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.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Animation Oscar Bite 2003: A Tale of Two Spirits

75th Academy Awards - 23rd March 2003

The contenders: Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Spirited Away, Treasure Planet

The winner: Spirited Away

The rightful winner: Spirited Away

The barrel-scraper: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

Other Notes:

I remember this result taking a number of people by surprise back in 2003, largely because Spirited Away was seen as something as a "dark horse" entry in the build-up to the ceremony. Studio Ghibli are a well-recognised name now, sure, but prior to Spirited Away's success at the Oscars, they didn't have a great deal of familiarity in the west outside of diehard anime buffs and those who'd picked up the VHS release of Kiki's Delivery Service back in 1998. The English dub of the film had already received a theatrical release in September 2002, but it took that Academy Award for it to turn heads and give Hayao Mizazaki a sudden, much-deserved surge in popularity among Western audiences, softening the heart of many an anime skeptic who'd written the form off as catering strictly to greasy fanboys and hyperactive seven-year-olds.

With hindsight, Spirited Away's win feels like a total no-brainer, as none of the other nominees come anywhere close to it. A miraculous marriage of visual richness and narrative subtlety, it tells an enormously moving coming of age story without ever having to overstate its protagonist's progression from sullen brat to assured heroine, while the spirit world it creates is convincingly otherworldly, offering just the right balance of whimsical intrigue and grotesque disconcertion. Of the remaining nominees, Disney's Lilo & Stitch offered the worthiest competition, with its charmingly offbeat combination of contemporary family drama and sci-fi anarchy, but it all feels decidedly kiddish and small fry compared to the sweeping grandeur of Spirited Away. Ice Age, the debut feature of the 20th Century Fox-owned Blue Sky Studios, arrived at a time when the sheer novelty of CG animation was apparently still enough that audiences were willing to overlook its predictable and unambitious story (honestly, if not for the fact that Blue Sky insists on churning out another useless sequel every few years, I suspect that the original Ice Age would have been long-forgotten by now). Disney's Treasure Planet was a notorious flop and had a massive hand in the demise of 2D animation in general (see below), but critics did respond positively to its visuals. But for all of their faults, those films seem like Citizen Kane compared to DreamWorks Animation's Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, which is one of the worst animated features ever to come out of Hollywood (Don Bluth - you're forgiven. It's this horsey movie which really grinds my gears). What I find particularly repellent about Spirit is that it was blatantly conceived with the same misguided intentions of roping a Best Picture nomination that fueled Jeffrey Katzenberg's thought processes during the production of Disney's Pocahontas, and with even more toe-curling results. People give Pocahontas a lot of flack, but I find that I can only be so hard on it, because it was made with a basic level of storytelling competence which Spirit would absolutely kill for. In the end, Spirit had to settle for a measly Best Animated Feature nomination, and even that made a complete mockery of everything it was up against (the depressing thing? Spirit is only the second worst animated feature ever to have snagged a nomination in this category. Just wait until we get to the 2005 ceremony...)

Finally, you might have noticed that, with the single exception of Ice Age, the nominees this year were largely dominated by traditional 2D. You are advised not to get too attached to this state of affairs. 3D hadn't quite edged 2D out of the multiplexes yet, but the transition was well underway - Spirit: Stallion of The Cimarron was to be DreamWorks' penultimate 2D feature, while all Disney had left on that front (prior the short-lived revival between 2009 and 2011) were a couple of leftover projects that had been grappling with story development issues since the 1990s. To date, Spirited Away remains the only traditional 2D animated film to have picked up this award, which should tell you something about just how exceedingly rare it likewise is for a non-Hollywood film to triumph in this category; pretty soon, those were all that fans of the traditional style would have left to turn to for their two dimensional fix.

