Category Archives: Editorials

Where to Now? – How Cinema Transitions from One Era to Another

When we enter into a new decade, the first thought that we often ponder over is what the last 10 years were all about.  This can cover a variety of things; politics, music, culture, and really just the lives we had during that time.  Essentially, we like to mark this transition in years as an era of time, as if these 10 calendar years themselves had their own defining characteristics.  The truth is that eras are not so easily defined, as a time period we know as the 70’s in fact probably didn’t define itself until probably the latter half of the decade, and spilled a little bit over into the early 80’s.  But, we still seem to define these decades as such because of all those above factors: the culture, the politics, the music, and of course, the movies.  If anything, it’s really the movies that have come to define the transitioning of our culture from decade to decade, as you can definitely see a progression that not only was shaped by the culture that made them, but also would go on to influence the culture itself.  We all like to determine what was the defining 80’s movie, or the defining 70’s movie, and so on, and there are always some worthwhile candidates throughout.  But, as indicated earlier, the movies that come to define an era don’t always come right at the turn of a new decade.  Despite some rare examples, few movies actually make that transition hit right at the turn of the decade, and are often found somewhere in the middle, or even at the very end.  But, even still, it is interesting to see how much eras of cinema coincide with the character of the decades that they exist within.  And as we go into a new one this year, it makes us wonder where the next ten years are going to take us next, and if those markers even matter anymore, given how much change cinema seems to be going through even year to year now.

In many ways, we really didn’t take into account how much a decade left it’s mark on the movies until really after the culture itself shifted.  Once the counterculture movement started to move into full swing in the late 1960’s, it was about then that film criticism and analysis started to look back on the years prior as a way of defining the past from the culturally shifting present.  That’s when people started to look at the eras that were apparent, much less defined by the decades they existed in, and more defined by the advancements they made within the art-form.  Specifically, early films were defined as the Silent Era, which encompassed decades worth of movies extending from the first Edison Vitaphone shorts at the turn of the 20th Century to the grand expressionist masterpieces of the German masters to the very beginnings of Hollywood itself.  This celebrated era finds it’s end with the release of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927), the first “talkie” which would revolutionize the industry overnight and bring synchronized sound to the art-form.  But even after The Jazz Singer, silent films didn’t just end; Chaplain for instance would continue making silent movies for several more years.  But it would mark the end of their dominance in the medium, as sound film would quickly take over as the norm.  This as a result becomes the narrative of the history of cinema; with one fell swoop, one era of movies comes to an end and then another begins, ignoring the more opaque line that really exists between each.  Even still, cinema aficionados really want to classify a time period within these parameters and pinpoint exactly where the era ends and begins.  This is why the Silent Era feels so fittingly concluded by The Jazz Singer, because it’s works like a cinematic exclamation.  Also, it marked a point where new advancements in technology would play the defining role in presenting a transition for cinema in general.

As such, the years that followed would see new eras defined by the various new advancements in the medium.  The introduction of technicolor, the invention of anamorphic widescreen, even 3D and Smell-o-vision would characterize the changing times of cinema in the years ahead.  Real world issues would also play a factor too.  The 1940’s would absolutely be characterized as one thing in particular within cinema, because it was the thing that was on everyone else’s mind at the time; the War Years.  With World War II raging throughout the globe from 1939 to 1945, it’s easy to see how such a worldwide event would dominate every aspect of the culture, including the movies.  Indeed, every movie made in those years was in one way or another affected by the War, with some more overtly addressing it than others.  Even if you watch a sweet little romantic movie from that era, you’ll notice in the movie’s credits that there’s a reminder to buy war bonds in the lobby, which shows that even escapist entertainment needed to do it’s part for the war effort.  But, even despite the war hanging over the culture and the industry like it did, it doesn’t mean that there was a disruption in the advancement of film-making during that time either.  Some of the greatest movies ever made directly deal with the War head on and still hold up even long after the conflict is over; Casablanca (1943) being one of the shiniest examples.  But the War years as they are known in cinema also extended beyond just the War itself, as the aftermath also left it’s mark in the years after.  Soldiers coming home from the war became not just a different audience for the movies, but also an interesting subject as well.  The Oscar-winning drama The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) tackled the lingering trauma of the post war experience head-on, including having a real life wounded vet, Harold Russell, playing a key role.  There was also a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) that while not about the War itself still was thematically linked to it; especially considering that both director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart were returning vets themselves.  Culture and technological advancements alike would both shape the different perceived eras of cinema, and though brief in comparison, the War Years themselves would leave the most profound of change on the industry.

But, once the counterculture began to really push society in a different direction, the importance of cinema leaving a statement became more relevant to how it would define an era.  For the most part, the years immediately following the War probably defined cinema the most, as it has been affectionately been dubbed the Golden Years.  During this time, to give rapidly growing families from the “Baby Boom” the kind of escapist entertainment that they desired, Hollywood began investing in bigger, more lavish productions.  This was the era of the Roadshow picture, with massive scope and production values meant to envelope the audience in an experience that they could only find on the big screen.  This was also spurned on by the beginning of television as a direct competitor.  Movies became grandiose spectacle, and with it, so came the inevitable downfall.  These movies often became financially unsound, with budgets ballooning to unfathomable heights.  20th Century Fox’s Cleopatra (1963) nearly bankrupted the studio, and they weren’t the only ones feeling the crunch.  At the same time, people were growing frustrated with the Hollywood machine, and were more attracted to the international output of bold new artists coming out of the French New Wave or the Italian Neo-realist Movement.  Thus, we began to see push-back from the Counter-culture, who saw big “Hollywood” as a relic of the past, and who wanted to carve out a “New Hollywood” in it’s place.  And in this period of time, you will find the most definitive year of stark transition ever in Hollywood.  Though the psychedelic 60’s had a major influence throughout the decade in cinema, Old Hollywood was still a lingering presence.  And then came 1969, where you see the real schism finally split the two apart.  It was the year that produced both Hello, Dolly (1969), an old-fashioned, and expensive, throwback musical and Easy Rider (1969), a micro-budget celebration of hippie culture in America.  Dolly crashed and burned at the box office, while Easy Rider became a smash hit, and the writing was finally on the wall.  1969 was the year that New Hollywood had finally come into it’s own.  This was even more apparent come Oscar time, when Best Picture was given to the first X-Rated winner, Midnight Cowboy; on the same night that Old Hollywood legend John Wayne won his Oscar for True Grit no less.  You won’t find a year that stated so much about the change in cinema than that one right there.

From that point on, it became less about the advancements in the medium that defined, but more about the culture itself that defined the movies.  And as such, the decades themselves became the benchmarks for the movies that premiered within them.  The 1970’s, in retrospect, took the counter-culture ideal more seriously, and as a result we saw a significant reduction in Studios being the driving force behind the movies and more the directors being the one’s pushing cinema to the next level.  It was the era of the director, a time period defined as some would call the “easy riders and the raging bulls,” as the 2003 documentary of the same name details.  Coincidentally enough, those were exactly the same movies that would bookmark the era, as the creative freedom given after Easy Rider would dissipate soon after Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980).  Much like the studios before them, the ambitions of the maverick directors of the era would soon become unmanageable, and their projects would in turn go over-budget and under-seen as well.  Great promising careers from amazing directors like William Friedkin, Michael Cimino, and even Francis Ford Coppola were cut short because they lost the trust of the studios financing them, and were left to work under tighter constraints for the rest of their careers.  Only Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese would manage to continue working on consistently high levels in the years ahead, which would be easily defined as the era of the blockbuster.  The 1980’s evolved in the wake of the downfall of the director era, and became more about escapist entertainment.  Every studio thereafter wanted their own Star Wars (1977) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and it became a fruitful time for fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure.  Though we see this as a defining aspect of the 1980’s, it would also extend far into the 1990’s, as digital technology began to redefine special effects.  And in this time period, box office became a race like never before.  Back in the early days of cinema, there would always be untouchable kings, like Gone With the Wind (1939), but starting in the 90’s, records would fall with regular consistency, and it was not always an indication of the quality of the film, but more about how well a movie can do on it’s opening weekend.  Thus we got into a time when intellectual properties became the most prized commodity in Hollywood; not the stars, nor the directors, but the brand, and that in a way has led to an era that more or less hasn’t changed in the last 20 years.

Right now, if you were to define the 2000’s and the 2010’s in cinema, I’d say that you’d have a much harder time than previous eras before.  That’s because the traditional markers that we’ve used before in defining the different eras of cinema have kind of lost their value over time.  What I think is the most defining change over the last 20 years of film is the advancement of digital cinema.  Since the year 2000, digital film-making has gone from a novelty to a norm in a very short amount of time.  And in that same period, movie theaters have also quickly converted to digital presentations as well.  This has reduced the necessity of physical media in making and presenting media, which movie studios and theaters see as more cost effective and efficient.  But it also leads to something that I don’t think many people have realized.  The reason why so many movies from different eras have a different look and texture to them is because film stock itself changed so much over the years.  There are very big differences between how a movie looks in 70mm, 35mm, and 16mm, and even the brand differences between suppliers like Kodak and Fujifilm, and processors like Technicolor and Deluxe, would make a big difference in how a finished movie would appear.  But now, with many movies today not even using film, it leads to a result of all movies looking more or less the same, at least in terms of texture.  Everything now has that digital sheen to it, all the way down to the way they are presented.  Even television shows are beginning to look more like movies today, and that’s because they are using pretty much the same types of cameras.  There are holdovers that still shoot and even present on film, but for the most part, movies have been going in this decidedly digital direction, and that has defined most of what we’ve seen in the last several year.  Combine this with an even more homogenized studio system that favors brands over original ideas, and you’ve got an era of Hollywood that seems to be more driven by repetition and standardization than ever before.

The only really disruptive thing that we’ve recently seen in the last 20 years has been the way we watch movies now.  If there was ever something that defined the 2010’s in cinema, it would be the rise of Netflix and streaming cinema; as well as super hero movies.  Netflix didn’t start in the last decade (it’s actually a surprisingly 20+ year old company), but it certainly came into it’s own in the last 10 years, and that is mainly due to their decision to invest in their own content.  Probably seeing the writing on the wall early on, knowing that eventually the other studios would want to take their model and use it for their own distribution, Netflix spent billions on exclusive movies and shows that could only be viewed on their platform, and as result became a studio on their own with a reach in viewership rivaling that of the big six.  Even with Disney, Fox, Warner Brothers, and Universal all jumping into streaming now, Netflix still has themselves positioned well, because of the quality of content they’ve acquired, including movies now from giants like Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers.  More than anything, what Netflix has disrupted the most is the viewing habits of the movie going public.  Their streaming model has offered the most direct competition to the theatrical experience since the advent of television, and that in itself is defining the last decade of cinema more than any movie has.   Movie theaters are desperately trying to hold onto their patronage that has benefited them for several decades before, and because of Netflix and the like, we’re going to see a new era for the presentation side of cinema the likes of which we haven’t seen in many decades.  So, if it’s not the movies that are defining the eras of cinema at this point, it’s the way we are watching them that is.  For the last ten years, it was Netflix that reigned unchallenged; perhaps the next ten will be defined by how all the new platforms will challenge each other in this new competitive market.

There are many different ways to look at cinema as blocks of easily defined eras, but the truth is far more complex than that. The truth is that cinema has been fluidly flowing from one decade into another, and only in retrospect do we take a look back and try to form a pattern in it all. The movies that we say defined the decade may have, in fact, not been recognized as such in their day, and were instead more likely just seen as the great movies that they were. Defining an era more comes out of how we want to look back at the years that have passed us by, and see a way that we can explain why attitudes and personal tastes change over time. At the same time, our perceptions of cultural touchstones, like the movies, can also be influenced by the era they come from, and helps to shape their reception for newer audiences. Terms like the Silent Era, the Golden Era, and the Psychedelic Era are easily marketable and can help to draw attention to older movies based on what someone is looking for. In many ways, Hollywood enjoys define their different eras, even if they don’t exactly know how to shape them to begin with. In the end, it is determined by the things that we find the most fascinating about the movies in each era that determine how they will shape their place in time. Whether it’s through the technology that pushes the medium forward, the stars that capture our imagination, the artists that drive the art-form, or as we are seeing right now, the way we watch the movies, cinema will more or less tell it’s own story, which it does so through it’s own evolution. An era in cinema is an easy to grasp definition, one that doesn’t tie down to a set number of years. So, as we look back at the last ten years, and forwards to the next ten, it helps to understand that a new era of cinema is just another chapter in an ongoing story that flows in it’s own way. Great movies can come at any time from anywhere, and the great part of history is that it is constantly being written. For now, feel happy that you are experiencing a time in cinema that itself will be seen under different eyes in the years ahead, and that hopefully you’ll have been part of something exciting historical and important to the culture at large.

