Turkey Day Cinema – Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Finding the Perfect Thanksgiving Movie

The fall season brings a festive atmosphere to our culture at large, and it is something reflected also in the movies that we watch this time of year.  This is no doubt due to the fact that two of the most cinematic holidays are found in this final home stretch of the calendar year.  They are of course, Christmas and Halloween.  No other holidays lend themselves better to the cinematic language, with the numerous traditions, folklore, and iconography that each holiday represents.  Though Christmas has long been present in the history of film, even going back to the silent era, Halloween has more recently asserted itself on the big screen, with horror films becoming a major driver of the holiday tradition.  There’s even movies that bridge the two, like Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and campy horror films with a Christmas twist like Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) and Krampus (2015).  But, with these two holidays becoming the dynamic forces they are in our culture, there’s one thing that sadly gets overlooked in the process and that’s the holiday that falls in between.  Thanksgiving Day is a cherished tradition in American culture, commemorating the first successful harvest of the pilgrims that settled the Plymouth colony in 1620; a founding moment in American history.  And though it still observed with importance to this day, one cannot overlook the fact that it’s impact on the culture is somewhat diminished, possibly due to the fact that the Christmas season continues to expand further out now, to the point that it begins the moment Halloween ends.  Thanksgiving is now just a thin layer of cream inside the cookie that is the Halloween/Christmas super holiday.  And there is a reason why that may be; there just aren’t that many noteworthy Thanksgiving movies.

There are movies that have Thanksgiving Day moments in them, but you can rarely point out a movie that specific evokes the meaning of the holiday itself.  One thing that may be the problem is that Thanksgiving and Christmas share so many traditions, that they often become interchangeable.  Both holidays center around the gathering of family and also around the tradition of feasting.  Turkey dinners are often central to both holidays, or at least they have been with my own family.  And they are both holidays defined by a warm, welcome setting within a period of cold weather.  Really, the biggest difference is that Thanksgiving is all about the food, while Christmas is all about the presents.  But because of the many different similarities, most movies that center around family gatherings and feasting often associate more with the Christmas holiday, just because it’s the more celebrated of the two.  And most of the time, a movie that does feature a Thanksgiving feast of some kind just ends up getting lumped in with the Christmas season, or has no connection to the holiday at all in the long run.  So, is Thanksgiving just by default an un-cinematic holiday.  What I think has become the issue is that very few filmmakers have ever actually tackled the idea of the Thanksgiving holiday as a theme for their movie in general.  We all know the traditions of Thanksgiving, but is there a movie that actually clearly represents the way we feel during the holiday, in the same way that Christmas and Halloween do.  It may not have the iconography of it’s bigger brothers, nor the same kind of lore, but what Thanksgiving does have is a very definable sense of humanity at it’s core, the thing that we want to bring out of ourselves as we congregate together in order to have a merry feast.  That’s something that can lend itself to cinematic treatment, and one movie in particular captures that sense of what the holiday is all about.

John Hughes’ Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) is widely considered by many to be the quintessential Thanksgiving movie, and that’s probably because it dramatizes and mocks one of the most universal aspects of the holiday that everyone can identify with; the anxiety of travelling.  After a decade of working with teenage angst as a central theme of his work, Hughes pivoted to this more adult centered comedy, showing the follies of two men who must band together in order to arrive home in time for Thanksgiving.  We all have dealt with making plans for Thanksgiving travel, and for many, it becomes a burden, especially if you’re travelling companion is less than ideal.  But, it’s all about getting to that special destination of a hearty meal with the ones you love that drive us to endure the pressures of holiday travel, and that’s ultimately what’s at the heart of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.  Hughes perfectly crafts a screwball comedy around every possible thing that could go wrong during a trip back home for the Thanksgiving holiday, something that is hilariously personified in the character of Neal Page, played by Steve Martin at the top of his game.  What makes Martin’s performance in the movie so hilarious is the slow burn way that he grows more and more frustrated by all the roadblocks thrown his way; igniting a fuse in his normally mild mannered demeanor that eventually leads to some amazing eruptions, including a famous “f-bomb” laden tirade with the rental car service.  And his rigid everyman character is balanced perfectly as well by the jovial persona of Del Griffith, played by a pitch perfect John Candy in what may have been his best role.  These polar opposites are forced through circumstances to having to travel together, and at certain points share accommodations, and while it does lead to hilarious situations of misfortune, ultimately the two bond over the course of the movie.  And this leads to a finale that may be one of the most touching, humane moments ever put on film, which really understates what it means to give thanks.  And as a result, people have found this to be the movie that defines the meaning of Thanksgiving better than any other out there.

John Hughes was himself a native of the area of the United States we commonly know as the “Rust Belt.”  Born in Michigan, but raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, Hughes was deeply influenced by this region of the country, and has used it as the setting for most of his films; especially Chicago.  And one thing that really defines the Mid-Western states that make up the Rust Belt are the very cold, frigid fall and winter seasons; conditions that make travelling home for the holidays a bit more perilous.  No doubt that’s what was on his mind when he wrote Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, because it’s a situation that he probably had encountered during his upbringing.  Of course, most of it is played for laughs, but the fact that so many obstacles are put in the characters way as they try to inch their way closer to home is something that wouldn’t be too foreign to many Midwesterners.  Airport delays and closures are a common reality for many travelers out East, as they receive heavier amounts of snow and sleet in the winter.  It’s certainly different than my holiday travel experiences here on the West coast, which usually were conflict free going back and forth between Oregon and California, both of which have milder winters.  Hughes is also familiar with the common sight of cheap motels becoming a last option, or suddenly being stranded in Podunk towns in the middle of nowhere.  Also being a busy filmmaker, he would’ve known about the stress of having to deal with the time crunch of important meetings in New York City, and having to make it back to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving.  Though it’s all screwball insanity most of the time, there is a definitive relatability found in this movie that no doubt came from Hughes own experiences.  We understand how important Thanksgiving means as a festivity, because it’s clear how important it was for John Hughes.  Through his characters, we see how someone would risk health and sanity just to be there for their family on this important Holiday.

So, why is it that only Planes, Trains, and Automobiles seems to have become so identified with the holiday of Thanksgiving.  I believe that most other movies that use Thanksgiving as a part of their narrative, only do so with a passing glance.  Indeed, one thing that I often see used as a barometer for judging a movie as a Thanksgiving film is the presence of a big feast at the heart of the movie, centered around family and friends gathering together to celebrate together.  Some of the movies that usually get lumped into this camp, especially if you do a Google search, are movies like Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) or Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).  Sure, these are movies about family and friends coming together to feast and celebrate, but in neither case does Thanksgiving play a role in the narrative.  They are just movies that evoke the holiday spirit of Thanksgiving, but what we see could just as well be part of a Christmas celebration.  This is why it’s so hard to define a Thanksgiving movie so definitively, because it shares so much in common with Christmas, and it certainly doesn’t have the same weight as the latter.  Of course, neither movie I mentioned even states that it’s taking place on either holiday.  The Big Chill in fact is about a gathering of friends who are brought back together after the death of someone close to each of them, and it just so happens to have a memorable dinner scene at it’s center, along with an iconic oldies soundtrack.  It seems counterproductive to label every movie that has a festive dinner at it’s center as a Thanksgiving movie, because it just spreads that label to a whole variety of movies that have nothing to do with Thanksgiving.  Certainly the sharing of a meal with loved ones is a popular centerpiece for most movies, but there’s nothing to tie those moments to Thanksgiving specifically.  It’s just that a lot of filmmakers like using food as a common bridge to bring people together within a story.

What is interesting is the fact that very few movies actually dramatize the core historical basis for the Thanksgiving holiday itself.  The legend behind the holiday is that the pilgrims who sailed to the New World aboard the Mayflower celebrated their first ever successful harvest in the Plymouth colony by inviting the Native Americans who aided them through the harsh winter to a feast in a sign of unity that would come to define the new nation that would spring up in the years to come.  I think that why the legend of the First Thanksgiving has rarely been given a big screen treatment is because it’s been widely recognized over the years that the story is based on a myth.  Though the pilgrims were aided by the native tribes in the harsh first winter of the Plymouth colony, the history between the settlers and the natives was anything but peaceful ever since.  Years of conflict followed, and the Native Americans were pushed out of their ancestral land as more colonists began expanding their reach.  So, if there was a first Thanksgiving, it might not have been as harmonious as the legend tells us.  It also doesn’t work as a founding legend of America, as Plymouth was nowhere near the first colony in the New World, as Jamestown in Virginia was already a bustling port for fourteen years before the pilgrims arrived.  As the mystique of the Thanksgiving myth has worn off over time, the focus has become more centered on the unity of family in modern days, and that’s what more movies focus on now with regards to the holiday.  That hasn’t stopped Hollywood however with trying to tie Native American narratives the holiday season.  I see some places label movies like Pocahontas (1995), The New World (2005), and Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale (1994) as Thanksgiving movies, even though they carry no connection with the holiday or with the legend behind the Mayflower landing at Plymouth rock.  It’s just a misguided attempt to sharpen the Native American connection to the holiday, which I think many modern day native tribes would take offense to.

The one other metric that I have seen people use to define what they see as a Thanksgiving movie, and that’s atmosphere.  It in a way goes back to what John Hughes captured in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and that’s the feeling of what the holiday season feels like.  It’s the contrast of the warmth of the household where the family has gathered together to feast against the frigid cold of the world outside.  This is something that has become the case for what many are recently claiming as the newest entry into the argument for the definitive Thanksgiving movie; Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019).  Upon it’s fortuitous Thanksgiving weekend release last year, Knives Out certainly as all the hallmarks of what we could identify as a movie centered around the holiday, and that mostly has to do with the atmosphere.  The movie definitely takes place in the frigid late autumn months, in a manor house settled in the mist covered Appalachian Mountains, where a large family of eccentrics have gathered together for a celebration.  But, even though Knives Out certainly looks like a Thanksgiving movie, it’s hard to place that label on it.  The festivity is actually a birthday celebration for the wealthy patriarch of the central Thrombey family (played by Christopher Plummer) before he is found murdered the following morning.  From that point, it becomes an Agatha Christie style whodunit, with Daniel Craig hamming it up hilariously as the central sleuth on the case, Benoit Blanc.  As you can see, though it evokes the atmosphere, there is little about the movie that actually connects with Thanksgiving.  If we were going by the atmosphere alone, there are so many movies that could honestly be mischaracterized as a Thanksgiving movie.  A lot of movies use the gloomy, late fall atmosphere to give flavor to their movie, sometimes to evoke darker themes.  This is typical in something as dreary as Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997) or Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  Again, very little connection to Thanksgiving, though the former does take place during a Thanksgiving weekend.  It’s just another sign that it’s very hard to pin down exactly what a Thanksgiving movie should represent.

And honestly, I wish more movies did take on Thanksgiving as a central point of it’s story.  The gathering of family and friends for the holiday is ripe for dramatization, and there are so many interesting narratives that can rise from that.  But, so far, the one and only movie that is unmistakably tied to this often overlooked holiday is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and thankfully it’s a movie that reflects all the great things that makes the holiday stand out.  It perfectly captures the pressure of trying to make it back to family on time, the simple joys of a hearty meal, and the deep contrast of the warmth of the home against the coldness of the outdoors.  Though I believe John Hughes intention was to make a slap-sticky road comedy, but it came from a universal understanding drawn from his own upbringing that we can all recognize in our own experiences of celebrating Thanksgiving.  Hughes brought his familiarity of the insanity we all go through every year preparing for this one holiday, and perfectly encapsulated it in this single adventure.  Whether it’s by planes, trains or automobiles, or all of the above, we will find a way to get together and share this special day with our loved ones, even if it drives us to the edge.  But what is special about Hughes’ story is that by the end, the journey actually makes us more humane and humble, and we see that in the bond that Steve Martin and John Candy’s characters build.  What started out with the “between the pillows” mishap builds to Martin inviting Candy to his home to celebrate Thanksgiving together, especially after learning that it’s the only celebration he’ll have that year.  It’s that humanity that really, above all else, creates the ideal of what Thanksgiving should be, and cements Planes, Trains, and Automobiles as the definitive Thanksgiving storyline.  Hopefully, more filmmakers find a way to center their stories in that same kind of ideal when it comes to the holiday.  Thanksgiving certainly has only a fraction of the same kind of attention that the holidays on either side of it get, but at least it can boast of one beloved movie that does in fact find the true meaning of what Thanksgiving is all about.

Wolfwalkers – Review

What are some of the benefits that may come from the shift to online streaming as the dominant form of content distribution in the film industry?  The pandemic year of 2020 has given Hollywood a reckoning with where it’s future will lie.  There is no doubt that the closure of theaters has put streaming into a more central role, though it’s still too early to say if that is sustainable.  Even still, it has given the industry itself pause as to what it needs to do to return to a sense of normalcy, and it probably involves changing their way of thinking about what kind of movies that need to be made and what is the best way to bring those movies to a wide audience.  That’s something that the world of streaming has shown us, even before the pandemic hit.  The last decade saw a glut of big budget blockbuster movies dominating the screens, and while these movies were successful in bringing people out of their homes and into a theater, it also lead to a significant lack of variety in the kinds of movies that were being made.  Meanwhile, the kinds of movies that used to be found regularly on the big screen, but had over time disappeared (rom coms, screwball comedies, intimate thrillers), but were now suddenly thriving on places like Netflix and Amazon Prime.  With big budget movies left waiting due to the pandemic, it’s these often forgotten movies that are having their day in the sun right now thanks to streaming, and it’s making the studios reconsider suddenly where their priorities are.  In many ways, part of the story of 2020 is the revival of these often neglected sub genres, which are helping to fill the void left by the absence of the silver screen.  And this includes a renewed appreciation for things that have often been treated as not commercially viable enough anymore, like animated movies that are sticking to traditional hand drawn styles instead of jumping on the CGI bandwagon.

One of the areas that streaming has thankfully been able to do is give more creative freedom to independent producers who operate outside of the shadow of Hollywood.  After all, places like Netflix and Amazon want to distinguish themselves from the “big five” Hollywood studios, so they are eagerly seeking out production companies that are themselves unique and original.  This has been especially fortuitous for animation companies, especially those who are not working with computer animation, which has been the dominant format in the last 20 years.  One such studio that has carved out it’s own niche has been the Kilkenny, Ireland based studio Cartoon Saloon.  The studio, co-founded by animators Tomm Moore, Paul Young, and Nora Twomey, began as a small animation farm outfit that provided services for clients such as Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel, and the BBC for various cartoon series on the networks.  But in the late 2000’s, Cartoon Saloon decided to expand their reach as a production company by embarking on their first full length feature.  What they planned to do was to create movies with a distinctive Irish character to them, drawn from the national folklore and ancient Celtic mythology, helping to put their country on the map cinematically in the field of animation. Their first film was The Secret of Kells (2009), a fictionalized telling of the creation of the legendary Book of Kells; an illuminated manuscript printing of the Bible that is one of Ireland’s most sacred national treasures.  The film was a modest success, and it led to more well received animated features, including Song of the Sea (2014) and The Breadwinner (2017).  Though not yet achieving the same kind of success as big studios like Disney and Dreamworks yet, each of their three movies so far have been Oscar nominated for Best Animated feature, and Cartoon has been affectionately dubbed by many in the film and animation industry as the Studio Ghibli of Ireland.  Now, with the aid of a streaming giant backer (Apple in this case), Cartoon Saloon is releasing what may be their most ambitious feature yet, and one that may hopefully propel them further into the mainstream; their epic scale adventure, Wolfwalkers (2020).

In the late 17th century, the town of Kilkenny has been put under the thumb of the occupying army of English invaders.  The Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) has squashed all rebellion in the area, and means to tame the resistant Irish population to bend to his rule.  He does so by stoking fear amongst the citizens of Kilkenny of a dangerous pack of wolves that live on the outskirts of the town, and that only he and his army are the ones that can protect the village.  He enlists his chief wolf hunter, Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) to set traps around the town.  Goodfellowe is loyal to his master’s commands, but he also has to balance being a devoted father to his restless daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) who desperately wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a fearless wolf hunter herself.  Despite her father’s demands to stay home, Robyn sneaks out of the town and follow after him.  She carelessly ends up being caught in one of her father’s traps, and soon encounters a young wolf cub who helps her out of the trap.  Robyn, confused by the nature of this unusual wolf cub, ends up following after her and discovers a secret den where there is a human mother and daughter sleeping.  It turns out, the wolf cub is actually the little girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker) who can assume a wolf form while she is asleep.  She helps Robyn return safely to her village, while also convincing her that the wolves are not a threat and are merely just trying to survive the loss of their forest due to the expansion of the Lord Protector’s plans for more farming.  Robyn returns to her home and hopes to convince her father of what she discovered, but her father doesn’t believe the story.  Meanwhile, while having to serve as a scullery maid in the Lord Protector’s manor, she makes the horrifying discovery that the Lord is holding Mebh’s mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy) captive.  What follows is an attempt by the two girls to free the captive wolf mother, which leads to many magical twists and turns, which ends up defining what it really means to be a Wolfwalker.

