Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Animation Oscar Bite 2014: How Elsa Got Her Groove Back


86th Academy Awards - 2nd March 2014

The contenders: The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest and Celestine, Frozen, The Wind Rises

The winner: Frozen

The rightful winner: The Wind Rises

The barrel-scraper: The Croods, Despicable Me 2

Other notes:

If you had any lingering doubts that Disney was on the verge of a brand new Renaissance (or hopes that they were not, if you were a 2D animation fan still yearning to see Disney put away the flashy new technology and return to their traditional hand-drawn roots) then those were certainly obliterated the instant you caught sight of the box office figures for their 2013 Thanksgiving offering. Despite being a darling with the internet nerds, Wreck-It Ralph was only really a moderate hit with the public. Tangled did better, but its freakishly high budget would have made it difficult for it to have broken even. Frozen, by contrast, was the kind of mega hit that loudly announced that Disney were back in fashion - nay, that they had birthed the kind of cultural phenomenon not seen since the middle point of their 1990s Renaissance days. Wherever you were on Earth in late 2013/early 2014, there was no escaping Frozen fever. It ate brains and consumed souls. A testament to how well Disney had finally adapted to modern sensibilities - Frozen celebrates sisterly love over romantic love, has a bad guy who doesn't wear his villainy on his sleeve, and has an LGBT subtext which, if not actually intentional, then doesn't seem like much of a stretch - or simply to how much of a killing you can make if you pen a catchy enough song? I'm convinced that a huge portion of Frozen's profits have to do with how enraptured people were with "Let It Go", which is real earworm (for the life of me, I can't remember any other songs from the film, aside from one of them having lyrics about sandwiches). But the film's certainly not bad in other respects. Frozen is, in many ways, a very traditional Disney film, yet also one which plays with familiar Disney convention and uses the viewer's expectations to its advantage. Disney had made a film which might be described as progressive - it would be nice if it had happened twenty-four years beforehand, of course, but better late than never.

As Oscar night drew nearer, most people were in agreement that Frozen would own this, securing Disney its very first victory since the award for Best Animated Feature began. This was all that Disney needed to demonstrate that they might one day reclaim their throne as kings of the animation industry. There were, however, a few dissenters who reasoned that the award might go to The Wind Rises, which Hayao Miyazaki had formally announced would be his last film before retirement (although he has since gone back on that, and not for the first time). I have to admit that by the time we got to March I was suffering from Frozen fatigue, and I would have been fine if the award had gone to The Wind Rises, which I considered the superior picture. Miyazaki's film has no annoying snowman sidekicks for a start (in fairness, Olaf was nowhere near as witless a creation as I figured he would be, and there is something endearingly tragic about his yearning to see summer, but I'm not sure I buy the bullshit means by which he ultimately escapes his fate - it happened to David Bowie's snowman friend, and I maintain that it should have happened here. As a bonus, we would have avoided the entire Frozen Adventure debacle). I had no delusions that the night would belong to anyone other than Disney, mind. Frozen had the Hollywood factor in its side, and plus not everyone felt comfortable about the subject matter of The Wind Rises, given that it's based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed fighter aircraft for Japan in World War II (though Miyazaki, a pacifist, puts the focus squarely on Horikoshi's passion for creation and the tragedy of how his talents were ultimately channeled).

Of the three entries which didn't have a snowball's, the strongest by far was La Parti Productions' Ernest and Celestine, a French 2D animation from directorial trio Stephene Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner, the former two of which had previously collaborated on the joyously bonkers stop motion comedy Panique au village (2009). Based on a series of children's books by Gabrielle Vincent, Ernest and Celestine tells the story of the mutually strained relations between the bears who inhabit a city and the sewer-dwelling rodents below, and two the titular dissenters who feel a sense of friendly fascination toward their foe (think One Stormy Night, except that it's actually good and doesn't have a weirdly sexual subtext). It's not quite as deliriously, endearingly deranged as Panique au village, but it is extremely endearing, and it has that sense of irresistible whimsy that A Cat in Paris was sorely lacking.

Frozen may have reached the dizzying heights of a cultural phenomenon, but 2013 was another weak year for Hollywood animation overall, and we did have two entries which, in the proud tradition of Jimmy Neutron, Brother Bear and just about everything from the 2012 awards, were blatantly just here to take up space. The first of these was DreamWorks Animation's latest, The Croods, a caveman pic which had a long gestation period, having started out as an Aardman project which DreamWorks were left holding when the studios parted ways in 2007, and which was ultimately inherited by ex-Disney director Chris Sanders when he joined DreamWorks later that year (only to be put on hold so that he could first make How To Train Your Dragon). Within that time, The Croods went through a number of rewrites, and what we have in the end is a "nice enough" film that feels awfully slight. The caveman wander around for a bit, edge a bit closer toward modern living, then something dramatic happens in the third act and that's it. I have two major qualms with it, both of which concern that aforementioned third act: its appallingly implemented false ending (the film initially looks as if it's going to close on a surprisingly ballsy tearjerker, only to back out of that and go on for a further ten minutes) and the film's actual ending, which feels way too reminiscent of the ending to How To Train Your Dragon.

Second was Despicable Me 2, Illumination's first (and, at the time of writing, only) film to be nominated for this award. Up until now I'd been doing a good job of steering clear of the Despicable Me franchise, but for the purposes of covering everything on this list I did finally have to swallow my pride and sit down with this one. A friend of mine offered to feel me in on what happened in the first film and then proceeded to go off on a protracted rant about how dubious the moral was, in that it was basically preaching that bad guys are all single people without families and that the main character finds redemption through his interest in raising an adopted litter. I suppose I gleaned enough about the plot from that. Anyway, Despicable Me 2 was much as I expected. Animation style has a nice slick sheen to it, story is serviceable but nothing too special, those helium-sucking Minion things are certainly NOT my cup of tea (well, except for that one who fancied himself and Lucy as an item; I have to admit that did raise a smile). It goes without saying that this thing is lowbrow as fuck, which depending on your personal tastes may make or break it for you - if you like gags about shark abuse, psychotic chickens and characters who snicker uncontrollably when they hear the word "bottom", then Despicable Me 2 has you pretty well covered.


The Snub Club:

Remember how last year DreamWorks tried something just a little above their station with Rise of The Guardians and it didn't quite work out for them? Well, this year it was Blue Sky's turn to aim high and plummet. They turned out Epic, their most serious and ambitious film to date, and the world couldn't have been less impressed. Epic received tepid reviews from the critics and made less domestically than any other Blue Sky film at the time (and barely more than Robots worldwide). Myself, I had mixed feelings about Epic. On the one hand, it was nice to see Blue Sky step out of their comfort zone and try something other than a buddy comedy about sitcom-minded animals (or robots). That Epic barely made a dent at the box office while an absolute piece of shit like Ice Age: Continental Drift made over 800 million worldwide was probably not indication that they would straying from their formula again any time soon. Then again, Epic is ambitious without being particularly inspired or innovative. It tries to be something more mature and sophisticated than we'd ordinarily associate with this studio yet ultimately succumbs to too many bad habits - those two wisecracking slug sidekicks are very archetypal Blue Sky characters, cut from the same obnoxious cloth as the sloth from Ice Age and the bulldog from Rio. We also get a frog voiced by Pitbull who fits in about as well here as he would have done in Frozen (there's an uneasy tension between the film's dual pursuits of old-school adventure and modern, cutting edge hipness that's never resolved). At least there's a real cute pug dog.

Epic was based on the book The Leaf Men and The Brave Good Bugs by William Joyce, which I've never read, but I get a strong sense of what was so misguided about the production just from Chris Wedge's words in this USA Today interview, "while Bill wrote a wonderful book, it is a quaint story. We wanted to make a gigantic action-adventure story." In other words, they took all the character and subtlety out of Joyce's creation and made it into something flashy and cookie cutter. Also, I don't know if the notion of a war between Life and Decay came from Joyce or Blue Sky, but I'm not sure if I buy the two as opposing forces - aren't life and decay just part of the same ongoing cycle? What's a detritivore supposed to do?

A notable absentee from this year's nominations were Academy favourites Pixar - this was only the second time since the award began that they had been shut out from the ceremony (the previous occasion was in 2012 - with Cars 2, so no one actually cared, mind). The Academy have been accused, both rightly and wrongly, of showing an enormous amount of favouritism to Pixar over the years, but honestly I think that it swings both ways and that the Academy can be particularly hard on Pixar when they fail to live up to expectations. Monsters University is definitely average by Pixar standards but I'm not sure if I'd call it an objectively worse film than The Croods or Despicable Me 2. Maybe it's more the principle of the thing. This glimpse into Mike and Sulley's frat boy days was 100% unnecessary and I know that a lot of people shared my unease about how reliant Pixar were slowly becoming upon eking out their existing franchises - no one likes to see the masters of innovation be divorced from their original touch.

And then there was Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 and - ugh, no way am I touching this one. Just looking at the trailers for this made me feel really unwell. I said that the original film makes the act of eating look seriously unsexy, but this one looks more like some kind of food poisoning-induced nightmare. I strongly believe that this may be the one film with the potential to freak me out more than Meet The Feebles. You're going to have to find me in a far more masochistic frame of mind.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Animation Oscar Bite 2013: Revenge of The Red-Headed Stepchild


85th Academy Awards - 24th February 2013

The contenders: Brave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Wreck-It-Ralph

The winner: Brave

The rightful winner: ParaNorman

The barrel-scraper: Frankenweenie
 

Other Notes:

Oh boy, were people pissed off about this one.

I described the results of the 2002 ceremony, where Shrek triumphed over Monsters, Inc, as this category's "most controversial move to date," but in terms of the seething, lingering internet anger it generated I think this year might actually have it beat. People widely agree that Monsters, Inc holds up as a stronger film than Shrek and that the Academy were a little off in their judgement back in 2002, but you don't tend to see a whole lot of really potent bitterness on the matter. People have generally accepted what happened and moved on, content that Pixar had plenty of opportunities to shine thereafter. But the 2013 ceremony...well, that's a whole different kettle of catfish. People are still livid that Pixar's Brave beat Disney's Wreck-It Ralph, and they continue to treat every subsequent Academy Awards ceremony as another opportunity to vent their outrage. Whenever you come across someone trying make the case that this award is meaningless or that Pixar ALWAYS win even when they submit a mediocre entry (totally untrue, as Lightning McQueen can attest) it's this outcome they'll invariably point toward.