 

Home Alone for the Holidays – How a Home Invasion Comedy Became a Holiday Classic

Every generation of seems to have a holiday movie that resonates with them more than others.  For a lot of baby boomers, it was How the Grinch Stole Christmas? (1966), and the generation before that, it was Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  Us Generation X’ers who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s have a whole wealth of holiday specials that meant a lot to our nostalgia for the holidays.  But, if there was one that stood taller than the rest in our collective memories, it was the Chris Columbus directed blockbuster Home Alone (1990).  Now approaching it’s 30th anniversary, Home Alone was a phenomenon upon it’s initial release.  It rode it’s timely holiday season release to record breaking success, and even to this day, it still has the highest box office gross for a comedy when adjusted for inflation.  But it wasn’t just the holidays and the humor that carried the movie, and the real factor was surprising to most.  The key to Home Alone’s success remarkably came in the form of it’s then 8 year old star, Macaulay Culkin.  Culkin, who had only appeared in a handful of films before hand, was suddenly the most famous child star in the world thanks to this movie, achieving a level of fame in Hollywood for a child actor unseen since the days of Shirley Temple.  He represented a new generation of film goers who were going to make a big impact on cinema in the decades ahead, and the fact that many of us who were children at this time saw one of our own commanding the screen as well as he did in Home Alone really solidifies why we hold this movie up so much as a part of our holiday tradition.  But, it is interesting to see how the movie continues to resonate as a holiday film, given the fact that the movie isn’t necessarily about the holiday itself.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie is unmistakably a Christmas movie.  In fact, it is almost drenched in the holidays.  You’d have to look at something like It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) or the fore-mentioned Miracle on 34th Street to find another film with so much of Christmas infused into it’s DNA.  But, that’s an aesthetic part of the movie.  The basic premise of the film itself honestly didn’t need Christmas to work.  The story of a child accidentally left home alone by his family having to fend off home invaders could have easily been set at any time of the year.  A summer vacation setting would have made just as much sense in this case.  But, no doubt director Chris Columbus and writer John Hughes picked the holiday season because it provided a more atmospheric tone to the movie.  It’s one thing for a child to be left home alone; it’s another for it to happen around Christmastime.  Christmas is a holiday all about getting together with one’s family and enjoying the festivities together.  What happens when that’s all taken away.  The isolation of having no one around to enjoy Christmas with weighs heavy over the film, and gives it a poignancy that it might not have otherwise had in any other setting.  That being said, the movie probably could have worked well enough even without the holiday itself.  It’s far more about how Macaulay Culkin’s character, Kevin McCallister deals with the dilemma of keeping his home safe when he has no one else around him to rely upon for safety.  As a result, we see the characters ingenuity and the real reason audiences continue to be entertained by the movie after so many years.  The movie shifts suddenly in it’s final act into a screwball comedy on the level of something we’d see from the Three Stooges, and the results are pretty wild.

But it should be noted that the movie is never meant to invoke a holiday spirit or to solely illicit laughter from it’s audience.  Though on the surface it may seem like a farcical comedy, but underneath, there is something deeper.  Home Alone is in essence a coming of age story, showing the growth and maturity of Kevin McCallister over the course of the few days he’s left by himself.  John Hughes, who had spent much of the 80’s exploring the highs and lows of the average American teenage life in films like The Breakfast Club (1984) and Sixteen Candles (1987), went even further back into pre-adolescence when exploring the character of Kevin McCallister.  It’s interesting to note that when we first meet Kevin in the movie, he’s kind of rotten kid.  He’s disrespectful, bratty, and unsympathetic.  Combine this with the fact that he’s from an upper class household and Kevin represents every spoiled bourgeois American kid who you’ve no doubt seen throwing a tantrum every time they receive even the slightest rejection from their mother or father.    There’s even a point when he calls his mother an idiot to her face, something that I would have been severely reprimanded for if I said that to my mom.  And at first, when he finds that his whole family has left for their Paris bound Christmas vacation without him, he initially finds it liberating; immediately wrecking havoc throughout the house, and as he puts it, “watching trash and eating garbage.”  But as the movie rolls on, Kevin finds that isolation is not exactly as fun as he hoped it would be, and even begins to realize that a part of his loneliness is of his own making.  Through this, John Hughes gives Kevin a redemptive arc that helps to carry the film’s message of compassion.  Kevin, who started off the movie as a selfish brat, by the end has become more self-reliant as well as more considerate of the feelings of other people.

This message really becomes clearer beyond his character arc, as Kevin’s dilemma begins to affect those around him.  In particular, there is a beautifully told parallel story-line being told with Kevin’s mother Kate (played by an unforgettable Cathrine O’Hara).  Kate’s trek back to her son is just as harrowing as what’s going on with Kevin, because we really feel the pain that she is going through not knowing what’s going on with Kevin back home.  I find it funny looking back on this movie now in an era when everybody has a cell phone, and how so much of this would be solved today in an instant with a phone call or text message.  Still, even watching this movie almost 30 years later, Kate’s story-line still resonates, and I honestly think that Cathrine O’Hara doesn’t get enough credit for her performance here.  The normally comedic actress does have her wacky moments here and there (yelling at the incompetent flight desk representatives for one), but her moments of desperation and hopelessness do feel genuine as well.  There’s a wonderful scene late in the movie where she wonders if she is a terrible mother for leaving her child alone, while hitching a ride with a polka band in a U-Haul truck (lead by another comedy legend, John Candy), and it’s a honestly portrayed moment that shows the despair of a character who believes she has failed in her duty as a mother, not realizing that her desperate situation proves exactly the opposite.  Kate indeed becomes the movie’s beating heart, and it’s pleasing to see so much time devoted to her character as well.  Likewise, there is another wonderful arc explored with the character of Old Man Marley (played by Robert Blossom).  Kevin’s fearsome looking next door neighbor turns out to be a decent, caring person by the end, giving Kevin another opportunity to open up to others as a part of his character development.  In Marley, Kevin recognizes some who like him has pushed people away and it has left him isolated as well, and by recognizing this and encouraging the old man to reconnect with his own family, Kevin likewise recognizes what he must do for himself.  So, while there is a lot of shenanigans that go on throughout the course of the movie, it still never forgets that the characters involved are real people who evolve with their story.

Of course, the slapstick is a big part of the movie’s continued entertainment value, and it particularly works because of how on board the actors are to making it as funny as possible.  Working very much against type, we find Joe Pesci cast as one of the cat burglars hoping to rob the McCallister home in which Kevin is still present.  It should be noted that Pesci appeared in the Scorsese flick Goodfellas (1990) in the same year that he appeared in this movie, a role that would ultimately earn him an Academy Award.  To see him go from that to something as screwball as Home Alone really shows how much range he has as an actor.  Daniel Stern’s performance as the other cat burglar, Marv, is more logically placed, and Stern does indeed play up the Stooge like aspect of the character very well.  One of the biggest laughs in the movie comes from the scream that Marv belts out once he has a tarantula placed on his face.  Another reason why the comedy works is because Pesci and Stern have excellent chemistry, and their characters work so well in conflict with Culkin’s smartallecky Kevin.  Indeed, I think why so many fans of the film from my generation love this film so much is because we saw a child like us making buffons out of these adults.  Of course, a real life scenario like this would have a much darker outcome, but the movie never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously.  Indeed, we will always enjoy seeing two incompetent criminals get pelted in the face with paint cans.  Some of the traps that Kevin sets up in particular are so wildly ridiculous that they defy logic, like Pesci’s Harry getting the top of his head blasted with a blow torch.  At the same time, it’s not like this slapstick comes out of nowhere in the final act though.  There are sprinkles of what’s to come throughout the movie, like the family’s mad scramble to get ready for their trip after sleeping in, or Kevin’s ridiculous indoor sledding down a staircase.  My favorite piece of comedy though is the film noir parody that Kevin watches while eating ice cream.  Doing a hilarious send up of James Cagney gangster flicks in the middle of this family oriented Christmas flick is something that I’ve grown to appreciate more as I’ve expanded my knowledge of film history, and it’s something that helps to make this movie a delight to watch still.

It is also interesting how the movie not only acts as a quintessential holiday film, but it has also gone on to leave it’s mark as a part of people’s traditions for the holidays.  For one thing, I think that more than any other movie of it’s generation, it has brought awareness to all these old Christmas standards from generations for younger audiences.  The movie is full of many songs that otherwise might not have resonated with Genration X or millennials beyond their initial years.  These are songs that are now standards like Brenda Lee’s “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” Mel Torme’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” or The Drifter’s rendition of “White Christmas.”  The movie’s soundtrack is basically a greatest hits album of all the Christmas songs that our parents grew up listening to, which is another great way the movie manages to bring multiple generations of audience members together as a part of the experience.  But the movie isn’t just blessed with a varied playlist of holiday standards.  Somehow, Chris Columbus managed to land the legendary John Williams to write an original score.  And for a movie as simple and small in scope as Home Alone is, it is amazing how much bigger it feels with a Williams score behind it.  Infusing more of a Christmas tone than anything else he has ever written, Williams probably is the one most responsible for making this an unmistakable holiday film.  This includes tones of memorable original pieces, like the mad-cap, sleigh bell infused melody that plays during the McCallister family’s rush to the airport, or the quiet grace of the original tune “Somewhere in my Memory,” that plays during the more heartwarming moments.  I don’t think the final shot of the movie with Old Man Marley reunited with his family would have had the same resonance without Williams amazing score in that moment.  Honestly, we have Home Alone to thank for the many different melodies that flood our airwaves during the month of December, both good and bad, and it all does helps to elevate the atmosphere of the movie itself.  As a result you can see why the filmmakers could not choose any other time but Christmas to set their movie in.

Home Alone is one of those movies that so perfectly contains it’s concept within it’s storyline, and it feels like there is no other way to improve upon it. Sadly, the filmmakers were saddled with the responsibility of having to make a sequel to Home Alone only a couple short years later due to how much money it made for studio 20th Century Fox. Long before The Hangover movies set a new standard for uninspired sequelizing of a hit comedy, Home Alone tried desperately to recapture the same lightning in a bottle with another movie but only this time in a new location; New York City in this case. Home Alone 2: Escape from New York (1992) does try, and is not without its moments, but it’s clear that Columbus and Hughes were really stretching the premise thin. And the main reason why the sequel doesn’t work as well is because it’s missing that crucial element that made the original so memorable; Kevin’s character arc. He’s already grown as a character, so by the time we see him again, he’s already gained his maturity. How do you resolve this in order to make a sequel; you regress the character and make him fall back into his bad habits, thereby undoing all the work of the original movie. It’s an unfortunately negative result that removes the emotional heart of the movie, resulting in a half-hearted “here we go again” feel to the movie. The relationship between Kevin and his mom is also unfortunately reduced as well. Even still, the movie has it’s fans, and I do enjoy some of the best parts of the movie, like another film noir parody as well as the addition of Tim Curry to the cast as a diabolical hotel manager. But what the sequel illustrates more than anything else was just how important that underlying heart was to making the original movie work as well as it did.

 The legacy that Home Alone has left behind is one that is inexorably linked now to the holidays. Children who first experienced the movie in its initial release are all adults now with children of their own, and I’m sure that they’ll no doubt be sharing the movie with them this time of year. Disney is even now reviving the property as a possible reboot for their Disney+ service, of which the original films are already available on. It’s easy to see why the movie became an instant hit, but I think the magnitude may have been the most unexpected part of all. It may have been too much for Macaulay Culkin in those hectic few years after Home Alone hit theaters, putting him at the center of Hollywood spotlight for most of his formative years. After being hounded by the industry for some time, Culkin retreated into a quieter life, but has more recently emerged on social media carrying around a sense of humor with the role that made him famous. He even jokingly pondered what a grown up Kevin McCallister would be like in a charming commercial for Google. Sure, time changes perception, and Home Alone is not without it’s quaintness due to the passage of time. But over the years, it has also gained something for its audience that all the best holiday classics have managed to do, which is to present a warm sense of nostalgia. My generation looks fondly back on Home Alone and we have grown to appreciate it more now that we have become grown ups ourselves. Sure, we all like to be a smart ass kid like Kevin McCallister, but over time we find ourselves also wanting to do whatever we can to be there for our loved ones for the holidays. In the end, the movie shows us that Holiday season is all about the importance of family and that being alone for Christmas is not the ideal situation. Togetherness is key, and Home Alone, in its own silly way, delivers that message beautifully. So, Merry Christmas, you filthy animal.