You can see very clearly that this is a movie deeply infused with an Irish identity.  Not only does it touch upon Irish folklore and myth with the idea of the Wolfwalkers themselves, but it also draws upon real Irish history, with the conquest of the Ireland under the brutal tyranny of Oliver Cromwell as it’s backdrop.  But the pleasing thing is that you don’t have to be a scholar in Irish society and tradition in order to have a good time watching this movie, because it is just an all around triumph of storytelling.  The movie, directed by studio founder Tomm Moore and Cartoon Saloon newcomer Ross Stewart (who came from an equally beloved independent animation studio called Laika), definitely feels like a big step forward for the burgeoning studio.  Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner were all modest productions, despite featuring some truly breathtaking and imaginative imagery.  Wolfwalkers strives to be bigger and grander in every way, in both scale and story, and it definitely succeeds at that.  To me, this movie had the feel of Disney at their height in the Renaissance period, minus the musical numbers.  Though the main characters are still an intimate and uncrowded number, they are surrounded by a supporting cast of thousands and a much larger canvas overall.  The settings of this movie, from the town of Kilkenny to the enchanted forest dwelling of the wolves just feels grander than anything we’ve seen from Cartoon Saloon before, and yet it still maintains their very distinct style.  Director Tomm Moore has said in interviews that Wolfwalkers is their attempt to do everything they could do but haven’t been able to so far due to either budget restraints or it not servicing the story.  With Apple’s deep pockets helping to back them this time, they are finally able to make a movie with more ambition to it, but with the same kind of care and detail that they devoted to their more modest films.

One thing that will really take your breath away while watching the movie is just the stunning beauty of the film all around.  This is definitely one of those “every frame is a painting” kind of movies, reminiscent of films like Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959).  Cartoon Saloon has worked with this very Celtic inspired motif through many of their films before, but they turn it up to 11 with Wolfwalkers.  Pretty much every single scene features a new creative idea that you didn’t expect, and it keeps you captivated from beginning to the end.  At the same time, it doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the movie either, as the story is still able to find it’s way.  I was amazed just how well the visuals of the movie doesn’t distract from the story-telling, but rather elevates it, in the way that the best animated movies do.  In many ways, this is something that has been lacking in animation for a while, as Computer Animation has in many way homogenized the industry.  While there are still many good CGI animated movies out there, the sheer dominance of the format has unfortunately made so many of the movies look the same; to the point where you can’t tell one studio’s style from the other.  The same cannot be said about hand drawn animation.  Every studio has their unique in-house style, even if some try to copycat the likes of Disney.  This is also true of international animation, with Japan defining it’s identity through their creation of the Anime style.  That’s what’s so pleasing about what Cartoon Saloon is doing.  Their animation style is all their own, and it is unapologetically Irish.  I especially love the lushness of the woods, which intertwines and loops around in a way that evokes Celtic design in a very strong way.  The rigidness of Kilkenny in the movie also has it’s own story-book like feel; something that only hand drawn animation can capture.  It is possible to make Computer Animation capture this same feel, as Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018) brilliantly illustrated, but what Wolfwalkers really exposes is the fact that very few animated movies today really take full advantage of what the medium is capable of because of all that homogeny, and that it is essential for movies like it to remind us of what we are missing.

One of the things that I think really helps to carry the movie through is the wonderful cast of colorful characters in the film.  Robyn Goodfellowe certainly follows in a long line of strong independent female heroines in animated movies, but the animators and voice actress Honor Kneafsey do a great job of making her more than one note.  She is a character that actually goes through a lot of growth in the movie, both naturally and supernaturally.  She also manages to balance well off the performance of Eva Whittaker as Mebh, who is just as wild and unpredictable as her character should be.  I especially like the design of the character Mebh, whose billowing red hair becomes almost a character in her own right.  She also has these wild looking, massive eyes that really connects her to her Wolf persona.  Whether she’s in fur or in human skin, she is easily identifiable.  The characters also make a really good balance between being cartoonishly funny and heartbreakingly sincere, which is a real testament to the talents of the animators.  I also like the way they portray the stoicism of Bill Goodfellowe, making him strong but also sympathetic, helping to define the divisions and the connections that he shares with his daughter.  Certainly animating to Sean Bean’s voice can’t be easy, due to his often understated acting style, but they make it work.  I was also especially pleased that this is an animated movie with a very strong villain at it’s center.  The Lord Protector, though not specifically stated to be based on Oliver Cromwell, certainly borrows many visual connections to the notorious dictator, and like most animated villains, he is visualized as dark and shadowy.  He’s a nice throwback to the classic Disney villains of the Renaissance period, specifically reminding me of Frollo from Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), and actor Simon McBurney does a great job of bringing effective menace to the character.

I should point out that Wolfwalkers only invokes the same feeling that we get from the classic Disney animated films, and is not just a copycat.  This is an animated movie that really carves out it’s own identity.  What worked for Disney so well during it’s Renaissance period was the fact that they were embracing what they were capable of in their medium and using it to tell stories that appealed to a wide audience.  But, at the same time, they too began to fall back on playing it safe and making each movie just like the one before it.  This has been true of an industry that over time has favored marketability over artistry.  The era of Computer Animation has held a firm grip on what kinds of animated movies get greenlit, because for the most part, they are the ones that can reliably bring people back to the theaters week in and week out.  Disney tried to revive hand drawn animation briefly with The Princess and the Frog (2009), but it’s modest returns were not enough to turn the tide.  The 2020 pandemic may however be the thing that gives the studios pause.  We are already seeing a variety of different animated films popping up on Netflix, mostly as acquired assets though a few other have been spear-headed by the streamer directly.  Cartoon Saloon’s next film in fact, My Father’s Dragon (2021) will be a Netflix exclusive.  Disney has also been forced by the conditions of the pandemic to premiere their new Pixar film, Soul (2020) exclusively on their streaming platform Disney+.  We are seeing playing out right now a real test of what the future of animation will be like.  Can computer animation survive without the movie theaters, or will more independent fare like Wolfwalkers become more of what we see in the years ahead.  Certainly, the fact that everyone is tuning in to streaming platforms instead of going out to the movies is putting a spotlight on movies like Wolfwalkers that it otherwise wouldn’t have had, and that may be something that really ends up being a game changer in the end.  AppleTV+ certainly isn’t in the realm of Netflix, Amazon, or even Disney+ yet, but with a quality must see film like Wolfwalkers made exclusively for it, it certainly will draw more positive attention their way.

Regardless of how we are able to watch it, I strongly recommend that you check out Wolfwalkers if you can.  Thus far, it is the best animated movie that I have seen this year, and that includes a film released in the Spring from Pixar (Onward).  Just the fact that it shows that there is still life in the medium of hand drawn animation, and that the market has been desperately lacking such a movie within the mainstream for a long time,  is enough to make any of you interested in seeing it.  It has the ambition and grandeur of Disney at their best, while at the same time maintaining it’s distinctive Irish character.  Cartoon Saloon has a bright future ahead of it if they continue to make movies of this caliber.  Though all of their movies thus far have been exceptional, this one takes it to the next level and really shows what they are capable of.  I highly expect that they are going to be 4-4 in Oscar nominations when Awards season kicks into gear next spring, and they may have their best case yet for taking home Oscar gold finally.  Right now the movie is having a limited theatrical run in the United States, which may be even more limited now because of the increased lock downs across the country that are re-shutting down many movie theaters.  If it’s important for you to see something like this on the big screen, I highly recommend it, but with the caveat that you should only go if you can do so safely.  I lucked out in seeing it at a local Drive-In, so there’s that option if available.  Starting December 11, it will then be available for AppleTV+ subscribers, as well as available to buy exclusively on iTunes.  Like all the best animated movies, it is perfect for audiences of all ages, although I do commend the filmmakers for not shying away from darker themes, which really serves the movie well and earn it a PG rating.  Time will tell if these are the kinds of movie that change animation in this period of flux.  Will Wolfwalkers create a new Renaissance of hand drawn animation, or is it just a fleeting but nevertheless worthwhile reminder of what animation used to be like?

Rating: 9/10

Kingdom Come – How The Emperor’s New Groove Went From Nearly Cancelled to Cult Hit Over 20 Years

It is hard to keep a streak of success running non-stop in the film industry.  As I discussed in may critique of Disney’s Chicken Little (2005) last week, you often see once mighty power players within the business like Disney Animation come crashing back to Earth unexpectedly, even at points where it seemed like the sky is the limit.  In fact, it really is something that more often than not happens very frequently in the field of animation.  Because an animated movie takes so long to produce (on average about 4-5 years), it becomes extremely hard to course correct once the market has shifted all of a sudden, and what seemed like a sure thing at the start of production might end up being out of sync upon completion.  That was certainly the dilemma that Disney Animation faced at the turn of the millennium in the year 2000.  What started out as a massive era of growth and success under the Disney Renaissance, with massive hits like Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994) all building on top of each other, began to wane by the end of the decade, with lower box office returns not being able to offset the growing costs.  Disney in many ways became too successful too quickly, and were unable to sustain the empire that they had manage to build up.  And with the growing competition from new rival Dreamworks, and the market being led more towards Computer Animation thanks to their partnership with Pixar, Disney quickly had to rethink their priorities.  This would involve making the hard choice of having to either halt, revise or completely scrap movies already long in development in order to reorganize for the coming years ahead.  This was the condition that encircled what was to be the next big Disney epic that was follow in the line of the past Renaissance era classics; the South American set Kingdom of the Sun.

Kingdom of the Sun began development in 1994, right off the heels of The Lion King’s record shattering success.  Like the other movies given the greenlight during the decade, Kingdom was developed to spotlight a different cultural texture that had not yet been explored in animation, much like what The Lion King did for Africa, and what the upcoming Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998) were going to do for Native American and Chinese cultures respectively.  Kingdom of the Sun was to be set in ancient Incan society, with much of the animation taking inspiration from various Paleo-American influences.  But, despite the cultural influence, the story that Disney was planning to tell, was not all that unfamiliar to American audiences.  The plot was in fact going to be a reimagining of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper.  There have been many versions of this story told over the years, and in fact Disney had done one themselves only 5 years prior; a half-hour short starring Mickey Mouse that was played in front of The Rescuers Down Under (1990) in theaters.  This version in Kingdom of the Sun would, however, involve a magical twist, with an evil sorceress named Yzma switching the Emperor with his llama herder lookalike, and having the Emperor be turned into a llama himself, so that no one would recognize him.  It of course wouldn’t be a Disney movie if there wasn’t magic involved somehow in the plot.  What became a major selling point for the production was the aspect of it’s South American setting.  Disney sent it’s team of artists to places like Macchu Picchu and the Incan capital of Kuzco to study the architecture and art of this lost society, and have it inform the look of the movie.  The movie moved along at full steam ahead, with voice actors like David Spade, Owen Wilson, Eartha Kitt, and Harvey Fierstein all lined up to play the leads, and a team of Disney’s top animators all working hard to bring the movie to life.  However, as the returns for Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and Hercules (1997) all disappointed at the box office, the Disney executives began to scrutinize the still in development projects a bit harder, and the hard truth became apparent; Kingdom of the Sun was just not working.

A major part of the problem was the fact that there was insurmountable division in the role of the directors.  Roger Allers, who had previously helmed The Lion King alongside co-director Rob Minkoff, had begun Kingdom of the Sun as his own pet project, initially going solo in the director’s chair.  But, as mounting costs and slow production began to plague the film, Disney executives enlisted another director to take some of the burden of Allers shoulders and also a bit more humor into the movie.  Mark Dindal, a one-time effects animator who left Disney briefly to direct the movie Cats Don’t Dance (1997) at Warner Brothers, brought a more Looney Tunes-esque sensibility to his style of directing animation, and it was apparent very quickly that this clashed with Allers more epic grandeur sense of direction.  Pairing up directors on a project had long been a norm in Animation, with most of the Disney Renaissance classics being made by the iconic teams of John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) and Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale (Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame).  Allers of course had worked well with Rob Minkoff on Lion King, but Minkoff had already left Disney at this point to direct the live action Stuart Little (1999), and Mark Dindal was just not the same kind of collaborator.  And not only that, but Disney was now threatening to tighten up the budget even more and demand more changes.  So, amidst insurmountable creative differences, Allers left the production, with rough animation almost 70% complete and finished animation almost at 20%.  There was no doubt about it, Disney had already poured a lot of money and resources into a movie that was not working and had just lost it’s primary driving force.  So this was the crossroads point; either move ahead and complete the movie, or cut the losses and cancel the whole thing.

Strangely enough, Mark Dindal, who came into the project late in development, was adamant about salvaging this troubled film.  He also received back up from the film’s producer Randy Fullmer.  Together they appealed Disney for a stay of execution so that they could rework the movie into something they could finish on time and on budget.  Disney, who were initially inclined to scrapping the film, were swayed by Dindal and Fullmer’s appeal, but on this one condition; that they have their new pitch ready in only 6 weeks.  That’s an extremely short amount of time to create a new story from scratch, no matter what medium of film you work in, and the two poor filmmakers had to make it happen in the notoriously slow moving process that is animation.  But, Dindal and Fullmer spent those next few weeks going through the remains of Kingdom of the Sun to find anything that they could to salvage.  Gone was the Prince and the Pauper storyline and the more epic scale grandeur of the setting.  Most of the cast of characters were either scrapped or reworked, with only the David Spade’s Emperor and Earth Kitt’s Yzma making the cut intact.  Perhaps the most painful revision made to the movie was the removal of the musical numbers written by famed recording artist Sting.  Sting was the next in line of pop artists like Elton John and Phil Collins who was going to have his chance to orchestrate a full musical score for a Disney movie.  In fact, he was so excited to work on the film, that he had his romantic partner Trudie Styler document his creative process for an upcoming documentary to coincide with the movie’s release.  Unfortunately, in the midst of the film’s shake-up, all but two of the songs Sting wrote were scrapped, leaving him decidedly upset.  Sting obliged with his contractual duties through the rest of the film’s production, but ever since, he’s remained at arms length with anything Disney related.  It was hard, difficult surgery, but Dindal and Fullmer managed to get their pitch completed in a record amount of time, and to everyone’s surprise, Disney granted them the chance to finish the film.

Perhaps the biggest reason why Disney decided to move forward was because Mark Dindal and Randy Fullmer pitched them a film that was very much streamlined.  Instead of a grandiose, epic musical, this new film would be much more of a screwball comedy, in line with Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges.  Normally this would have been off brand for Disney, but given that it came at a time of belt-tightening at the studio, the production benefitted from a different set of priorities, especially after $50 million had already been spent.  So, where to go after that.  Given that the movie was taking a more screwball approach to the comedy, it meant that they needed to put more emphasis on the characters themselves, making them the driving force of the movie’s humor.  The once epic movie cast was dwindled down to just a main cast of four.  The Emperor, now named Kuzco, was reworked to better reflect the persona of the actor playing him; comedian David Spade.  Spade had survived the culling of the original film, retaining his role intact, but this new direction in a way was better suited for his talents.  Spade’s career has largely been shaped around performing as a smarmy, take no prisoners social observer, often with biting put downs of famous targets.  He’s played this kind of self-absorbed character in various Saturday Night Live sketches and in movies, and it matched the persona they needed for the Emperor Kuzco perfectly.  Though the filmmakers leaned more into Spade’s persona for the character, they completely overhauled the film’s other lead into something completely different.  The poor llama herder, Pacha, was changed from Kuzco’s lookalike to a middle aged, broad shouldered man who is saddled with having to save the smug, selfish ruler once Kuzco is transformed into a llama (another carry over from the original film).  Owen Wilson was dropped out and replaced with John Goodman, whose gruff, wholesome delivery honestly balances off of Spade’s snark much better than Wilson’s performance would’ve.

The character least impacted by the change in the movie was the villain Yzma.  Though her machinations changed a bit throughout the reorganization, there was little change to her as an asset to the movie, and her character design also remained constant throughout.  Earth Kitt was saddened that she didn’t get her chance to sing in the finished film, with her Sting written villain song “Snuff out the Light” being one of the notable highlights in scrapped soundtrack.  However, the more comical take on the film revealed something unexpected about Ms. Kitt’s talents, which is her surprising knack for comedy.  Yzma is easily one of the funniest villains Disney ever written, and Eartha Kitt holds her own even in a cast of comedy heavy weights.  The way she delivers hilariously dry lines like, “It’s called a cruel irony, like my dependence on you,” just shows you how masterfully she is able to balance salty menace with complete absurdity.  It’s hard to know how much more impactful her performance might have been had the movie not changed, but she nevertheless made Yzma a worthy addition to the rogues gallery of iconic Disney villains.  But what also worked well to the movie’s advantage, and honestly what possibly saved the movie as a whole, was the creation of an entirely new character named Kronk.  Initially, in Kingdom of the Sun, no such villain sidekick existed.  But, during an audition for a throwaway guardsman character, the filmmakers came across a small time character actor named Patrick Warburton, who at that time was best known for a recurring role as Elaine’s dim-witted boyfriend on Seinfeld.  Warburton’s hilarious vocal performance delighted the filmmakers so much that they crafted this new character just for him, and it made a huge difference for the film.  Warburton’s Kronk steals every moment he is on screen, whether he’s delighting in his culinary talents, conversing with squirrels, or consulting his “shoulder angel,” he’s hilariously on point, and the movie is far funnier because of it.  The cool thing is, the was Patrick Warburton’s first ever role in animation, and in the 20 years since, he’s become one of the most sought after voice actors in the business, no doubt as a result of his stand out work here.