It's true of course that Brave is one of Pixar's less popular films. Not "less popular" in the A Bug's Life sense, where people have just kind of forgotten that it exists, but in the sense that there are a lot of very vocal people who actively scorn it - which, again, I suspect has a lot to do with the fact that it beat fan favourite Wreck-It Ralph to top honors (Wreck-It Ralph didn't exactly blow away the box office, but its numerous references to gaming culture ensured that it quickly picked up a robust cult following). If it hadn't won this award, I suspect that it would be regarded as "a mild disappointment" as opposed to "TEH WORZT PIXAR FLIM EVA!!!"

Personally...I was okay with Brave. It wasn't Up or Ratatouille; there were no scenes that had me gasping or crying or wanting to stand up and cheer, but it held my interest and there's not really anything I actively disliked about it. Honestly, my number one problem with Brave would have to be its moniker. I do not think that "Brave" is a very good title. In fact, I think it's one heck of a dumb title. My problem with it is that it's incredibly vague and generic, and shows no interest in conveying anything about the tone or character of the film itself. We all know that the film was originally going to be called "The Bear and The Bow" but that was booted when the weak box office returns for The Princess and The Frog gave Disney a fantastic fear of anything that sounded vaguely fairy tale-related. Instead, they sought something hard and edgy that wouldn't have male twenty-something theatre patrons blushing at the ticketing booth...and "Brave" was really the best they could come up with? I had to smirk at the film's efforts to justify it by having its protagonist close off by saying something along the lines of, "We can all achieve our destiny if we're brave enough to see it!" Nice try, but you could just have easily called the film "Destiny". Or "See". Or "Help! My Maw Is A Bear!" which would have at least been tailored to suit the film's plot. (In fairness, the title might have been conceived as a nod to the song "Scotland The Brave", but it's still ridiculously vague.)

In the end, the real issue with Brave has less to do with the film itself than with its odious backstory. It's no secret that historically Pixar have had a real problem when it comes to female representation, both within their pictures and behind the scenes. Brave was initially touted as being the project that would finally shatter Pixar's "boys club" image, it being not only their first ever film to feature a female protagonist, but their first to be helmed by a female director (Brenda Chapman, who had previously co-directed the DreamWorks Animation film The Prince of Egypt). Then came the news in late 2010 that Chapman had been forced out of the project and replaced by a male director, Mark Andrews, and this caused a lot of heartbreak among those hoping to see greater female presence in the animation industry. Chapman, of course, is not the only director to have been unceremoniously booted under Lasseter. From what little I know about Jan Pinkava's original version of Ratatouille, I think it was probably for the best that the project was handed over to Brad Bird. Chris Sanders' American Dog I'm less sure about, given how Bolt turned out. We don't know exactly what happened with Brave (all we got was the standard "creative differences" explanation) but I can take an educated guess - given those aforementioned concerns surrounding the commercial failure of The Princess and The Frog, I find it entirely plausible that Lasseter looked at this very female-orientated picture and became jumpy about it, telling Chapman that she either had to testosterone things up a notch or go. Chapman resisted, so she was out.

It's at this point that we may as well address the elephant in the room regarding John Lasseter - at the time of writing, he is taking a leave of absence from Disney following allegations of sexual misconduct around the workplace. When this was announced in late November 2017, many people reacted with shock. Lasseter was supposed to be one of the good guys of Hollywood, right? To those with a keen interest in the animation industry, however, it merely seemed to confirm that some of the worst rumours we'd heard about Lasseter in the aftermath of Chapman's firing were true. I wasn't aware that the issues went as far as sexual harassment, but I had heard reports that Lasseter had quite a malodorous attitude toward his female colleagues and that his real beef with Chapman was that he simply didn't like that a girl had climbed up the ladder into his all-boys clubhouse. When the news broke about Lasseter, I was disappointed, but not really surprised.

What's sad about Brave is that the story was clearly a deeply personal one for Chapman, having been based on her relationship with her own daughter. The mother-daughter relationship still remains at the centre of the finished film, but I think it's safe to say that Andrews' heart wasn't as invested in this as Chapman's would have been; Brave is serviceable, but it doesn't emit a whole lot of passion for its setting or scenario. Ultimately, I'm inclined to rank Brave alongside such Disney not-quites as The Fox and The Hound and Brother Bear (the latter of which Brave received much comparison to - to my immense surprise, as I didn't think there were many souls out there who actually remembered Brother Bear in 2012). They're not bad films but they are each hampered by their timid, compromised tone; in all cases, you get the feeling that there was a potentially great film in here, but it wasn't allowed to be all that it could be. Brave is more of a missed opportunity than anything else.

Here's my number one problem with Wreck-It Ralph: that Vanellope von Schweetz character is really fucking dreadful. Sorry, but the instant she opened her mouth I could feel whatever emotional investment I had in the story gurgling nosily down the plughole. You can undo a heck of a lot of good work by including a sequence where one of your characters screeches the same belabored scatological joke over and over in the most teeth-clenchingly annoying tone possible, and that's something that Rich Moore and Phil Johnston might want to keep in mind if they fancy the Oscar chances of that upcoming sequel where Ralph breaks the internet.

Of the remaining nominees, the one that surprised me the most was Laika's ParaNorman. My number one nitpick with this entry was that I didn't find the character designs to be particularly appealing (there was something about them I found vaguely reminiscent of the kind of stop motion figures you'd encounter in 1990s snack food commercials) but the story and characters themselves were so fresh and engaging that I honestly didn't mind. ParaNorman is a well-crafted and intelligent meditation on the pains and the joys of being an outsider, and also on the road to Hell being paved with good intentions - the film purposely eschews traditional villainy, opting instead to have all of its conflict arise from misjudgements and miscommunication. As a horror-fantasy, it's not quite as beautifully, beguilingly twisted an experience as Coraline - this is more like The Goonies meets The Sixth Sense meets Night of The Living Dead, with a twist - but it's still a good mix and back in 2012 this was welcome proof that Laika were more than just a one movie wonder. I'll also make note of that gag at the end where one of the characters casually reveals himself to be gay, and it's done in a way where the joke doesn't seem at the expense of either the character or his sexuality. I bring this up because it's leaps and bounds ahead of Disney's recent attempt at LGBT representation in that awful live action Beauty and The Beast remake (live action LeFou is about as progressive a LGBT character as Wiggins from Pocahontas).

Meanwhile, Aardman Animations finally got to release their dream project, The Pirates! Band of Misfits (actually, it was The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! in its native Blighty but I guess it was changed due to a fear that American audiences get spooked by anything vaguely intellectual-sounding?), their first claymation feature film since Curse of The Were-Rabbit in 2005. Adapted from a series of novels by Gideon Defoe, Aardman had apparently pitched this one to DreamWorks Animation during their short-lived partnership but were told that there was no market for pirate pictures (this was before that Disney film with Johnny Depp came along and launched one of the most annoying cinematic franchises of modern times). Unfortunately (and much like Arthur Christmas before it), Aardman's pirate picture struggled to find an audience (at least outside of the UK), prompting the proposed sequel, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Cowboys!, to be scrapped. My heart bled for director Peter Lord, because I know how long he'd been wanting to make this film and how intent he was on doing a full series based on Defoe's novels. However, I would be lying if I said that I felt a great deal of personal heartbreak at the prospect of no more Pirates! I liked the original just fine, but it didn't leave me baying for more. It's one of those fun-while-it-lasts films that doesn't leave much of a lasting impression. What I mainly enjoyed were the cameos by Jane Austen and the Elephant Man.

The nadir of the night was Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, an animated remake of his 1984 live action short about a pulverised terrier who gets raised from the dead. Perhaps the real reason why I honestly can't be too hard on Brave is because Frankenweenie came as a far more crushing disappointment to me. I genuinely expected this to my favourite movie of the year - it deals with a subject near and dear to my heart (pet bereavement), the titular mutt bears a striking resemblance to the four-legged lead from Family Dog, and it's loaded with horror iconography. By rights I should have been all over this thing. Sadly, it's all undone by an absolute bummer of a story, with its forlornly muddled attitude toward life and death (I'm aware that the film's cop-out happy ending is faithful to the original short, but that doesn't make it a satisfying one) and its thoughtless double standards regarding which master-pet relationships are worthy of veneration and which aren't (you don't need to be a cat person to appreciate that Weird Girl and Mr Whiskers get a seriously ugly deal). The stop motion animation is technically superb, but the visuals do have a tedious familiarity about them - not just the dog, but a significant portion of the cast look like characters from previous Burton works, in a manner that reveals the limitations of Burton's style more than anything else, eg: the protagonist from Frankenweenie looks like a recycled version of the hero from Corpse Bride (that they're both called Victor is kind of a necessary evil, given that he's based on Victor Frankenstein). Not to mention that "Pluto is not a planet?" jokes were really old hat in 2012 (what time period is this supposed to be set in anyway? If not for that one stupid line I would have said late 1940s).


The Snub Club:

Elsewhere in the animation industry, 2012 proved to be the year that DreamWorks Animation finally ran out of luck: Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted did fine (obviously I stayed well away from that one), but Rise of The Guardians was not a financial success, kick-starting a pattern where DreamWorks would consistently lose money on high-budgeted titles that didn't click with the public and were forced to lay off employees in droves. Rise of The Guardians, adapted from a series of novels by William Joyce, was one of DreamWorks' more ambitious projects - it's dark, moody and atmospheric and it takes itself a lot more seriously than most DreamWorks films before it. It's also one of DreamWorks' most arresting pieces visually, which is not to say that it's an especially pretty-looking film - it goes so out of its way to avoid anything remotely cuddly or cutesy-looking that often it embraces full-on grotesqueness - yet there is something strangely enthralling about the spectacle of it all. I want to call Rise of The Guardians one of DreamWorks' better films, although I am also inclined think of it as a failure. It's an awfully nice try that doesn't quite get it right. Perhaps the world, story and characters needed better fleshing out. Perhaps Jack Frost needed to be a slightly less obnoxious protagonist (he gets a horrifically tragic backstory, but a little too late). Perhaps Pitch needed to have more dimension as an antagonist (I actually find myself feeling a certain degree of sympathy for Pitch in the end. Is there any reason why he couldn't stick around and have Halloween? Kids like being scared on Halloween).

