a small child, when the single definitive thing that scared me more than anything else in the world was a TV spot for Honey I Shrunk The Kids that played ad nauseam during the film's UK release in early 1990. Honey I Shrunk The Kids is, of course, about as innocuous a family film as they come (the most emotionally intense moment involves a showdown between two stop-motion creepy crawlies) but perhaps it will make more sense when I explain that the spot concluded with a shot of Rick Moranis about to devour his shrunken son with his Cheerios, with his son screaming "Dad! Don't eat me!" I find it odd, with hindsight, to contemplate that there was a time when Rick Moranis struck nothing less than white hot terror in my soul, but there you go. So extreme was my fear of that TV spot that it rapidly expanded into a fear of all promotional material for Honey I Shrunk The Kids in general - meaning that my very worst nightmares were realised the day that my family took a trip to London and had to navigate an Underground absolutely choc full of posters for the film (for better or worse, movie posters can have a tremendous impact in the London Underground, thanks to the immensely claustrophobic atmosphere down there). I decided that Honey I Shrunk The Kids was an evil horror fest and vowed that I would never, under any circumstances, be made to watch it - until a year later, when my family rented the video. I got to see everything in context, Cheerios scene and all, and realised that the film was way too ludicrous to be the stuff of fear. A part of my old phobia does still linger, however, in the sense that I've never had much of a stomach for Cheerios.

Recently, I took the time to look up the spot on YouTube, with the intention of reevaluating it with adult eyes and having a laugh at my four-year-old self for having ever been so terrified of something so goofy-looking. It backfired enormously, because rewatching it I got a surprising case of the chills all over again. That image of cannibal Moranis and his shrieking son is absolutely horrible out of context, and it's one heck of an unsettling moment to close your promotion on. I'm sure that most older viewers at the time would have reasoned that it was a Disney movie and as such it was highly unlikely that they would incorporate an act of cannibal filicide, but when you're four years old you have very limited means of making sense of such things and to me it was simply a nightmare image that the TV inexplicably insisted on bombarding me with again and again.

In the years that followed, I never saw another ad that terrified me on anywhere near the same level as that Honey I Shrunk The Kids promo, but as we got deeper into the 90s there were a number of ads which got to me in a more of an unnerving, skin-crawling kind of way. Ads which didn't so much terrify me as they did royally creep me out. Ads like a promotion for Roysters crisps, which had me pretty extensively haunted in the spring of 93. God, this one was strange. Kids of the 1970s often assume that kids of the early 90s had it easy because they could tune in and not expect to be ambushed by the sight of a robed ghoul voiced by Donald Pleasence roaming the wetlands and reveling in human misery. And true, we had little quite so overtly nightmarish to contend with, but on the whole I think people underestimate just how strange and unsettling a number of early 90s ads could be, particularly for a young kid having to process the bizarre onslaught of colour and surreal imagery The Powers That Be would throw at us in an effort to sell us junk food.

This ad, directed by Geoff Boyle, fashions a twisted little fantasy from a deeply banal snippet of family interaction, in which a father and son out camping in the great American wilderness are too caught up in their snack food fixation to pay much notice to the amazing wild specimens romping around them - ultimately to their detriment, when they're confronted by one such specimen who might be intent on making snack food out of them. The kid, Roy, initiates a rather uninspired game of "I Spy" in which he barely peers beyond the contents of his crisp packet (also, "A = Another Roysters" strikes me as pretty flagrant bending of the rules of I Spy) but this goes down well with his father, who's way too dense to pick up on what else is going on around them anyway. Meanwhile, their animatronic dog gets up to a whole lot of frowning, which is presumably intended to mirror the viewer's disdain at the obtuseness of these two stuid humans. It takes an unexpectedly tragic turn, with the father thinking that he's cracked the pattern in Roy's game, unaware that Roy has already legged it with the dog, abandoning his slow-witted father to the jaws of the hungry tiger right behind him. That's a pretty dark note to close on, although you could argue that it's all done in a very lighthearted, cartoony way, and that the father isn't actually "dead" because you can still hear him talking from inside the tiger's belly. Maybe the cat will vomit him up later and all will be well.

It wasn't the appearance of the man-eating tiger at the end that spooked me so much as the entire ad representing a perfect cocktail of bizarrely off-kilter elements - the cheap, jaunty music, the deliberately cardboard acting, the freaky animatronic dog. Presumably, the intention here was to create a kind of live action cartoon, but the blend of live action with surrealistic imagery gives the ad a decidedly warped flavour, making it play almost like a kinetic version of one of those "What's wrong with this picture?" puzzles. This is an ad that goes to great lengths to evoke the sense that everything about it is somehow wrong. To that end, it's handy that absolutely none of the wildlife seen in this ad are native American fauna - they are, in order of appearance, domestic rabbit, blackbuck/Indian antelope and Bengal tiger, meaning that either there's been a massive security failure at a local safari park or we've wandered into some kind of uncanny alternate American wilderness. Visually, there's a whole lot of weirdness happening here, from the elastic bunny that leaps in at the start to the conveniently-placed "A is for Antelope" sign that flashes out of nowhere. What really pushes it over into borderline all-out nightmare territory, though, is the use of the "Too Late" title card, which emphasises the sinisterness of the father's predicament in a manner that stands almost contrary to the lighthearted delivery of the final punchline. It's in that title card that the ad goes to from being an incredibly freaky live action cartoon to something legitimately bone-chilling.

Oh yeah, and I'm certain that later on in 93 a variation appeared where, in place of the "Too Late" card, we got cartoon imagery of the dad's eyes in pitch darkness (the implication again being that he's inside the belly of the tiger). I only saw that version once, and it was also the very last broadcast I ever caught of this ad. I wonder what prompted the change - did they get feedback that not enough viewer had grasped from the "Too Late" card and "tonsils" gag that the dad had been swallowed by the tiger, or did they hope to soften the darkness of the ending by making it all the more obviously cartoony? Either way, without that all-important "Too Late" card, the ad lost a huge chunk of its bite. They turned a live action cartoon into a literal cartoon and caused it to seem a lot less warped as a result.