Throughout all the changes, it became clear that what Director Mark Dindal and Producer Randy Fullmer were working on was no longer the movie that it started out as, and this became apparent to everyone in Hollywood the moment the movie changed it’s name.  Kingdom of the Sun unexpectedly was retitled The Emperor’s New Groove just a mere year left until it’s release.  People were puzzled by this, because it was extremely off brand for Disney to give their movies a pun-filled title.  Kingdom of the Sun invoked grandeur in the same way that The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame had before.  The Emperor’s New Groove sounded like a joke.  Indeed, it looked like Disney had lost it’s mind at this point, and the outlook for the movie was not good.  It was shoved off to mid-December, as opposed to the traditional mid-June or Thanksgiving weekends that had benefitted Disney in the past.  In a way, it almost looked like Disney was trying to bury the movie, believing it would turn into a major embarrassment like The Black Cauldron (1985).  Initially, it looked like that would be the case.  It opened to mild box office, grossing $10 million opening weekend, which was a quarter of what Tarzan (1999) had made in it’s opening a year prior.  But, the movie managed to stick around through the holiday season, not dropping out of the top ten for nearly two months, and in the end, it earned a respectable $95 million domestic.  It’s still low box office, but not an embarrassment either.  However, The Emperor’s New Groove‘s released was fortuitously timed for a different kind of market that would help it even more.  In late 2000 and early 2001, Disney released their first batch of releases in the new home video format known as DVD.  Along with some established classics, The Emperor’s New Groove was released as part of this new format, and was the newest film in the library as well, piquing interest among Disney fans who might have missed the movie the first time in theaters.  To Disney’s surprise, Groove not only sold well, it became their top seller in the DVD market in it’s first year, ranking higher than classics like Pinocchio (1940) and Dumbo (1941).  And the movie would continue to perform strong several year later.  To everyone’s surprise, The Emperor’s New Groove became an underground hit.

No where else in the Disney canon will you find another movie that had a more unexpected outcome.  The Emperor’s New Groove went from six weeks of near cancellation to becoming a cult favorite that endures to this day.  There are a surprisingly large amount of people who even consider Groove to be among their favorite Disney movies overall, and some even put it at the top.  I can’t say for sure what it is about the movie that connected so strongly with audiences.  Perhaps it’s the uncharacteristic level of humor that makes it stand out among other Disney movies.  The fact that it is irreverent, and is free of the many Disney clichés that people find refreshing.  Who knows?  20 years later, I think that the story of how this movie rose from the ashes and managed to carve out it’s own road to success is it’s own fascinating story.  Disney has been ruthless when it comes to scrapping troubled productions even after having fully announced them (see the history of the cancelled film Gigantic for example), so the fact that Emperor’s New Groove not only survived but thrived is something pretty special in the history of the company.  The Emperor’s New Groove still lives on, spawning a direct-to-video sequel and a Saturday Morning cartoon spinoff.  It also proves that there’s no such thing as a sure thing in Hollywood.  Sometimes sure things are doomed to fail, while potential disasters can manage to become a surprise success.  Take it from this pandemic year, where we saw a Christopher Nolan film bomb while Sonic the Hedgehog became a box office hit.  Movies have a way of surprising people, especially in the long run, and The Emperor’s New Groove is proof of that.  It’s worth exploring the tumultuous history of this film more.  Trudie Styler did compile all her footage together into a documentary called The Sweatbox (2002) and it chronicles first hand how Kingdom of the Sun fell apart behind the scenes.  What’s most fascinating in her documentary is that it also features rough animation from the original film, the only parts that have managed to escape out of the Disney vaults.  My hope is that a rough workprint of Kingdom of the Sun does see the light of day eventually, just so that we can all see what might have been.  Even still, the fact that The Emperor’s New Groove managed to survive at all and become a long term success is something pretty miraculous in the world of animation.  Perhaps, as a means of preserving their future, a “new groove” is exactly what Disney needed.

What the Hell Was That? – Chicken Little (2005)

My whole life I have been pretty devoted to the long, diverse legacy of The Walt Disney Company.  Since childhood, Disney was the gateway to all cinema, helping me to form a strong sense of the artform and business from an early age.  And it was a good time to grow up as a Disney fan.  My formative years fell within the height of the Disney Renaissance, from The Little Mermaid (1989) to The Lion King (1994).  I would obsessively pour over all the new information I could get about what Disney was working on next, and discovering more and more of the deeper titles within the decades long Disney library.  Even before I had entered high school, I could boast that I had seen nearly every Disney animated film that had been made up to that point; The Black Cauldron (1985) being the notable holdout because of it’s lack of availability at the time.  To this day, even though my interest in cinema has expanded far beyond walls of a single studio, I still hold a special place in my heart for most things Disney, so you can still say that I am a fan.  At the same time, I would also say that I am not a member of any Disney cult either.  Like any other big corporation, the House of Mouse does it’s own share of questionable activities in order to keep their profits going strong, and if it does cross the line, I will call them out on it.  Their labor disputes with workers in their vast company over the years have reflected badly on them, even in Walt Disney’s time.  More recently, their cozy arrangements with the Chinese Government has raised some eyebrows, especially with claims of forced labor behind things like product supply lines and the production of the recent Mulan remake.  Those are serious questions for a different time, but I also point out that there are creative failures from the company as well that have left me questioning the judgment of those working at Disney.  And that’s something that I find right at the heart of what may be my least favorite Disney film of all time; 2005’s Chicken Little.

Chicken Little came out in theaters at a very turbulent time for the Walt Disney company.  The later part of the Disney Renaissance post-The Lion King did not see the same kind of success that the earlier films had.  Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), and Hercules (1997) all underperformed and received mixed reception, while Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999) saw only modest success.  At the same time, Pixar began to rise in prominence, with the Toy Story movies leading the way to even bigger hits like Monsters Inc. (2001) and Finding Nemo (2003).  This diminishing of returns for hand drawn animation coinciding with the rise of computer animation began to seriously challenge the notion within the industry about what kind of future the traditional form had left.  Then came two pivotal moments.  One was the release of the movie Shrek (2001) from newly formed rival studio Dreamworks, which saw record box office and critical praise, earning the first ever Oscar for Best Animated Feature.  A year later, Disney’s Treasure Planet (2002) became the biggest money loser in the company’s history.  The writing was on the wall; hand drawn was out and computer animation was in.  Now, Disney already had their partnership with Pixar to guide them into this next era, but it was a limited contract, and Pixar was itching to go solo.  Disney CEO at the time, Michael Eisner, was not happy with what Pixar was demanding as a part of the renewal offer, so he set out to shift Disney’s fledgling animation department to be a Pixar competitor, focused entirely on CGI animation.  However, by the time the first of these new CGI Disney films were about to enter production, Eisner’s tenure was ended in a shareholder revolt, and soon after Bob Iger was left in charge of the company.  Iger not only soothed over tensions with Pixar, he negotiated a full purchase of the studio altogether, making them officially a part of the Disney company.  Though the duel with Pixar was ended before it even started, Eisner’s final push to bring computer animation to the legendary animation department still continued on.

Though a number of projects received a green-light at the same time, it was Chicken Little that was fast-tracked to be the first of this new breed of Disney movie.  Put in charge of the project were Director Mark Dindal and Producer Randy Fullmer, fresh off their surprise success with the sleeper hit The Emperor’s New Groove (2000).  Many of the animation team were also Disney vets from the Renaissance period that had to quickly re-train themselves in order to work in this new field of computer animation.  Also notable was the fact that the movie was going to deviate from the traditional Disney formula; it would not be a musical, aside from licensed songs and new pop tunes scattered throughout the score, it would be taking the classic nursery rhyme story and giving it a “modern” twist, and it would be banking on irreverent humor as a base for it’s entertainment.  The movie came out the year after the last of Disney’s hand drawn animated films, Home on the Range (2004) and ironically only a few short months after Eisner’s ouster and Iger’s purchase of Pixar, casting something of a shadow over the movie upon it’s release.  While there was anticipation over what Disney might deliver with their first CGI feature, there was also worry.  Chicken Little did perform modestly well at the box office, banking $150 million domestic for Disney, but critically it was a different story.  The movie was seen as too generic and lacking an identity.  And that really is the thing that characterizes the failure of Chicken Little the most as an entry in the Disney canon; the fact that it doesn’t feel like a true Disney film.  More than anything, it feels like Disney was trying to answer the competition of Dreamworks and Pixar with more of the same formula, and it backfired.  For the first time in it’s storied history, it looked like Disney were the ones playing catch-up.

The story of Disney’s Chicken Little, for lack of a better word, is weak. Pretty much every underdog cliché you can think of is thrown at you with regards to Little’s character development.  He’s ostracized for having been responsible for mayhem due to his assertion that the sky was falling and has to build his reputation back up, which is only compounded by the fact that he is a small statured little chicken.  They also throw in a cliched parental issues with his father, Buck Cluck (voiced by the late Garry Marshall), which of course is something that has been done to death in countless other Disney films.  Even with these tired tropes at it’s heart, the movie can’t even focus on this the whole way through, as later on, the movie turns into an alien invasion plot which comes straight out of nowhere, and makes the second half feel like a whole other film.  There is no heart or drive to the movie.  It just hits the points when it needs to and then moves onto the next point.  Pretty good case in point is when the town that the characters live in begins to be completely invaded by aliens, Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff) and his father are holed up in a theater for safety, and as the tension of the moment begins to rise, Little just stops the scene to finally speak his mind to his emotionally distant father.  Had the movie been able to build up a more contentious relationship with Little and his dad, this moment might have landed better, but here, it just stops the movie cold so that script can scratch one more thing off it’s list.  That’s emblematic of the movie as a whole, it just forces it’s moments through without letting it flow naturally.  It’s yet another sign of the filmmakers looking at other movies, like those from Dreamworks and Pixar, and just cutting and pasting what they saw.  For a storied studio like Disney to resort to this, it shows a shocking bit of desperation.

I should also point out that none of the characters are likeable at all.  Maybe with the possible exception of Buck Cluck, based on the charm of Garry Marshall’s vocal performance alone, all the characters are either too flashy and “hip” to be believable, too obnoxious, or too generic to leave an impression.  Chicken Little is easily the most underwhelming protagonist of any Disney movie, and that’s mainly because he changes little (no pun intended) throughout the film.  It was clear that Disney wanted actor Zach Braff’s vocal performance to drive the personality of the character, but he’s left with nothing but his own persona to guide him through that process.  Like many of Zach Braff’s other characters throughout the years, Chicken Little is nerdy, neurotic, and put down by society, and by the end of the movie he is still nerdy, neurotic but only less put down by society.  It’s not Chicken Little who changes, but all those around him that dealt him a bad hand.  It’s just not the hero’s journey that you expect from a Disney protagonist, who in some way or fashion have to struggle with some of their own shortcomings in order to become the hero.  It doesn’t help that the sidekick characters that follow him along are also devoid of interesting personalities.  There’s the ugly duckling, Abby Mallard, who like Braff’s Chicken Little is more defined by who voices her (Joan Cusack) than anything else as a character.  There’s voiceless Fish Out of Water, who is just there to deliver visual gags.  And then there’s Runt of the Litter (voiced by Steve Zahn) who may be the most insufferable comedic character ever put into any animated movie.  He’s just there to be the butt of fat jokes and to break into pop music tunes, because Disney’s trying way too hard to be culture savvy.  Coming off of the glory days of the Disney Renaissance, which gave us classic original characters like Sebastian the Crab, Mrs. Potts, the Genie, Pumbaa, and many more, this bland cast of characters really feel out of place, because there clearly was no care in making them stand out in the way that the other had.

I should also note that the movie is visually uninspired as well.  Now, to be fair, none of the computer animated movies of that era particularly look great over fifteen years later.  Computer animation was fairly new and still experimenting with a lot of techniques with each successive film.  But, most people don’t pay attention to the dated look of early CGI when the story and the characters are engaging enough to carry the rest of the movie.  That is why Toy Story has endured a quarter of a century after it’s original release.  With a story and characters that are less than engaging, people are bound to take notice of the shortcomings of early computer animation even more, and it is painfully obvious how lackluster Chicken Little looks.  The movie just has this obvious low texture look to it, like all the characters and the environments are made from plastic.  The village that the movie takes place, called Oakey Oaks (*eyeroll*) also has this strange visual style to it, where it’s supposed to look cartoony, but the blockiness of early CGI doesn’t completely smooth out the edges, so it becomes this weird mish-mash of painfully simplistic environmental design.  The only interesting visual idea in the whole movie is the way that the sky is made up of hexagonal plates that sit on the bottom of the space ships that are stealthily hovering over the town, and when the ships pull apart, it maintains that pattern.  The false sky element leads to some of the only visual gags that work as well, but sadly it doesn’t get nearly enough time on screen.  I almost think that a large part of what drove the visual look of this movie was probably coming from Disney’s consumer product line, who were possibly pushing the filmmakers to create character and structural designs that would appeal better as potential toys to sell in conjunction with the movie’s release.  It wouldn’t have been the first movie at Disney to have given consideration to the marketability, but with so little else that stands out in the film, it just further illustrates how this movie was made as more of a product and less as a work of art.

It’s interesting that Disney would attempt to devote a feature film to the story of Chicken Little at all and do so without giving any importance to the ultimate message behind the story.  The story of Chicken Little, which goes back to early European Folklore, is a cautionary tale about hysteria, and the dangers of giving into one’s fears.  Disney in fact had tackled the story before in the 1940’s in a short cartoon.  The short is noteworthy by the fact that it ends on a decidedly dark ending, with Chicken Little being tricked by the evil Foxy Loxy into convincing the other chickens on the farm to believe his belief that the sky is falling.  They all follow Chicken Little into a cave where they think they will all be safe, but to their tragic mistake, Foxy Loxy is there waiting.  The last we see is rows of chicken bones laid out like tombstones on the cave floor.  Pretty dark right.  It was originally supposed to be even darker, because Disney started out making the short as a wartime propaganda piece, explicitly connecting the hysteria spread by Chicken Little as the seeds of dangerous ideologies like Fascism and Communism.  Though cut out of the original short, Foxy Loxy was shown getting his ideas from reading passages out of Mein Kamph, Hitler’s notorious manifesto that became the backbone of Nazism.  Disney later changed it to a “psychology” text book, though some of the passages are still from the same source.  Though 2005’s Chicken Little didn’t need to be that explicit in it’s message, it nevertheless missed a prime opportunity to have a meaningful lesson at it’s core that stems from the original story.  Instead, the movie plays it safe.  It reminds me of how starkly it contrasts with another film about animals who live in a human like society that is way, way better in it’s execution; Zootopia (2016).  Not only was Zootopia far better looking and had more interesting characters, but it was also not afraid to lean more into a sharp social critique that you otherwise wouldn’t have expected.  The fundamental success of Zootopia just illustrates even more how squandered the entire Chicken Little experiment was, and what it could have been had it been brave enough to have an identity.

There are worse animated movies out there, but for a studio like Disney that has raised the bar so high for the artform, Chicken Little is definitely the bottom of the rung of the ladder.  It looks cheap, it’s derivative of too many other features, and it lacks an identity.  And the most sad thing of all, it just reeks of desperation.  It’s scary to think that this is what Michael Eisner was ready to herald as the touchstone for a new era in Disney animation.  Thankfully, once he was on the way out and the Pixar deal was reached, the weight of what Chicken Little was supposed to carry was somewhat lightened.  Thankfully, Disney animation only improved from there, and has remarkably not fallen under the shadow of Pixar but has instead thrived alongside of it.  A new regime now was in charge of the Burbank based animation studio, with former Pixar chief John Lasseter taking the reins.  The follow-up to Chicken Little was 2007’s Meet the Robinsons.  While not an all time classic, Robinsons was nevertheless an improvement as it had more likable characters and an emotional core at it’s heart.  Disney even briefly tried to reboot their hand drawn animation division with The Princess and the Frog (2009) though limited success led to a renewed focus on CGI, and that eventually led to mega successes like Tangled (2010), Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Frozen (2013), Zootopia and Moana (2016).  That’s the best thing I can say about Chicken Little is that it’s embarrassment didn’t reflect badly on Disney in the long run.  It’s a good thing too, because had it become a bigger success, I think it would’ve creatively bankrupted the studio for a long time.  Disney has long been an industry leader, being the gold standard by which all other studios strive to reach harder towards in order to match or even surpass them.  With the Dreamworks wannabe that was Chicken Little, it would have been the point where Disney ceded the crown to another studio, and let them be the drivers of the artform.  Thankfully, Disney chose a different direction, and reclaimed their dominance in the following decade, making some of the greatest animated films ever in the process.  Chicken Little only remains as a reminder of the dark path that they could’ve taken, and a sits alone as sad relic of the point where Disney was just ready to give up and choose commerce over art.