Blue Sky released Ice Age: Continental Drift, which made an absolute killing at the international box office despite being one of the shittiest films ever made (I'd like to think that a good chunk of that audience were just in it for the Maggie Simpson short at the start - which I did like, by the way - but maybe that's just wishful thinking). Continental Drift has no heart, no soul, no mind, no spine, no anything; it's the epitome of a cynical cash grab, and the only thing I kind-of sort-of liked about it was the badger. By this stage, the Ice Age franchise was clearly struggling with the demands of balancing an increasingly cluttered cast - Ellie's possum "brothers" are here reduced to background extras while we get some uber-hackneyed subplot where Manny and Ellie's teenage daughter learns a vital lesson in personal integrity when she ditches her best friend (a bizarre mole-hedgehog chimera) to hang out with the in-crowd (what is this, Leave It To Beaver?). Then there's Diego's female counterpart, who turns her back on her life of piracy and sides with the good guys for no other reason than the script demands it. By now I was very conscious of the fact that the humans who played a major role in the first film haven't been seen or mentioned since, and I kept wondering if humans are still even a part of this world, or if this is now set in some freaky alternate universe where humans went extinct and mammoths became the dominant species. Roshan and his solemn, quietly dignified tribe frankly don't feel as if they could fit in any more with this increasingly monstrous inanity.

Finally, in the this-happened-but-I-wasn't-paying-much-attention category, the Hotel Transylvania series got its start this year. I've heard mixed things.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Animation Oscar Bite 2012: The Year We Didn't Give A Damn


84th Academy Awards - 26th February 2012

The contenders: A Cat in Paris, Chico and Rita, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, Rango

The winner: Rango

The rightful winner: Chico and Rita

The barrel-scraper: Frankly, almost any of these could have been barrel-scrapers in a stronger year. In a sea of general mediocrity, it seems unfair to single any one of them out.


Other Notes:

Please note that when I call 2012 "the year we didn't give a damn", I refer strictly to the Best Animated Feature award, because there was a whole lot of exciting stuff going on elsewhere in this ceremony. The Artist was a wonderfully affectionate pastiche on silent cinema and a very worthy Best Picture winner (yeah, I said it), while Best Original Song went to a song about Muppets written by one half of Flight of The Conchords. Flight of The Conchords. Winning for a song about Muppets. How is that not single the greatest thing ever to have happened at the Oscars?

Alas, 2011 was not a strong year for Hollywood animation, and the Academy had clearly struggled to scrape together a halfway decent list of nominees for the 2012 ceremony. As a result, we have what might just be the worst line-up in the award's history to date. Truthfully, none of these films are what you'd call terrible. There's nothing here to rival the soul-sucking wretchedness of Shark Tale or Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. But there's also very little that inspires excitement and, with the sole exception of Chico and Rita, I doubt that most of these would have been nominated at all in a stronger year. Ragtag mediocrity was very much the dominant flavour this time around, and it was difficult to get particularly pumped over who would actually win out of this bunch. I assume the two key factors which led to Rango's victory were a) Hollywood bias and b) the Academy's aversion to sequels/spin-offs (with the exception of Toy Story 3, sequels have a poor track record in this category). Rango, the debut animated feature from long-time visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic, is easily the most dubious film ever to have walked away with this award; I saw it back in March 2011 and thought it alright, but it never once occurred to me that I was looking at a Best Animated Feature winner.

I'll give Rango that it's "different" - it doesn't feel as if it's trying to mimic any other model of popular animation, be it DreamWorks, Disney or Pixar, or, gratuitous fart jokes aside, give much consideration to delivering a commercial product at all (it's also surprisingly morbid for a family film - there are a lot of onscreen deaths and visible dead bodies). Unfortunately, "different" does not equate to distinguished, or at least it doesn't in this case. Rango is odd without being particularly engaging, which has to do with its messy narrative, weak lead and overstuffed supporting cast (this film suffers from Too Many Characters Syndrome, where it bombards us with so many different supporting figures that we never really get a chance to know who any of them are). All in all, it's not an amazingly memorable experience, and I suspect that, if not for the Oscar win, people would be questioning if this film even existed or if was just some hazy, half-remembered hallucination they had from lying out too long in the sun. That seems a more befitting legacy for a film of this nature.

The strongest entry of the bunch, and the film which would have easily owned this if life was fair, was Chico and Rita, a meticulously animated Spanish romantic drama about two young musicians whose lives continuously entwine against the backdrop of the Havana Afro-Cuban/New York jazz scenes of the 1940s and 50s. The film's visual style is absolutely heavenly and the soundtrack is top notch. The film's only misstep is in its schmaltzy Hollywood ending (which nearly had me yelling, "Oh come on!" in a crowded auditorium). Call me a cynic, but to me the heart and soul of this film was never in the romantic thread between Chico and Rita but in the mood and character of the various locations they pass through on their journey. This is something that it captures superbly.

The second foreign entry of the night was Folimage's A Cat In Paris (or Une vie de chat in its native French). I'll confess that my opinion on this film is probably sullied by the fact that I've only ever seen the English dub, and I am willing to believe that the film works a lot better in its original French form. I was enthralled by the charming animation style but in story and character terms I came away with the distinct impression that something had been lost in translation. In the English dub, the loveliness of the animation is frequently offset by the childishness of some of the dialogue, especially whenever the villain is onscreen - in particular, there's a scene where he chews out one of his underlings for offering him the wrong flavour quiche that's awkward, overlong and not very fun to watch. It's a perfectly nice film and absolutely fine for kids, but there's a disappointing lack of adult appeal.

In an unheard of turn of events (for the time), Pixar wound up being shut out from this particular round (see below), while their old rivals at DreamWorks scored two nominations - among them, our second feline-centred nominee of the night, Puss in Boots, a spin-off to a franchise that by now was obstinately refusing to be put out of its misery. I remember when this project was announced all the way back in 2004 (at the time it was widely expected to be a direct to video release). It wasn't the most outlandish idea out there, given that Puss did have quite a fanbase at the time (in fairness, he was the best thing about Shrek 2), but spending a whopping seven years in production meant that when it finally materialised, the world had long since moved on. It arrived way too late to capitalise on the Shrek mania which had been downright formidable in the early mid-00s, and whatever charm Puss had once had as a character had been eroded through his involvement in those last two piddling Shrek sequels. It's also not totally clear whether Puss in Boots is intended as a prequel to the Shrek films or if it's a stand-alone story that takes place in its own separate world and timeline - overlap with the mother series was purposely avoided because it was in development at the same time as Shrek Forever After and no one knew what the hell they were doing with that movie either. Puss in Boots is a more watchable film than either of the latter two Shrek sequels, but no more justified in its existence.

Kung Fu Panda 2 felt like a less arbitrary sequel, in that the original film did actually close with an exploitable loose end - namely, that Po's origins were never addressed. Mind you, in the original, that was kind of the whole point, was it not? It was treated as this unspoken, lightly touching absurdity that a giant panda somehow wound up being raised by a noodle-slicing goose and nobody ever quite gets to the point where they're able to explicitly comment on or question it. Here, we get a scene where Ping mournfully admits to Po that he's not his biological father and Po is all, "pfft, I figured that out ages ago" (congrats on being smarter than Ellie from Ice Age: The Meltdown, Po). Inevitably, the joke loses quite a bit of its charm the instant it becomes explicit. Po gets a sufficiently harrowing backstory, albeit one that lessens its impact by giving pretty much everything away in the opening sequence - this allows for dramatic irony when Po first confronts the genocidal peacock and doesn't quite grasp the magnitude of what he's dealing with, but it also means there's no dramatic tension as Po slowly uncovers the truth, because any reasonably attentive viewer will already be about ten steps ahead of him.


The Snub Club:

Pixar were passed over for the very first time since this category began, which coming after four straight wins in a row certainly raised a few eyebrows - however, given that their contender that year had been Cars 2, their worst received film to date, few but the most diehard of Pixar fans can have been particularly disappointed. I'll confess that Cars 2 is one of only two Pixar films to date I haven't seen (the other being Cars 3) - the original wasn't that great, and it was clear as day that this film was only given the go-ahead because Cars was one of Pixar's biggest merchandise-spinners (John Lasseter good as admitted this in an interview I can no longer find). I can't actually comment on the film itself, but I'm willing to believe that it's as bad as everyone tells me it is.

Also shut out (in this case, to nobody's surprise) were Blue Sky, with their latest offering, Rio. By now it was clear that these guys weren't exactly favourites with the Academy - between Ice Age's nomination in 2003 and Ferdinand's (surprise?) nomination this year, Blue Sky scored a big fat zero number of appearances in this category (although Rio was nominated for Best Original Song). Credit where credit's due, Rio was easily Blue Sky's best film to date, but it's all relative and Blue Sky's best still doesn't get anywhere close to rivaling Pixar's. It has pretty animation, nice music and a villain voiced by the other half of Flight of The Conchords, and there's little in the way of truly obnoxious characters, aside from a bulldog voiced by Tracy Morgan. Unfortunately, the story doesn't break any ground or go anywhere you wouldn't expect it to go. It's pleasant but unremarkable, like most Blue Sky features (exceptions being the Ice Age sequels, which don't even have the virtue of being pleasant). For a long time, Rio was subject to vilification by a lot of Pixar fans, due to speculation that Pixar's recently-shelved project, Newt, was scrapped over concerns that the basic premise (the course of true love not running smoothly between the two last surviving members of a species) was deemed too similar to Rio. Pixar fans were pissed to be living in a timeline where we got Rio instead of Newt. It later transpired that Newt got dumped in favour of starting work on a brand new project, Inside Out, which I think most people would agree was a pretty good trade-off. Besides, it wouldn't have been a totally original premise whichever studio did it first - The Wild Thornberrys already did an episode based on that very scenario (tortoises, in their case).

Having split with DreamWorks Animation following Flushed Away's weak box office returns, Aardman had found brand new bedfellows in the form of Sony, and their first release was a collaborative project with Sony Pictures Animation, Arthur Christmas. Aardman hadn't forsaken their stop motion roots (Pirates! was just around the corner, after all), but they remained open to dabbling with CG animation every once in a while. Sadly, their efforts to start afresh didn't manage to turn things around for them - Arthur Christmas made less money than Flushed Away (albeit on a smaller budget), cementing a pattern in which Aardman would consistently struggle to find an audience stateside (their early success with Chicken Run may well have been a fluke). Which is a shame, because Arthur Christmas is a really solid offering - not one of Aardman's classics, but fun and genial, and buoyed along considerably by its excellent voice cast. I have only one real quibble with the film - Bill Nighy's character is frankly a bit of a psychopath, although the film tries to play him off as a lovable rogue. Was nobody else bothered that he (quite willfully) almost gets Bryony killed twice?