Friday, 10 November 2017

The Hugga Bunch (1985)

Much like Poochie the Poodle, The Hugga Bunch is one of those 1980s toy lines that I have no first-hand memories of from my own childhood but later became familiar with through other people's nostalgia. They were a range of cuddly dolls whose big gimmick was that they could move their arms in a hugging motion when their heads were titled, and each came with a mini doll of their own known as a "Huglet". Created in the mid-80s by Kenner and Hallmark, I presume they were intended to be Hallmark's answer to American Greetings' enormously successful Care Bears range. Like the Care Bears, their ethos was all about encouraging people to express their emotions in a positive way (by buying greetings cards and other related merchandise), only they were a bit more hands-on in their approach, focusing specifically on the redemptive power of warm and loving physical contact. As far as the Hugga Bunch are concerned, there are very few problems in this world that can't be solved by taking time out to hug one another. What really caught my eye about this line had less to do with the toys themselves than the sheer number of people who were including The Hugga Bunch TV special from 1985 among lists of things that scared them out of their wits as a child. Apparently this was one heck of a strange and disconcerting slice of television, and it's haunted the psyche of many an 80s kid since its initial airing. Now my curiosity truly was piqued.

If the Hugga Bunch's Wikipedia page is to be believed, then this special broke a record for being the most expensive ever to be produced at the time, being made on a budget of $1.4 million. The efforts paid off on the awards front, with the special earning a Primetime Emmy Award for its visual effects. Its premise, on the other hand, is not an amazingly innovative one - as you watch it, you'll no doubt find yourself compiling a huge mental checklist of the various plot points and concepts that were borrowed from Alice, Oz, Narnia and any other fantasy story where a child is plucked from their humdrum existence and winds up in a bizarre land where everything is mixed up or backwards, and then learns some lesson about what was really important in their lives all along. It does, however, have a genuinely poignant (and realistic) problem at its heart - namely, a young child's heightening awareness of her grandmother's mortality.

The protagonist of the special is Bridget Severson (Gennie James), a young girl who lives with her parents (Mark Withers, Susan Mullen), older brother Andrew (Carl Steven) and her beloved Grams (Natalie Masters). The special opens with Bridget explaining to the viewer that she's feeling confused because her parents have unexpectedly bestowed some pretty swanky gifts upon herself and Andrew, but it's neither Christmas or her birthday, and there's something about the whole scenario she finds uncomfortably reminiscent of being given ice cream "to take away the yucky taste of medicine". She shares her concerns with Andrew, a computer junkie who isn't much into public displays of affection (he tends to recoil at physical contact, which would make him a Hugga's worst enemy), and he tells her that the family are planning to send Grams to a retirement home. As he puts it, "like a horse who's too old for anything, so they just put 'em in a field, let 'em eat and enjoy their life, until they grow old and die." Bridget is horrified, both by the situation and by Andrew's rather unsentimental take on it.

Neither Mr or Mrs Severson are actually that hot on the idea of sending Grams away; the antagonist of the special (at least on the human side of things) is Aunt Ruth (Kelly Britt), who's eager to have Grams shipped off for reasons that are never actually made clear. Grams indicates that she's open to moving as she feels like she's constantly getting in the family's way, but I'm not sure why Ruth has such a vested interest in getting shot of her. Bridget confronts Grams, who explains that she won't be leaving the family, simply going to live elsewhere with people her own age. Bridget protests that she wants Grams to stay with her forever and ever. One of the reasons she feels so close to Grams is that she's the only member of the household who enjoys hugging; Andrew scorns it, Mr and Mrs Severson are always too busy and Aunt Ruth complains that it will mess up her hair. Grams assures her that everyone needs a hug once in a while and somewhere there's a magical place called The Land of Hugs where everyone sits around hugging all day long.