Top Ten Stephen King Movies

Well, we’ve reached that witching hour of the year again.  Halloween has arrived in a year truly marked with unimaginable real life horror.  As we try to make the most out of our socially distant festivities, I’m sure most people’s favorite Halloween tradition to hold onto this year is watching scary movies. No doubt many people will be watching from the comforts of their home some classics from the horror genre, either for the hundredth time or maybe even the first time.  Whether it’s a slasher, a gothic period ghost story, or just a good old-fashioned monster movie, there are literally thousands of good choices to indulge in at home this Halloween.  No doubt what will end up being a favorite for many are the numerous films that were inspired by the imagination of perhaps the most prolific author of his generation; Stephen King.  King has been an active writer for half a century now, and his bibliography is stacked with best selling classics, with no sign of slowing down anytime soon.  King continues to publish at least one new novel every year, showing that even in his more advanced years, he is still a tireless master at his craft.  Though he does write in a variety of other genres, it’s been horror and suspense that he’s made a name for himself, creating some of the most beloved tomes of the genre the literary world has ever seen.  And likewise, these books have provided the inspiration for many film and television adaptations.  For this Halloween, I thought it would be worthwhile to put together a list of the top ten movies based on the work of Stephen King.  I am excluding television adaptations here, but movies that are based on King’s non horror stories will be considered.

These are my own choices, so you may disagree with a few overall.  Here are some noteworthy movies that, while good, didn’t make it into my top ten: Christine (1983), The Running Man (1987), Dolores Claiborne (1995), Apt Pupil (1998), The Green Mile (1999), 1408 (2007), 1922 (2017) and Doctor Sleep (2019).  So, with all those out of the way, let’s take a look at my choices for the best movies based on the spooky writing of Stephen King.

10.

GERALD’S GAME (2017)

Directed by Mike Flanagan

There has been a recent revival of Stephen King’s work in recent years, with many remakes of past films making it to the big screen in recent years, as well as new adaptations available on streaming channels like Hulu and Netflix.  Streaming in particular has given some of the lesser known Stephen King novels and short stories a chance to shine, as they are less in competition with the blockbusters.  One of the most successful adaptations of a lesser known King story on streaming is this film version of King’s 1992 novel of the same name.  A prime example of simple but effective storytelling, the story is intimate in scope, but builds towards the same kind of disturbing decent into madness that we expect from a King novel.  The movie involves a couple heading to a secluded house deep in the woods of Maine to have a weekend affair.  Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) cuffs his wife Jessie (Carla Gugino) to the bed posts as part of a kinky sexual activity.  However, Gerald suddenly suffers a fatal heart attack, and Jessie is left bound to the bed without any means of freeing herself, nor any way of seeking any help as the nearest neighbor is miles away.  As time goes by, and Jessie grows weaker and more desperate, she begins to let the voices in her head take over, and that includes hallucinations of Gerald speaking back at her from the afterlife, reliving childhood trauma, and also receiving a visit from a disturbing ghoul like figure in the night that she calls the “Moonlight Man,” a particularly King-esque addition.  The great thing about Netflix’s adaptation is that it’s not afraid to take it’s time and build it’s atmosphere, which has become a trademark of director Mike Flanagan, who has emerged recently as a stand out in the horror genre, having also done an adaptation of King’s Doctor Sleep as well.  This one is noteworthy because of the way that it absorbs you in a way that you don’t typically see from most King film, or in most horror for that matter.

9.

CREEPSHOW (1982)

Directed by George A. Romero

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have an adaptation of Stephen King’s work that is anything but subtle.  This anthology film combines five short stories by King and presents them loosely tied together as this homage to pulp horror comic books.  Romero of Night of the Living Dead (1968) fame brings his trademark gonzo style and ramps it up to maximum in this bizarre, out of control, and always creepy cinematic experience.  The movie is also noteworthy for being Stephen King’s first active foray into the filmmaking process.  After years of letting his novels be licensed out to other filmmakers, King worked closely with Romero on every aspect of the making of this movie, acting as screenwriter for the first time in his career.  Even more surprisingly, Stephen King even appears on screen in the role of Jordy Verrill, acting for the first time in a part from his own writing.  King would continue to appear in cameos throughout most of the future movies and mini-series based on his novels, but I don’t think any of those will leave an impression as much as his wild performance in this movie.  There are also some standout performances from other legendary actors, including a villainous one from Leslie Nielsen, as well as a disturbingly paranoid one from E.G. Marshall.  George A. Romero also utilizes the comic book aesthetic to great effect, combining some wild visual ideas throughout the movie, both in the way the movie is colored and in how it is framed.  This certainly doesn’t stand as the most chilling, or even scary movie based on King’s stories, but it does represent Stephen King at his most unbound, free to just let loose and put some of the wildest ideas he has on the screen.  It’s Stephen King at his campiest, and for that, it does deserve a special recognition in relation to everything else he’s made.

8.

THE DEAD ZONE (1983)

Directed by David Cronenberg

Though not every Stephen King story is specific to horror, he nevertheless gives the majority of his stories a supernatural element.  Such is the case with The Dead Zone, which is more of a thriller that a scary story.  The story revolves around a man named Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) who awakens from a coma with new pre-cognitive powers that allow him to see into someone’s future after experiencing physical contact with them.  Over time, Johnny uses his powers to help others, but becomes disillusioned when his insights aren’t able to help solve local murders.  He later encounters a controversial political candidate (Martin Sheen) who he envisions becoming president one day and launching a nuclear strike that begins the end times.  It’s a great example of Stephen King working within the paranoia thriller genre.  Johnny’s gift is both a blessing and a curse, as he is able to alter the course of some terrible fates, but over time learns that each action (good or bad) has a consequence, and that he may be doing more harm to the world over time by not allowing fate to play it’s part.  Christopher Walken is very effective in this role, showing Johnny slowly falling apart the more his powers take a toll on his psyche.  But what I especially like is Cronenberg’s stripped back approach to filming this story.  With the cool, haunting photography, Cronenberg fuses the story with this foggy sense of dread, underlining the condition of Walken’s character.  As a result, we feel the paranoia that he feels, because the movie puts us in his headspace, with this detached cold atmosphere all around him.  While it’s not a horror show like what we associate from Stephen King’s other work, it still shows that he can characteristically present a sense of dread in even a story without much horror in it.

7.

THE MIST (2007)

Directed by Frank Darabont

Stephen King is certainly known for his monsters, whether supernatural, spectral, or even human.  But what we learn from a lot of his writing is that it’s not just the typical monstrous creatures on the outside that become a problem for main characters, it’s those that emerge among us that also pose a threat.  In this supernatural thriller, a small coastal town in Maine is shrouded in a mysterious fog that limits visibility in the surrounding area.  Suddenly, emerging out of the mist are giant bug like creatures attacking civilians.  A small band of survivors hold themselves up in a grocery store, but as time goes on and no hope for rescue becomes apparent, the survivors in the store begin to turn on each other.  It’s a great examination of different societal reactions that happen when humanity is pushed to the brink.  It is most apparently shown in the clashing personas of the optimistic everyman played by Thomas Jane and the pessimistic religious zealot played by Marcia Gay Harden.  As hope fades, we see otherwise good people turn into monsters themselves, and show that even a safe haven could be anything but.  At the same time, the movie does an effective job of creating the gloomy atmosphere that pervades every moment of this story.  Frank Darabont, who is no stranger to adapting the works of Stephen King (this being his third go around), manages to craft an adaptation of one of King’s more supernatural works just as well as he had with one of the more grounded ones.  Not only that, he even went beyond what King had originally intentioned, and gave The Mist a much more downbeat, tragic ending than what was in the novel.  The Mist is an unforgettable, and bleak, adaptation of Stephen King’s work that blends together the best of what we’ve come to expect from his writing; a dark, disturbing tale of men vs. monsters, with a bit of sharp social commentary on the human condition as well.

6.

STAND BY ME (1986)

Directed by Rob Reiner

Here is a prime example that not every Stephen King movie needs to be scary.  Though it does revolve around the discovery of a dead body, the story is actually about the coming of age of it’s four central characters.  Told through flashback narration provided by actor Richard Dreyfuss, the movie revolves around four young boys who set out on their own to find the body of a missing child that they’ve heard rumors about.  The four form a bond on the road and create their own little adventure, facing everything from junkyard dogs, to oncoming trains, to even leeches.  There is a charming innocence to this story that you don’t see in most of Stephen King’s other writing, and that’s what makes it such a unique movie in his filmography.  I imagine that with this one, King drew more from his own childhood experience growing up in rural Maine when writing this story, and it is grounded very much in a universal sense of what it was like to be a young boy trying to figure out your own place in the world.  The movie is equal parts heart-wrenching, funny, and ultimately inspiring, which has helped it become a favorite for many audiences across generations.  What especially make the movie work are the unforgettable performances from the four leads, Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell, and Corey Feldman, all who feel authentic and relatable as their characters.  In addition, director Rob Reiner, on only his second ever feature, delivers a beautiful looking canvas for this road trip tale, substituting rural Oregon for the Maine of King’s original story.  It is strangely the only film based on Stephen King’s work that you could call “family-friendly,” and indeed, it’s what initially introduced me to Stephen King as kid, even though I wasn’t aware of who King was at that point and what he was know for.  Stand by Me is an evergreen classic story that still holds up over thirty years later, and should still be shared with many more generations to come.

5.

IT (2017) and IT CHAPTER TWO (2019)

Directed by Andy Muschetti

There’s no doubt that if there was any novel in Stephen King’s body of work that would define him as an author, it would be his Bible length classic IT (1986).  First adapted into a 1990 TV mini-series, the book would end up receiving a big screen treatment spread across two parts in recent years, and it led to record breaking box office.  King’s lengthy novel is noteworthy for one thing in particular, and that’s the demon clown Pennywise, who is perhaps the most famous of all of King’s monstrous creations.  He was first brought to life memorably by Tim Curry in the TV mini-series, but Bill Skarsgard’s portrayal is still pretty effective as well.  There’s no doubt that the main attraction in these movie is Pennywise, and director Andy Muschetti does not hold back in making every moment with the demon clown terrifying.  But what really makes the movies stand out is the way it portrays the other main characters in the story, known as “The Losers Club.”  Breaking away from the non-linear format of King’s novel, the two parts of IT wisely focuses each movie on different time periods when the Losers Club encounters Pennywise.  The first shows them in their formative childhood years, while the second takes them to the present where they are all adults.  It helps to make each film stand on it’s own, while at the same time cohesively working together as a full narrative.  The casting for the Losers club, both young and old, is also outstanding, making the connection between these characters across the years feel even more authentic.  Even still, director Muschetti knows he’s working with one of King’s most iconic work, and a great deal of effort was put into making it as expansive and epic as the book itself.  I actually prefer the more tonally consistent second part, but both together certainly stand as one of the most impressive cinematic adaptations of Stephen King’s work.

4.

CARRIE (1976)

Directed by Brian de Palma

Of course we can’t talk about Stephen King’s impact on the silver screen without spotlighting the movie that introduced him there in the first place.  Carrie was King’s first ever published novel, released in 1974, and it quickly put him on the map in the literary world.  Naturally, Hollywood took notice and Carrie was quickly picked up by United Artists and handed over to Brian de Palma for adaptation.  Though King wasn’t involved in the filmmaking process, he was nevertheless approving of De Palma’s approach to the story, as it is pretty close to King’s writing.  It doesn’t use the epistolary nature of the novel, but it does retain the point of view of it’s title character, the psychic powered teenager Carrie.  For the most part, De Palma holds back on his flashy style until the very end, when it’s used to spectacular effect.  Perhaps most memorably, he made use of split screen to show Carrie unleashing her powers with a glance to the doors as they close shut.  At that point we see the movie move from a troubling psychological thriller, where the tortured Carrie deals with bullying from school and punishment from her religious zealot mom (played memorably by Piper Laurie), changes dramatically into a terrifying horror show as Carrie finally snaps and lets the monster within out.  A large part of the movie’s success certainly goes to Sissy Spacek, who became an instant star thanks to her performance as Carrie.  Though her more vulnerable moments throughout the movie really show off Sissy’s talents as a actress, it’s that dead eye stare at the film’s fiery climax that really cements her as a horror movie icon.  Though it marked the beginning of a long legacy for Stephen King as a presence in cinema the movie still stands out as a classic and still has the power to fright so many years later.  To this day, it’s finale jump scare, with the hand reaching out of a grave, still has the power to leave movie-goers spooked out of their wits.

3.

MISERY (1990)

Directed by Rob Reiner

Though Rob Reiner managed to successfully bring one of Stephen King’s more upbeat and life-affirming stories to the big screen a few shot years before with Stand by Me, he was also not afraid of tackling something far more dark from the mind of the author.  Misery almost feels like a window into Stephen King’s own personal fears.  And what appears to frighten Stephen King is being trapped all by yourself by a rabid fan of your work.  That’s the situation that he puts romance novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) in when a car accident leaves Paul stranded in the middle of nowhere and left in the care of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who takes her fandom of Paul’s novels to the extreme.  Though James Caan is excellent in his role, the movie definitely belongs to Kathy Bates, whose performance was so strong in the movie that it launched her to a very well deserved Oscar win.  Her performance really is an incredible tour de force of character construction.  She manages to balance the wild mood swings of Annie Wilkes, with her sweet matronly tone giving way to manic paranoia merely moments apart, and never once makes it feel unnatural or out of character.  I think that’s what makes Annie Wilkes such a terrifying villain; the fact that you don’t know exactly which side of her you’re going to face at any moment.  Bates’ performance honestly is probably the best one ever seen in a Stephen King movie, and she has the gold to back that up.  And a lot of credit goes to Reiner for not holding anything back either.  This movie is as dark as anything else we’ve seen from a King movie, and the hobbling scene in particular still stands as one of the most horrifying ever put on screen.  We now know what scares the master of horror, and with a character as vividly brought to life as Annie Wilkes, she becomes our terror as well.

2.

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)

Directed by Frank Darabont

Frank Darabont has in total made 3 movies based on the works of Stephen King, including The Mist and The Green Mile.  But there is no doubt that his greatest King adaptation is The Shawshank Redemption.  Based on the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (1982), Shawshank is the film adaptation that feels the least like anything we know to expect from Stephen King.  It’s not supernatural, it’s not a psychological thriller.  It’s about inmates in a prison trying to hold onto their humanity behind bars.  And yet, Darabont took Stephen King’s short story and crafted it into not just a faithful adaptation, but into a film that nowadays is considered to be among the best of all time.  No doubt it is helped by the collaborative efforts of some of the greatest technical artists of their generation behind the scenes, like the masterful cinematography from Roger Deakins or the haunting musical score by Thomas Newman.  And then of course, the unforgettable performances of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, whose courses in life are forever altered by their connection made in prison.  While most of the movie is a melancholy examination of the way that imprisonment breaks down the humanity of those it keeps behind bars, and shows the unfathomable cruelty of those left in charge of all those souls, it surprisingly ends on a positive note, with Robbin’s Andy Dufresne outsmarting the system and escaping the prison that had stolen his life.  The way it plays out is enough is so pleasing, with the discovery of the tunnel behind a poster, to Dufresne’s triumphant escape in the pouring rain.  It is cinematically exhilarating, and strangely out of character for the normally downbeat Stephen King.  But, it’s that conquering the darkness of ordinary evil in our society that has made the movie so enduring and lifted it to become a classic for all time.

1.

THE SHINING (1980)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Was there any doubt this would be here.  Naturally, to find the greatest cinematic adaptation of a Stephen King novel, look no further than the one made by one of the greatest movie directors of all time.  Interestingly enough, one of the most vocal critics of this acknowledgement would be Stephen King himself.  King has been adamant over the years about his displeasure over Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, at times even stating that he outright hated it.  His tone regarding the movie has softened over time, stating that he does respect what Kubrick did as a filmmaker, while still objecting to the changes that he made.  But, even if you agree with King’s assessment, there is no denying that The Shining is one of the most terrifying and artfully crafted horror movies ever made.  Sure, Kubrick did change a lot of what King wrote, but the essentials are still there, and what Kubrick added are brilliant in their own right.  There still is nothing more terrifying today than seeing those creepy twin girls appear at the end of a hallway, and that’s just one of the many terrors in the movie.  What is especially effective about the movie is the fact that Kubrick disobeys one of the fundamental rules of horror filmmaking and has most of the movie brightly lit.  Usually horror movies allow shadows to hide most of the terror in the dark, but when there are no shadows anywhere to be seen in a bright hallway, it makes all the more terrifying when something scary does appear.  Jack Nicholson of course is brilliant in his unhinged performance, and Kubrick infuses every frame with a sense of inevitable dread.  Not to be forgotten, Stephen King’s original novel is still a brilliant piece of horror itself.  Kubrick made the movie he wanted to make, and though it is different in many ways, it is no less terrifying.  They are both iconic pieces of art and stand out as the best that their genre has to offer.  King’s novel is great, but Kubrick’s film is arguably more terrifying, and that says a lot.