Dawn of Disney+ – First Impressions and What it Means for the Future of Streaming

One day in the whole history of the Walt Disney Company holds very special significance.  It was a day after several years of planning, building, and long arduous hours for all at the company.  And the outcome was far from certain.  Everything was put on the line, and all that was left was to premiere their product before the public and hope that all that hard work was worth it in the end.  And that pivotal day was, December 21, 1937.  That monumental moment in their company was the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first full length animated feature ever made.  It may seem hard to think of it today, but the making of Snow White was the biggest gamble in Hollywood history up to that time.  Walt Disney staked his reputation and the future of his company on the success of this one feature.  Had it not succeeded, Disney as we know it would cease to be.  But, to Walt’s eternal gratitude, Snow White was a runaway hit, and it not only made all it’s money back, but was profitable enough to allow the Disney company to grow.  And you would think that after such an ordeal that the Disney company would back away from such gambles in the future, but no.  Another pivotal day came on July 17, 1955, when Walt Disney risked yet again his reputation and future in Hollywood on a new ambitious project; Disneyland.  Though it took some time after to make up it’s cost, Disneyland too became a smashing success for Disney, and again July 17 became a day of triumph for the media giant that is celebrated annually every year.  The post-Walt years have seen many rises and falls, but despite growing exponentially larger over the years, the Company hasn’t risked so much in a long time.  But this year, after much development and hype, The Walt Disney Company has introduced their first major project in years that could very well determine the direction that the company takes in the same way that Snow White and Disneyland did.  And because of it, we might be looking at November 12, 2019 as another one of those monumental days in Disney history.

That project of course is the new streaming platform known as Disney+.  Disney+ is only the first of several new direct to consumer streaming channels that are hitting the market over the next few years that is intended to challenge the supremacy of Netflix.  After a multi-year partnership with Netflix, Disney decided to strike out on their own with a streaming platform of their own based on the Netflix model.  Taking advantage of their valuable library of hits, Disney believed that this could give them a better chance of broadening their audience base, while at the same time taking bolder risks without having to worry about box office performance.  This is, of course, based on how well they can develop that subscriber base right of the bat, and there is where the risk lies in creating such a platform.  Netflix already has a decade long history of building up it’s subscriber base, to the point where they now reach nearly a billion households worldwide.  And with the capital that they make off of those monthly subscribers, they are able to reinvest into exclusive content that rivals anything shown in theaters.  Disney no doubt can bring on board it’s loyal base of fans, but it’s in expanding their audience in order to compete with the number of subscribers that Netflix has that they need to work on.  And considering the scale and scope of what Netflix is putting on their channel, Disney likewise has to put on exclusives that match and even surpass those of it’s competitor, and that is likely going to be costly.  Needless to say, Disney needs this new streaming channel to do well, right out of the gate in order for it to justify it’s cost.  Let’s not forget that a lot of investment has to go into all the infrastructure and programming costs, that will likely be tested by a large user base.  Streaming platforms don’t just program themselves; it takes a lot of pre-planning and engineering to make it work, and for any studio unused to such a enterprise, it could prove daunting.  But, then again, Disney has been here before.

Even with all their beloved classics, the Disney library wouldn’t have been able to stand up to the sheer magnitude of what Netflix has on their platform.  That’s why I believe Disney pursued that Fox merger so aggressively last year.  As a singular movie studio, it may not have carried enough properties to challenge the Netflix juggernaut on Day 1, but with two studios worth of properties, Disney might have a shot at it.  I’m not saying that it’s solely why Disney purchased 21st Century Fox, but it probably played a major factor in the process.  I’m sure Fox looked at it as a beneficial factor too, because it freed them up from having to invest in their own streaming platform, with Disney doing most of the work for them.  Disney also has the benefit of having all  their acquired properties over the last decade turning into major successes, including the Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel brands.  It ensures that by making them all exclusive to their platform that they’ll carry those red hot franchises with them and translate those fanbases into a loyal subscriber base.  Even still, there is the risk of what it will cost to keep people subscribing, and that’s where the exclusives come in.  Disney is not resting on the laurels of it’s theatrical hits hitting the platform, and have invested heavily on new properties that will debut only on Disney+ over the next few years, which includes new films and series based on their Star Wars and Marvel properties.  All of this marks a monumental shift in the way that the Disney company operates, and it is proving to be both an exciting and nervous time for the company.  The platform has especially been the labor of love for Disney’s CEO over the last decade, Bob Iger.  Like his legendary predecessor, Uncle Walt, Iger has staked his own legacy and reputation on a project that he strongly believes in.  Whether or not his gamble pays off the same way that it did for Walt will remain to be seen, but it is a testament to Iger’s boldness as the figurehead of the Company that he would put so much personal stake into something that will change the company forever.

With November 12 having already passed us by, we can now judge for ourselves how Disney+ performs and if it is worth the plunge.  The starting cost for a monthly membership is $6.99, or $79.99 annually, almost half of the current cost of a Netflix membership.  For a starting point, this is a fair price to pay to have this much access to the Disney library.  It will likely rise over the next few years, but so will the number of available titles to watch, so Disney is wisely matching their price with the quantity of things to stream on the platform.  I managed to take advantage of an exclusive discount price available only to D23 Expo attendees this year, which gives me three years for the price of two, so I’ve paid through all the way to 2022, which should give plenty of opportunity to venture through everything available on the Disney+.  Like most other people I’m sure, I am coming to this new platform as a long time Netflix subscriber, so I’m definitely looking at this with some preconceived expectations.  So, after a couple days of finally using Disney+, what do I think?  Well, first of all, I have to praise Disney for an A+ effort in it’s presentation.  The look of the platform is incredible.  It shares similarities with the layout of Netflix, but there are subtle little things that really make it shine.  The home page for instance features tabs for the different brands that make up the Disney Company; notably Disney, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel, and National Geographic.  Interestingly, no Fox tab is available, despite there being Fox Studio films on the platform, which I hope is just due to Fox still being fairly new as a part of the company.  What I like is the fact that every tab you click on leads to a home page for every movie, which feature beautiful background art.  Also, thank you Disney for not having an Auto-Play feature when arriving at these home page screens, which is one of my pet peeves about Netflix.  Disney+ as an interface is thankfully very easy to navigate and select what we want to watch.  It shows that they studied the Netflix model well and learned how to best utilize it for themselves.

What is also interesting is that Diseny+ is the first ever streaming channel to offer bonus features for their films.  These most fall into the range of theatrical trailers and deleted scenes, but on some films and shows, you even get more substantial things like Director’s Commentary and Making-of docs available. That in particular really shows how well Disney is serving it’s audience.  Disney has always delivered very well on home video bonuses with their numerous DVD and Blu-ray special editions, so to see them also available here on DIsney+ is a pleasant surprise.  Even more amazing is the fact that Disney has also made bonus features available here that are found nowhere else.  One noteworthy one comes from Avengers: Endgame (2019), which shows a deleted scene involving Tony Stark meeting a teenage version of his daughter in a spirit realm after he uses the infinity stones, in a scene reminiscent of the one at the end of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) with Thanos and Gamora. That deleted scene was not available in the Blu-ray edition, so it’s surprising that Disney made it available here, even with director commentary from the Russo Brothers.   For cinephiles like me, having exclusive bonus features is another major plus to justify our subscriptions to the service.  Not only that, but the presentations of the movies and shows are also top notch.  Apart from a few problems, which I’ll get to soon, the movies all have been given a polished HD remaster that gives them a beautiful pristine look.  You’d expect the newer films to look amazing, but what really struck me was how good all the older stuff appeared.  Disney not only put out their theatrical films on Disney+, but also a large amount of the many animated shorts from the heyday of the Animation studio.  And they all look the best they ever have.

Though there is a lot to be happy about with the platform, I do have a number of nitpicks to talk about.  First off, there are some bug to work out, which is not really too much of a problem, because those are pretty much expected for a newly launched service like this.  For the most part, I have not encountered any login, or access problems, as some other people have complained about online.  I have been able to login and click on whatever I wanted to watch without incident or experiencing the site crashing on me, which is pretty good for a first week.  I am using a direct Ethernet line connected to my PlayStation 4, so that may have helped out somewhat.  Even still, some of the bugs still manifest.  For one thing, every time I have watched something, the picture will freeze while the audio continues to run, which causes me to rewind a bit to put it back in sync.  I believed this has to do with the buffering capabilities of the video, as the movie plays while it still loads, just like on any platform.  But the thing is, I don’t encounter the same problem on Netflix or any other platform of the same ilk, so it’s got to be something on their end.  Hopefully Disney discovers this issue and patches it over time.  You got to remember this is only week number one; bugs are inevitable.  It’s kind of miraculous that we haven’t heard of a complete service meltdown considering the volume of activity that they had to deal with in the first week.  There are other problems though, and it does have to do with the actual content itself.  Some people have noticed that episodes of The Simpsons, which has made all seasons available on Disney+ day 1, have been cropped to fit widescreen TV’s, as opposed to it’s original 4:3 aspect ratio.  This has upset some fans, as some gags need the full picture to be fully appreciated.  I think it’s a major problem, because artistic intent is crucial for entertainment purposes, and cropping a movie to fit a format does hurt the product as a whole.  Luckily, word got out and Disney has publicly stated that the true aspect ration will be restored.  Another controversy came about with the realization that Disney was withholding problematic shows and movies from the channel as well. One such case is the Michael Jackson episode of The Simpsons, which presumably was pulled because of recent allegations made about the pop star.  Leaving the real world issues aside, it feels self serving on their part to not air the episode, despite the fact that it’s nearly 30 years old.  Withholding it only draws more attention to the controversy, which would have been lessened if they had just let the episode be.  It’s a similar situation that they’ve placed themselves into with Song of the South (1946), which is also notably missing from Disney+.  I’m on the side of hiding nothing from the public, and Disney is doing a disservice to both themselves and the audience by trying to sweep these controversial elements in their library under the rug.

Controversy aside, what do I think about the exclusive content available.  Well, or one thing, Disney made the smart choice of turning to Star Wars to deliver a Day One exclusive.  This comes in the form of the hotly anticipated series, The Mandalorian.  This ambitious new show is from the minds of director Jon Favreau and producer Dave Feloni (who previously created the Clone Wars animated series).  They wanted to create a Western style show within the Star Wars universe centered on a Mandalorian bounty hunter in the same mold as the iconic Boba Fett.  Though Disney+ had a lot of projects that were buzz-worthy leading up to it’s premiere, The Mandalorian was no doubt the one at the top of everyone’s list, and Disney was smart to make this one of it’s figurehead shows.  Having seen the only two episodes available so far, I can say that The Mandalorian is everything you want out of a Star Wars series.  It’s epic in scope, features incredible gritty performances from it’s cast which includes Pedro Pascal, Carl Weathers, Taika Waititi, and Werner Herzog of all people.  And it offers up an intriguing mystery that will likely open up a new chapter of Star Wars lore.  If there was ever a winning horse to bet on in Disney+’s early days, this was the right one to pick.  There are other shows available too, like the Kristen Bell produced Encore as well as a High School Musical series.  One show that I have found to be a delightful surprise is a National Geographic produced docu-series called The World According to Jeff Goldblum, which of course stars it’s titular host.  Goldblum is a delightful oddball and the show is tailor made for him, as he takes his unique perspective and investigates various small industries across the country with infectious fascination.  I have yet to look at the exclusive feature films debuting on Disney+, which includes a live action remake of Lady and the Tramp and the Christmas themed Noelle, starring Anna Kendrick and Bill Hader.  Those films no doubt show what’s in store for the future for Disney, as they begin to make more films that will be made exclusively for the platform and not for theatrical distribution.  And there is still many more on the horizon as well, including the very anticipated Marvel limited series, which are going to play a key role in the MCU Phase 4.  The only question remains is how bold will these exclusives be?