Bridget does have one other problem - that is, the strange whistling that comes from her bedroom mirror every time she stands in front of it and hugs her toy penguin, Sweet William. Earlier in the special, she tried to share this with her brother and mother and got the predictable response ("You're a weirdo!" "You have a nice imagination, honey..."). But of course Bridget is no fantasist and eventually she discovers that her hugging has the power to open up a gateway into Hugga Land. It's here that the Hugga Bunch themselves enter the story - as Bridget goes to investigate she's greeted by the disembodied head of a Hugga poking its way through her mirror and is understandably freaked out. Suddenly, it becomes crystal clear to me why this special caused so much anxiety for kids in the 1980s - the puppets have this definite "possessed toy" vibe about them, with their stiff mannerisms, freaky felt faces and imposing plastic eyes, and the sight of a fully animated Hugga head cut off from its body is the kind of unwelcome lingering image you'll be encountering in your nightmares long after. Huggas are creepy-looking beings and I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the suggestion that a bunch of them might be secretly watching me through my bedroom mirror. Are they at least courteous enough to turn away while I'm undressing?

The Hugga eventually heaves her entire self through the mirror and introduces herself as Huggins (voice of Tony Castillo), leader of the Huggas. Bridget questions how hugging in front of her mirror could possibly open up a portal to a fantasy land populated by humanoid plush toys, but Huggins describes this as a "basic, perplexiconic, chemical miracle" (basically, a lot of nonsense dressed up to sound smart and technical). Huggins explains that she decided to cross over into Bridget's world because she senses that she has troubles and wants to help her, although surprisingly the issue that's really been eating Bridget up of late (Grams moving out) gets completely ignored to begin with, as Bridget instead complains about Andrew and what a stick in the mud he is when he comes to hugging. Huggins believes that she could win Andrew over but as they head over to his bedroom Bridget remembers that Andrew has baseball practice this time of week. Bridget warns Huggins that Andrew will freak out if he knows she's been in his room but curiously doesn't seem to think Andrew will mind if she gives Huggins one of his baseball caps. We then get a few minutes of filler in which Bridget loses Huggins and Huggins nearly gets killed by trying to hide in the laundry and being dumped in the washing machine by Ms Severson; fortunately, Bridget finds her and manages to intervene before the spin cycle gets fully underway.

As Bridget is drying the dampened Huggins, Grams walks past her room with a couple of suitcases in hand, sees what's going on, smiles affectionately and walks on (wait, so she's not in the least bit disturbed by the sight of her granddaughter bonding with this grotesque, visibly animated freak of nature?). Bridget notices that something is up and races after her. Grams delivers the bad news: she's decided to accept Aunt Ruth's suggestion that she move out to a retirement home and will be leaving at 16:30 this afternoon. Heartbroken, Bridget returns to Huggins and laments how sad it is that Grams has to leave the family simply because she's old. Huggins, who doesn't much understand the concept of aging, insists that hugging is the universal elixir to all ills, although Bridget isn't quite so naive and assures her that even hugging has its limits. Huggins's second suggestion is that Bridget cross over into Hugga Land and seek the advice of a mysterious being known as The Book Worm, who is extremely erudite and often supplies the Huggas with answers to the questions that stump them. Bridget is reluctant to follow Huggins through the mirror, fearing that she might not be able to return to her own world; Huggins doesn't reassure her that she will, but convinces her that it might be her only chance to help her Grams.

Once in Hugga Land, they meet a male Hugga, Hugsy (voice of Tony Urbano), whom Huggins casually gifts with Andrew's baseball cap (even though it's blatantly not hers to give away), and the three of them make their way around. Straight away, I can see why this special wound up costing such a packet and why it secured an Emmy for its visual effects - the hugely elaborate sets aren't exactly Hollywood-worthy, but they do have this high-end children's theatre aesthetic that manages to be charming in its own way. Bridget is introduced to a whole bunch of other Huggas who won't be of any actual narrative importance, but hey, we've got a whole toy line to promote here; the least we can do is get everyone name-checked. So she meets Tickles, Impkins and Tweaker and they regale her with a song about the virtues of hugging, just to kill a few minutes. The Huglets likewise weren't incorporated into the story in any meaningful way, but they get an obligatory cameo just to tie in with the toy line (actually, I suspect the reason the Huglets were sidelined in this special is because it would have made the puppetry far too complicated if the Huggas had always kept them on hand a la the toys).