In a career spanning 50 years, it’s amazing that we still haven’t reached the end of Stephen King’s complete body of work.  The man is a tireless writing machine that keeps churning out new stories almost at the rate of one a year, which is astounding.  Of course, his bread and butter is the horror genre, but he certainly has left his mark on other genres as well.  It’s interesting that throughout as long of a career as he has had that his novels have inspired film adaptations from some of the greatest filmmakers who have ever been in the business.  He can boast having icons such as George A. Romero, John Carpenter, Brian de Palma, David Cronenberg, and Stanley Kubrick behind the movies based on his books.  He can also boast having the highest grossing horror movie of all time be based his novel, IT.  But, even with all that success, it doesn’t distract away from his ability to keep on writing.  He is able to churn out new original novels faster than any other writer of his generation, and though he often does rely upon repeating tropes (alcoholism, religious persecution, the state of Maine) he still manages to give each story a sense of uniqueness.  Amazingly, even after nearly 40 years of movie and TV adaptations, there are still countless other Stephen King works that have yet to be adapted.  We are likely to be seeing plenty more films and shows based on King’s novels in the years to come, and with King still writing today, the well will not be going dry any time soon.  So, for a good time this Halloween, find yourself a good horror film from the countless ones based on King’s books, or find a copy of one of his widely published novels and start reading from the man’s own words.  Stephen King is an icon perfectly suited for this time of year, and the movies I spotlighted above certainly show how much his imagination has meant to the art of cinema, especially in the realm of terror.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – Review

Jak sie masz?  His name is Borat.  Fourteen years ago, movie goers were introduced to this grey-suit wearing, moustache ornamented journalist from glorious nation of Kazakhstan.  Unbeknownst to many, Borat Sagdiyev’s big screen debut would not only find an audience in both America and across the world, but it would become a phenomenal hit as well.  And perhaps the most surprised of all with regards to Borat’s success was the creator of this oddball character; Sasha Baron Cohen.  Borat had been a fixture on Cohen’s hit comedy series Da Ali G Show, which featured Cohen’s unique brand of prank comedy where he would portray different characters and interview unsuspecting people in order to catch them in an ridiculously uncomfortable moment.  Of those characters, they included titular Ali G, fashion critic Bruno, and of course Borat.  The success of the show led to Cohen getting the chance to bring his characters to the big screen.  He started with the pretty straight-forward comedy Ali G: Indahouse (2002), but when it came time for a follow-up, Cohen decided to go in a different direction.  Deciding to center his next film on the character Borat, Sasha Baron Cohen opted for a documentary style similar to what he had used on the show, with himself staying in character while speaking to various different people and drawing the comedy from their reactions to his outlandish behavior.  In the movie, Borat’s mission is to document “cultural learnings” of America for his country’s educational “benefit,” and along the way, he becomes enraptured by the country, especially when he discovers a beautiful blonde on TV named Pamela Anderson.  Thus Borat leapt off of the small screen and became a movie star, and how.  The movie was a monster box office hit, and suddenly it became impossible to escape for a while, becoming one of the most heavily quotable movies at the time.  There’s only one problem though when your movie becomes that big of a success; where do you go next?

Sasha Baron Cohen’s career post Borat (2006) has been in many ways an experiment in answering that question.  The movie did give him valuable exposure that helped to land him in some prestigious movies from big time directors, like Tim Burton’s Sweeny Todd (2007), Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and more recently Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020).  However, his own projects have yet to reach that mighty Borat high bar that he set for himself.  A film adaptation of the character Bruno (2009) came and went and was not as well received; often described as being too close in style to Borat.  In the 2010’s, he tried his hand at creating new characters, and ditching the documentary style of Borat and Bruno.  This resulted in the movies The Dictator (2012) and The Brother’s Grimsby (2016), both of which also failed to ignite the same way that Borat had.  It seemed like Cohen’s magic touch was short lived and that he would not be able to make lightning strike twice.  In a way, he became a victim of his own success.  Because he made Borat such a popular character around the world, he likewise made it impossible to repeat the same conditions that made Borat work in the first place.  Borat became too well known, and now it was harder to prank people, because once they saw him in his Borat character, people would be aware that they were about to be pranked on film.  So, it became quite a surprise to many that new broke this year that not only was Sasha Baron Cohen going to be returning to the character once again, but that he had secretly managed to film a new movie and have it ready to premiere on Amazon Prime before Election Day.  This was a shocking revelation to find out, but in a way it’s within Cohen’s character to stealthily surprise the world with a Borat sequel in a time when we weren’t expecting to have one.  The only question is, did Sasha Baron Cohen manage to make lightning strike twice, or was he better off leaving Borat one and done.

The fully titled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020) brings Borat up to present day.  The international success of Borat’s first movie has put him at odds with his home country’s government, who believe that he shamed them by making Kazakhstan look so backwards to the world.  For this, Borat has been imprisoned and force to work in a gulag for fourteen years.  However, he is brought back to the capitol city to participate in a new mission.  The Premier of Kazakhstan orders Borat to deliver a peace offering to President Trump, care of his Vice President Mike Pence.  That peace offering is the head of Kazakhstan’s cultural ministry and #1 porno star in all the country, Johnny the Monkey.  Tasked with this mission, Borat leaves Kazakhstan for a return trip to America.  The only problem is, once he arrives there, he is instantly recognized by fans of his previous film, so he puts on disguises to hide his identity.  He manages to retrieve the crate that was sent from Kazakhstan with Johnny the Monkey inside, but finds an unwelcome surprise instead.  Stowing away in the crate is Borat’s fifteen year old daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova) who wants to follow after her father on his mission.  Her dream is to be like her idol Melania Trump and have her privates grabbed by another fat, rich American who will put her in a golden cage.  After the mishap with the monkey, Borat gets the idea to substitute his daughter as the gift to Mike Pence.  After failing to get his attention at the CPAC conference, Borat then decides to pursue Rudy Giuliani as a possible alternative to getting close to the president.  He decides to help get his daughter a make-over, but while she is by herself, she begins to see how things are different for women in America, and it breaks down many of the lies that she’s been hearing from her father.  So, a rift between Borat and Tutar erupts, which endangers his mission, of which Borat could be executed for if he fails.

So, very much like the original Borat, there is a thinly laid bit of plot connecting all the different sketches together.  For the original movie, it was Borat’s pursuit of finding Pamela Anderson and bringing her back home with him to become his wife.  In Subsequent Moviefilm, the focus changes to Borat as a father figure, which is refreshingly different, as it does add a new layer to the character.  But, after over a decade of trying to reach the heights of the first movie and failing, did Sasha Baron Cohen manage to justify making a sequel to his greatest hit.  On the whole, I would say that he fell short once again, but it’s definitely one hell of a try though.  In many ways, making a sequel to Borat that hit exactly the same way was an almost impossible errand.  Once you do it once, the novelty is gone.  Indeed, the character is too recognizable to ever pull a fast one on anyone the same way ever again.  And yet, I have to commend Cohen’s attempt at trying.  Without a doubt, this is far and away the best film Sasha Baron Cohen has made based on his own original characters since Borat.  The movie balances the story and the outrageous humor much better here than say The Brothers Grimsby, which was just gross out humor with none of the fun attached.  There are fewer pranks that land with the same level of hilarity in Subsequent Moviefilm nor with the same regularity, but the ones that do land are right up there with those from the original.  I think that Cohen knew that he was going to have to put more effort into those big moments to make them work, and that meant filling up the rest of the run time with only minor laughs.  Another problem with the movie is that the shock factor of the original movie no longer exists fourteen years later.  It’s a sad consequence of the Trump Era in American Politics, where hearing public figures say horribly racist things has just become so normalized and no longer shocking.

But there is one thing for sure; a whole lot of skill had to go into making the film’s most shocking moments work.  What will undoubtedly become the most talked about moment in the movie is the encounter with Rudy Giuliani that serves as the film’s climax.  I’m not giving anything away here, as the story has already broken into the headlines and now even people who haven’t seen the movie have become aware of it.  But, I will say the way that the moment happens in the movie must have required an unprecedented amount of secrecy, coordination, and just flat out luck to happen the way it does in the movie.  And the fact that it still works it’s way perfectly into the narrative thread of the movie is really quite an impressive feat.  That in a way helps the movie come very close to reaching the heights of it’s predecessor.  Cohen is a master of manipulation and the fact that he can still coax public figures like Giuliani into a compromising situation like he does here is just as impressive today as it was in 2006.  In many ways, it’s even more impressive, because he had to pull a prank of this level off in a world that is fully aware of who Borat is.  There are similarly impressive pranks pulled throughout the movie, and though most of them don’t rise up to the level of the Giuliani encounter in terms of sheer boldness, they are nevertheless hilariously realized.  These include a visit to a debutante ball in Georgia, the interruption of Mike Pence’s speech at the CPAC conference, and of course the infamous trolling of a Far Right rally in Olympia, Washington that made the headlines a few weeks ago.  What’s even more impressive though is that he crafted most of this movie over the last year, in the middle of a pandemic.  And the introduction of COVID-19 into the movie doesn’t even detract from the main story, and in fact adds to it; especially at the end in one of the most hilarious final codas I’ve seen in a movie in a long time.

There is one thing, however, that I think people are going to be praising for a long time from this movie, and that’s the performance of Maria Bakalova as Tutar Sagdiyev.  Maria has been active in her native Bulgarian film scene for several years, but she was won the role of Tutar out of hundreds of actresses who auditioned, and she is quite the revelation.  Surprisingly, her background is not in comedy,  and yet she not only manages to go toe to toe with Sasha Baron Cohen in this movie, she even outshines him.  Much of the movie hinges around the believability of the father daughter relationship between Borat and Tutar, as dysfunctional as it is, and Maria Bakalova is 100% committed in this role.  Often, the movie even deviates away from Borat as the central focus, and features Tutar being the one making the unsuspecting marks uncomfortable in a scene.  Indeed, as a performer, she was in the thick of it as much as Cohen was, including some of those highly dangerous situations.  The fact that she manages to pull through all of it without breaking character shows that she is indeed just as much a master of this deception as Cohen.  And given that Sasha Baron Cohen’s objective is to create the same level of shocking results that he did from the last film, well it helps to have someone who can stealthily pull it off without being recognized.  A lot of what make the movie works is all because of her, and how well her chemistry with Sasha Baron Cohen lifts the movie.  To be fair, Cohen is at his best here too, showing that he hasn’t lost the ability to play the character so many years later.  I am definitely interested in seeing where Maria Bakalova goes from here.  Is she going to use this as a springboard for an mainstream international movie career, or will she follow Cohen’s lead and launch her own off shoot of gotcha comedy, since she clearly demonstrated how good she is at it.  Whatever happens, she has definitely left an impression and managed to steal the spotlight from her more famous co-star.  I have no doubt that what we see in this movie is the makings of a future star.

In addition to the great work of the actors, the movie benefits from it’s tightly knit story.  Sure, the novelty of the first movie is worn out, and there is not much more that can be explored with Borat as a character.  He is a lovable oaf with a very backwards, dark ages view of the world, and he primarily is the same here as well.  But, the father and daughter relationship angle is a great substitution for centering a sequel around.  And as I said before, it is impressive how Sasha Baron Cohen has managed to tie it all together in the end and never lose sight of the narrative.  I don’t know how much of it was thought up on the fly, or was designed that way, but it does connect together and that is pretty impressive.  Even working through a pandemic didn’t even throw them off.  I think what helps are the clearly scripted moments of Borat and Tutar that fill in between the big pranks, where we get to watch them build their relationship.  In some ways, this is actually done better than the original, where it was mainly up to Cohen to carry the narrative arc through.  Here, the arc is carried through in the duality of their relationship.  Tutar coming into her own, Borat at first becoming an obstacle and then ultimately finding their common ground.  What is surprising is the fact that so much of the movie manages to blend so well into this narrative.  You have to imagine that in order to get things like the Far Right Wing rally and the Giuliani interview to work as part of the film’s story that the filmmakers had to plan things out perfectly in order for it to go exactly as planned.  I imagine that there is a lot of unused footage out there of multiple pranks that didn’t go as planned.  If you look at the raw footage captured of the Washington rally itself, you’ll see that there was a lot of that event that didn’t make it into the final film, and most of it is even crazier than what did make it in.  These kinds of movies are extremely difficult to pull of, and the remarkable thing is that Sasha Baron Cohen not only managed to do it again, but he did so with a surprisingly cohesive story at it’s center.

So, in the end, the movie is not quite at the level that the original managed to pull off, but it was still a commendable try.  Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has moments in it that certainly rise to the same level of hilarity that the original movie managed to hit, even if the frequency is a bit lagging.  For one thing, the inclusion of Borat’s daughter Tutar really lifts this movie up, and Maria Bakalova is a real discovery that should be taken seriously in Hollywood.  I certainly would say that it may fall short of the original, but Subsequent Moviefilm works quite well as a companion piece.  It certainly confirms that Sasha Baron Cohen still has a few tricks up his sleeve, and can even bring surprising new layers to a character like Borat, even after the novelty has long worn off.  If anything, the movie is just a fun romp, with plenty of great laugh out loud moments that are among the best that we have seen from Cohen.  I don’t know if he’ll bring Borat back in another film; I almost feel that any more would be overkill.  This movie gives us just enough to not spoil the fun that can still be had with the character.  In a way, this moment in our history really called for a return of the character, as the United States has become a far more dysfunctional nation.  Sure, the movie does feel like a retread at times, but the essence of what made Borat such a likable character in the first place is still there.  Underneath the vulgarity and the bigotry is a charming curiosity from a simple man who wants to embrace new things.  And the addition of a daughter to the storyline helps to give this movie a surprising amount of heart as well.  So, if you loved the original, you’ll likely find this one a lot of fun too.  Borat may no longer be an original who is going to take the world by storm, but seeing him again in a new adventure is still a welcome surprise in this tumultuous year.  If you are an Amazon Prime subscriber, I’d say you owe it to yourself to at least check it out.  It’s a gift to make benefit our glorious nation.  Dziekuje!

Rating: 7.5/10

Collecting Criterion – Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

There’s something inherently spooky about silent cinema.  Perhaps it’s the lack of sound itself that becomes so jarring, or the limitations of the technology of the day leading to many films of that period looking so high contrast in it’s mix of light and dark.  But regardless of the content of the movie itself, we look back at silent cinema with this detachment that makes movies of that era take on this almost ghostly character.  Even the light-hearted films feel like lost relics that are so separated from what we know about movies today.  And I think that this is why the horror movies of this particular period have retained their macabre appeal for so long.  The horror films of the silent era are still to this day some of the most disturbing and viscerally chilling movies ever made, and they have not lost any of their potency after nearly a century.  These movies in particular seemed to be even heightened by the limitations of their time, as the lack of dialogue and sound adds to the chilling atmosphere and the high contrast photography allows gives the darker shadows a whole lot more menace to them.  A major influence of the silent era was also the embrace of German Expressionism.  Led by many Weimer Era cinematic pioneers like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, the expressionist movement utilized new techniques like impressionistic set design, trick photography, as well as the latest advances in visual effects.  You can see these utilized brilliantly in iconic horror movies out of Weimer German Cinema like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and most vividly in Murnau’s still chilling Nosferatu (1922).  Many of these films, even 100 years later, still have the power to create unease in modern day viewers, and some of that may be due to the detachment that comes with their old age but it’s also due to the incredible artistry of the filmmakers who knew exactly what it would take to frighten their audience.  But, it wasn’t only German filmmakers who had mastered that skill, as a few auteurs from neighboring Denmark would also demonstrate in these early years of horror cinema.

Danish cinema has it’s own incredible early past, one which has been spotlighted by the likes of pioneers such as Carl Theodor Dreyer and Benjamin Christensen.  Though sharing a lot of similarities with German Cinema at the time, Danish cinema carved out a name for itself through a strong emphasis on performance.  You can see a heavy influence of the Danes on cinematic acting, as it was far more reserved and natural than what we were seeing from the far more operatic performances we were seeing from the cultural hubs of Hollywood and Berlin.  The Dreyer film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in particular is seen as a masterclass of silent film acting, with incredibly poignant and subtle performances that transcend even without the aid of dialogue.  Of course, Danish cinema had a heavy influence on Horror as well, with just as much a sense for the macabre as their German counterparts.  Though Car Theodor Dreyer had delved into the horror genre as well with his film Vampyr (1932), it was his fellow Dane, Benjamin Christiansen, who would leave a far more lasting mark on the genre as a whole.  A medical student turned filmmaker, Christiansen approached the horror genre from a rather unexpected angle.  He was less interested in treating audiences to a story but rather wanted to use the medium of film to inform.  This would be the case with what is considered his masterpiece, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), which is part documentary, part historical recreation.  Though, as viewers will note, his film is set up as a lecture about the history of witchcraft lore and it’s influence on hysteria throughout culture, Christiansen as a filmmaker still manages to let his creative mind run wild and as a result we get some of the most vividly arresting scenes of macabre imagery that’s ever graced the screen.  And it’s heavily influential visuals is what garnered the attention of the Criterion Collection, who have given it an honored place within their library (Spine #134); and also making it one of the oldest films in the Collection too.