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Terwilliger Tales: Black Widower vs Black Widow


Let me tell you about these guys named Warren Martyn and Adrian Wood. In 1997 they published a book called I Can't Believe It's An Unofficial Simpsons Guide, which beat the first official Simpsons episode guide book, The Simpsons: A Complete Guide To Our Favorite Family, to the shelves by several months. The book was printed by Virgin Publishing and aimed primarily at British audiences (hence the inclusion of a "Notes for Brits" sub-heading, which was rolled out for any gag that "relies on the audience's knowledge of a certain American public figure or institution for its comic impact"). As episode guide books go, it's a fairly modest example, breaking into each episode down into a series of readable, systematic notes while inevitably lacking the visual vibrancy of the official publication. Once A Complete Guide had arrived, I Can't Believe didn't have much to help it stand out above the competition; it made for nice enough supplementary material, but A Complete Guide was very much the main event. For one thing, the first edition only goes up to about two thirds of the way through Season 8, then it stops abruptly with "My Sister, My Sitter", suggesting that Martyn and Wood had a deadline to meet and couldn't wait around for the current season to end (possibly because they knew that an official guide was coming and needed to get their foot in the door first), whereas A Complete Guide provides a complete overview of the first eight seasons. Where I Can't Believe might have excelled was in the unique and personal insight Martyn and Wood could have offered as fans of the series - as the official publication, A Complete Guide gives a detailed but entirely uncritical overview of the series, and there's no room for the writers' individual personalities or perspectives to shine through; ultimately, it exists to promote the series, not critique it. Unfortunately, Martyn and Wood didn't fully realise this the first time around; each episode entry concludes with a generic "Notes" sub-heading, where the authors give their overall opinions on the episode, but these tended to be very brief, with no more than one or two sentences apiece. To be fair, I believe that the original idea was to keep everything as concise and non-intimidating as possible; I Can't Believe was aiming to be a handy reference guide, not an in-depth study. And yet occasionally the book does show tiny flashes of the authors' personalities - I picked up that they're Dexy's Midnight Runners fans and that they seem to have a particular fondness for Moe - and their work becomes all the more charming for it. In 2000, Martyn and Wood came back with a revised edition, titled I Can't Believe It's A Bigger And Better Updated Unofficial Guide, in which they finally completed Season 8 and covered all of Seasons 9 and 10. This time round, Martyn and Wood did attempt to play up the fan analysis angle a lot more; their final notes got a fair bit longer, and they seemed a lot less coy about highlighting which aspects of the episode hadn't worked for them (then again, Seasons 9 and 10 were the ugly transition point in which the series was beginning to lose some of its lustre - to my knowledge, Martyn and Wood never came out with a third edition covering Seasons 11 onward, so perhaps they bowed out as ardent viewers from here).

Oh, and just to make things unnecessarily confusing, I see that some copies of the first edition of I Can't Believe are credited to these guys named Gareth Roberts and Gary Russell. This vexes me a lot, because the revised edition, which is the only version I currently have to hand, credits the original 1997 text to Martyn and Wood. No mention of any Roberts and Russell. I do not know what the story is there (pen names, perhaps?), but if I've incorrectly credited anything in this article, then my sincerest apologies.

As a Simpsons buff, I owe a lot to Martyn or Wood (or Roberts and Russell). Back in 1997, when I was still a kid and still pretty terrified of this strange new thing called the world wide web, it was a useful guide for keeping track of which episodes went where in the series' run, and it also helped me to view the show more systematically; thanks to I Can't Believe, I became a lot more attuned to the various cultural references and subtexts in each episode, and I also compiled a long list of books and movies I wanted to check out purely because The Simpsons had referenced them. Nowadays, though, I feel that I've long outgrown I Can't Believe as a resource and I find myself getting more frustrated with the stuff that Martyn and Wood actually get wrong. Take their description of my favourite character, Sideshow Bob, for example. "Krusty's silent stooge for many years. He revealed himself to be a well-read, plummy-voiced Englishman with a mad desire to seize power, raise cultural standards, and to kill Bart." I actually think that's a very good and concise summary of Bob's character, but for one detail - namely, that SIDESHOW BOB IS NOT ENGLISH! To me, this seems like a pretty careless mistake to make, as in the episode "Brother From Another Series" Bob explicitly identifies his nationality as American, and that episode was included in the first edition of I Can't Believe. There's also the problem that Bob doesn't sound English; given that I Can't Believe is a British publication, I Can't Believe that the authors mistook Bob's accent for one of their own (unless they also think that Frasier is English, because he has the exact same accent). Then again, the specific accent that Bob has - Mid-Atlantic - does tend to trip people up. I've seen a number of Disney villains get falsely identified as Brits because they have a refined, darkly pompous way of speaking (to clear things up, Scar from The Lion King has a British accent, while Jafar from Aladdin has a Mid-Atlantic accent like Bob). In a nutshell, the Mid-Atlantic accent is a very swanky American accent associated with the US cultural elite (although its use has declined since the 1940s); it was heavily influenced by British Received Pronunciation (also known as the BBC accent), so there are some similarities, and that's where the confusion factors in. But Sideshow Bob is not a Brit, and it kind of annoys me that Wikipedia still cites Martyn and Wood's description of him as such. (Side-note: they also have Sideshow Mel down as an Englishman, but the same applies. Mel's voice is actually Dan Castellaneta's attempt at impersonating Kelsey Grammer.)

What I actually intend to investigate in this piece is one of Martyn and Wood's specific observations about a Sideshow Bob episode, "Black Widower" of Season 3. "Black Widower" is kind of a funny episode for me to delve into, as I have more of a love-hate relationship with it than I do the others of its ilk. I would emphasise that I love all of the six original Sideshow Bob episodes (and even some of the later Sideshow Bob episodes) very dearly, but let me put it this way - they have my unconditional love, so you could say they're like children to me, but "Brother From Another Series" and "Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming" are the favoured kids I'm sending off to college while "Black Widower" is the little bastard step-child I'm occasionally tempted to beat and lock down in the cellar. I do love it, honestly I do, but I also have a couple of serious problems with it. Firstly, Bob's motivation here really irks me, in that it's not overly clear why he wants to murder Selma, and the implied motivation (to get his hands on the money she made from investing in a mace company before society crumbled) seems highly out-of-character for him. I mean, Bob is susceptible to a number of deadly vices (Pride, Wrath and Envy being high on the list), but he never struck me as the avaricious type; that's more Mr Burns' thing. Bob wouldn't kill for money, he'd only kill for power and revenge, dammit! It would be shrewd to keep in mind that this was only Bob's second episode, so his character perhaps hadn't been fully ironed out at this point, but going from framing an abusive, self-indulgent work colleague for armed robbery to attempting to blow up a sad, pathetic lonely heart desperate for a relationship seems like an awfully extreme dive off the deep end to me. This leads me onto my second issue, which is that Selma Bouvier is by far the least deserving of Bob's intended victims. By that, I'm not suggesting that Krusty "deserved" to be framed for armed robbery or that Bart "deserved" to terrorised with countless death threats, just that Bob doesn't have the anything close to the kind of personal bad blood with Selma that he did with either of those other two characters. Bob's willingness to murder Selma seems to spring from an entirely different place to the hot bubbling fury that has him yearning to butcher Bart, or the entitled superciliousness that has him rigging mayoral elections and threatening to blow up Springfield with nuclear devices. For her part, I don't get the impression that Selma genuinely loved Bob, and I suspect she accepted his marriage proposal more out of fear of dying alone (which she very nearly did); at any rate, her love for Bob is blatantly not equal to her love for MacGyver. Nevertheless, there is something unpleasant about seeing Bob manipulate and use someone as emotionally vulnerable as Selma, only to try to bump her off once he's done. Ordinarily with these Sideshow Bob episodes, I'm firmly on Bob's side. It's clear that he's a smart, talented and charming guy who's unfortunately gone down a very self-destructive rabbit hole, and no matter how extreme or misguided his actions, I find myself genuinely feeling for him come his inevitable defeat. Not to mention that, for much of the time, there is actually the intimation of a valid point nestled beneath those nefarious schemes of his (insofar as it involves the low cultural and educational standards championed by the rest of Springfield). "Black Widower" is a rare instance in which I find myself exclaiming, "What the hell, Bob?!"

I've seen some people suggest that Bob's motivation for murdering Selma is rooted in his adverse reaction to MacGyver and the fact that Selma was all prepared to dump him over a stupid TV show. That sounds marginally more in-character for Bob than killing for money, but it implies that he was entirely sincere about everything that happened up to that point, including wanting to marry Selma, and I don't think we're intended to come away with that impression at all. Fortunately, the episode is so vague on Bob's motives that it's just about possible to interpret his murder scheme as an indirect means of exacting revenge on Bart. For one, it's clear that Bob (somehow) knew in advance that Selma was a relative of Bart's - note that he isn't in the least bit shocked or surprised to run into Bart when he finally gets to meet Selma's family. During his dinner with the Simpsons, Bob recounts how his revenge fantasies against Bart were the one thing which kept him going in prison, although he also cites the first truth of the Buddha, "Existence is suffering", as a reason for not going so far as to wish Bart dead. There's a hint there that revenge on Bart is primarily what's driving Bob, and that he'd sooner do it by increasing Bart's worldly suffering than by choking him like a chicken (um, kinky?). I've heard it said that killing Selma would be a peculiar means of getting back at Bart, because Selma isn't someone Bart would particularly miss, but to that I say, come on. Bart and Selma aren't amazingly close, but they're still family. Are you telling me that Bart wouldn't care if his aunt was murdered and he knew that a man he really disliked was responsible and stood to inherit her entire bank account? It's a moot point, however, because I don't think the episode does put quite that much thought into Bob's motivation. It's more about the fiendish intricacies of his plot and Bart's efforts to unravel it; the hows rather than the whys. As far as this episode is concerned, Bob wants to kill Selma for no deeper reason than he's evil/sociopathic. It sucks, but I think that's all there is to it.

(Anyway, fun fact - "Black Widower" first aired in April 1992 and the following month MacGyver came to an end. I'm sure that came as consolation to the freshly-imprisoned Bob.)