Huggins and Hugsy accompany Bridget to the Book Worm's information booth, where Bridget explains the situation and asks what she can do to restore her grandmother's youth. The Book Worm (voice uncredited, but according to IMDb it's Richard Haydn) comments that Bridget's question is a first as no one grows old in Hugga Land, but he consults his encyclopedia, which states that the aging of grandmothers can be slowed with regular displays of affection and, most importantly, the knowledge that they are needed. Bridget argues that her Grams is due to leave the house this very afternoon and she needs a quick fix. The Book Worm again consults his encyclopedia for Instant Youth and reads that it can be brought about by consuming fruit from the Youngberry Tree. The two catches? Firstly, the fruit will disappear if it ever makes contact with the ground. Secondly, the only Youngberry Tree grows in the Country of Shrugs, a dark and dangerous land which the Huggas generally make a point of steering clear of. The Country of Shrugs is ruled by the evil Queen Admira who has little tolerance for hugs and tends to subdue her enemies by turning them into statues. I did mention that the plot was derivative of a number of other children's fantasy stories and, well, it's been more than two decades since I read any of those Chronicles of Narnia books, but I'm pretty certain that one of those involved a boy searching for a special fruit that could cure his terminally ill mother. What makes this particular scenario intriguing to me is that I'm curious to see how they're ultimately going to address the whole problem with Grams aging. I have a feeling that Grams will not be made to leave the family simply because Aunt Ruth (for reasons known only to her) has convinced her that she's not wanted, but at the same time the special can't seriously run with Book Worm's proposition that love and affection will actually slow the aging process. Eventually, Bridget's going to have to face up to the fact that Grams getting older is part of a natural cycle and that obviously she can't be around forever. All the hugs in the world won't change that - the important thing, I would argue, is that Bridget and her family don't take Grams for granted while she's there.

The Book Worm reveals that the only route into the Country of Shrugs from Hugga Land is down an ominous-looking portal. Bridget hesitates, but decides that she has no choice if she wishes to help Grams. Huggins and Hugsy agree to accompany her, and the three of them leap down the portal, ending up in the Country of Shrugs where a conveniently-placed road sign instructs them to "Follow The Sidewalk". As it turns out, the sidewalk in question really is turned on its side, which isn't an issue as the laws of gravity evidently work a little differently around here. The trio presses onward in the direction of the Queen's castle, managing to keep their spirits high by pausing now and then to dispense hugs to one another. As they near the castle, they encounter an obstacle in the form of the Hairy Behemoth, a giant, fire-breathing mammoth that's blocking their path. Hugsy isn't intimidated by the horrifying brute, reasoning that the Behemoth is "just another animal. And animals need love as much as we do. Maybe he's never been hugged before..." Umm, I'd agree insofar that animals are as deserving of respect as humans, but Hugsy's exact approach seems a little...Timothy Treadwell? Seriously kids, if you approach a wild animal as Hugsy does and attempt to physically embrace it, it'll assume that you're either trying to predate it or challenge it for its territory; either way, it won't end well for you. Fortunately for Hugsy, his gambit pays off, transforming the terrible mammoth into a much smaller, entirely benign and unusually forgetful elephant named Hodgepodge (his voice actor isn't credited, but whoever it is is clearly trying to emulate Ed Wynn). Turns out, the Queen had him under a spell and a warm loving hug was just what was needed to lift it. In gratitude, Hodgepodge offers to guide them into the castle. Conveniently, there are no other guards outside the entrance, just a very unfriendly sign reading, "Small people will be digested."