Haxan of course is the Danish translation for Witch, which of course is the primary subject of what is essentially Benjamin Christiansen’s scholarly lecture on the connections between people accused of practicing witchcraft in the Middle Ages and the women suffering through hysteria as a medical condition in his time.  Presented in seven parts, Christiansen breaks down the history and folklore of Witchcraft as it’s been understood throughout Europe.  In the first part, he uses artwork to demonstrate how artists in the Middle Ages documented the practices of Witchcraft and how it was responded to by Inquisitions by the Church.  After the early cinematic equivalent of a Power Point presentation, the second part begins with portrayals of what witches in the Middle Ages might have been like, often old crones granting spells and remedies to their neighbors, including love potions.  He also shows how people working in the art of science often would be falsely branded as witches in this time.  In the next three segments, Christiansen delivers the most narrative driven section of the film, showing how hysteria and suspicion about Witchcraft often leads to a disastrous outcome.  After their father grows mysteriously ill, two wealthy maidens suspect that it was an old crone named Maria the Weaver (Emmy Schonfeld) cast a spell on him, and they turn her over to the local Monks who run the Inquisition on Witchcraft.  After subjecting Maria to torture, they wring a confession out of her, where Maria names other witches of her village and describes for them an event known as the Witches Sabbath.  Without much proof other than Maria’s own confession, the Inquisition begins rounding up women all across town, including the maidens who accused her in the first place, and we see many lives destroyed very quickly out of a case of rampant suspicion and out of control authoritarianism by the Church.  The last two segments focus on the connection between belief in the power of Witchcraft, and the malady of hysteria that is observed as a medical condition in present time.  Christiansen uses these segments to demystify the stigma of mental illness and show that people suffering these conditions have no connection with the supernatural but instead are in need of the right kind of care that’s grounded in science, or at least the science that was understood then.

Someone going into Haxan for the first time expecting it to be a wall to wall fright fest may be underwhelmed by Benjamin Christiansen’s more scholarly presentation here, as the movie is a documentary first and foremost.  But, once Christiansen does begin to delve more into the more imaginative side of what he can do with the medium of film, he really lets loose.  There is a lot of creepy imagery throughout the movie that has long been influential on the horror genre.  In particular, his portrayal of the Witches Sabbath is a particular stand-out, and one that is shockingly provocative even to this day.  Christensen utilizes ever cinematic trick in the book, including playing around with camera speeds, reversing footage, and even stop-motion animation to create unsettling moments of witchcraft that looks like it came straight from the Devil.  And speaking of the Devil, Satan himself makes quite a few shocking appearances throughout the movie, played by non other than Benjamin Christiansen himself in a grotesque, tongue-lashing performance.  Though the movie’s more grounded historical re-creations have their own interesting moments, it’s the movie’s disturbing depictions of satanic and the macabre that really makes the film memorable.  I’m still shocked that they managed to get away with as much as they did in this movie given that this movie is almost a century old.  You see characters kissing the ass of the Devil, stomping and walking over a cross on the ground, and even cooking human beings in a pot, including a baby.  The movie does not shy away from things that’ll shock most viewers, even in it’s more scholarly parts.  A segment of the movie even delves into the torture devices used on the accused during the middle ages.  He even demonstrates one (the Thumb Screw) on one of his poor actresses in the movie.  The film says that the demonstration was consensually granted and that the actress was not seriously harmed, but we’re just going to have to take Christiansen’s word for it.

Despite the shocking nature of some of the film’s content, Christiansen never once suggests any anti-religious stance.  His main argument is against the misuse of authority and the dangers of hysteria that’s not backed up by reason and science.  Though Christiansen intended to give a scholarly account with his film, I don’t think he would have ever anticipated the long lasting impact his wildly imaginative depiction of witches and satanic practices would have on the culture beyond the film.  I’m sure that quite a few heavy metal bands have borrowed their aesthetic from the imagery of Haxan, both in album cover art as well in their general live presentation.  There are other surprising areas in which Haxan became a major influence.  The scene where the witches fly on their broomsticks as ghostly white figures across a dark nighttime sky to their Witches Sabbath was a direct inspiration for a similar image used in the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence of Disney’s Fantasia (1940).  More than anything, Haxan would prove influential as a catalyst for pushing the boundaries of taste through the genre of horror.  It shocked audiences in ways that few other films of that period would, and in turn it allowed the horror genre to flourish outside the confines of acceptable standards of violence, gore, and even sex in cinema.  Like all the best horror films, it is a movie that challenges it’s audience to test their character while watching the film, and see what they themselves recognize as over-the-line.  It may not be shocking as what we see today, but Haxan was a very scandalous movie for it’s time, and often was subjected to censorship, especially after the outbreak of Fascism in Europe, which cracked down hard on movies with the kinds of suggestive themes that Haxan presented.  Despite this, Haxan survived through the years and continues to find an audience so many years later.  Subsequent re-releases have returned much of the film back to it’s original cut, and some have featured new soundtracks from metal bands that claim the movie as an influence.  Despite it’s age, and it’s original intent as an examination of mental illness, Haxan remains as beloved in horror and counterculture circles as it has ever been.

Naturally, the Criterion Collection devotes just as much attention to classics of the horror variety as any other within it’s library.  The challenge with something like Haxan is the sheer delicate nature of it’s original film elements.  Subsequent restorations over the years have given Criterion a good starting point to work with, but restoring them into a new digital master requires a great deal of expertise, because you’re essentially cleaning up a patchwork quilt of a movie.  Because the original camera negative has been lost to history, the restoration team has to work with the best possible surviving elements to restore a complete film, and those elements may be in varying states of condition.  Thankfully, the majority of Haxan has survived censorship edits and massive deterioration over time, so Criterion can preserve a version of the movie that does match Benjamin Christiansen’s original vision.  The difficult task of the restoration involves taking all the elements together, cleaning them up to the same level, and then trying to make every element look like a complete whole with the same quality of picture from beginning to end.  In this regard, Criterion has done a masterful job, as the movie is consistently strong in it’s entire presentation.  It indeed is amazing how much clarity they managed to get out of the picture, considering that the movie is 98 years old.  On the blu-ray, it is given a 2K transfer, which really spotlights the amazing detail of the film.  If anything, the transfer is almost too good, because those high contrast shadows that were so spooky before don’t hide as many details as they used to.  The soundtrack is recorded from a surround sound recording by the Czech Film Orchestra back in 2001 for Haxan’s then DVD release, based on the original 1922 playlist, which includes recognizable tunes from Richard Wagner and Camile Saint-Saens.  This too has been given digital fine tuning, and sounds fantastic on any sound system.

The line-up of extras also gives the set a nice compliment to the movie for all of us Criterion collectors.  First off is an audio commentary track from film scholar Casper Tybjerg.  An expert in Danish cinema, and in particular the works of the silent period, Tybjerg gives a nice overview of the film’s history, as well as it’s cultural impact, the many different themes discussed and some insight into Benjamin Christiansen as a filmmaker.  The blu-ray also features a film introduction made by Christiansen himself as an introduction for the film’s 1941 rerelease, which helps to give the director’s own take on the movie from his own words.  Perhaps the most substantial bonus feature here is a 76 minute version of the movie that was recut and given recorded narration back in 1968.  This shortened version basically takes all the title cards out and replaces them with a voice over done by beat generation author William S. Burroughs, accompanied by a minimalist soundtrack by violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.  It’s an interesting artifact of it’s time on it’s own, and shows the appeal the movie had on the counterculture generation, who were a very important factor in helping to revitalize the film’s popularity.  Another remarkable inclusion on this set are some outtakes from the film.  Discovered during the many restorations of the movie over the years, Danish archivists have managed to collect several short clips that Christiansen left out of the finished film.  They are mostly either extensions of existing scenes, or an unused moment that carries little significance, but it is interesting to see here on the Criterion set, especially knowing how old this long unseen footage is and what it took for it to survive all these years.  Finally, there is an extended look at the historical sources that Christiansen cites within the movie, titled Bibliotheque diabolique.  In this, we get further information on all the different artwork that Christiansen showcases in the movie, and how much of it actually reflects the true history of Witchcraft during the Middle Ages.  It’s another solid collection of bonuses that you come to expect from Criterion, and it helps to flesh out even more the significance of Haxan as an iconic piece of horror and cinema in general.

Indeed, when you watch Haxan today, you can see the beginnings of so many other horror conventions that persist today.  Perhaps it’s greatest influence is the fearlessness that it displays in not shying away from the more grisly details of it’s subject matter.  Though not a horror film in the traditional sense, it’s imprint on the genre is nevertheless apparent.  It’s interesting that despite making such a profound impact on cinema early on, Benjamin Christiansen’s career in film was so short lived.  He would continue making movies for a few years more, moving to Berlin first and later making it out to Hollywood thereafter, mostly making gothic horror in the same vein as Haxan.  But none of his later work would carry the same boldness as Haxan, and eventually he began to stray away from making movies, all but giving it up during the war years, and he eventually retired to his native Denmark where he operated a movie theater during the last years of his life, in relative obscurity.  Despite his retreating from the limelight, Christiansen is to this day celebrated as one of the greatest Danish filmmakers of all time, spoken in the same breath even as his more prolific contemporary, Carl Theodor Dreyer.  And I think that has a lot to do with just how celebrated Haxan is in both Denmark and worldwide.  It is a movie that genuinely creates a feeling of terror that few films have managed to do, and it’s definitely a movie that has given the silent movie era it’s eerie quality.  It’s especially nice to see Criterion spotlight this film in it’s catalogue, which helps to bring more attention to it for a whole new generation.  I’m interested in knowing how young audiences will respond to a movie like this; as they will see many of the familiar tropes of the horror genre found today used first in this remarkably resilient film.  I would also like to see just how much of the film still manages to shock.  The most surprising thing to modern audiences when they see Haxan will probably be just the boldness to which it addresses it’s themes.  It is definitely not a movie that conforms to to the standards of it’s time, but rather pushes the boundaries of taste in a way that purposefully is meant to haunt us for long after we’ve seen it.  And for a movie that still survives in tact almost 100 years later, it’s amazing how much it still has the power to bewitch us.

Criterion Store: Haxan (1922)

Cinematic Graveyard – Are These the Last Days of Theatrical Cinema?

It is amazing how quickly things can fall apart.  Last year, 2019, we were seeing international and domestic box office hitting record levels, led by the likes of Marvel, Star Wars, and other top tier franchises.  And entering the beginning part of this year, we were also seeing surprisingly strong numbers for January and February.  It may have been forgotten in all the mayhem, but we saw the originally predicted failure of the Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) movie actually turn into a modest hit, grossing over $100 million domestic.  But, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country hard in March of this year, leading to a nationwide shutdown of all non-essential businesses, which of course included movie theaters.  Suddenly, a major industry that has continually operated for a century without disruption suddenly has found itself unable to operate due to the mandated health guidelines of the country.  The major movie studios have likewise been blindsided by the effects of the pandemic, but they also had the benefit of other options to deliver their product to their audiences.  Movie theaters don’t have that same luxury.  They must be able to operate in order to survive as a business.  Since the pandemic has started, the vacancy of movie theaters has caused the industry to burn through much of their yearly finances just to pay the building costs alone.  AMC, the largest chain in America, is pretty much on life support right now as their credit rating has dropped them into junk bond territory with default and bankruptcy imminent.  Though theaters have reopened in some parts of the country, the health regulations have also made it impossible for any theater to fully return to pre-pandemic levels, and that has led many Hollywood studios to opt out of premiering any new movies right now, in fear of another shutdown due to another wave of the pandemic or the full closure of the theatrical industry in general.  Which has led many to believe if 2020 may have spelled the end of the theatrical industry as a whole, and it’s making many others to speculate how and if movie theaters can ever recover, and if it’s even worth saving.

Like I mentioned before, such a thought would not have even occurred to any of us just a year ago.  Last year at this time, we were seeing the movie Joker breaking all sorts of box office records.  On the surface everything looked good for movie theaters, as people were packing in like sardines to see the big new tentpole films from all the major studios, as well as giving surprisingly strong box office to smaller movies, like the eventual Oscar-winning Parasite (2019).  But, as the pandemic has shown us, what looked like a stable industry proved to be anything but.  The biggest chains were certainly hard hit by the pandemic, but the ones hit even worse were the small, independent theaters.  These are the ones that serve small communities, or offer alternative art house fare to their local audience, and shutting down business has proved to be devastating to them.  It is estimated that without financial help that 60-70% of these small theaters could disappear forever, leaving many film goers without a venue to see a broader spectrum of cinema available out there.  There’s something about that void that even the likes of Netflix can’t fill.  That’s why so many notable people within the film industry have campaigned for congress to include pandemic relief for all the ailing theaters out there, and it’s one of the few things out there that genuinely has bi-partisan support across the industry and culture.  One hopes that congress will consider such a bailout, but given the up and down nature of the election this Fall, it’s uncertain what might happen.  And living with all that uncertainty is what is driving the current gloomy outlook on the theatrical industry as a whole.  Every week now, we are receiving news of yet another major tentpole film either uprooting from it’s release date to move to another, sometimes delaying a full year, or just bypassing theaters all together in favor of streaming.  And the end of the tunnel is still not within sight.

Though it’s easy to shift the blame over to the government and how they responded to the pandemic, but the state of the theatrical industry also falls on the failures of the theater chains themselves for not being able to manage such a long term crisis like this.  Like I pointed out before, AMC is in the most precarious position of the big chains, because of the overwhelming amount of debt that they’ve procured just to stay afloat.  Earlier this year, they proclaimed that they had secured funding that could see them through the worst of the pandemic and help them return to business as normal.  This assertion was made back at the beginning of the Summer, with the belief that theaters would be reopen across the country by the Fall and that all the Quarter Four films would still meet their intended release dates.  Looking at the state of things right now, movie theaters (including AMC locations) have indeed reopened in many parts of the country, but the biggest markets, which account for nearly half of all box office, are still closed.  And still having nearly half of the box office out of reach has led many studios to opt out of screening their movies this year, seeing that the pandemic is still making it too risky to return to business as normal.  With this being the case, AMC’s once rosy outlook has turned pretty sour, and it led to their eventual downgrade at the stock market.  Now they’ve boxed themselves into a no win situation.  Closing the theaters once again would significantly weaken their business even more, and yet staying open is causing them to burn through much of that economic lifeline that they needed to survive.  But, it was AMC’s own hubris that also contributed to this situation.  In order to become the industry leader, the company had been taking on massive amounts of debt pre-pandemic in order to fuel their massive expansion.  Before the shutdown, Leawood, Kansas based AMC could boast that they had a foothold in every major market in America.  But the cost of that expansion was predicated on the company being able to remain profitable year in and year out.  With the shutdown, AMC suddenly found themselves underwater far more than their closest rivals, Regal and Cinemark, and there is no easy rescue for them on the horizon.  Their massive amount of personal debt makes them too risky an investment, which hurts their chances of being saved by a larger corporate buyer.  And what it shows is that part of the dire situation for the movie theaters stems from an industry that was already teetering to begin with.

There is blame to extend to the studios as well.  One of the biggest mistakes made this year in retrospect was Warner Brothers deciding to release Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020) into theaters while the pandemic was still raging.  The Labor Day weekend release of the film was touted as a triumphant return of movie theaters to normal operation after being completely shuttered throughout the Summer.  However, it became apparent very quickly that the box office was anything but normal.  Tenet opened at a meager $6 million on it’s opening weekend, and to this day has only generated about $50 million at the domestic box office.  By comparison, that’s what Christopher Nolan’s last film, Dunkirk (2017) made in it’s opening weekend, and Tenet has only reached that mark after a month and a half.  Suffice to say, the experiment did not work.  Sure, Warners and Nolan have stated that Tenet was intended to have a long, protracted run at the box office, basically a marathon rather than a sprint, but there was a very different consequence to their decision to release the film.  With a major release like Tenet moving forward, the movie theaters across the country re-opened far too soon, making it more difficult to do business in the immediate aftermath.  With Tenet not being able to light up the box office, all the other studios moved their tentpoles off of the schedule, seeing that the time was not right for them to make the same move.  And now, movie theaters are facing the harsh reality that they have nothing big to draw audiences back to the theaters for the rest of the year.  All they have is Tenet, and a bunch of small budget features that maybe bring in a handful of people.  This is what’s hurting movie theaters right now, because they are essentially operating at a loss each week, and it’s at a time that they can’t afford to lose any more money.  By being so insistent that their movie was going to save the theatrical experience, Warner Brothers and Christopher Nolan may have ended up accelerating their downfall.  That’s why we are seeing more and more theaters looking into their future and seeing only the end.