What of Martyn and Wood's observation? In I Can't Believe they claim that the episode was partially based on a 1987 thriller called Black Widow, "particularly nobody believing Bart's pleas that Sideshow Bob is dangerous." That could well be true, given that the majority of Bob's episodes are at least vaguely inspired by some sort of cinematic or television source, and the clue is usually right there in the title - "Cape Feare" is basically The Simpsons' remake of Martin Scorsese's remake of J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear. "Sideshow Bob Roberts" is a reference to Tim Robbins' political mockumentary Bob Roberts (1992), while "Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming" borrows several elements from Robert Aldrich's Cold War thriller Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977). "Brother From Another Series" was a massive in-joke based on that other series that Grammer was doing at the time. So I could buy that the plot of "Black Widower" was indeed inspired by this film called Black Widow. But then again, the title "Black Widower" feels like it could just as easily be a direct reference to the black widow spider, a creature with a reputation for sexual cannibalism (I remain hazy as to how much truth there is in that reputation). Where I'm skeptical is in Martyn and Wood's claim that the plot point about Bart being the only one to see through Bob is a nod to this film. I think it's more likely that "Black Widower" was intended to be a direct inversion on "Krusty Gets Busted", where Bart was the only character who kept the faith in Krusty - Marge's statement at the end of the episode clearly underscores the parallel.


Black Widow seems to be one of those films that's long since slipped away from popular consciousness (if it ever made much of a dent there in the first place) as I have literally never encountered any reference to this film other than Martyn and Wood's citation in I Can't Believe. I only recently took the trouble to get hold of a copy, which is probably a reflection of "Black Widower's" lowly status upon my list of favourite Bob episodes - after all, I hunted down and devoured Bob Roberts, Twilight's Last Gleaming and both Cape Fear films ages ago. It has always been at the back of my mind to check this one out, however. Do Martyn and Wood know their 1980s thriller homages or are they as on the money about this as they are about Bob's nationality? Let's find out!

Black Widow was directed by another Bob, last name Rafelson, and stars Debra Winger as Alexandra Barnes, a special agent on the trail of the mysterious Catharine Petersen (Theresa Russell), a professional gold digger who's carved out a nifty little niche for herself, whereby she seduces a unsuspecting rich man, ties the knot, dispatches him and then scarpers the instant his funds are safely in her grasp. If you've seen Addams Family Values then you'll know the drill. Barnes is initially alone in believing that all of these seemingly accidental male deaths may have a far more sinister connection but eventually talks her boss, Bruce (Terry O'Quinn), into allowing her to go undercover in the hopes of catching Petersen red-handed. Shedding her own identity, Barnes tracks Petersen to Hawaii, where the Black Widow is in the process of netting a fresh victim in the form of swanky hotel mogul Paul Nuytten (Sami Frey), and an unexpected friendship develops between the two women. When I say "unexpected", I mean "unambiguously erotic". It's clear as day that these two women feel a pull toward one another, an uneasy tension expressed in the pivotal question the film poses (but isn't too interested in answering): "She mates and she kills. But does she love?"

To answer my own central poser, then long story short, no, I don't think that Black Widow was a terribly big influence on the episode "Black Widower", or even at all, and I think what Martyn and Wood identify as homages are really just vague coincidences. All the two have in common is that they both involve homicidal deviants who enter into marriages with the intention of offing their new spouse. Oh, and some of the action in the later half takes place in a hotel. That's it! You could make the tenuous connection that Catherine, like Bob, devises murder schemes according to the individual weaknesses of her victims (for example, one of her husbands has an allergy to penicillin, so she loads his toothpaste with the stuff), but surely that same plot point could have been plucked from any number of Agatha Christie novels? As for the part about "nobody believing Bart's pleas that Bob is dangerous", again, I think that has more to do with the events of "Krusty Gets Busted" than anything anything in Rafelson's film. "Krusty Gets Busted" was clearly used as the model for this episode; both episodes follow a similar structure in which Bob's nefarious intentions are revealed two thirds in through a private outburst of manic laughter; the viewer, along with Bart, then has the remainder of the episode in which to connect the dots and piece together the incriminating evidence against Bob.

Black Widow is a strange and frustrating film, in that it spends much of its running time pointing toward a particular outcome which it subsequently doesn't deliver on - that is, the mutual attraction between Barnes and Petersen, which fizzles out so blandly that it seriously looks as if screenwriter Ronald Bass got cold feet and decided to back out and take a more conventional route. I was relieved to read Roger Ebert's review of the film and discover that he had similar sentiments. There are scenes early on where Barnes is forced to endure comments about her lack of a relationship (from Bruce, who may have self-serving reasons for wanting to impress this point on her), which looks to laying the ground for a sexual awakening when she finally comes face-to-face with Petersen, yet all hints of latent lesbianism are ultimately deflected by having her fall (unconvincingly) for Nuytten. The romance between Barnes and Nuytten is straight out of a daytime soap, and Nuytten is honestly such a one-dimensional character that it's hard to care terribly whether Petersen murders him or not - in fact, William McCroy (Nichol Willamson), our aforementioned penicillin hater, has a far more likeable screen presence and one ends up regretting that he wasn't used as the story's main male. It's in the interplay between Barnes and Petersen that the film assumes an odd and beguiling life of its own, one that takes it above the film's routine thriller elements and into something more intriguing - an exploration of the dark magnetism of the Black Widow and what it is to live in her shadowy, merciless world. These are issues the film doesn't delve into, yet it lingers just long enough for us to pick up on Barnes' fascination with Petersen's lifestyle, with the well-concealed cracks in which this woman thus far has managed to survive, and Petersen's own cautious bemusement in having roped in such an ardent follower. These are women who each see through the other's facade; Petersen susses out quickly who Barnes is and what she came here for (there's even a sequence where she looks all set to murder Barnes in a scuba diving "accident", but ultimately chooses to save her life). Yet there's a sense of two isolated souls forming a genuine connection - each well-accustomed to using their wiles and ingenuity to get what they want and each so invested their respective professions that they haven't allowed themselves much of an emotional outlet elsewhere (the closest Petersen comes to shedding light on her murderous mindset is when she claims to have felt an attachment to each of the men she killed but hints that this was overridden by what she saw as professional dedication). The dangerous, unspoken tension with which each character regards and scrutinises the other is given momentary form in the visual metaphor of a sea urchin, which Barnes and Petersen playfully bat back and forth between them during one of their undersea explorations. And flat though the ending of Black Widow may fall, it does offer a vaguely curious final image in which (-spoilers-) Barnes, having finally implicated Petersen, evades the enthusiastic attentions of the press and goes her own solitary way. We get no real closure with regards to her emotional bond with Petersen. We likewise don't learn if her relationship with Nuytten is still on, but then again we have no real reason to care. The film ends with Barnes slipping away and disappearing, in a manner which seems evocative of Petersen's own lonely lifestyle. Ultimately, professional dedication wins out over slippery temptation. In this case, that's too bad - the film would have done well to dig deeper into the parallels between the two leads instead of just scratching perfunctorily at the surface. I would have been fine with an ending in which Petersen corrupted Barnes.

Black Widow doesn't play itself as a mystery - we learn from the very first scene that Petersen is a killer and a fake, and the tension derives more from seeing her close in on prospective victims as Barnes endeavors to get up to speed with her. I want to say that the same is more-or-less true for "Black Widower", in that we know from the start that Bob's intentions are none too savoury and that it's a simple matter of watching the cat steadily gearing up to pounce upon the pigeon, but I'm not sure as I didn't have the benefit of seeing this episode "fresh", as it were. I saw the first six Bob episodes out of order, so I already knew from the recap at the beginning of "Sideshow Bob Roberts" how this was going to go down. I wonder if fans who were watching when it premiered in April 1992 saw the situation any differently (assuming they didn't see the title as a tip-off)? Personally, I think it's evident that Bob's devotion to Selma isn't genuine from the very first act, when he compares kissing her to kissing a divine ashtray; the sweetness of Bob's tone can't disguise the obvious snarkiness in that comment, giving us our first hint of physical revulsion on Bob's part. That's why I can't get behind the argument that this was purely about MacGyver. What isn't clear is at what point Bob actually did start planning to murder Selma. Was this his intention from the very beginning? Or did he initially feel warmth toward Selma but went off her the more closely he got to know her (possibly because he learned of her connection to Bart)? The episode provides no answers, and that frustrates me so.

I'd say that for the most part, the viewer watches Bob through leery eyes because we're encouraged to empathise with Bart's unease, much as we were encouraged to side with his blind faith in Krusty's innocence in "Krusty Gets Busted". As with "Krusty Gets Busted", Bart initially doesn't have any evidence to support his gut reaction. His suspicion of Bob stems squarely from his inability to forgive him for his crimes against Krusty, and from his (entirely accurate) intuition that Bob likewise isn't going to forgive him any time soon and isn't someone he wants getting particularly close to himself or his family. With regard to Bart, Bob lets the mask slip just once - when he makes that "choked you like a chicken" remark (a double entendre which I'm sure had all those Bort shippers out there - with whom I do NOT identify - squealing with delight), a smidgen of genuine anger appears to seep its way through. But otherwise Bob pays curiously little attention to Bart throughout this episode. Unlike Black Widow, which thrives on the two-way fixation between Barnes and Petersen, the enmity here is largely one-sided. Bart watches Bob intently from a distance, but there's no real sense that Bob is watching Bart back, or that he's in any way relishing the discomfort he's milking from the shamus in short pants. The only point at which the episode appears to directly connect Bob's scheme to Bart is when he first alludes to his murderous intentions while driving off with a sleeping Selma, and we cut to the IH8 BART license plate we saw Bob manufacture earlier - a hint that this is all really about Bart, or merely a reminder of Bob's capacity for malice? You can take your pick.

Moral of the story: do watch Black Widow. It's an intriguing slice of forgotten 1980s neo-noir. Just don't expect to be satisfied by the ending. The other moral: I'll always love "Black Widower", to the point that I'm driven to pick it apart in painstaking detail, but there's something about its outcome that I too find unsatisfying. When I think about it, perhaps my real issue with this episode has less to do with the ambiguity/OCC-ness of Bob's motives and more to do with just how overwhelmingly depressing an episode it is. Like Black Widow, it has something to convey about solitude, as seen in the mutual despondence from which Bob and Selma's ill-fated relationship is formed. They come to one another from such sad places that it kind of smarts that both of them are ultimately destined to end up right back where they started. But then again, "Black Widower" is an episode with an enormous amount of cynicism toward the idea that one can grow and change for the better, particularly those who become caught up in the criminal justice system, and the outcome (in which Selma is spared precisely because of Bart's insistence on holding Bob's past against him to the finish) seems gleefully sardonic in that regard. I think the episode's true intentions are betrayed early on in a line spoken by Lisa, when she tells Bob that he's "living proof that our revolving-door prison system works." Bob comes out with ten dollars and an axe to grind. And he goes back with unbridled hysteria and that prescient taunt about the Democrats. For all her charms, it seems somewhat improbable that Selma was ever going to turn this around.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Animation Oscar Bite 2011: Three's Company


83rd Academy Awards - 27th February 2011
The contenders: How To Train Your Dragon, The Illusionist, Toy Story 3

The winner: Toy Story 3

The rightful winner: The Illusionist

The barrel-scraper: None this year.