Once inside, Bridget and her friends find the Youngberry Tree locked inside a glass case, but are immediately rushed at by a band of goblin-like creatures armed with sparklers. They then come face to face with Queen Admira herself (Aarika Wells), whose design was blatantly modeled on the evil queen from Disney's Snow White. Wells plays Admira with a pantomime hamminess that's a hoot to watch...which is handy, because I also find Bridget to be unbearably obnoxious in this particular scene. Every time Admira addresses her she backchats with something brash and smart alecky (eg: she insists that she doesn't have to kneel before Admira because she's an American citizen and it's written in their constitution, as if she genuinely expects the sovereign of the Country of Shrugs to give a flying fuck about such things. Then when Admira compliments her on her prettiness she makes a point of not thanking her because "I'm just born with it and it's all luck.") I suppose the intention was to present Bridget as this feisty girl who's not cowed or impressed by the Queen's grandiosity, but it just makes her look like an entitled little snot, particularly as she then goes on to request that Admira do her a favour and give her some of her valuable Youngberrys as a hand-out. Frankly, my sympathies are squarely with Admira when she refuses.

Admira explains that she herself has exclusive rights to the Youngberry Tree because she depends on near-constant consumption of its fruit to maintain her youthful looks (could be worse - she could be an advocate for the Elizabeth Bathory method). She also makes it clear that she despises hugging and enforces strict laws in her kingdom that prevent anyone from so much as touching (if no physical contact is permitted whatsoever, then I do wonder how the denizens of this world reproduce, but I suppose that that's less likely to cross the minds of the six-year-old audience this is aimed at). Admira takes a break from her stand-off with Bridget to unlock the tree and pick a couple of the berries, one of which she consumes on the spot (turns out they taste vile, but Admira's willing to tolerate that for the sake of her complexion), while she squirrels the other away in a jar for later.

Eventually, Admira tires of Bridget and decides to turn her into a statue, commenting that she's doing her a favour as she'll get to remain young and pretty forever. It's here that we get some vague meditation on the downside of wanting to halt change and freeze things in a single state for all time, as Bridget realises with horror that without prospect of growth or change she would cease to have any kind of life at all. An evil queen who vanquishes enemies but turning them to stone is another plot element obviously borrowed from Narnia, but I do like the additional symbolism it takes on here, even if the special doesn't explicitly link it to the main message. Arguably, Admira's entire character arc is designed to show up that desire to fight the natural order in a bad light, given that she's locked herself into an existence where she's basically enslaved by her dependence on these foul-tasting berries, but then again we've been told that the Hugga also don't age and they're quite contented with their lifestyle of non-stop hugging, so I guess Admira's problem is that she's obsessed only with preserving surface beauty, not relationships. Note that, while you can clearly see where that budget went in terms of set designs, the petrification effects are a bit more ropy, consisting of a combination of freeze frame images and having James stand as still as she possibly can when others are moving around her (which isn't entirely seamless - you can clearly see her twitching on occasion). Huggins, Hugsy and Hodgepodge are banished to the castle dungeon but manage to escape thanks to Hodgepodge's incredible strength. They sneak back to the petrified Bridget and are sad because they think they've lost her forever, but as the Huggas reach out and cling to her frozen body in their sorrow, there's a flash of sparkles and suddenly Bridget is as right as rain. Silly Huggas, momentarily doubting the power of their own ethos.

The Huggas suggest they escape the castle while they have the chance, but Bridget laments what a shame it would be to go away empty-handed after getting this close to the Youngberry Tree. Then she notices that Admira actually left the key to the glass case lying right beside it, and - goddamn, how can Admira be so lax about protecting something she's so dependent on? Bridget unlocks the case, fills a jar with as many berries as possible and flees with her friends when they hear Admira approaching. Naturally, Admira freaks out, even more so when she notices that Bridget has left the key alongside the tree within the glass case, which is already closing. She lunges toward it in desperation, but is unable to reach it in time and gets her arm jammed inside the case. If you were expecting Admira to be won over by the power of hugging, much as Hodgepodge was then...think again, as her actual fate is a lot more shocking. Trapped and unable to pop one of her precious berries on time, she instantaneously shrivels up and dies. In the end I'm not sure which lingering question bugs me more; if it was worth all the effort to obtain the youngberries when their effects are so painfully short-lived, or what the hell was the point of the youngberry that Admira purposely stored away for later. I was fairly certain that was going to have some kind of plot significance, but nope, it's never even mentioned again.