And what does this mean for streaming in the long run?  Will this begin to chip away at Netflix’s dominance in the streaming market?  While I do think Netflix will be affected in the short run, I don’t see Disney+ being a Netflix killer either.  Disney+ is just the competition, and if anything, competition will help to make Netflix even better.  Competition leads studios towards making bolder choices, and that is always a good thing for entertainment.  You are already seeing Netflix investing heavily in new talent and acquiring exclusive streaming rights to various properties, like their recent deal made with Nickelodeon.  And as more platforms hit the market in the coming years, like HBO Max and Peacock, both Netflix and Disney+ will only continue to raise the bar higher, hoping to gain the edge in the ever expanding market.  And that’s good news for creators out there, because now there is more demand for their ideas and talent.  Also, without the pressure of box office performance, these platforms can put together more films and shows based on outside the box concepts and perspectives.  It will give representation a boost as people who normally were not given the chance to put something that spoke to their community on screen before.  Up to this point, Netflix had been the kings of online streaming, and because of that, they were the ones who dictated the direction of the market.  Now, with competition from Disney, they are in the position of trying to find the fresh new thing that will keep them on top, and likewise, Disney will find fresh new ideas of their own to meet that challenge.  Like the past big gambles Disney has made in the past, Disney+ could be one that determines what kind of company they will be in the years and possibly decades ahead.  In my opinion, they are off to a solid start, albeit with just bit room for improvement, which they no doubt will take care of as time goes along.  It’s honestly one of the most exciting moments in Disney history and could indeed stand alongside Snow White and Disneyland as one of their greatest triumphs.  One can only hope that they’ll be able to sustain this outburst of creative fervor for a long time.  As for now, sit back in the comforts of your own home and enjoy all those Disney classics that you grew up loving, now just a simple click away.

Part of Our World – How a Little Mermaid Helped a Studio Find it’s Legs 30 Years Ago

When I was seven years old in 1989, I had a surprisingly acute sense of the different styles of animation out there.  That is to say, I could tell when something was a Disney production and when something was made by say Don Bluth or the like.  This was mainly due to the fact that my little film buff mind in the making had seen quite a few films already in the mid to late 80’s, as my mom had taken me and my siblings to the movies often.  And this was also a time when animation was beginning to see a bit of a rebound.  The previously mentioned Don Bluth had struck out on his own as a force in animation and created a string of hits during the decade, including The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986), and The Land Before Time (1988).  But curiously enough, the studio that had revolutionized the medium in the first place was notably quiet during the 1980’s.  Disney Animation was still a big deal to me as a kid, but unbeknownst to me at the time, most of what I was seeing during those formative years were movies far older than I realized.  Disney, in the days before home video, kept their library of classics in regular rotation with movie theater re-releases.  I can recall that the first movies I ever saw in a theater when I was about 2 or 3 were 101 Dalmatians (1961) and Sleeping Beauty (1959).  It’s to the strength of how well those movies hold up that I never caught on how old those movies were as a child, but it is interesting how reliant Disney was on their classics to see them through what were surprisingly turbulent times.  As I grew up and became more informed about the history of Hollywood and the medium of animation, I would soon learn that the 1980’s was a transitional time for Walt Disney animation, and one film in particular would change the course of it’s future forever.

That movie of course would be The Little Mermaid (1989).  Mermaid came at a crucial time for Disney, when it seemed like the future of animation at the studio was in serious doubt.  Since the untimely passing of Walt Disney in 1966, the studio was in a constant state of flux.  Walt’s brother Roy would hold the studio together for a while, but his passing in 1971, mere weeks after the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida, left a significant power vacuum at the studio.  Ultimately, Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law, would take up the position of CEO of the company and he oversaw the continuation of the animation division that had been the backbone of the studio since it’s inception.  During the 1970’s, Disney had modest success with films like Robin Hood (1973) and The Rescuers (1977), but some of the spark that had been present in the animated film’s of Walt’s era felt noticeably absent in these newer films.  The core group of animators, affectionately called the Nine Old Men, were all aging and about to retire, so animation at Disney was facing an uncertain future.  Re-releases of the classic features became much more frequent for the studio as they were trying to milk them for more cash in these cash strapped days, leading Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney to complain that it felt like they were running a museum instead of a studio.  Eventually, Ron Miller ended up greenlighting a new film that would hopefully turn the tide, hoping to capitalize on the fantasy film resurgence of the 1980’s, due to the popularity of movies like The Never-Ending Story (1984).  That movie, The Black Cauldron (1985) was a financial disaster, going way over budget and falling well short at the box office, even losing to The Care Bears Movie (1985).  As a result, Miller’s time as the head of the Disney company came to a disastrous end.

The failure of The Black Cauldron nearly wiped out the credibility of Disney animation forever, and perhaps more than at any other time, it seemed like the house that Mickey Mouse built may actually have turned it’s back on animation forever.  Ron Miller’s exit from the company came out of a shocking turn of events, as Roy E. Disney helped to lead a shareholder revolt which led to his ouster.  In his place, Disney convinced a trio of executives from Paramount to come over to the Burbank studio to help revitalize the company.  These included Michael Eisner, who would become the new CEO, Frank Wells, the new COO, and Jeffrey Katzenberg who would become the new President of the Movie Division, which included the animation department.  Initially, the shake-up of the company put animation in a lower priority, as Eisner and Katzenberg were more intent on turning Disney into a more productive studio for live action films, which was their forte.  But Roy, who was now the Chairman of the company, convinced them to retain the animation department.  However, to appease the new executives wishes, animation was moved out of the Studio Lot offices in Burbank and relocated to a temporary facility in nearby Glendale; another sign of animation’s precarious position at the studio.  Already greenlit features like The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and Oliver & Company (1988) were allowed to continue production, but Katzenberg and Eisner needed convincing for what would come after.  In what Disney animators at the time refer to now as their “Gong Show”, members of the animation department were allowed to present pitches for potential new features that would receive the green-light.  One of the teams that made their pitch were young animation directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who came in with two ideas.  One idea was Treasure Island (but in Space) and the other was an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale classic, The Little Mermaid.  Of course one got the go ahead, while the other went on the shelf for another 15 years.

Though The Little Mermaid had been given the okay from Jeffrey Katzenberg, it’s production was still not without it’s risks.  The studio had fewer resources at their disposal, and creating an animated film with an undersea setting was going to require a significant level of ambition.  Musker and Clements also had to deal with the fact that all of their team would have to work off site at the new Glendale offices, which were less than ideal for animation production.  Yet, a couple of factors helped to give them the boost they needed to not only see this production through, but to also go above and beyond what others expected of them.  First of all, the new studio heads saw greater potential in the marketability of animation, as they saw surprising success with a 50th Anniversary re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) as well as having a box office hit with the hybrid film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) which combined animation and live action to incredible effect.  Also, Musker and Clements looked to Broadway to give this Mermaid a whole different kind of voice.  Up until this point, Disney films had turned to Tin Pan Alley curated songwriters to fill their ever expanding songbook, with the celebrated Sherman Brothers being among the most influential.  But for the Little Mermaid, it was felt that  a more Broadway sounding score would help to elevate the story even more, so the directors reached out to the pair of composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman.  The duo of Menken and Ashman had just come off the success of their musical Little Shop of Horrors, and they were eager to lend their talents to a Disney animated film.  Ashman in particular became very involved, taking on a role as producer and giving significant input into the script as well, particularly when it came to the character development of the mermaid herself, Ariel.  With a confident team now in place, the movie went full steam ahead and what ended up happening after was surprising to a lot of people, and a wake up call for Hollywood in general.

The Little Mermaid took Hollywood by storm.  It outperformed expectations at the box office, and helped to earn Menken and Ashman their very first Oscar wins, both for Original Score and for Original Song (Under the Sea), which was a feat that an animated Disney film hadn’t done since Pinocchio back in 1940.  More importantly, it put Disney back on the map in animation.  After so much doubt in it’s future viability as a part of the Disney Studio during the post Ron Miller years, it became clear, Animation was there to stay.  The Glendale offices were closed and the animators triumphantly returned to their old offices on the Burbank lot.  And with a hit now under their belt, Eisner and Katzenberg were eager to loosen up the purse strings and green-light a whole new batch of animated features, all with the same ambitious scale as The Little Mermaid.  In the years after, Disney kept building on each success, with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994) breaking every box office record thereafter and racking up award after award.   This era would become known as the Disney Renaissance, which The Little Mermaid is often cited as the catalyst point for starting.  As a result, The Little Mermaid holds a special place in the hearts of Disney and Animation fans across the world.  It’s hard to imagine a world where this movie did not exist.  How different would animation be had The Little Mermaid not come out at that pivotal time.  I for one am grateful for it’s existence, because it ushered in a whole new era for Disney animation, rising to the same level as those classics made in Walt’s time.  But it’s also interesting to reflect on exactly why this movie in particular was able to make this significant change in the medium.

I think a large part of why the movie connected was because it fulfilled a need that both the industry and audiences were looking for.  It should be noted that animation is a very costly form of film-making, and a large reason why the medium suffered for a while is because it became too expensive to make movies like them for a while.  Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, while a celebrated masterpiece, was also a financial burden that nearly caused the studio to fall into the red.  That’s why Disney resorted to cheaper methods in the years after, because he couldn’t confidently pull something as ambitious as Sleeping Beauty off again.  Sadly, in the years after Walt’s departure, they became complacent in this cheaper mode of animation, and it made people less interested in the medium for a while.  Don Bluth notably quit Disney to set out on his own because he was tired of the studio taking fewer risks and playing it safe.  By taking on something ambitious like The Little Mermaid, Disney was bucking this trend that they had found themselves in, and were finally embracing the fact that they could do a whole lot better.  It’s clear that Musker and Clements were looking to reach that higher standard that was set during the Walt era, and their team of animators were hungry to prove their worth and show just how great animation could be once again.  From the lush backgrounds, to the vibrant colors, to the expressive animation of the characters, The Little Mermaid just shines with every frame, and it shows that this team of young artists were determined to bring animation back in a big way.  It may not break new ground in the same way as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty had, but the confidence behind it helps to overcome it’s artistic shortcomings in order to earn it’s place alongside those beloved classics.

I believe that a large part of why The Little Mermaid works so well is because the characters are so vividly portrayed.  In particular, Ariel is a real breakthrough of a character that more than anything has helped to make this movie the classic that it is.  Though Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora are iconic Disney princesses in their own right, Ariel was very different.  She was not a damsel in distress waiting for her prince to come; she was very much in charge of her own destiny.  Sure, it still involves falling for a handsome prince, but her strong will made her very different from her predecessors.  She was willing to stand up for herself, speak her own mind, and do whatever it took to find her happiness.  She would lay the groundwork for so many free-thinking Disney heroines in the years ahead, including Belle and Jasmine, and in many ways was the thing that really helped to bring about a Renaissance for Disney animation.  For the first time, a Princess was the driving force of her story, and not a passive player in a grander narrative (though I would argue that Cinderella is often underappreciated in that regard).  A large part of Ariel’s character was no doubt influenced by the casting of a young Broadway ingenue named Jodi Benson, who was brought on board thanks to her close friendship and association with Howard Ashman.  In Ariel, you see the care and attention that Ashman instilled into the character, and it was important to him that her powerful voice would come through, which Benson absolutely delivers on, both in voice and song.  But the strength of a heroine is only measure by how well she reflects against a great villain, and The Little Mermaid has one of the all time greats.  Ursula, the Sea Witch, is an incredibly well designed and performed character, voiced unforgettably by Pat Carroll.  Everything we love about Disney villainesses is found in this character and she stands as one of Disney’s best alongside Maleficent, the Evil Queen, and Lady Tremaine.  Interesting enough, and showing just how risk-taking Disney had become, the visual inspiration for Ursula came from drag queen Divine, who just so happened to be an acquaintance of both Menken and Ashman, who no doubt modeled the character as a tribute.  In both Ariel and Ursula, we see how the Disney animated film came roaring back because these were characters that weren’t just following in other characters’ footsteps, but were instead meant to raise the bar for all those who would come after.

You can imagine how thrilled I was as a seven year old kid to see something like The Little Mermaid.  This movie just had everything I already loved about animation, but was entirely fresh and new.  Only after learning about how much it had to overcome in order to be the classic that it is just makes me appreciate it all the more now as an adult.  There’s a wonderful documentary about the turning point years of the Disney Renaissance called Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009) that I strongly recommend.  It chronicles the years leading up to and after the making of The Little Mermaid and it shows you just how important that movie was in changing the culture at that studio.  Had The Little Mermaid never become the success that it had, Disney may have abandoned it’s animation wing altogether, and animation in general may been lost to the fringes of the industry, relegated to a niche market.  Who knows how much the fortunes of the company may have changed.  Would Disney have continued to grow like it has over the years?  Would it have been bold enough to take critical moves like purchasing Marvel and Star Wars?  Would it have been put on the market and sold to some conglomerate, instead of retaining it’s independence like it always has?  So, many uncertain futures, all of which never happened because one little mermaid helped this struggling company find it’s footing again.  Musker and Clements would go on to become two of the most prolific animation directors of all time, including finally making their Treasure Island in Space project with 2002’s Treasure Planet.  Alan Menken would end up winning so many Academy Awards with Disney, even after the tragic passing of his partner Howard Ashman who succumbed to AIDS related illness in 1991, that the Academy had to change their own rules as a result.  And the animation team, who were once exiled off the studio lot, are now celebrated legends within the industry.  The animation department at Disney continues to be a crucial part of the company, cemented forever because of The Little Mermaid, and they now enjoy their home in the lavish new Roy Disney Animation Building adjacent to the Burbank lot.  If there was ever a movie in the Disney Animation canon that made the most difference, it was The Little Mermaid, because it was the one that ensured it’s survival.  This little mermaid gave Disney back it’s voice, and allowed it to sing strong for my generation in particular, and for all those thereafter.  We got no troubles, life is the bubbles, under the sea.