That’s one of the reasons that the second largest chain, Regal, followed it’s UK-based parent company Cineworld in deciding to close all it’s locations once again for the foreseeable future.  The next big tentpole on the calendar is Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) and it’s unknown at the moment of this writing if that may end up being moved as well.  What we are looking at right now is the possibility of a year without any more blockbuster movies.  The movie studios are essentially in a wait and see mode right now, hoping that an eventual vaccine will squash this pandemic soon and make it possible to pack in the theaters once again.  But, it’s also going to depend on if those theaters will still be there in the end.  That’s why there is the push to raise funding for these failing theaters, but we’re also seeing resistance to that as well.  Many people see the end of the theatrical experience as an inevitability, and with streaming dominating the market at the moment, it seems like a lot of people are comfortable with the idea of never having to go out to the movies ever again.  After all, the big chains like AMC have in a way dug their own grave, and the market had been oversaturated with blockbuster movies to begin with, making it impossible for the film industry to ever turn a profit unless they can get more people to fork over more money for expensive tickets.  The mid-market movie theaters roughly never had a chance to compete with the way the market had pushed in the direction that it had.  Only the big chains in the big markets could provide Hollywood with the box office it needed, and that cyclical arrangement just came crashing down over the last year.  In many ways, this year has been something of a reset for the industry.  The people who are going to the movies when they can are watching movies that otherwise would’ve been drowned out by the blockbusters.  We are seeing a re-emergence of the low risk, mini-movie as the lifeline for movie theaters at the moment, and it’s leading the film industry to see more of the value of these kinds of movies as something to procure for the future, after nearly ignoring them over the last decade.

It’s hard to know exactly what will happen once movie theaters are allowed to re-open to pre-pandemic levels.  Are audiences going to return like nothing happened, or is the movie theater industry irreparably damaged?  What might end up happening is a significant reduction of the theater market as a whole.  AMC, Regal, and Cinemark may end up closing many of their locations across the country and selling their leases on the buildings, just to shore up their dwindling assets.  Without a bailout, many of those beloved independent theaters may also be a thing of the past, which would significantly diminish the charm of movie going overall for a lot of people.   The industry will likely endure, but it will be a shell of it’s former self, especially when compared with last year.  And that reflects badly on Hollywood, which needs robust box office to justify the enormous budgets given to their tentpole features.  As we learned from the likewise failed experiment of Mulan (2020) on Disney+, audiences aren’t willing to pay a super high price for Video on Demand either.  As of right now, the movie industry is at a crossroads; do they still move forward with investing in blockbuster films that may not have the ability to generate enough box office to break even, or do they conserve what they have and play it safe until things begin to level out?  Right now, companies like Disney and Warner Brothers are beginning to lay off a significant number of their employees, which indicates that there is going to be some belt-tightening for the next few years.  Like with the theatrical market, this is a crossroads moment for the production side of film as well, as we may witness a sea change in what kinds of movies get made from here on out, and how many get made in the first place.

A lot of what Hollywood does in the near future will be determined by what we do in the present.  A lot of people are understandably apathetic towards the theatrical experience as a whole, but for the many who value the presence of a healthy theatrical industry, we are at a point where it’s up to us to give them the help that they need.  Many small movie theaters are setting up their own funding campaigns in order to draw upon donations from their local communities, and I strongly urge anyone to chip in what they can to help them.  Making our voices heard to congress and the White House is also important, and writing to your local Senator or Representative would be very helpful towards getting movie theaters the much needed bailouts that they need.  There really isn’t a partisan impediment on this particular issue, as movie going really does extend across party lines, and all it really needs is the attention to where it can’t be ignored.  But, most important of all, it matters that we ourselves get involved in saving our cinemas.  What this year has proved is that the activity of going out to the movies was just something that we took for granted; as it would never go away.  And now, we are indeed seeing something that we never thought was possible happen right before our eyes; the potential doomsday for movie theaters in our country.  There is a demand there to save our theaters; just look at the resurgence of the Drive-In Movie Renaissance that has miraculously formed in the absence of four-wall theaters.  But to save the industry from destruction it involves action on our part.  Speak up and give back wherever you can and demand that our movie theaters, big and small, get the help that they need.

As Patty Jenkins, director of the Wonder Woman films said in a recent interview, “Shutting down movie theaters will not be a reversible process.”  Her worries are justified, as there is a real existential crisis going on with the movie and theatrical industry right now.  With things going the way they are right now, with no clear sense of what direction to take, the movie industry may be forever changed, and not for the better.  That’s going to be a tough pill to swallow for an industry that saw such a huge leap forward in the last decade.  Hollywood may not be ready to put itself in a reset mode, but given the likely downturn for many years in the global box office, they’ll have no other choice.  There are some positives on the horizon.  We are getting closer to having an effective vaccine to combat this deadly virus and put a swift end to this pandemic.  And as bad as things are at the box office here in North America, they are actually returning back to normal in Asia and Europe.  China in fact is generating box office openings in the hundreds of millions again, which would’ve been unthinkable a couple of months ago.  What happens here domestically will likely depend on us as an audience.  Are we ready to go back to the movies?  One hopes that the months away from the big screen will drive the demand up even more once there is a big enough movie that demands the big screen experience.  It also depends if the big chains are able to weather these next few months and find the necessary funding to keep their doors open.  So, are movie theaters on their death bed, waiting for the end?   It’s hard to say.  Maybe we are resigned to this being the end, or maybe we’ll do our part and help the industry come roaring back, possibly even stronger, like a Phoenix rising out of the ashes.  For me, I’m hoping for the latter, because I always look forward to a good sequel.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Review

You know the old saying; that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Living through the pandemic year of 2020 is giving us a daily reminder of why it’s important to know our history in order to avoid the pitfalls that have dragged us down before.  The experience of a botched pandemic response is making us look back at the mistakes made during the 1918 pandemic, and how so much of it has fallen in line the same way.  The social unrest related to the misuse of force from law enforcement and the government is also making us look again at a similar time in America when people were having to reckon with the state of our country.  Like today, protests and riots were gripping cities across the country.  The difference was that civil unrest in that time was due to the unpopular Vietnam War.  Though the war was a major catalyst of protest, the decade before had seen a lot of civil unrest due to the fight for justice and equal rights for many the African American community.  The year of 1968 was a particular turning point for America and it’s shifting culture.  Both Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated within months of each other, and the American Left, which had been fighting hard for Civil Rights and an end to the War for years, was now demoralized and splintered, and facing a tough future in an election year.  This led to the infamous Chicago Riot outside the Democratic National Convention, where many of the anti-war protestors clashed with police officers and caused havoc within the city.  These events, along with the over zealous response of Mayor Daley’s police force, were largely observed as what brought victory to President Richard Nixon in that 1968 election, and of course, all the progress that the American Left had hoped to have gotten accomplished out of their protests only ended up leading to a backwards slide in their cause.  And the Nixon administration would in turn break the law within the White House and further engage in Vietnam for many years more.

This pivotal point in the history of American resistance would be most exemplified by the infamous Trial of the Chicago 7.  In what has since been observed as a politically motivated move to make an example of “dangerous” left-wing agitators by the Nixon Administration, seven of the most high profile participants were put on trail in Chicago for what was described as “crossing state-lines to incite a riot” which is a federal offense.  Though the men were found guilty, their imprisonment had the opposite effect, and they became heroes of resistance to a new generation of Anti-Establishment protestors.  The story of the 7 has carried on as a monumental moment of defiance in the face of oppression, and it still inspires people today to speak their minds and fight for what they believe in.  The story has been especially popular to filmmakers in Hollywood, who have tried many times to bring the story of the 7 to the big screen.  Aaron Sorkin wrote his treatment for a dramatization of the the infamous trial shortly after leaving his show, The West Wing, in the mid-2000’s.  For a while, it looked like Steven Spielberg was attached to direct the film, eyeing it as a possible next project after Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and with actor Heath Ledger in a lead role.  However, the writer’s strike of 2007 put the project on hold and Ledger’s untimely death also dealt the movie another blow, which led to Spielberg moving on shortly after.  After a while, Paul Greengrass began to circle around Sorkin’s screenplay, with Ben Stiller in tow to help produce and star.  But further delays led them to leave as well, and eventually Amblin studios, which held the rights, decided to let the project go.  Once it landed at Paramount, a slew of other directors and actors came and went.  Then Netflix stepped in to bring in the final needed funding the movie needed, and more importantly, Sorkin himself stepped in to direct the movie himself.  And the timing for this kind of movie could not be more perfect given what’s been going on this year.  The only question is, was the delay worth it and is it the movie we need right now in our own turbulent time.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 introduces us right away to the men who would go on to define the movement, observing their moments before they made their way to Chicago.  We meet straight laced, grass roots anti-war activists Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); the flashy, irreverent founders of the Yippie Movement Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong); pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch); and two protestors caught up in the middle, Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty).  In addition, to these seven, another defendant is put on trial, Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who rightly points out that he has no connection to the other defendants and is only being tried there as a means of connecting his radical group with the others, and he’s there without proper counsel.  The trial is presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who has little tolerance for disruption in his court.  Defending the Chicago 7 are two lawyers, the more reserved Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shankmen) and the seasoned and confrontational William Kunstler (Mark Rylance).  On the other side, representing the Justice Department of the United States, are US attorneys Tom Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) and Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), under the direction of new Attorney General  John Mitchell (John Doman), who is still sore about a perceived insult from out-going AG, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton).  Through testimony and flash backs, the events of the infamous DNC riots are presented to us, piecing together how each individual played their part in what happened, and allowing us to see if any of their actions did indeed cross the line.  When not in the courtroom, we see the many different personality types begin to clash, particularly between the more pragmatic Hayden and the show-boaty flash of Hoffman.  All in all, it shows us that there is more at stake than just their innocence in the face of the law when it comes to this trial.  It’s about whether or not this trial is going to imprison their voices as well.

It is amazing how long it actually took for this movie to get made, and how it’s eventual timing proved to be more spot on than perhaps anyone realized.  Aaron Sorkin certainly hasn’t been hurting for success since he wrote his first draft for The Trail of the Chicago 7 back in the aughts.  He won an Academy Award for his monumental screenplay for The Social Network (2010), was nominated for another for Moneyball (2011), and even went on to direct his first feature, Molly’s Game (2017).  Having gotten that first directorial effort out of the way was probably the best thing for Sorkin to finally make Chicago 7 a reality, because it gave him the confidence to tackle a story with as much weight as this one, with all the lessons learned about how to actually do it properly.  When some writers move into directing, it can often lead to mixed results, as some writers grow too attached to their writing and leave too much in.  That was honestly the one problem with Molly’s Game as a film; Sorkin’s reluctance to trim stuff down and streamline the plot, thereby leaving the film bloated.  Given that Chicago 7 had been passed around between several different directors before, all helping him to parse the story down to all the essentials, it helped to give Sorkin the much needed fine tuning that the script called for before he could start rolling camera.  All Sorkin needed to do as a director was not mess it up, and thankfully he didn’t.  The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a major step up for the legendary writer turned director, and it proves that he is now as much of a force behind the camera as he is in drafting a screenplay.  And to be very honest, it’s probably a good thing that this movie waited for the moment when Sorkin himself could step into that role, because I can’t think of any other filmmaker who would’ve fulfilled what the script needed.

There’s no doubt about it upon watching this film; this is a Sorkin movie through and through.  Aaron Sorkin is one of those rare screenwriters today whose rhythm in dialogue is instantly recognizable.  The only other writers who I would say come close to having that stature would be either Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, or Charlie Kaufman.  What sets Sorkin apart is the rapid fire nature of his writing.  The man is exceptionally good at writing back and forth arguments between his characters, which does fit perfectly in a courtroom setting.  If anything, it’s the screenwriting in this movie that is the main attraction.  Like with Social Network and many of his other standout screenplays throughout his career, Sorkin balances back and forth between so many different tones in his writing, and does so with incredible finesse.  Within the span of a couple minutes, he could have as many as five different characters shouting off, delivering anything from important facts to non-sequiturs, to flagrant insults, to even just a bad joke.  The incredible way he writes is that so many elements come at you from so many directions, and yet it all manages to hit the mark.  Court room dramas can often drift into the mundane, but Sorkin manages to engage the viewer through every moment, making sure you hang on every word, even if it’s just a throw-away punchline.  Given that he’s working with a narrative focused on 7 different individuals, and the people surrounding them, and that he has to make them all distinctive from one another, and make the weight of their moment in time relevant to the viewer, Aaron Sorkin is certainly putting together what may be his most complex film yet.  And the end result is an exceptional achievement not only in measured direction, but also in complex story-telling.  Sorkin could have been a show off here, which he sometimes can be (especially in his television shows), but with Chicago 7, he displays a level of maturity as a filmmaker that rises to the challenge of his own distinctive writing.

It also doesn’t hurt that he’s put together a stellar cast as well.  There were so many big names that have circled their wagons around this project, including the previously mentioned Ledger.  Will Smith, Seth Rogan, William Hurt,  and Jonathan Majors were all at some points attach to this film, before the delays began to change plans.  The cast that did end up in the movie all do their jobs very well, especially those in the courtroom itself.  The role of Tom Hayden is a nice departure for Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, who manages to hide his British accent surprisingly well in the role.  He’s also the character who experiences the most growth through the movie, which he handles pretty well.  Sacha Baron Cohen of course gets the flashiest role in the movie as Abbie Hoffman, and while I do think he perfectly captured the cadence of the notorious Yippie leader, he doesn’t quite master the American accent as well as Redmayne, often letting his British accent slip a couple times.  Mark Rylance, John Carroll Lynch, Jeremy Strong and Joseph Gordon-Levitt also deliver solid supporting performances throughout the movie.  However, the two stand outs that I think steal the movie away from the others are Yahya Abdul Mateen and Frank Langella as Bobby Seale and Judge Hoffman respectively.  Mateen’s Seale is an exceptional characterization that really underlines the frustration of African American people who are unfairly treated by the Justice system, and his performance really captures that passionate defiance in a compelling way.  On the opposite end, Langella’s Judge Hoffman is a perfect portrayal of a dispassionate judge who is completely out of his element proceeding over a trial of this nature.  His judge Hoffman in the end makes an effect antagonistic representation of the forces working against the 7 and the futility of the system trying to use the courtroom as a means of controlling speech.  There’s no doubt that Sorkin could find plenty of eager actors willing to bring his words to life.  It’s just fortunate that each and every one fills their respective roles to perfection.

It’s also interesting that Sorkin, for the first time, is working entirely within a different period.  Social Network, Moneyball, and Molly’s Game were all recent history, torn from the headlines.  Here, Sorkin is working in a time period dating over 50 years ago.  In doing so, he has to work his dialogue in a way that doesn’t feel out of step with the time period, and thankfully it doesn’t.  You do buy into this being a flash of time within the late 1960’s, when Vietnam was still raging and political upheaval was happening all around.  I think it says more about our time that so much of this movie feels so current to today.  What I like best about what Sorkin has done here as a director is the fact that he doesn’t try to do too much as a director.  He lets the screenplay and the performances carry the film, and just lets the camera observe.  If the movie had been done by a different director, I think a lot of Sorkin’s rhythm would have been lost in translation.  Spielberg would have gotten good performances to be sure, but he might have been too manipulative as well, if he tried to underscore several scenes with a sweeping John Williams crescendo.  And Paul Greengrass would’ve had the camera shaking needlessly with his hand held style.  Sorkin on the other hand just holds the camera steady and uses the power of editing to match the rhythm of his words.  The movie is devoid of big, operatic moments, and instead just allows the scenes to flow naturally.  I especially like how the flash backs are used in conjunction with what is said in court.  He’s used this technique before in movies like Steve Jobs (2015), Social Network, and even going as far back as his script for A Few Good Men (1992).  There’s a fantastic scene late in the film when Eddie Redmayne is cross-examined with a tape recording being used as evidence, and it intercuts with the incident in question, and it’s edited together in a perfectly tuned way to rev up the tension of the moment.  Like I said, over the course of writing so many films, and having already directed a feature before, The Trial of the Chicago 7 marks a bold step forward for Aaron Sorkin as a force in the director’s chair.

With the way the world is right now, there definitely needs to be a film that puts history and it’s effect on the present into perspective, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is exactly what we need right now.  It is a important reminder of where we have been as a nation, and how some problems go unsolved and end up repeating themselves over time.  In the trial of the Chicago 7, America saw for the first time people put on public trail not for the crimes that they committed, but for the threat that their message could mean to the establishment.  Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner, John Froines and Bobby Seale were put on trial for what Hoffman described as “their thoughts’ which were deemed dangerous by the then Nixon Administration.  But the attempt to silence the Chicago 7 only added to their legend and their act of defiance through their activism and trial still inspires activists to this very day.  As we face a pivotal election day in the middle of a still raging pandemic, the stakes could not be made more clear about where we stand as a nation, and the example of the Chicago 7 feels more relevant than ever.  In the end, it probably was for the best that Aaron Sorkin’s re-telling of the Chicago 7 trial took this long to  become a reality, because it eventually came out at the most important time that it could.  We are at yet another tipping point in our nations history, where the rights of citizens from every walk of life is at stake in this election, as are the fundamental pillars of our democracy.  The real gift of Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is that it reminds us of the fact that it is hard to kill an idea, and that people will always fight for the things that they value.  We have been in this position before, and though finding justice is hard, it will always in some way find a way to become a reality.  We stand on the shoulders of those who have fought for our freedoms; let’s not make their sacrifice go in vain, and continue the fight for the things that we value.