Back in Hugga Land, the Huggas are celebrating Bridget's success and safe return, but she can't stick around because Grams will be leaving shortly. Unfortunately, as she steps back through the mirror with Huggins and Hugsy, she trips over and falls, spilling the jar of youngberries across her bedroom floor, where they promptly disappear, just as the Book Worm warned they would. Obviously Bridget isn't too happy, but the Huggas reassure her that love and affection are more effective than magic berries and that what's important now is that she shows her Grams how much she cares about her while she has the chance. On her way downstairs, Bridget encounters Andrew and suggests he do the same with the added threat that she'll shun him for life if he fails (wow, harsh). Bridget heads into the living room to find Grams with her bags all packed, bidding goodbye to Mr and Mrs Severson. She goes up and hugs Grams and tells her that she loves her. Grams gives some parting advice to Andrew not to ruin his eyes by staring too long at his computer because staying healthy is more important than knowledge (there's something about that entire statement that I find incredibly obnoxious; why does it have to be an either/or situation?). At that, Andrew suddenly breaks down into an uncontrollable state of sobbing and hugs Grams, telling her that he doesn't want her to leave. Bridget joins in and the parents, seeing how torn up their children are, are overcome themselves. As they all collapse in a giant group hug, Aunt Ruth waltzes in and is initially unmoved by their display of emotion, but in the end even she succumbs. The family all unified in their agreement that they love Grams and like having her around, there's no way they'll be shipping her off to a retirement home now. All thanks to the magic of hugging.

Actually, something which never comes up which I could've sworn would've been a major plot point is whether Grams was actually in on the whole Hugga thing. It's established that she lived in the house for a long time with her late husband before the rest of the family moved in, she referenced this place called the Land of Hugs and she didn't seem in the least bit perturbed earlier on in the story when she encountered a living Hugga RIGHT BEFORE HER might she have known all along that her house contained a portal to this magical land? I was honestly expecting that to be a revelation at the end of the story, but nothing ever comes of it. We do, however, get an epilogue which addresses the special's other big loose end (well, except for the purpose of Admira's extra berry, that is), ie: how will Andrew react when he notices that one of his baseball caps had mysteriously disappeared? As he storms into Bridget's room and demands the truth, Bridget realises that she forgot all about the hat and makes some perfunctory effort to explain the whole incident to Andrew. Then she hears a familiar whistling coming from the mirror and the hat is slipped back to her while Andrew's back is conveniently turned (this time, I'm not sure how that worked as no one was actually hugging nearby). Confused, Andrew departs with the hat in total silence, as Bridget stands by the mirror and waves affectionately to her friends on the other side.

Actually, I do have one other lingering question - back at Queen Admira's castle, there was that sign reading, "Small people will be digested." Digested by what, exactly? Those goblin creatures with sparklers? Queen Admira herself? Does she go for the Elizabeth Bathory method after all?

The Verdict:

In the end the special is kind of vague on the whole issue it raises about the aging process and having to face up the mortality of loved ones, to the extent that it basically ducks out of the question altogether. Obviously hugging isn't the universal remedy to all ills the Huggas crack it up to be, but I guess the whole idea was that the Seversons were dooming Grams to a premature oblivion by making her feel that she wasn't wanted around the house any more because of her age. Mr Severson declares at the end that, "You're only as young as you are loved!", the implication being that a person dies a metaphorical death the instant they're made to feel that they've used up whatever usefulness they had on Earth and there's nothing left for them to do other than to sit around awaiting their literal demise. The scenario with Grams having to move out is executed in a very hokey manner, in part because Aunt Ruth is a straw antagonist who wants Grams gone for apparently no deeper reason than "she needs to be with people her own age!", but the relationship between Bridget and Grams is conveyed with enough gentle sincerity that it offers genuine emotional resonance (Andrew and the remaining Seversons' last-minute emotional breakdowns are a lot less convincing, but obviously we need to facilitate that happy ending).