Monsters Among Us – Why Movies Don’t Have to Scare to Be Terrifying

Horror can be easily described as a genre defined by blood and gore and a bastion of monsters and murderers.  But, that’s mostly been a result of more recent entries in the genre that have leaned more heavily in the direction of graphic violence.  In reality, the horror genre has gone through a significant evolution through the whole history of cinema, dating all the way back to the silent era and all the way up to now.  And what you’ll discover about the horror genre by looking back on it’s history is that it didn’t always need to spook it’s audience in order to make them terrified.  For the most part, most horror filmmakers weren’t allowed to go as far as they are now with depicting blood and gore on screen, so they often relied on using cinematic language to suggest terrifying elements within their movies.  Looking back on some of the first horror films ever made, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), it is quite amazing to see how well they are able to convey a feeling of absolute terror with only light and shadow, as well as some truly Gothic imagery.  They still remain some of the most terrifying films today, even almost 100 years later, and that shows just how powerful the visual image is at conveying terror.  Though the filmmakers were certainly working under limitations, it still enabled them to be creative and allow imagination to fill out the gaps.  Movies that give the audience the opportunity to imagine the unseen horror often stand out more as the most terrifying kind of horror movies, because nothing on screen could ever match up to the worst things that we can think of.  Our imagination can go into surprisingly dark territories when put to the test by these kinds of horror movies, and one thing that I’ve noticed in more recent horror films is a return to that kind of interplay between the filmmakers and the audience.

At the same time, we aren’t seeing horror films with graphic violence and supernatural monsters going away either.  IT: Chapter Two is still performing well at the box office, and that movie is what you’d expect as the atypical Hollywood horror flick.  It’s got scary monsters, jump scares, and a whole lot of blood and gore.  At the same time, it’s also apparent to the viewer that it’s not an entirely scary movie.  In fact, I’d say that half of the movie works as a comedy.  Is the film entertaining, yes; but not all that scary.  Sure there are some genuinely terrifying parts, but I don’t think that you’ll fnd anybody who’ll describe it as the most terrifying movie that’s ever been made.  It’s interesting to note how this contrasts with another Stephen King adaptation, The Shining (1980), which is described by far more people as the most terrifying movie ever made.  The Shining, though it works with the same standards of gore and violence as IT, comes through as far more consistently terrifying.  Why is that?  I believe it has to do with more consistency of tone.  IT bounces back and forth between the goofy and horrific, while The Shining builds it’s feeling of dread towards it’s ultimately horrific ending.  Most filmmakers tend to not like that slow burn style of storytelling and prefer to grab a hold of their audience right from the outset.  But what Stanley Kubrick revealed through his own telling of Stephen King’s classic novel is that by allowing the audience to absorb the movie before pulling the rug out from under them, you intensify their sense of terror as the movie goes along.  It’s that slow march towards the horrific that feels all the more rewarding, because as the movie goes along, the audience grows more and more anxious, knowing that something right around the corner will come out to shock them.

There are two schools of thinking that have developed around how you approach a horror movie, and they follow that divide that we’ve seen between the differences in the aforementioned Stephen King adaptations.  There are some filmmakers that choose to withhold moments of terror in favor of building up the atmosphere, while there are others that don’t waste a single moment in showing you every horrific thing it can.  The latter is usually what you’ll find coming from the major Hollywood studios, because they are the safe and predictable choice.  Taking the former approach is not as ideal for studios to invest in, because it requires far more faith that the audience will jump on board and accept the unpredictable.  But, playing it safe when it comes to horror has it’s pitfalls too, because if there is one thing that a horror movie fan hates, it’s complacency.  You scare someone once, they become guarded for what comes next, so if you just repeat the same kind of scares over and over again, they audience just grows numb to it.  You could see this play out very clearly in the decade long glut of slasher flicks that we got during the 2000’s, with movies like Final Destination (2000), Jeepers Creepers (2001), Valentine (2001) and many others trying perhaps way too hard to follow in the footsteps of Scream (1996).  Eventually the box office returns for these kinds of movies dried up and the studios began abandoning them.  It wasn’t until Blumhouse Productions stepped in the 2010’s that we’ve seen a revitalization for the genre, thanks to the indie producer’s more manageable production budgets.  And by setting the genre on more grounded footing, it allows for more filmmakers to experiment with the pacing of their horror, which itself garners up some interesting results.

One of the most interesting things about horror as a genre is how it’s very much driven by cinematic vision.  Indeed, the success rate for a horror film is determined by how well the filmmaker uses the medium to convey terror on screen.  This is where the groundwork of the pioneers of early cinema becomes so important, because they are the ones who wrote the language of visual horror in the first place.  We have visionaries like F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, James Whale and Tod Browning to thank for making us afraid of what lurks in the shadows at night.  Even when the genre shifted to more graphic violence thanks to the slasher flicks of the 1970’s and 80’s, the influence of those early films can still be felt.  Just look at how John Carpenter lights Michael Myers in Halloween (1978), almost completely in shadow with his mask being the one illuminated element.  Whether we know it or not, we are conscious of the rules of horror film-making, and adhering to those rules is what can make or break the effectiveness of a horror movie.  It’s especially interesting to see this play out in horror franchises, when the cinematic vision is dramatically shifted between films.  For instance, there is such a dramatic shift in tone between William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and the John Boorman directed sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977).  The original Exorcist is deliberately paced, almost procedural drama that smacks it’s audience hard when it arrives at it’s most horrifying moments, while Exorcist II is overblown, showy and decided less terrifying.  One director wanted to take his time building tension while the other wanted to show off, and that difference shows just how important it can be to give you audience the chance to absorb the film before being terrified.  This is one example of where a franchise was derailed by loosing it’s grip on subtlety, but more recently, we’ve seen an example where the opposite was true.  In 2014, Universal and Hasbro made the very cynical move of turning their Ouija board game brand into a horror film franchise.  The result was a standard, cliche ridden mess that did nothing to help promote the game nor make a splash within the genre.  However, when they planned to make a sequel, they turned to an actual horror filmmaker named Michael Flanagan who had previously won raves for his breakout film Oculus (2013) and he crafted a far more subtle, well thought out, and more importantly, scary follow-up with Ouija: Origin of Evil, which was far better received by critics and audiences.

More recently we’ve been seeing movies that have followed that pattern, straying away from fright by the minute tactics and choosing to use atmosphere and tension to terrify their audiences.  One company in particular that seems to be delivering that example is independent outfit A24.  Their catalog of films spans a variety of genres, but what is particularly interesting is how they are delivering in the horror genre.  They seem to favor very artistic horror films, with a very deliberate directorial stamp on them, helping them to stand out among others in the genre.  Indeed, it really is hard to compare an A24 film with anything else in the genre.  They were the ones who put out Kevin Smith’s foray into body horror film-making with Tusk (2014); they released the Robert Eggers period set The Witch (2015); and most recently they made a splash by putting out Ari Aster’s controversial cult movie Midsommar (2019).  Midsommar in particular stands out within the genre, because stylistically it goes against so many horror film-making rules.  Nearly the entire movie is bathed in sunlight, eliminating any use of shadows to hide terrors hiding within view.  It’s also a movie that doesn’t rely on jump scares or significant moments of graphic violence.  It instead plays by the same principle that movies like The Shining and The Exorcist built their moments of horror on, which is to build a sense of growing terror over time, allowing the audience to grow comfortable with the movie before the terror begins to envelop them.  By the end of the movie, the audience has reached a level of unease that may not have shaken them to the core, but nevertheless has left them emotionally drained and petrified.  It’s that kind of horror that really appeals to filmmakers, because it makes the film stick longer in the audiences memory.  Like I said before, audiences grow numb to consistent scares thrown at them, but slowing pulling them into a state of unease is something that leaves a lasting impact, and that’s something that Midsommar relishes in doing.

However, it may surprise you that a movie doesn’t even need to be about something supernatural or horrific to be terrifying.  Sometimes, a real life moment can create a sense of terror that is equal to what we see in any horror movies.  I can tell you that one of the most tense experiences that I had watching a movie this year was in watching the documentary Free Solo on an IMAX screen.  The movie is just about a free solo rock climber named Alex Hannold who tries to be the first person to ever scale the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, without the assistance of safety ropes.  You know already just by the fact that the movie exists that he made it through alive, but even while watching the movie you feel this sense of dread that he could fall to his death at any moment, and that just fills you with this feeling of absolute dread while watching the movie; helped greatly by the you are there with him placements of the cameras.  And that’s just a movie that feels like a horror movie while being something else entirely.  There is another movie I saw this year that on the surface wouldn’t typically be looked at as a horror movie, but to me was absolutely the most terrifying thing I’ve seen all year.  That movie would be Gaspar Noe’s new film Climax.  The French auteur is notorious for breaking cinematic conventions and assaulting his audience will sometimes overwhelming imagery.  With Climax, he presents a very unconventional horror movie by mixing it into the world of dance.  Imagine if Step Up (2006) had a drug trips in it, and that is basically what Climax turns into.  Members of a dance troupe discover that their after party punch has been spiked with LSD, and the remainder of the film becomes something of a bad trip turned into a nightmare, and Noe never holds back.  You feel the overwhelming dread that spreads throughout the movie as the characters are trapped in their inescapable drugged state, and you are right there in the middle of it too.  That to me was more horrifying to watch play out than anything in IT: Chapter Two, and that’s because it’s rooted in a very human horror of a waking nightmare that you can’t escape until it’s run it’s coarse.

Sometimes I’ve found that the most terrifying movies ever made are the ones that are grounded in reality, which is probably why those kinds of movies endure longer than others.  Some of the greatest examples of the genre in fact ignore the cliches of the slasher killer or the supernatural monster, and instead remind us that the worst monsters of all are the ones around us.  To this day, only one movie from the horror genre has won Best Picture at the Oscars, and that’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  Lambs on the surface isn’t exactly a horror movie by traditional standards.  It’s more of a police procedural, with FBI agent Clarice Starling hunting down a serial killer.  Though there are graphic elements in the movie, there are also very few onscreen deaths as well.  Most of the gore is shown after the fact, with only one scene in particular that you would describe as traditionally horrific; Hannibal Lector’s escape scene.  This is a prime example of not playing tricks with the audience, but instead allowing them to absorb the movie and take in the growing tension before it’s released.  When we think of The Silence of the Lambs, the most terrifying moments to us are not the scary moments, but rather the quiet dialogue scenes, where the camera is uncomfortably close to Anthony Hopkins face as he stares directly at us.   Again, it’s using atmosphere to deliver the best effect for the moment.  A similar approach also resonated in David Fincher’s Seven (1995), where much of the terrifying elements are suggested to us and never shown.  We never do see what’s inside the box, but we can paint a terrifying picture in our mind, and that’s just as effective.  It’s all about knowing that right balance to get the audience to feel the dread even when they are not seeing all of it.  And in turn, it shows how we are still using the shadows to deliver the most terrifying of frights on the movie screen.

Horror goes through it’s many different phases over the years, but in the end, several principles still endure to help keep it in line with it’s roots.  That’s the reason why even the silent era movies still manage to scare even all these years later.  The loosening of standards has helped filmmakers get away with a lot more, but as we’ve seen, sometimes it helps to show restraint as well when making a horror movie.  Indeed, one thing that has proven true over the years is that trusting your audience to fill in the gaps has been beneficial to most horror movies, and that by trying to force a scare through too much will end up dulling their senses over time.  That’s why movies like The Shining, The Exorcist, The Silence of the Lambs and Seven are still terrifying today, no matter how many times people have seen them.  They give their audiences a full experience, and reward them for their patience.  I am encouraged to see movies like Midsommar try to follow that example.  Sure, there are the standard Hollywood horror films that serve their purpose, but the real force driving the horror genre into the future are the ones that are being produced on the fringes.  They show that a horror movie can come from any type of style and can be just about anything, like the movie Climax has shown.  Just chasing after scares is not the way to succeed in horror film-making.  It’s finding that right balance between terror and atmosphere, and also just having a story worth telling in the end.  And most of all, it helps to have a genuine human connection, because as real life has shown us, horror is all too real in our lives, and sometimes the worst kinds of nightmares are the ones that we dream up ourselves.