Other notes:

Ha! I bet you were wondering when I was actually going to disagree with one of these again. I have to admit that, looking back, I was surprised by just how rarely I disagreed with the results for the award's first decade worth of life. Here's where it starts to get interesting on that front, because I've worked it out and there's only one other ceremony to date where I wholeheartedly agreed with the Academy's choice (care to guess which one?).

Anyway, I do wish to be very clear that, even though I'm not as hot on it as most Pixar devotees, I do like Toy Story 3 and think that it's a good film. I just don't have any problem in declaring it Pixar's most overrated film to date, nor admitting that every time I hear someone refer to the Toy Story films as "the perfect trilogy", I can feel my teeth gritting on behalf of the Bo Peep fan in me. I'll be upfront on this point - a big reason why Toy Story 3 left me feeling sightly tepid is because I didn't care for the glib and extremely abrupt way that Bo Peep was dropped from the entire scenario. And when I read the film-makers' reasoning for this, it honestly cheesed me off a little. I don't have the exact quote to hand, nor do I remember which member of staff said it, but I do recall being linked to an extract from an interview back in 2010 in which one of them commented on Bo Peep's absence. They said something along the lines of, oh she was just our token female for the first film so we never made a big deal about her anyway, but what sealed her fate was the realisation that Andy would have nothing deep or meaningful to say about her when he gives his toys to Bonnie at the end. Yep. Because what he said about the three rubber aliens was really deep and meaningful. "These little dudes are from a strange, alien world - Pizza Planet!" Blech, sod that.

(It's for this reason that I am NOT opposed to Toy Story 4, and I was genuinely happy when I learned that it would focus on Woody and Bo, although in light of recent developments at Pixar I'm not really sure how high I should be setting my expectations for that film any more. Hopefully it can overcome its recent setbacks.)

Bo Peep's absence wasn't the only thing that bugged me about Toy Story 3, mind. Something about the villain's arc also didn't sit well with me, although I find it harder to pinpoint what exactly. Clearly, Pixar were determined to go all-out with Lotso and make him the Toy Story villain to end all Toy Story villains - he's so much meaner than Pete from Toy Story 2, although also less convincing. Unlike Pete, whose pitiful origins were expressed succinctly and clearly established his motivations for being a self-serving schemer, Lotso gets a drawn-out flashback sequence expounding his tragic backstory, which explains his cynicism toward the child-toy relationship, but not why he takes such tyrannical glee in seeing the toys in the Caterpillar Room suffer. I guess that Lotso just enjoys making other toys feel worthless out of misplaced anger toward the kid who dumped him all those years ago? Fine, although I suspect the real reason for Lotso's backstory has less to do with accounting for the way he is in the present than it does tricking the viewer into thinking that he might be redeemable; that way, they'll really have the rug pulled out from under them when Lotso willfully leaves Woody and co to burn (not that I didn't see that coming; villain redemption isn't a point that Pixar have ever been big on). There's something about the whole situation with Lotso that I find very unpleasantly cold. I understand that early test audiences really didn't take to that redemption fake-out and wanted Lotso to be redeemed for real, which is why the final film is so emphatic on his dog-in-manger qualities (the character of Big Baby wasn't even present in earlier drafts of the script). But there-in lies another problem - would it actually have been right for Chuckles and Big Baby to have returned home if it meant leaving their strawberry-scented comrade out in the cold? In his narration, Chuckles even implies that it was thanks to Lotso's leadership and perseverance that they made it back at all. I'll concede that it wasn't Lotso's decision to make, but at that moment where Chuckles says, "No, she only replaced you," my immediate thoughts were, "You know, your lack of sensitivity probably isn't helping, Chuckles."

Anyway, I've rambled on enough about what didn't work for me. I should say more about what I liked: I liked the scenes with Barbie and Ken. I liked the toy telephone and his characteristic method of communicating. I LOVED the cymbal-banging monkey with his horrible rabid eyes. I liked the scene where Lotso's henchmen were gambling using the See n' Say as a Roulette wheel. Like everyone else on the planet I was a blubbering, quivering wreck during that scene in the incinerator. And the overall themes about growing up, moving on and finding renewed purpose were well-done and a neat, thoughtful way of taking advantage of the decade-long gap between films 2 and 3 (which was tied up in studio politics and at one point entailed that whole Circle 7 debacle), one which I'm sure resonated well with the many children who were introduced to Toy Story as nippers and had come of age within that time. There is an awful lot that I love about this film, but it misses out on being a masterpiece for me.

I think Nostradamus (or maybe just Harold Camping) prophesied that end-times were nigh when a certain animation fan gravitated more toward a DreamWorks Animation picture than to a Pixar one. The rift between John Lasseter and Chris Sanders over American Dog (the weird-as-hell project that was eventually reworked as the more conventional Bolt) was apparently ugly enough for Sanders to leave Disney altogether and cross over to the dark side at DreamWorks (taking his good buddy Dean DeBlois with him). Sanders and DeBlois wasted no time in gifting their new overlords with their most splendid film thus far, and certainly the only one that could reasonably withstand comparison to Pixar. I'd say that How To Train Your Dragon and Toy Story 3 are about evenly matched - Dragon has a whole lot of visual splendor and a genuinely heartfelt central thread concerning the symbiotic relationship between its two leads, while Toy Story 3 has more quirky, characteristic touches (see all of the stuff mentioned above) and the benefit of boasting some of the most iconic animated characters of the past two decades. In both cases, my biggest reservations lie with the villains. Lotso just isn't the sum of his parts, while Red Death is an uninteresting stock antagonist (honestly, given that the film pivots on the notion that scary and ferocious-looking beings might just be misunderstood, it seems kind of a cop-out to resolve the central conflict by throwing in a bigger, badder beast for both sides to pummel the snot out of). They're both strong, if imperfect films, but in the end I'm inclined to give Dragon the edge. Something about the friendship between Hiccup and Toothless really speaks to me, more so than that final sequence in Toy Story 3 that had everyone else in buckets (perhaps I was just too pissed off about Bo).

It's all a moot point, anyway, because I'm giving this one to Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist. Now that is what I call a masterpiece, friends.


The Snub Club:

In addition to Toy Story, 2010 saw the return of another old favourite (?) with Shrek Forever After, which at the time was touted as being the final outing for DreamWorks' flagship cash cow, although even then I had a sneaking suspicion that they couldn't stay away forever (reportedly, we've got a new Shrek film to look forward to in 2019). Following the monster-sized success of Shrek 2, Jeffrey Katzenberg initially claimed that there would be three more Shrek films and that these each would answer all-important questions about Shrek and his universe, but clearly something went very wrong; I can only assume that Shrek The Third, an astonishingly joyless experience, killed a lot of enthusiasm behind-the-scenes as well as in front of it. I think it's also clear that, despite Katzenberg's insistence that there was some kind of grand scheme in mind for the Shrek sequels, they were really just winging it as they went along. Unlike Toy Story 3, which follows on from concerns explicitly raised in Toy Story 2 (namely, what will become of the toys when Andy outgrows them), Shrek Forever After just smacks of "oh jeez, what more can we possibly do with these characters?" In a strange way, its existence was somewhat justified by the fact that Shrek The Third was such a stinker; perhaps even a franchise as overrated and overhyped as Shrek deserved a chance to go out on a better note (that Shrek Forever After is better than its direct predecessor is as high a compliment I'm willing to pay it). Shrek Forever After was another big earner at the international box office, although domestically it was the lowest-grossing of the Shrek films, a telling sign that the franchise had overstayed its welcome and that people were anxious for this tired run-off of another time and mood to be done already.

Disney had reason to be cheerful toward the end of 2010, for their latest attempt to get in on the CG market, Tangled, brought in the kind of box office returns that had been eluding them ever since Shrek moved into town (although the film spent so long in production and wound up costing such a gargantuan sum that I doubt Disney made much of a profit on it). Perhaps it was a sign of Shrek's diminished hold on popular consciousness that the public were willing to embrace a film so sincere about wanting to recapture the spirit of Disney past - I'd like to think that it had far less to do with the film's marketing campaign, the company's most witless and pandering since Chicken Little. Tangled, like The Princess and The Frog, felt like a reaction against Disney's (largely misguided) attempts to reinvent themselves in the age of wacky CG comedies, in returning to the core values which had yielded numerous classics in the past - enchantment, adventure and good old-fashioned emotional resonance. Having said that, I walked away more appreciating what Tangled had attempted than I did love the film. I have to admit, I spent a lot of the time fixating on Rapunzel's chameleon sidekick and wondering just what purpose he was actually serving beyond merchandising potential. Turns out, his only functional action in the entire film is to murder the evil step-mother. Damn. Tangled didn't quite signal the start of the new Disney Renaissance for me, but it was an important stepping stone in getting there. Brighter times were ahead, although sadly the comparative failure of The Princess and The Frog made it crystal clear that Disney's future would would be all in CG.

The other big thing that happened in 2010 was the arrival of yet another new hopeful in the form of Illumination Entertainment, the Universal-owned animation studio founded by former Blue Sky president Chris Meledandri. No one knew it at the time, but DreamWorks were about to take a serious in dip in popularity and these cutthroat upstarts were gearing up to take their place. Their debut film, Despicable Me, scored impressive box office returns but I passed it over back in 2010. People tell me it's pretty good, but Illumination's increasing insistence on shoving those damned Minion things down everyone's throat in the years that followed has merely upped my resistance to wanting to experience the franchise for myself. Unfortunately, I may be duty-bound to do that soon, given that one of the sequels had more luck on the nomination front. Now that's a thought that really sets my teeth on edge.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Animation Oscar Bite 2010: Into the steeple of beautiful people


82nd Academy Awards - 7th March 2010

The contenders: Coraline, Fantastic Mr Fox, The Princess and The Frog, The Secret of Kells, Up

The winner: Up

The rightful winner: Up

The barrel-scraper: None. I still hate Fantastic Mr Fox, though.