It goes without saying that The Hugga Bunch is extremely evangelical about the virtues of hugging, and if you're the kind of person who gets turned off by an abundance of mawkishness, the freaky Hugga puppetry likely won't be enough to off-set that for you. If, on the other hand, you're a hardcore connoisseur of 1980s cheese, then it has everything - nightmarish imagery, beautifully tacky set designs, the dippiest script in the world, not to mention some delectably hammy acting. Check it out pronto, and never feel entirely at ease gazing into your own bedroom mirror again.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Animation Oscar Bite 2002: The Ogre Has Landed

Oscar bait season is now officially upon us, and to mark the occasion I thought I'd start a brand new retrospective looking back at the history of the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, which I have followed eagerly since its inception in 2002. This category is still a relatively recent addition to the Academy Awards; prior to 2002, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences felt that the feature animation industry was too small to make such a category worthwhile (in fact, when the category was finally added, it came with the clause that it would not be presented in years where fewer than eight eligible films were submitted for consideration, although that has yet to happen). My intention is to have this completed by the Academy Awards ceremony of 2018 (with a view to covering that year's results some time in the aftermath), although whether I'll succeed or not is another matter. Without further ado, let's take a look at that fateful night on 24th March 2002 when animation history was made...

74th Academy Awards  - 24th March 2002
The contenders: Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Monsters, Inc, Shrek

The winner: Shrek

The rightful winner: Monsters, Inc

The barrel-scraper: Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius

(Note: "The rightful winner" refers to the film that I personally feel should have taken the honors that year. Sometimes it accords with the Academy's choice, sometimes not. "The barrel-scraper" refers to an entry whose very nomination for an award of this prestige seems somewhat dubious. Obviously such things are entirely subjective.)

Other Notes:

The Academy Award for Best Animated Feature started life with arguably its most controversial move to date, ie: the honoring of DreamWorks Animation's Shrek over Pixar's Monsters, Inc. It's a decision which seems myopic with hindsight - Shrek had stirred up endless enthusiasm back in 2001, but I think it's fair to say that time has not been particularly kind to the gruesome green ogre, or to DreamWorks Animation in general (who'd have guessed that a reliance on flavour-of-the-month cultural references and celebrity voiceovers would make your films look really dated in sixteen years' time?) and that Monsters, Inc now holds up as by far the stronger picture. But in the early 00s it felt pretty earth-shattering, because Hollywood animation was undergoing a serious shake-up, and the studio that would lead the way in the dawning 21st century was not yet set in stone. The Disney Renaissance that had dominated the 1990s had now run out of steam, as evidenced by the weak box office performances of The Emperor's New Groove and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, while Disney's underlings at Pixar looked to be blossoming into something really quite special. The respective critical and commercial successes of A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc had proven that their early triumph with Toy Story was no fluke, and already there was speculation that Pixar might end up dethroning Disney as the kings of Hollywood animation, with 3D animation replacing 2D as the industry standard. To put it in the words of Randall Boggs, the villain of Monsters, Inc, "Hear that? It's the winds of change."