The Gathering Storm – What a Streaming Content War Might Look Like

As we stand now, 3 months away from the end of another decade, it’s interesting to see how far the last ten years have advanced the way that we consume content.  Looking back at the year 2010, when you heard of somebody watching a video online, most likely they would have been referring to short 10 minute clips that had been posted on YouTube.  The fact that the internet would soon be the primary source of our daily media intake was almost an inconceivable idea back in those days.  Back then, online videos were short little diversions, movies were still primarily destined for the big screen, and Netflix was still operating completely through their by mail servicing.  But, as the decade moved ahead and newer advances in communication made it more possible to download and process large files of content faster and cheaper than before, it suddenly changed what was possible in the realm of entertainment.  Now, people are able to watch what they want wherever they want, whether at home or on the go.  And through these advances, a new market in entertainment has opened up that has not only grabbed the attention of all the major studios in the business, but has become their primary in recent years.  This is the beginning of the Streaming Era in Hollywood, where the new cache is having a platform where people will pay a monthly fee to watch movies and shows that can only be seen on the specific channel.  This is a new frontier for the industry, as it enables them to bring content direct to the consumer in ways that have been impossible up to now.  Before, movie studios needed to work with the movie theater chains or the cable providers in order to have their catalog of content presented to the public.  But with streaming, the power is put into the studios hands, as they are now allowed a platform where they can bypass all other channels and bring the content directly into the home through an internet connection.

Netflix was the first to dip their toes into this new form of distribution.  First off, they added their streaming option to their monthly subscription plan as an alternative for people who thought the through the mail servicing was not fast enough.  As the streaming option became more popular over time, Netflix added more and more content to their streaming package.  What particularly became popular on their streaming platform was the television shows, as people were watching shows like Friends, Seinfeld, and many other classic shows that they had missed out on in their initial runs.  This created a new behavior for audiences which we know now as “binge watching,” as it was discovered that most people were watching multiple episodes all at once; sometimes even entire seasons in one sitting.  As Netflix saw their subscriptions rise because of this new streaming option, they suddenly came up with a bold idea; why not make our own shows, exclusive to our platform.  It a short amount of time, they put together a plan to stream original programming on their platform, which in turn would change the industry in a dramatic way.  Their first show, the short lived Lilyhammer (starring Steven Van Zandt) was not much to talk about, but their second exclusive series, the critically acclaimed House of Cards, became the talk of the town.  Suddenly, people took notice and Netflix emerged as a real contender in Hollywood.  With several more shows like Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things having an almost perennial presence in the Awards races, not to mention garnering devoted fan-bases,  it was only a matter of time before Netflix would look to conquer the original film market as well.  This is where the platform has seen the most push back from the industry, as movie theater chains have aggressively fought Netflix’s day and date release model, barring them from screening their movies in most chains across the country.  But, as Netflix has welcomed in more and more prestigious talent to their burgeoning studio, the pressure has risen on the industry to consider what place streaming should take as a part of the legacy of the business.

Though Netflix was the first to put their assets into the streaming market, they certainly weren’t the last.  In the years since, online retailer Amazon would launch their own platform through their Prime membership, giving exclusive content to their customers as well.  Though they have been competitive with Netflix on the television series end, with their own award winning shows like Transparent and The Marvelous Ms. Maisel, they have not followed their rival in the original film race as much, instead opting to form an Amazon Studios division to produce movies for theatrical distribution.  Hulu, which had already been streaming broadcast television shows before Netflix, decided to follow their lead and make exclusive content as well, both for television and film.  In an interesting confluence of events, both Netflix and Hulu even had competing films covering the same subject released days apart, namely the Fyre Festival documentaries, which I covered here.   Though all these channels have done a lot to innovate and move the industry towards creating a streaming market, we still refer to the format itself as the “Netflix” model.  And this is because out of all the competition there is in the streaming world, Netflix has positioned themselves as being the industry leader.  Amazon and Hulu are massive platforms in themselves, but Netflix has become a part of the culture in a way that the others quite haven’t reached.  As of right now, much of the maneuvering going on within the industry is in direct response to what Netflix has been doing.  Netflix has already conquered the video rental business, and even put Blockbuster out of business as a result.  They are dominant in the television market, which has forced cable companies to change their way of doing business as many people have opted out of their cable plans in favor of the more affordable Netflix.  What’s to stop them from taking on the movie studios as well.

That is why this year is a big turning point for the streaming era.  In one month, two new streaming platforms from two of the most formidable media companies in the world are going to be launching; Disney+ and AppleTV+.  For the first time ever, Netflix will be seeing competition that may actually affect their dominance in the streaming market.  Disney+ for one takes advantage of their extensive library of always popular content, and they are also bring a lot of exclusive stuff to the table with new shows based on their Marvel and Star Wars properties.  And then you have AppleTV+, which is going to benefit from the world’s largest corporations seemingly bottomless supply of funds for exclusive content.  They are also launching with subscription plans significantly less costly than Netflix currently is.  Netflix has certainly been planning for stiffer competition, as they’ve been signing exclusive contracts with some of the industry’s hottest producers right now, like American Horror Story’s Ryan Murphy, Game of Thrones‘ David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and many more.  Not to mention, they’ve been pushing to get due recognition from the film community by campaigning hard for year end awards.  They made their best case yet with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma last year which took home several Oscars and nearly won the top award as well (and probably should’ve).  They are again making their run for Awards season this year, with movies like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman being heavily pushed, stating once and for all that Netflix, and by turn streaming itself, is an essential part of this industry and should be recognized as such.  Despite how this year will turn out, the streaming market is only going to keep expanding, with platforms like HBO Max, Peacock, and the short form channel Quibi all premiering in the next few years, so indeed, Netflix’s drive to change the industry is actually happening.

But what is that going to mean for the industry itself.  We have already seen a big shift happen with theatrical distribution as a result.  There has been a noticeable decline in recent years with regards to mid range productions making it to the big screen.  By mid-range, I mean movies that aren’t tent-poles but at the same time are not indies either.  These are typically comedies, romantic dramas, and the modest budgeted action flick.  They are disappearing from the multiplexes, where only a decade ago they once dominated.  This is mainly due to the fact that most of them have moved over to streaming, where these kinds of movies are much less of a financial risk if they don’t perform well.  What we’re left with at the local box office is big tent-pole films on one end and small budget indies on the other; mainly the only movies that the industry deems worthy of the big screen because they are the only ones that can turn a profit in the end.  In order to compete, movie theater chains have in a way adopted a model not unlike their streaming competitors, with many chains now adding their own subscription service to their patrons.  But even still, the options at the local multiplex are not as diverse as they once were, because streaming has soaked up so many of the mid-range films that used to drive a wider variety of people to the box office.  With more and more studios beginning to set up their own exclusive platforms, you may see even more of those types of movies taken out of the theatrical market and made available exclusively online.  It’s all going to depend on whether movie theaters are able to retain their appeal as an alternative to the home viewing experience.  The subscription model, first brought to the industry by the now defunct MoviePass, may be the key, but up until now, it was only Netflix they had to contend with, and not a whole industry of streaming studios.

Another thing that may drastically change in the years ahead is the value that is put on available content.  For one thing, Netflix has recently been on a shopping spree in order to lock up exclusive streaming rights to content that they know is going to drive people to their platform.  Seinfeld, the now 20-plus year old, just sold it’s streaming rights to Netflix from parent company Sony for a mind-boggling $500 million.  This was in direct response to Warner Brothers opting to take their shows Friends and The Office off of Netflix so that they could stream it exclusively on their platform, HBO Max.  Decade prior, you could probably expect studios to sell broadcasting privileges to cable outlets for a few million here and there.  But now, to have exclusive streaming rights, a single show now carries a half billion dollar price tag, and that’s only because it’s a big part of the way audiences consume content now.  Whoever has the sturdiest library will be the ones who make the most money, and though Netflix has a respectable collection of content to their name already, they don’t have the decades worth of movies and TV shows that the big studios do.  So, before Sony gets an idea to start their own exclusive streaming channel, Netflix is making sure that their prized properties find a home with them beforehand.  With Disney set to launch their platform in November, they carry an already built in library of not one, but two major studios (themselves and Fox), so the need for exclusive content with name recognition is pretty much the most valuable thing to have right now in the industry, and it’s only going to get fiercer in the years ahead; especially if some of these studios have to spend a lot more in order to compete.

One thing though that hasn’t really factored into the discussion of the upcoming streaming wars is how much of an impact will it put on the customer themselves.  For right now, there is a lot of excitement for what’s coming down the line, especially when it comes to all the properties that have been announced in the past few months.  But, as more and more channels are being announced as being in the works, people are going to start wondering if they are going to be able to afford all of it or not.  Right now, cable TV packages can cost in the range from $100 a month to $500, depending on how many channels they offer.  Streaming platforms are not part of those packages, and operate in a separate way; unless they make a deal with cable companies for a tie in promotion, like Amazon and Netflix sometimes do.  Some people have opted to leave their cable subscriptions behind and just do streaming instead, which has hurt cable providers a little bit, but not much as streaming still needs broadband internet to function.  But, when you look at all the streaming channels that are coming over the horizon, the cost of leaving cable for streaming may not look like the bargain it once was.  Netflix has already raised their basic streaming package over time, from a modest $8 a month to a now $12 fee, with possibly more increases down the road.  Disney and Apple are starting out with a relatively low $7 and $4 a month respectively, but again, the price might change over time.  And with HBO Max, Universal’s Peacock, and multiple other platforms having yet to announce their introductory monthly rates, you may in the end having a streaming bill in the $100 a month range all by itself, in addition to your internet fee.  Thankfully, cancelling a streaming subscription is easier than exiting a cable package, but as content becomes more and more exclusive over time, people are going to be hard pressed to make tough choices about which platforms they choose, and that might mean that some of these platforms may not survive as well as hoped over time.  Even Netflix may lose part of their subscriber base, if they are unable to compete.

What is fundamentally interesting about this point in time in the entertainment industry is all the uncertainty.  We don’t know how this upcoming streaming war will play out.  We just know that it’s about to get a whole lot bigger in the years ahead.  Already we are witnessing a change in the industry that may or may not benefit the quality of the content we watch.  I for one think that competition is a good thing for the industry, as it allows for more  creative risks to be taken, but even this comes at a price.  I certainly want the movie theater experience to survive the competition from streaming, and hopefully their own subscription based system might be the key to that survival.  Also, the added cost that it’ll put on the consumer might have a negative effect over time, as exclusive content might remain out of reach for those who can’t afford to add on that one extra channel.  We may end up living in a world where people only watch their movies and shows from one studio and nowhere else, which is kind of already happening at the worldwide box office, with Disney taking an almost 40% share of total theatrical ticket sales.  But, even with all that, we are also witnessing a flourishing of creativity in Hollywood now that we haven’t seen in a long time.  This Golden Age of television that people have been proclaiming recently has been largely fueled by the risk-taking new shows that have come from streaming, and that same flourishing is beginning to extend into films as well.  I love the fact that Netflix has invested in prestigious talent and given them free reign to do whatever they want.  It’s a refreshing change from the more budget-conscious, focus group driven model of the last few decades.  Despite what it may do to my wallet over time, I have already signed up for Disney+ and am considering adding more streaming platforms into my daily options instead of less.  There’s a reason why so many film studios are jumping on board, because streaming allows them a direct connection to the audience that they’ve never had before, and with a solid stream of revenue coming from monthly payments, many of them can return to making movies and shows the way they want to make them; with renewed confidence.