Other notes:

When it comes to Up, the one thing that everyone can agree on is that the first ten minutes are utterly sublime. After that, there are some who complain that it turns into a silly adventure story with flying houses, talking dogs and bizarro bird species. To which I invariably respond, it's an adventure story with flying houses, talking dogs and bizarro bird species! How can you possibly not love that?! As far as I'm concerned, Up is not only one of Pixar's greatest films, but one of the all-time greats, period. I cannot say enough good things about Up, so instead of trying I'm just going to make a handful of stray observations:

  • One of the most poignant moments in Carl and Ellie's opening montage (other than how it concludes) is when the couple are expecting a baby but it doesn't go to plan. I took from that that Ellie had miscarried and was genuinely surprised at the number of people I later encountered online who were insistent that there's no proof that Ellie was ever pregnant and Carl and Ellie were probably just unable to conceive. It had never occurred to me that it could be anything other than a miscarriage, and I don't want to think of it as anything else. The way that entire moment played out was such a powerful, understated disturbance to Carl and Ellie's married bliss, and I couldn't imagine it having nearly the same impact if there wasn't a sense of the couple losing what they already had. Oh well, online people are weird.
  • Beloved though Pixar are, they have taken a lot of (not unwarranted) criticism over the years for their representation of female characters. There's not much skirting around the fact that there was a real paucity of female protagonists in their work up until the last six years (in that time, The Incredibles probably came closest to bucking the trend - Helen Parr almost, but not quite, gets to share centre-stage with her husband). With Brave, Inside Out and Finding Dory, we've seen them take steps in a more inclusive direction (although the first one does have a somewhat unfortunate back story in that regard, which we'll get to in due course), but Pixar has traditionally always been a very male-dominated studio and, for all of the praise I've just lavished on Up, it may actually be one of the worst examples of this. It has just two female characters, one of whom dies within the first ten minutes of the film, the other of whom is a non-speaking bird. It strikes me as a tad ridiculous that all of Muntz's dogs are apparently male, given that he's been sustaining an entire population out there in the wilderness for several decades. (Side-note: To date, Pixar have never done a film where the main villain is female, unless you count Darla from Finding Nemo...but do you?)
  • I think that Muntz is a seriously underrated Pixar villain. People tend to overlook just how dark his backstory is, as it's strongly inferred that he has an established pattern of murdering anyone unfortunate enough to run into him in the jungle, just to ensure that they don't get to the bird before he does. The film doesn't overstate this point, but it's absolutely horrifying when you think about it. Besides Syndrome from The Incredibles, how many other Pixar villains were confirmed to be multiple murderers? Like, humans murdering other humans? Clearly, Muntz crossed the point of no return a long time ago.

There's no doubt in my mind that Up was fully deserving of its crown. And yet, there's a part of me that still feels extremely conflicted, because I really do love The Secret of Kells. If Up is as good as it gets, then The Secret of Kells is certainly very worthy competition. Cartoon Saloon had the "dark horse" entry of 2010 - prior to this, I was familiar with the Irish animation studio only for the rather charmless pseudo-American TV series Skunk Fu!. I was blown away by Kells, both by its visual beauty and its unique, authentically Irish voice. It had me earmarking Cartoon Saloon as a studio to watch out for, and all I can say about Skunk Fu! now is, talk about a misleading first impression. Everything I've seen from Cartoon Saloon since, from Song of The Sea to shorter works like Old Fangs and Somewhere Down The Line, has had me spellbound.

Also entering the ring with their debut feature were Laika, the Portland-based studio owned by Nike chairman Phil Knight. Coraline was the latest stop-motion horror from Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick, and a film so eye-poppingly ghoulish that it makes the titular ordeal from Selick's aforementioned Burton collaboration look like a mere idle daydream. My immediate gut-reaction, after viewing Coraline, was to contemplate just how relieved I was that I didn't have to sit through this film as a child - I have a sneaking suspicion that it would have screwed me up severely. Coraline is more terrifying than a whole month's worth of slashers. Muntz may be a murderous lunatic, but at least in his case you could prick the bastard and he'd bleed; I'd sooner take my chances with him out in the middle of nowhere than I would tangle with the Beldam, any day. All in all, this was a strong debut for Laika, who immediately set themselves apart as a studio with a special penchant for the freakish and fantastic. Like Cartoon Saloon, they would find themselves fixtures of nominees lists in subsequent years, although neither studio has thus far managed to take home the crowning glory.

2009 was a crucial year for fans of traditional 2D animation, for after a few years of struggling to find a vacant seat aboard the CG bandwagon, Disney decided to give 2D another shot and go all retro with The Princess and The Frog, a film closer in spirit to the company's 90s output than to the irreverent comedies that had dominated the Hollywood animation scene in the Shrek age. Hopes were high that film would herald the start of a brand new Disney Renaissance, and that 2D animation would be allowed to thrive alongside its flashier modern counterpart, but obviously it didn't work out that way. The Princess and The Frog had a lacklustre time at the box office and in the end did more to seal 2D animation's fate than to vindicate it (with the abysmal box office returns of Winnie The Pooh two years later being the final nail in the coffin). The Princess and The Frog certainly tries hard to replicate what everyone loved about The Little Mermaid et al; perhaps it tries a little too hard. There are moments when it comes across as almost too self-conscious a nostalgia trip, as a film so desperate to ride the coattails of former glories that it never quite finds its own feet. Getting Randy Newman to compose the soundtrack (instead of Alan Menken, as was originally slated) may also have been a mistake - only the villain gets a song that's in any way fun or catchy, while the others are kind of a chore to sit through (especially the one sung by Jenifer Lewis). This is not to say that The Princess and The Frog is a bad film, but it's not an amazing memorable one either.

If I had to sum up Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox in a single word, it would be "masturbatory". But then you could say that about a lot of his output. Anderson is one of the most masturbatory directors I know. I love the Coen brothers and I love Jim Jarmusch, but something about Anderson has always rubbed me the wrong way, and Fantastic Mr Fox is where he completely lost me...which is a shame, because I really did dig the animation style. Fox is smug, self-indulgent and too in love with its own Wes Anderson-ness to capture anything of Dahl's darkly gruesome wit. It's worth noting that while Fantastic Mr Fox was hailed as a postmodern masterpiece in the US (much to my chagrin, it has the honour of being the first animated film to be inducted into the Criterion Collection) it had a much poorer reception in the UK, where Dahl is considered a national treasure and Fantastic Mr Fox is a beloved childhood classic for many. I haven't met many Brits with a whole lot of positive things to say about this one. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that Dahl should be regarded as a sacred cow (Tim Burton's take on Charlie and The Chocolate Factory is closer to the source than Mel Stuart's Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory while also being a significantly weaker film than the Gene Wilder classic - sorry Dahl, but I think that giving Charlie his own flaws to overcome was a pretty good move from a dramatic standpoint) but I do feel that if you're adapting Fantastic Mr Fox and you somehow wind up making Boggis, Bunce and Bean the least interesting characters, you've failed. I'll add that I'm not wild about the upcoming Isle of Dogs either, if only because I get the impression from Anderson's filmography that he really, really hates dogs (and possibly cats too), so it fills my heart with great trepidation that he would want to make film about them. But we'll see.


The Snub Club:

For middling Hollywood output in 2009 you had your choice of either Blue Sky's Ice Age: Dawn of The Dinosaurs, Sony Pictures Animation's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or Dreamworks Animation's Monsters Vs. Aliens. I swear that Dawn of The Dinosaurs must have broken a record for the highest number of dick jokes I've ever seen in a children's film - which in itself wouldn't have raised an eyebrow, except one of them was brazenly copied almost word-for-word from an episode of The Simpsons (I speak of the "no, that's it's tail/the umbilical cord, it's a girl!" line - Fox are allowed to steal from themselves, of course, and I daresay that joke wasn't 100% original back when The Simpsons did it, but you could at least try to vary it up, guys). By now, the Ice Age franchise had gone the way of the Shrek films, in that they blatantly had nothing of any value left to add and were scrabbling around desperately for the vaguest excuse to keep themselves going, although that didn't stop Dawn of The Dinosaurs from becoming Blue Sky's highest grossing film to date, both domestically and worldwide. And since the public insisted on feeding them in droves, you can bet that these mangy beasts would be back for more.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is honestly decent enough. I liked the rat birds (naturally), and it does have its own fairly unique and very kinetic visual style. It makes for a harmless time-killer, and it might also double as an effective appetite suppressant, because all of those close-up shots of mutated food and people guzzling their tracts out inevitably make the act of eating look seriously unsexy.

Also, there was Mary and Max, the debut feature film from Australian animator Adam Elliott. Still haven't seen this one, although if it has anything close to the kind of gentle, lamenting wit present in Elliot's 1996 short Uncle, it ought to be a cracker.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Charlton Woodchucks: Animaniacs' Least Loved


You probably didn't need me to tell you, but Animaniacs is set for a revival in 2020 (just a couple of years before we'll all be eating people). The Steven Spielberg-produced cartoon has an enduring reputation for being one of the finest of its era, thanks to its combination of old school Looney Tunes anarchy and post-modern irreverence, so naturally anticipation is high (as is trepidation). When you're bringing a variety show back from multiple decades' worth of retirement, the first question on everyone's lips is which segments can expect to be kick-started for a whole new generation to enjoy and which will be left to stagnate in the 90s? Obviously, the Warner siblings and Pinky & The Brain are back. That's a no-brainer. The rest of the cast, though, are much harder to call. Right now, I'd say the odds are NOT strong in favour of the Goodfeathers, Rita and Runt or Minerva Mink seeing the light of day again. Mr Skullhead? There's an outside chance. Chicken Boo? God, I hope so. Randy Beaman? Snakes alive, that thing was creepy, they had better bring it back. The Hip Hippos? Uhhh...

One character from the original series you can bet your bottom dollar WON'T be back for the revival is Charlton Woodchucks. In fact, I'll give you automatic brownie points if you even remembered that this guy existed and did indeed star in his own segment...once. Charlton blatantly wasn't considered a success the first time around: he scored his sole adventure, "Hollywoodchucks", fairly late on in Season One, after which he slipped away into obscurity, clinging desperately to life by means of the (very) occasional cameo. Most Animaniacs viewers who remember Charlton are happy to dismiss him as a failed experiment, a one segment wonder who didn't take and was rapidly buried, but personally "Hollywoodchucks" always arouses my curiosity because we find ourselves once again gazing off into the distant Land of What Might Have Been. Charlton's one segment is a real oddity among Animaniacs stories; presumably it was intended to be the starting point for a whole series of segments that never made it past the introductory arc. Obviously, something went very wrong for Charlton, but what exactly?