There was, however, a potential fly in the ointment for Pixar, in the form of erstwhile Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. After parting ways with the house of mouse, he had co-founded DreamWorks Animation in 1994 and now was dead set on exploiting the public's waning goodwill toward traditional Disney and their growing fascination with CG animation. DreamWorks had ostensibly stolen Pixar's thunder (and by extension Disney's) once before in 1998 when their first all-CG feature Antz had managed to reach theatres ahead of Pixar's A Bug's Life (an achievement that mattered little in the long-term). The monster-sized box office success of Shrek in 2001, coupled with its subsequent victory at the Academy Awards, meant that, for just a moment, Pixar's future as the leaders of the animation pack seemed a little in doubt. Perhaps DreamWorks was the studio destined for eminence. But no, the Academy got it wrong and I think they're only too aware of their mistake, because, sixteen years on, they've yet to honor DreamWorks Animation with the award again (unless you care to count Wallace & Gromit: Curse of The Were-Rabbit, which was very much an Aardman baby) and in subsequent years Katzenberg's crew would have a hard enough time just getting an invite to the occasion. Pixar, meanwhile, currently have eight wins under their belt.

My understanding is that DreamWorks were actually quite sour that Academy Awards season because rumour had it that Shrek was in the running for a Best Picture nomination (haha, seriously?) but that didn't happen. A good thing too - even at the time, I never understood the public's infatuation with Shrek. The animation wasn't in in the slightest bit appealing, Donkey irritated the living snot out of me, it opens with that GODAWFUL Smash Mouth song, and the film's raison d'ĂȘtre as Katzenberg's bitter, angry middle finger to his former colleagues at Disney was both transparent and extremely off-putting (seriously, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut had fun at the expense of Renaissance Disney without being anywhere near this savage). Whereas Monsters, Inc felt like a lovely, gentle story from the heart, Shrek was born from a place of genuine spite, and that's something I could never get past about it.

The Disney-Pixar/DreamWorks rivalry dominated the occasion so much that the third nominee, Nickelodeon Movies' Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, is typically regarded as a mere footnote, if it's remembered at all. The feature spin-off of a series of Nickelodeon shorts, it seems distinctly out of place among this line-up, which is symptomatic of a problem that dogged the category in its early years - namely, that so few animated features were released on an annual basis that you tended to get at least one or two dubious entries simply to fill out slots in the nominations list. Now, I personally have never seen Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (or the collection of shorts it was based on), so I can make no actual judgement of the film itself, but I think it was always obvious from the outset that it wasn't in the same league as the two big-hitters it was up against and stood absolutely no chance (nevertheless, this kind of "filler" nominee would reach far more ridiculous heights the following year, when that steaming pile of horse shit Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron wound up in the running). It no doubt benefited from Disney's failure to submit their own major release for that year, the traditionally-animated Atlantis: The Lost Empire, for consideration in the first place. Atlantis had gone down like a lead balloon at the box office and hadn't uniformly impressed the critics (all the same, the clout of the Disney brand might have afforded it an ounce more prestige on the awards front than a relatively low-rent production like Jimmy Neutron), prompting Disney to apparently conclude that Monsters, Inc was the only pony worth their betting on.

Back in the early 00s a lot of animation fans were confident that this 3D animation thing was just a passing fad and that traditional animation would endure and eventually make a comeback. That hasn't happened, of course (and I personally have lost all hope that it will), but it is interesting to note how dramatically fortunes have since shifted among the major Hollywood animation studios. Not only did DreamWorks Animation ultimately fail to overshadow Pixar, but they've dwindled quite massively in popularity in recent years, with many of their films struggling to turn a profit at the box office - in fact, Illumination have pretty much replaced them as Disney/Pixar's greatest competition. Lately, Pixar have also lost some of their lustre - all in all, they're still heavy-hitters, but they've had their share of weak or disappointing features, and they no longer seem quite as bullet-proof as they did once upon a time. Conversely, Disney went through some pretty rough years in the 00s and it took them a long time to find their footing in the changing animation marketplace, but they're currently enjoying the kind of success they hadn't seen since the Renaissance days (not to mention, three out of the last four wins for Best Animated Feature went to them). Ain't no happily ever afters in this business; merely The Circle of Life.