Rule Number One – Talking About 20 Years of Fight Club

When people discuss the years that are considered among the best ever for movies, probably the most recent one to come into that conversation would be the year 1999.  Closing out the 20th century as well as the last millennium with quite a bang, we saw a year that banged out one classic after another, many of which have gone on to be highly influential 20 years later.  But the interesting thing about 1999 is the fact that so many of the best loved movies from that year were ones that at the time were not major hits upon release.  I already spotlighted one of those movies a couple weeks ago with my retrospective on Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant here.  I myself in particular have really found the legacy of these rising classics particularly interesting, because they go all the way back to when I started paying closer attention to the movie industry in general.  In 1999, I was a sophomore in high school who had just seen Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen and knew that my life’s path was going to be in the pursuit of film-making.  Because of this renewed interest, I began expanding my range of films to look out for, trying to open my perspective to include a wider spectrum of what the industry had to offer.  And in the early fall of 1999, I managed to catch a movie that not only hit the right spot, but would go on to become the first movie that I ever proclaimed to be the best movie of the year, since this was also the first year ever that I began to keep track of that distinction.  That movie would be the shocking, “in-your-face” spectacle that was David Fincher’s Fight Club.  Fight Club knocked me off my feet the first time I ever watched it, and even 20 years later it still packs a punch.   But the interesting I discovered while revisiting it was how different it plays today than it did back then.  The movie still holds up, don’t get me wrong, but the message takes on a whole different meaning in today’s cultural climate.

Much like The Iron Giant had in the weeks prior to the release, Fight Club was not financially successful right away.  It didn’t bomb as heavily as Giant did, since it was not a terribly expensive movie to make, but it still underwhelmed, given that it had an A-list star like Brad Pitt on the marquee, as well as two rising, Oscar-nominated names like Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter involved as well.  Critics were even divided at first.  Roger Ebert notably gave the movie a thumbs down review, stating that he found the movie an unfocused mess.   But, as with most movies that become classics long after their initial theatrical release, Fight Club found it’s audience on home video.  Fight Club came out at just the right time to take advantage of this new technology called DVD, and it was the first cult hit to rise on this new format.  In time, the movie became a best-seller and critics were starting to change their tune.  For a lot of people, the movie was a revelation, as well as a breath of fresh air after a decade of polished, studio fare.  Like it’s fellow 1999 alum, The MatrixFight Club brought a notably punk style to the medium of film; changing the way movies looked, sounded, and even edited.  But while The Matrix had a sleek cyber-punk aesthetic to it, Fight Club was grungy, dank, and even rotting at the edges at some points.  It was a movie that was held nothing back and presented a decidedly anti-Hollywood aesthetic to the big screen.  And a lot of people started to ask themselves; is this movie the future of film-making?  Is this the start of an American New Wave?  Did Meat Loaf actually give an awards worthy performance in a movie?  No matter what anybody said then or in the years after, Fight Club had left a mark on the film industry.

Perhaps one of the things that really started pulling in new people to the movie was the unexpected way it played a trick on it’s audience.  Again, the year 1999 had many noteworthy things that left an impact on audiences, but one that really stood out was the renewed popularity of the plot twist.  M. Night Shayamalan had earlier that same year stunned people across the world with his now infamous twist ending to The Sixth Sense, helping to propel that film to record breaking success.  But, at the same time, Fight Club had it’s own shocking plot twist that in some ways is even better executed than Shayamalan’s.  Had The Sixth Sense not taken so much of the thunder away in the weeks prior to Fight Club’s release, I wonder if the revelation in Club may have hit harder than it initially did.  For those of you who haven’t seen the film and don’t know what I’m talking about, well fair warning, but there are SPOILERS ahead.  The plot centers around a nameless protagonist known only in the credits as the Narrator (played by Edward Norton).  After a rough couple of weeks of working a thankless job and going to therapy, he runs into a quirky gentleman on a plane ride home named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).  After the Narrator’s apartment burns down, he crashes at Durden’s run down home in the bad part of town, and the two come up with a crazy way of letting out some of their aggression; they begin to fight each other.  In time, other people want to join in and both the Narrator and Tyler start what ends up becoming known as the “Fight Club.”  Over time, the Club becomes bigger with Durden making more demands of it’s members to declare their loyalty to the group, creating in away a cult like organization.  This troubles the Narrator who desperately tries to reverse the zealot like direction this club is going in.  But, in his efforts, he finds that he can no longer reach Tyler and the Club has transformed into a full on terrorist organization, all of whom look to him as their leader.  And then we get the bombshell.   The Narrator cannot locate Tyler Durden, because he is Tyler Durden.  The Tyler we’ve seen is just an imaginary friend that has manifested through the Narrator’s paranoid schizophrenia, and with that, the movie reaches it’s legendary peak.

The plot twist stems from the original novel of the same name from author (and fellow Oregonian) Chuck Palahniuk, but it’s execution is so well handled by director David Fincher and screenwriter Jim Uhls.  For nearly two-thirds of the movie, you have to buy into the belief that Tyler Durden and the Narrator are two different people, and not two personalities in one body.  The excellent chemistry between Edward Norton and Brad Pitt sells that dynamic perfectly, and you just have to admire the fact that the movie expertly keeps you in the dark until the bombshell drops.  But that’s not the only thing that makes the movie a classic.  This movie, probably more than any other, cemented the Fincher style.  David Fincher had won acclaim four years prior with the unforgettable thriller Seven (1995), and was able to deliver a compelling drama with The Game (1997).  But with Fight Club, we saw Fincher really begin to play around with the camera, utilizing CGI for the first time, which he pushed to the limit with what was possible in 1999.  This was the first movie where Fincher started using his high speed pans, which would take the camera across the plain of view at such incredible speeds and through impossible barriers that could never be done with a standard camera (like through concrete walls or even something as tiny as the ring of a coffee mug).  Such a technique has since become David Fincher’s signature, and it put him on the map as a filmmaker.   The movie also defies many cinematic conventions, like several points where it breaks the fourth wall, and reminds you that you are indeed watching a movie.  There’s a great moment where we see Pitt’s Tyler working as a movie projectionist, and while he is working with the Narrator speaking directly to the audience about what a projectionist does, Tyler points to the point of the screen to the reel marker appears just as it flashes on screen, referring to it as a “cigarette burn.”  When I became a projectionist myself in college, you can bet that I called those markers cigarette burns as well.  And it’s that free-wheeling sense of anything goes that made Fight Club so appealing to a young, blossoming film buff like me back in 1999.  Indeed, watching it only gain in popularity over the years has been very satisfying as someone who took to it so strongly from the very beginning.

But, after 20 years since it’s initial release, it’s interesting to see how differently it plays now than it did then.  In 1999, the world was a much different place than it is today, and it’s amazing to re-watch the movie in 2019 and see how far ahead of it’s time it was.  There are some things that both the novel and the movie couldn’t have foreseen, like the rise of social media and the radicalization of fringe political movements, but given how so many elements of the story feel so relevant today, it’s really amazing to see how prophetic Fight Club actually is.  Some would argue that Fight Club is actually partially to blame for some of the discord that we see in the world today.  The movie has been described as a textbook for how to start a radical terrorist organization, showing step by step how groups such as those form; preying on angered, disenfranchised civilians to join their ranks in order to spread chaos as a means of pushing forward a demented agenda.  While the movie never intends to endorse this kind of behavior, it nevertheless shows a detailed look into the formation of a powerful political movement formed around a dangerous ideology.  And some have argued that Fight Club glamorizes it as well.  It’s hard to not notice that some of the tactics that the followers of Tyler Durden enact within the movie bear many resemblances to actions taken by fringe groups today.  The mayhem of the Fight Club cult are in many ways akin to the pranks pulled by Internet trolls today, though many are much more malicious than anything that Tyler Durden came up with.  There’s also the unfortunate way that elements of Fight Club has been co-oped into some hate groups’ talking points.  You know the term “snowflake” that the Alt-right likes to use dismissively against their political rivals; that came from Fight ClubFight Club certainly, as a movie, wanted to stir the pot a bit to shake conformities within society, but it’s unfortunate that the movie has in some ways emboldened some of the worst in our society, who have taken the absolute wrong message out of the movie as a whole.

The thing that gets gets ignored the most with regards to Fight Club as a narrative is that it is first and foremost a satire.  In particular, it’s a scathing indictment on the societal definition of masculinity.  One thing that gets forgotten about the movie is how the character of the Narrator is defined.  The movie is about him trying to discover for himself what it means to be a man.  First the story attacks how corporations define masculinity, as the Narrator spends his money on things that society says should define his worth as a man, but it all instead makes him feel empty.  He only finds true happiness after he does the least masculine thing that society has defined; weeping openly in the arms of another man, or in this case the voluptuous “bitch tits” of his friend Robert ‘Bob’ Paulson (an unforgettable Meat Loaf).  Later, he creates the persona of Tyler Durden through a need to have an ideal, masculine friend to rely upon, and that relationship in turn leads the Narrator down the road to promoting an ideology where the ideal of masculinity is defined by how hard you can hit the man that you consider your friend.  This later evolves into the desire to destroy beautiful things, because they are a threat to a masculine ideal because they come from a decadent, corporatized place.  This leads him to nearly killing pretty boy Angel Face (a young Jared Leto), because of that desire to destroy something he found beautiful, which gets to another deep psychological underpinning of the story.  It should be noted, this movie called by many as a Fascist, testosterone fueled pro-male fantasy, was authored by a politically progressive, openly gay novelist who lives in the hipster capital of America; Portland, Oregon.  This story was never intended to celebrate the ideal of the Heterosexual, Macho, hyper-masculine American male; it was meant to be a scathing indictment of that kind of person, and for some reason or another, that seems to have been ignored by both some of the movie’s fans as well as it’s critics.

Much like other misunderstood satires such as Blazing Saddles (1974) and Tropic Thunder (2008), the message seems to get lost in all the noise so that it appears to some that it’s participating in the very practice that it’s trying to mock.  The way that I look at the movie Fight Club today is not as a step by step breakdown of how terrorist groups are formed like some have described it, but as an extremely effective dissection of the root causes of toxic masculinity.  The brilliance of Chuck Palahniuk’s story is in the characterization of his Narrator.  The fact that he is never named in  the novel just illustrates the blank canvas that he is supposed to be in the narrative, and how that emptiness leads him down more dangerous roads in order to fill that empty void.  Tyler Durden is a fiction made reality through the Narrator’s deranged desire to find a better version of himself, and as the story shows us, the desire to be more manly in a way drives one to become a little more monstrous each day.  Palahniuk spotlights a very interesting point here, in how a pursuit towards a perceived ideal in masculinity sometimes drives men, even rational thinking men, into acting against their own self interest.  This sometimes manifests in some ways towards actions like men taking unnecessary risks in order to prove their manhood (such as the car wreck test halfway through the movie), or threatening violence against those who threaten their masculinity.  For the narrator, he’s on a dangerous journey of self-discovery, which ultimately leads him towards reconciling his perceived inadequacies with what he ultimately wants to be as a man; which is closer to being more compassionate.  In order to get there, he literally has to destroy a part of himself in order to excise Tyler Durden completely from his mind; bringing the self-harm metaphor right to the forefront.  You can see the same kind of toxic masculinity represented in those who same politically extreme groups that tout Fight Club as an inspiration, despite missing the whole point of the movie.  How many men have unnecessarily harmed themselves trying to prove their masculine worth.  How many of those men also attack other for not being masculine enough to their liking.  The same hatred can be found in all those closeted males who take their frustration over their own sexuality and channel it into persecution of openly queer people as a result.  Palahniuk, as a queer person himself, must have wanted to examine where that line of thinking might be coming from, and the narrative he found in the process did a brilliant job of helping to shed light on this issue in a meaningful way.

That’s why Fight Club feels just as relevant today, because we are currently in a climate where definitions of toxic and ideal masculinity are again beginning to stir heated debate.  In my opinion, Fight Club subverts what you might expect of it.  It presents this hyper-masculine pastiche on it’s surface, but underneath, it’s a biting satire of the destructive paths men take in order to reach an unrealistic ideal.  It’s just too bad that much of it’s message has been lost over the last 20 years, and in some ways has been unfairly misinterpreted by both some toxic fans and also by ill-informed critics.  It’s critique of toxic masculinity may be the most profound we have ever seen put on film.  It’s a shame that in the same year, the Academy Awards celebrated a different kind of examination of masculinity with the very overrated American Beauty (1999).  American Beauty also examines the psychological journey of a disgruntled American male, but instead of critiquing this kind of character, it almost lionizes his sudden transformation into a self-absorbed rebel, even making his lust over a teenage girl as a part of his awakening enlightenment.  It doesn’t help that he’s also played by an equally toxic human being named Kevin Spacey.  Suffice to say, American Beauty has aged terribly over the years and feels very much like a relic of it’s era, while Fight Club has become more relevant than ever.  No other movie really digs this deep into the root causes of toxic masculinity and shows it reaching such dire extremes.  What Fight Club shows is that much of the discord that arises from toxic masculinity comes from a dangerous sense of fear; fear of not being seen as manly enough by society and how that leads to destructive ends in order to compensate for those perceived weaknesses.  Tyler Durden is not a poster boy for the best of masculinity; he is a villain bent on destructive ends.  And the scary thing is, there’s a little Tyler Durden in every man, young or old, who feels like they are lacking something in their life.  Fight Club, even with the veneer of it’s revolutionary punk aesthetic, ultimately wants us the viewer to choose compassion over destruction, and that is why it continues to remain a beloved classic to this day.  Even 20 years later, I am still confident in my choice to have it top my list for the year 1999.  And by examining how it’s message resonates today, I am not just confident it’s the best movie of 1999, I think it stands as one of my favorite movies, period.  I am James’ complete lack of surprise.