Rating: 9/10

50 Years of the Disney Archives at the Bowers Museum – Film Exhibition Review

When we watch the movies, the illusion of reality is meant to remain as invisible as possible.  Every filmmaker’s job is to absorb the audience into a world and make them forget what they are watching is make-believe.  That’s why so much importance is put into making sure that everything that is captured through the lens of a movie camera doesn’t betray the artifice that is behind it.  But what goes into making everything on camera look as close to perfect as possible involves a lot of hard work behind the scenes from multiple departments, from costuming to set design to prop-making, not to mention all the pre-production work needed to determine how a shot will look in the first place.  As a result, before the making of every movie, there is a great amount of writing, drafting, and crafting that needs to be accomplished.  And once the cameras have rolled and the many different materials built for every production have served their purpose, the filmmakers and production companies are left with a lot of artifacts of their collaborative efforts.  In the old days of Hollywood, very little regard was given to all the different props, costuming and paperwork needed to make each film; they just took up space and were discarded to make way for the next round of production material.  But later on, special movies gave rise to the desire to preserve materials with sentimental value to the film community; think Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers or the sled from Citizen Kane (1941).  After Hollywood’s golden age, there came a much more concerted effort to preserve these relics of the past as a way of preserving the history of the industry itself.  Thus began a move to create archives at all the major studios in Hollywood, with the intent to curate all the artifacts of past classic films that they could find, but also to give each studio a place to have all the same materials readily available for future filmmakers and historians to have access to for the purpose of research.

One of the first studios to undertake such a project was the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank.  In 1970, a young librarian from UCLA named Dave Smith was given access by the Disney Studios to look through some of their archived material that had been gathering space in a dark secluded part of the Studio lot that was dubbed by many as “the crypt.”  Dismayed by the haphazard conditions that all the priceless archive material was being stored in, Smith wrote a proposal to the Disney Studios offering up his plan for a permanent and safely secure archive to house all of Disney’s many artifacts from it’s extensive history in entertainment.  The Disney Company agreed with Dave’s proposal and hired him on as the first head of their newly created Archive department.  From that point on, Dave Smith and the Disney Archive team procured a vast collection of art, props, costumes, and merchandise that spans across all the nearly 100 years of the Walt Disney Company.  Before Dave Smith’s passing in 2019, he oversaw his archive project grow from a little side office on the Burbank Lot to a vast, multi-facility operation where you can find just about anything related to any Disney project preserved for all time.  Of course, once you’ve collected all of these amazing artifacts over the years, you want to also show them off to fans from across the world.  Many Disney artifacts have made it into various galleries and special displays temporarily all over the world.  But to celebrate the special 50th anniversary of the founding of the Disney archive, a special exhibition has been set up for the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California; just a short drive away from Disneyland itself in Anaheim.  In this special exhibition, people will not only get a chance to have an up close encounter with many amazing artifacts from the Walt Disney Archives, but they will also have the chance to learn the story of the Archive’s creation and how it is set up and operates today.

Settled not far from the center of Downtown Santa Ana, the Bowers Museum is a modest but still exquisite gallery of Californian artwork and world culture artifacts.  The museum planned on holding the Disney Archives exhibition from March to August of this year.  However, due to significant periods of shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum has ended up extending the Disney Archives exhibit into early 2021.  In order to remain open after getting the go ahead for operations again, the Bowers Museum strictly enforces mask wearing at all times in the galleries, and conducts temperature checks at the front door.  Upon entering the museum, guests are greeted by a sculpture of Dumbo the Flying Elephant, suspended from the ceiling.  After walking underneath Dumbo flying above you, we arrive at the entrance to the gallery itself.  On the first wall, we see the famous photograph of a young Walt Disney with the shadow of Mickey Mouse cast on the wall next to him.  Alongside it is a greeting from the Disney archivists that put on this special exhibit, giving us an introduction to what we are about to see in the halls that follow.  The first room around the corner focuses on the two men most responsible for the archive’s existence: Walt Disney himself, and archive founder Dave Smith.  The first of many eye-catching displays once you enter this room is a recreation of Walt Disney’s private office.  It is noted that the entire display is a facsimile and contains nothing from the real thing, but for someone that has been in the actual office from a tour I took of the Studio Lot a few years back, I can say that it is a pretty good representation.  The display itself does have an interesting history of it’s own.  The desk and assorted knick knacks were actually props used for the movie Saving Mr. Banks (2013), where they were used to recreate Walt’s office for the movie.  So, sure Walt Disney never sat behind this desk, but actor Tom Hanks certainly has.

On the opposite wall is a recreation of the Disney Archive entrance, which in itself is a bit of a mini-museum with it’s own rotating display of artifacts that it often houses there on the Studio Lot.  On this recreation, actual artifacts important to Disney history are found, specifically ones related to the creation of nearby Disneyland.  In the case display is housed the survey equipment that was used to measure the terrain of what would become Disneyland, including the surveyor box itself, markers and the earliest known layout map of the park.  In the case as well is a recreation of the first ever conceptual map of Disneyland that Walt commissioned artist Herb Ryman to draw up, which he was then going to show to potential investors in order to gain the funding for his dream park.  It’s a nice simple way to introduce the idea of what the archives were meant to protect with regards to displaying the larger Disney story.  On the wall opposite, the exhibit honors the late Dave Smith, spotlighting the impact that he had on saving and preserving all the things that we are about to see in the gallery, as well as all the things still kept guarded back at the Archives itself.  In the proceeding rooms, the gallery breaks things into the different kinds of spaces that one would encounter upon entering the Archives.  In a nice little touch, the gallery also tries to recreate much of what the different parts of the archive might actually look like if you were to visit it yourself.

The first room we enter is what’s known as the “Reading Room.”  This Reading Room is the only part of the archive that was open to us on the Studio Lot tour, and for the most part, it is also the only part of the archive that is open to non-archivists on the Studio Lot as well.  It is mainly the area where many people from Disney come to conduct research, much like the reading rooms of your local library.  The Archivists retrieve the materials that the researcher is requesting from the back rooms and bring it out to the reading room for them to examine hands on, with the strict guidelines that it not leave the room itself.  In this gallery recreation, we are greeted by a cut-out image of Walt Disney waving to us to enter.  Across from him is one of the first big displays of an actual artifact from the studio lot itself.  On an elevated platform is one of the animators desks that was used in the Animation department at the studio.  Though it doesn’t indicate whose desk it actually belonged to, the display does give us a good representation of the animator’s workspace; which used to be the core of the company itself.  On the walls around the desk are various conceptual artwork that was made for the movie Fantasia (1940).  Some of the art are facsimiles, but there was also one or two original pieces there on display as well.  Past this first section of the reading room, we arrive at the heart of the “Reading Room”.  In a subtle recreation of the actual room itself, the opposite wall drapes banners that make the space more like a library.  A reading table like the one found at the actual archive, gives us a sense of how different material is examined within the room.  Most of the artifacts found here are important pieces of paperwork preserved by the studio, including meeting dictations, notes, correspondence, special marketing material, and assorted sketch drawings.

Included in the displays here are some of the most important documents in Disney history.  One of the most remarkable artifacts is the very first contracts ever signed by Walt Disney himself, this one in regards to gaining a permit to film for one of his historic Alice shorts, year before Mickey Mouse.  This contract marks the beginning of Disney Studios as an operating company, so you could say that the Walt Disney Studios began the moment this piece of paper was officially signed by Walt himself.  The fact that it was found at all and survives to this day almost a hundred years later is a great testament to the dedication of the archivists, and to Walt Disney himself for never throwing anything that important away.  Other incredible finds here that may go unnoticed are interesting artifacts like Walt Disney’s original passport, dating back to 1917.  There’s also Disneyland ticket #1, the first one ever sold, bought by Walt’s brother Roy for a dollar, as well as the Western Union correspondence that Walt sent to his brother after loosing his contract with Universal which then led to the creation of Mickey Mouse soon after.  Walt’s own personal effects like reading glasses and a pen, as well as a business card from Roy Disney round out the other interesting artifacts here.  On the walls are also the official portraits of Mickey Mouse that are always commissioned from artists at the studio for special anniversary years.  In another case is found an artifact that had a special connection for Walt, but for many years was considered lost until recently found in the archives; the snow globe from Mary Poppins (1964), which itself once sat in Walt’s private office for many years.

Moving on, we arrive in the next room, which is called the “Back Room.”  This is the room that only the archivists are allowed to enter and collect artifacts from.  Gathered throughout this area is a nice collection of what might be held at any given time at the on Studio Lot archive building, which runs the gamut of pretty much everything from the studio’s long history.  The first thing that greets us at the beginning of this section is the display case that really is like a hall of fame of noteworthy Disney props from it’s early years.  In there, you’ll see the coonskin hat worn by Fess Parker in Davy Crockett (1954), the sword used by Guy Williams in the TV series Zorro, the magical ring from The Shaggy Dog (1959), the bedknob from Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), as well as two artifacts from Mary Poppins, the stack of blocks that spell out her name, and Mary’s famous carpet bag.  This display is certainly one of the more popular in the gallery, just because of the iconic items that are held inside.  Apart from this, you see displays of many different types of artifacts that the archives hold.  This includes early Disney merchandise, like the original Mickey Mouse dolls; animation cels from different movies and series, posters used by the studio in it’s advertisement; matte paintings used by the effects department on several different live action films; an animatronic prototype of Abraham Lincoln’s head used for his likeness in the Disney Parks’ attraction; several character maquettes used for animator reference; and so on.  Probably the artifacts that caught my eye the most were the actual story books used in the movies Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959).  These were the physical books that you see open up at the start of each film, and it’s nice to see them here up close and looking good so many years later.  Knowing the importance of those movies to the history of the company, it’s great to see that the only physical props used in their filming are still kept preserved with great care.

Moving out of the “Back Room” section, we enter what is by far the largest portion of the exhibit, which is the “Dimensional Collections” section of the gallery.  This Dimensional Collection section is representative of the many storage facilities that house the Disney Archives’ vast collection.  Mainly it’s the stuff that the limited space at the Studio Lot archive can’t find room for.  And it spans a vast amount of interesting artifacts that range from everything from costuming, to props, to disused theme park attraction artifacts, to even movie used vehicles.  The first thing that greets you into this part of the gallery is a disused window display from the Main Street Emporium at Disneyland, this one showing the evil Queen from Snow White.  It’s the first physical Disney Park artifact found so far in the gallery, but certainly not the last.  Just beside it are three figures from past attractions across the many Disney parks, including a Xenomorph animatronic from the old Great Movie Ride at the Disney Studios Park in Orlando, Florida, a Mayan chief figure from the El Rio del Tiempo ride in Epcot, and the old robot pilot from the Star Tours attraction at Disneyland. Across from that are tombstones from the Haunted Mansion, as well as discontinued Hitch-hiking Ghost animatronics.  And displayed across an entire wall is a collection of costumes from across the whole Disney Studio history.  These include Warren Beatty’s yellow coat from Dick Tracy (1990), Glenn Close’s Cruella De Vil dress from 101 Dalmatians (1996), Emilio Estevez’s team jacket from The Mighty Ducks (1992), as well as the flight uniform from The Rocketeer (1992).  Disney subsidiaries, past and present, like Touchstone and Miramax pictures are also represented here, as Julia Roberts’ dress from Pretty Woman (1990) and Dame Judi Dench’s elaborate Elizabeth I costume from Shakespeare in Love (1998) are also found.  In this area, you also get the first representation of the newest addition to the Disney family, 20th Century Fox, as some of their artifacts have found their way into the Disney Archive.  The first piece shown in this area is the fish man prosthetic makeup that was worn by actor Doug Jones for the movie The Shape of Water (2017), a Fox Searchlight film.

Past the costumes we find a section devoted to movie props both large and small.  Among them includes a life size model of Roger Rabbit that was used as a stand in on set to help give the crew and actors an indication of how to stage the scene for a character who would be drawn in later.  There’s also another famous iconic prop delivered from the Fox Archives found here, which is Wilson from the movie Cast Away (2000), looking just as tattered and weathered as it did in the film.  Another display also features a collection of on set puppets, including one of Winnie the Pooh from the recent film Christopher Robin (2018), a couple of hand puppets from the Bill Murray comedy What About Bob? (1991), and some stop motion puppets from the Wes Anderson animated film, Isle of Dogs (2018).   Right next to that is one of the more striking large props found so far, and one that is iconic to my generation, and that’s the shrinking machine from the Rick Moranis action comedy Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989).  The prop itself has seen better days, but the archives have done a recent restoration helping to bring it back to as close to it’s original state as they could.  Having grown up with the movie since my childhood, it was pretty neat seeing this prop up close and catching all the details that I never noticed before.  Adjoining this prop section of the gallery, the Dimensional Collections section moves into an area focusing on some of the newest additions to the archive collection, which displays various things like Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent costume, to costumes from the recent film Mary Poppins Returns (2018), to the sword used in the recent Mulan (2020) remake, which was forced to debut on Disney+ due to the pandemic closing most theaters in America.  In this area, the gallery states the continued interest that Archives has in preserving all the things that are going to be coming in the near future form the studio, including from all the projects on Disney+.

The final major part of the gallery belongs to the Disney Vehicle section.  Here, we find the actual full scale vehicles that have been used by Disney at various points.  Dating back to Walt Disney’s time, there is the Model T Ford used by Fred McMurray in the film The Absent Minded Professor (1961), still preserved in a pretty good state, though highly doubtful that it flies through the power of flubber like in the original film.  Next to that is a piano on wheels, which had been used outside the Golden Horseshoe at Disneyland to entertain guests.  A very talented performer basically plays on the piano on wheels as they pedal it forward throughout the park.  Next to this is probably the one vehicle that every guest will recognize right away, and that’s Herbie the Love Bug.  This particular model of Herbie was used for the more recent Herbie: Fully Loaded reboot from 2005, starring Lindsay Lohan and Michael Keaton.  Though it’s not the original from the 1968 film, it’s still nice to see this iconic Disney vehicle represented here, and it almost certainly is going to be one  of the most photographed artifacts in the gallery as a whole.  Not far away, and right next to the final room, is a vehicle from the Fox collection.  It’s the race car used in last year’s Ford v Ferrari (2019), starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale.  In addition, the racing outfit worn by Bale in the film is displayed right next to it.  On the wall nearby, it displays a statement about the Archive’s commitment to work just as hard with the Fox archivists towards preserving all the treasures from this likewise legendary studio with it’s own share of amazing artifacts collected throughout the years.  No doubt the archivists at Disney are dedicated to making sure the past is not lost over time, and with the company growing even bigger now with Fox on board, their amazing task has become even more monumental.

To conclude the exhibit, a recreation of Disney Legends Plaza is displayed for guests to walk around.  The Legends Plaza is the one in front of the main corporate HQ building, famous for it’s colonnade roof that is supported by stone figures of the Seven Dwarves.  Along the plaza are pillars that hold plaques dedicated to the many Disney Legends that have been inducted and honored over the years.  Celebrated at special ceremonies over the last 25 years, most recently held at the D23 Expos, each legend is given a special statue and are given the chance of immortalizing their handprints in cement, unless the honor is given posthumously.  It’s a great way to honor the legacy of all those who have made the Disney Company what it is today, and sadly most of the general public never gets to see it, unless they are invited to the studio itself.  I have thankfully gotten my chance to see it during my tour of the studio years back.  Just going through all the names on pillars reveals an incredible look at all the amazing people who have contributed to Disney’s legacy, including noteworthy figures like Stan Lee and George Lucas who became a part of the Disney family much later on.  In this gallery, the plagues are just wooden recreations of the actual ones you would see at the Legends Plaza, but it does give you a good sense of who you would find honored there.  Some of them are names may not jump out to you right away, like those of the animators who worked at the studio, but others like Julie Andrews, Robin Williams, and Betty White almost certainly will.  At the very end of the exit, a banner with the entire Archive team pictured is found, alongside a thank you message for those who walked through the gallery.  A fine curtain call for a very pleasing exhibition.

For any Disney fan out there, visiting this exhibit is a no brainer.  You’ll get a very up close look at some of the most amazing artifacts found in Disney’s vast archive, including a few that rarely make it out into public view.  What I liked about this exhibit in particular is that it really gives you the sense of the history of the archive itself, the way it operates, and why it is so important to maintain.  When Dave Smith sent his proposal to Disney 50 years ago, he knew how important it was to preserve the past treasures of the Walt Disney company, and that it would be a monumental undertaking.  In the 50 decades since, the Disney archives now safely houses pieces of history spanning all the way back to the days when Walt Disney was just a young kid with a dream.  Walking through the exhibit only gives us a small sampling of the Archives’ true scale and scope, but what is found here is certainly enough to excite any Disney or movie fan in general.  I especially like the way they focused on the vast expanse of the Disney company as well, not just the animated films at it’s core.  There’s stuff from the live action films, the theme parks, and personal effects related to the man himself on display here.  A lot of it is also surprising finds that I don’t think would normally would make it out to exhibits like this.  Every corner does an amazing job to give you a sense of the importance of the Disney Archive’s existence, and it just reinforces why archives are such an essential part of the film industry in general.  If you are in the Southern California region and are a die hard movie and/or Disney fan, I strongly recommend checking this exhibit out.  Thankfully it’s been extended a few months, so you have until February to see it, barring another pandemic shutdown.  And also take in the rest of the Bowers Museum collection as well, which is quite interesting on it’s own.  It’s where art and history collide, and I couldn’t think of a better setting for Disney to celebrate it’s Archive’s 50th year.

 

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