Charlton's shtick is that he's an aspiring actor who's very pretentious but doesn't get a lot of respect - still, Charlton vows that once he's clawed his way into the Hollywood elite he'll have revenge on everyone who's ever slighted him by shunning them completely. To ensure that he never overlooks a past offender he carries around with him a kind of reverse autograph book in which he gets anyone he takes a disliking to to sign their names, effectively writing their own place upon his ever-growing enemies list. Charlton's other running gag, and one retained in his subsequent cameo appearances, is that Charlton Woodchucks is only his stage name. Charlton started life as Baynarts, the son of a couple of simple farming woodchucks over in Kansas, and he sorely hates being reminded of his roots. You might be forming the impression that Charlton is a bit of a snot, and yes he is. A common criticism I've seen of his segment is that Charlton is not a particularly strong or likeable character and that following him for an extended length of time does get awfully trying. It probably didn't help Charlton's case that "Hollywoodchucks" was paired with a Hip Hippos story, "Can't Buy A Thrill". The Hippos are some of the most reviled Animaniacs characters out there, so a lot of viewers no doubt got impatient having to sit through one of their segments and hoped that the next one would be more enjoyable...then were disappointed when they were asked to spend the next eight minutes with this totally unfamiliar character in whom they had zero investment.

Nowadays, I'm inclined to view Charlton Woodchucks with a degree of clemency, in no small part because watching "Hollywoodchucks" I'm overcome with the chilling realisation that this snotty burrowing rodent is a pretty accurate reflection of the kind of person I grew up to be. A downtrodden soul who motivates themselves with the thought that, one day, they can get back at everyone who wronged them by totally eclipsing them? Sure, I can relate to that. And to be honest, I disagree with anyone who claims that Charlton is a wholly unsympathetic character. I think that one of the problems with "Hollywoodchucks" as a short is the way it flitters unevenly between setting Charlton up for a royal humbling and playing up his underdog status. It can't decided whether it wants you to relish his inevitable downfall or to side with him in spite of his failings. Charlton may be full of himself, but his pomposity is undercut by his sheer ineptitude, particularly when he finally gets to his audition and we discover that this pint-sized poseur actually suffers from a pretty crippling case of stage fright. Charlton's worst failing is his naivety - he anticipates that once he arrives in Hollywood, he'll waltz right into stardom and everyone will be falling at his dainty feet. Alas, no. This is a story about how, underneath all that glitz and glamour, there's aside to Hollywood that's cruel, cutthroat and deeply unpleasant, and you can bet that Charlton is going to learn that the hard way. Is it the woodchuck equivalent of Mulholland Drive? Well, maybe. Now that I've raised the subject, my dream Animaniacs revival would be one that incorporates a Mulholland Drive parody with Charlton in the role of Betty/Diane (Charlton even has two identities - it's a dead cinch). Mulholland Drive isn't exactly the most kid-friendly spoofing material out there, but that certainly wouldn't have stopped Animaniacs in its original incarnation. C'mon, Mr Spielberg, make it happen.


"Hollywoodchucks" opens in Wheatina, Kansas, where Charlton (voice of Jeff Bennett) is bidding farewell to his American Gothic-esque parents as he prepares to board the next bus to Hollywood, California. From the start, things do not go swimmingly for Charlton - his dramatic departure is ruined when the bus doors slam shut in his face and cause his lips to swell, and he later catches the ire of a fellow passenger when his attempts at a William Shatner-style rendition of the classic tongue-twister, "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck," disturbs his napping. Charlton haughtily explains that he's rehearsing for a very important audition the following day for the role of Franklin the Friendly Woodchuck, but this only entices the passenger to laugh at him. It's here that we see the very first instance of Charlton pulling out his enemies book and getting an unsuspecting individual to sign their name - the man jots down, "Mr Jenkins", which might prove a bit of a problem for Charlton, given that he didn't actually disclose his full name. What, is he going to hate every Mr Jenkins out there?

For all of Charlton's posturing, his demeanor changes considerably when he makes it to the audition stage and becomes too nervous to do anything more than choke out his lines. This works in Charlton's favour, however, for the director has had his fill of acting woodchucks and is impressed by his display of genuine emotion. Charlton is cast in the role of Franklin and hailed as the new star of the "Nature Land" film series. Things appear to be looking up for our hero, until it transpires that he's been cast in a twisted parody of those dubious nature documentaries that Disney used to do in the 50s and 60s - the ones that claimed to be "real life" stories but where the animals subjects were often being manipulated (in some cases, very unpleasantly) off of camera. Charlton's role requires him to approach all manner of natural enemies and other such hazards that his basic instincts tell him to avoid, with the result that he's brutally mauled by a grizzly bear, devoured (and regurgitated) by a boa constrictor, savagely stung by honey bees and blown up by an old ammunition shack his character happens to stumble across in the middle of the forest. I'm not sure if this is an intentional reference to some of the charges of behind-the-scenes animal abuse made against those aforementioned films (the most notorious example being the lemming story I touched on here), or simply writer Paul Rugg's fiendishly warped humour, which revels in the incongruity of the Rex Allen-esque narrator's disgustingly twee narration combined with the utter carnage unfolding on set. Either way, it makes for bizarre and very uncomfortable viewing. There are multiple instances where Charlton implores the director to allow him to stop, only to have his pleas disregarded. It's at this point that I question if the short really wants us to be getting a wholehearted kick out of seeing Charlton be physically and psychologically abused to this extent. It does seem like an awfully harsh comeuppance simply for having a snotty and entitled demeanor, and the sequence is dragged out to its absolute breaking point. At one point, Charlton gets his grizzly co-star to pause long enough to write his name in his enemies book (the bear writes "Mr Bear", which again, I suspect could refer to any number of acting ursines), but the bear resumes punching his lights out before he can shed light on its purpose. Finally, Charlton reaches his limits and quits the production.


In the final scene, we return to Wheatina, Kansas, where a severely disheveled Charlton is hobbling his way off a bus and into his parents' abode. Charlton informs them that he left Hollywood due to "creative differences" and reveals that he's brought back with him an enormous stack of papers. Charlton's father nonchalantly asks what he has there, and Charlton replies, with a look of sheer malevolence,"Just some names!" End cartoon. Honestly, I'm not entirely sure what to make of those final moments. Obviously the implication is that Charlton has declared enmity with just about everyone in Hollywood and is now plotting his revenge from the safety of Wheatina, even if it no longer involves lording his celebrity over them. Sadly, we never got to see what form Charlton's revenge would take, for no more cartoons starring the vindictive woodchuck ever followed.

Suppose that fortune had been kinder to Charlton and he'd wound up becoming a recurring feature of the Animaniacs line-up - what else might the showrunners have had in mind for him? Presumably, we would have witnessed Charlton's ongoing struggle in his pursuit of adoration and celebrity, which would perhaps have taken him before numerous directors and into an assortment of different genre parodies - that, or we would have seen him track down various Hollywood alumni in the hopes of exacting his revenge for his earlier humiliation. I'd say that either scenario has potential. A struggling actor who feels that he has a personal axe to grind with every other individual in Hollywood? Face it, there's a lot they could have done a lot with the concept if they'd stuck with Charlton. So why did they leave him out to dry? Again, I suspect it comes down to Charlton simply not being a strong or well-defined enough character to carry a story on his own. The ingredients are there, but tonally something about him falls flat. Perhaps the whole deal with the reverse autograph book, while it makes for a funny running gag, just isn't strong enough to work as the character's be-all punchline. The pretentious thespian who's actually very far down in the Hollywood food chain is a good starting point, but they needed to find better ways of channeling it.

(Stray observation - during Charlton's attempts to awaken Mr Bear, he pulls out a copy of Gentle Ben by Walt Morey. Gentle Ben told the story of the relationship between a young boy and a tame black bear and was adapted into a popular TV series in 1967. In spite of Ben's docile onscreen disposition, the series has a reputation for a high number of behind-the-scene calamities in which the ursine actors reportedly turned on their human co-stars, although Clint Howard, who played the young protagonist Mark, has denied that he was ever harmed by any of the bears he worked with.)


Charlton's career hit an almost instant dead-end with "Hollywoodchucks", but he didn't completely vanish off the Earth after his failed attempt at stardom. There was some experimentation with keeping him on as a foil to more successful characters, but even this wasn't taken particularly far. Charlton was used as the antagonist in a Slappy Squirrel short, "Nutcracker Slappy", in which he'd graduated from aspiring actor to aspiring director and aggravated Slappy with his would-be arthouse sensibilities. Later still, Charlton was featured in the Dr Seuss parody "The Kid in The Lid", as the counterpart of the children's pet fish in The Cat in The Hat. Charlton's only other notable appearance (and the only occasion in which he wasn't on the receiving end of some humiliating violence) was in the introduction to the Season One finale, "The Warners 65th Anniversary Special", where it transpired that he'd landed a regular gig on fantasy sitcom My Father The Tuna, which was being pre-empted for the Warners' big presentation, and - you know what, screw that, I'd like to have seen more of My Father The Tuna. We learn almost nothing about the series, but we can see that it features talking woodchuck who hangs out with a nuclear family, in which the father just so happens to be a giant green fish. You can't throw something that outlandish at a viewer and not give them a taster.


Chartlon's chances of being part of the Animaniacs revival are clearly slim, although one of the nice things about doing a reboot is that you have the opportunity to look back at what didn't work the first time around and consider how you could redo it in order to make it better. Who knows, maybe someone out there will actually be gracious enough to give the mistreated woodchuck a second shot at life. If so, I think that his character could be improved by giving him more of an obvious anti-hero vibe, a la The Brain. He can still be a pretentious and vindictive loser, but he needs to be more than just a punching bag to be ripped apart for the viewer's amusement. In the meantime, I'll take pride in being the single biggest advocate of Charlton, and of the "Hollywoodchucks" segment, if only by default. To quote Slappy Squirrel, "They make it, someone's gotta buy it!"

PS: You know what? If they really want to do something bold and electrifying for the upcoming revival they could always implement a recurring segment based on My Father The Tuna. You could argue that kids these days wouldn't know a My Mother The Car reference if it crawled from the gutter and bit them on the nose, but were kids in 1994 any different?