A Giant’s Journey – The Triumphant 20 Year Rise of The Iron Giant

The art-form of animation has many different faces, but it’s evolution over the years has heralded many different eras with the medium as well.  For the longest time, when people thought of animation, the thing that would pop into their mind was the traditional hand drawn, painted cel form of animation.  This was mainly because the people responsible for bringing animation into mainstream popularity were the people at the Walt Disney Company as well as those at Warner Brothers with their line of Looney Tunes shorts.  And for many years, they set the standard for what the public would accept as the look of hand drawn animation.  While the medium was pushed forward by leaps and bounds made by the artists at both studios, the success they saw also in a way stifled any artistic deviation within animation.  Disney stuck mostly with making safe, family-friendly fare while Warner Brothers stuck with cartoonish slapstick, and since they saw continued success because of this, other up and coming studios never strayed too far from the formula.  To really take the medium further into more daring territory and do something completely different in animation, you usually had to work independently like animators Richard Williams and Ralph Bakshi did, and those guys were lucky to see even one of their movies turn a profit.  After a tough time for animation in the 70’s and 80’s, the Disney studio came roaring back with an era now known as the Disney Renaissance.  Again, with one studio dictating the popularity of the art-form, there was less enthusiasm for deviating from the formula in animation, and the business of animation became less about finding one’s own voice and instead more like seeing what Disney was doing right and trying to copy it.  That unfortunately led to many competitors creating what you could call Disney-lite animated films, which were movies trying way to hard to be like a Disney movie but lacking that one thing that made Disney stand apart.  In turn, this only drove down the different brands of these animation studios, as audiences lost their trust in them.  Sadly this happened at the worst possible time for that one movie that indeed stood out from the rest and was destined to become a classic on it’s own; The Iron Giant (1999).

If you could point to an animated movie that came from outside the Disney Studios that can be considered among the best of all time, Iron Giant would be that movie.  In fact, when I compiled my own list of the best non-Disney or Pixar animated films as seen here, this was the one that I put at the very top.  This movie is an absolute masterpiece of animation, and the thing that is great about it is that it can stand perfectly on it’s own without ever having to be compared to another film in the Disney canon.  It is stylistically very different, taking more of it’s inspiration from Cold War era character designs as well as using a Norman Rockwell style grounded approach to the environments.  In terms of narrative, it also deviates heavily from Disney.  It’s not a fairy tale, but rather science fiction.  There are no talking animals, no songs, no magical happy ever after.  It’s about real people in a real town who are suddenly introduced to a very massive visitor from outer space.  And it even deals with some very heavy subjects like death, social paranoia, war, and being ostracized for being different in small town America.  But at the same time, the movie is not the anti-Disney movie.  Classic Disney from the Golden Age of the 1950’s also gives the movie some inspiration, particularly in the color palette.  And it’s message of friendship between the unlikeliest of companions is something that feels like it could have appealed to even Uncle Walt himself.  The movie is rightly seen as a masterpiece today, but believe it or not, The Iron Giant was in it’s time one of the biggest box office flops of it’s day.  It performed so badly in fact that the animation studio responsible for it, Warner Brothers Feature Animation, closed it’s doors soon after.  Apart from it’s unusual road to becoming reality, the really fascinating story about The Iron Giant is how it managed to stay in people’s consciousness and eventually find it’s audience, sometimes even many years later.  It’s all a testament to the fact that great movies never die; they just get reborn.

The beginnings of The Iron Giant stem all the way back to the very Cold War era setting that is seen in the film.  The original children’s book on which the movie is based called “The Iron Man,” was written by author and poet Ted Hughes.  His book is a simple tale of friendship that is built around the bond between a boy and the living war machine that he befriends.  Within the tale, Hughes delivers a powerful yet subtle anti-war message, essentially exploring the idea of what would happen if a “gun” decided it didn’t want to be a “gun.”  It’s in choosing the path of refusing one’s destructive programming in favor of a pacifist life that defines the Giant’s story and it’s that message that became so appealing to filmmakers interested in adapting the story.  You can see echos of the tale in movies like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992), but it wasn’t until a rising star in the field of animation named Brad Bird came across it that the book was finally going to see it’s jump to the big screen.  Bird, a contemporary of many now legendary Disney animators, managed to find his footing in animation outside the “house of mouse,” working on shows like The Simpsons and Amazing Stories instead.  Despite calls from Disney to come over and join their team, Bird instead set up home in the newly formed Feature Animation unit of Warner Brothers.  Warners was renowned for their Looney Tunes shorts, but until the 90’s they had largely stayed away from making feature films like Disney.  But, with the Disney Renaissance becoming a monumental success, Warners quickly cobbled together their own studio to take advantage of this new trend that was making a mint for their competitor.  Their first feature would be the very Disney-esque Quest For Camelot (1998), with Bird’s directorial debut coming up second right after it.  Though someone of Bird’s talent was capable of tackling any project, it’s still logical that The Iron Giant would be the thing that he would tackle first as a director.

For one thing, the Cold War era setting is something of a favorite for the director.  If you look through all of Brad Bird’s filmography, there is a clear heavy influence of the retro graphic style of the 1950’s throughout his films.  It’s there in The Incredibles movies as well as the movie Tomorrowland (2015), which practically is a time capsule of a different era in itself.  No doubt he wanted to explore that era graphically, but the movie’s powerful story of friendship no doubt played a big part in bringing him to the project.  Working with a script adaptation from Tim McCanlies, Bird’s approach to Ted Hughes original book is remarkably faithful, albeit it changes the original English setting to a distinctly American one, and it also removes the giant alien bat that appears in the original book’s climax.  No doubt the focus was put on getting the relationship right between the Giant and the young boy, and that’s where the movie really soars as a narrative.  There is nothing forced or schmaltzy about the bond that they form.  When we meet the young boy named Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) he already has an interest in strange and out there ideas, so he would respond to meeting a 50 foot tall robot differently than a more closed minded individual.  The Giant himself is also wonderfully naive about his true nature, and the movie has a lot of fun showing him forgetting just how big and powerful he really is; acting like a giant, metal puppy dog.  There’s no dobut that the animated medium was the only way to effectively tell this kind of story, because through animation, you could best convey the wide range of emotions seen in the Giant’s transformation from monster, to playmate, to ultimately savior.  But, it’s also a testament to Brad Bird as a director that he grounds the movie in a sense of authenticity as well.  Even while the extraordinary is happening throughout the story, it never feels cartoonish nor fanciful.  And in that sense, Bird made an animated feature that indeed felt unlike anything else at the time.

Unfortunately, the foundation on which the film was going into theaters standing upon was far from solid.  The Disney Renaissance was already beginning to wane in it’s later years, with modest successes like Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999) being overshadowed by the disappointing receptions of Pocahontas (1995) and Hercules (1997).  Plus, all the copycat films trying to follow the Disney formula like Fox’s The Swan Princess (1995) and Don Bluth’s Anastasia (1997) all under-performed and made audiences grow weary of the animation medium as a whole.  At the same time, computer animation was growing into a bigger threat with every new release, with Pixar’s Toy Story (1995) and A Bug’s Life (1998) both becoming huge box office hits.  Naturally the timing was terrible for Warner Brothers who came too late into the came.  Quest for Camelot was panned by critics, being labeled as a cheap Disney knock off, which did not put the new studio on solid footing.  A lot of pressure was resting on The Iron Giant to pick up the ball after Camelot had dropped it.  The movie did, thankfully, receive widespread praise from critics, but that didn’t help it enough.  The movie was unfortunately released the same mid-August weekend as M. Night Shyamalan’s  The Sixth Sense (1999), which of course became a box office phenomenon.  After being buried in theaters, the movie only made a quarter of it’s original budget back, which only accelerated the downfall of Warner’s animation studio.  The studio cut it’s staff after The Iron Giant’s initial release and left only a handful to finish their next and last feature, the animation/ live action hybrid Osmosis Jones (2001).  Brad Bird left Warners soon after and made his way over to Pixar, where he was able to get a little pet project off the ground called The Incredibles (2004), which would of course help turn him into a household name thereafter.  It’s just unfortunate that once a studio finally had something special to set it apart in a Disney driven world, it was far too late to undo all the bad mistakes of the past.

But, like all great movies, the film didn’t fade into obscurity.  Those film critics who heralded the film in it’s initial release continued to sign it’s praises long after.  Eventually, word of mouth carried the movie along, and once it reached home video, it sold far better than Warner Brothers had expected.  After that, the Cartoon Network licensed the movie for airing on their channel, and again, it enjoyed solid viewership every time it played. With solid home entertainment numbers coming in, the movie no longer appeared to be the embarrassment that Warner Brothers had thought they had before.  Now, it was a modest success, albeit now at a time when Warner Brothers no longer had the infrastructure in place to follow up this success with.  It didn’t matter at the time that they no longer were making animated movies, since Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings were already making them plenty of money.  But, The Iron Giant did become a clear sign that they could make an animated movie that could rival those made by Disney in terms of quality, if not box office success.  The fact that of all the animated movies released in the year 1999, including Tarzan, South Park, and Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant is the one that celebrated the most 20 years later is really a testament to it’s lasting staying power.  Eventually, Warner Brothers would reopen their animation studios, albeit for computer animation instead of hand drawn, and make celebrated films like Happy Feet (2006) and The Lego Movie (2014) out of it.  The Iron Giant may not have directly re-convinced the studio to invest in the medium once again, but it probably helped convince Warners that they had a place in the history of animation worth preserving.

It is pretty remarkable to see how widespread the legacy of The Iron Giant has gone beyond the film’s place at Warner Brothers animation itself.  It’s been referenced in many different films, most prominently in Steven Spielberg’s recent big budget extravaganza Ready Player One (2018).  The Iron Giant himself gets an extended cameo within the movie, even participating in the movie’s climatic battle scene.  It’s also interesting how it’s managed to influence the career of the actor who got to bring voice to the Giant himself.  Vin Diesel won the part over some long established veterans in voice acting, including legendary Transformers alum like Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, and it was now doubt due to Diesel’s natural low bass voice.  Diesel, a relative newcomer at the time, brings so much humanity into the role, and remarkably does so with a limited vocabulary.  When your character says only a handful of lines, it takes talent to find the personality underneath those few words, and Diesel somehow managed to do it.  Much like how Karloff found the humanity in Frankenstein’s simple way of speaking, Diesel managed to create an endearing character with a few grunts and growls.  But where his performance really shines is in the closing moments of the movie, which is the film’s most famous scene.  When the film’s villain recklessly launches a nuclear weapon at the town where Hogarth and the Giant live, the Iron Giant consciously self-sacrifices himself to save everyone.  Before this, Hogarth has introduced the Giant to comic book icons, and in particular Superman, which the Giant takes a liking to.  As the Giant nears his fateful impact with the warhead, Hogarth’s words ring in his ear, “You can choose to be whatever you want to be,” meaning he didn’t need to be the weapon he was built as, and in a perfectly delivered line reading from Vin Diesel, the Giant realizes who he desires to be in that moment; “Superman.”  That moment still gives people goosebumps to this day in it’s absolutely perfect execution of uplifting pathos.  It wouldn’t surprise me that this role would one day lead to Vin Diesel delivering such an endearing presence through a simple reading of the words “I am Groot.”

There’s no doubt about it; The Iron Giant is an all time classic and one that thankfully has matured well over these last 20 years since it’s original premiere.  It’s a shame that it’s blundered original release only accelerated the further downfall of traditional animation as a fixture within the industry, but it’s not a reflection of the quality of the film itself, obviously.  Traditional animation sadly had no answer to the groundswell that was computer animation, which more or less took everything over in the new century.  It’s only thanks to the fond memories that we have for The Iron Giant and the Disney Renaissance that traditional animation still has a presence in our culture today.  The Iron Giant even shows that there is a place for films made outside of Disney that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of their canon.  The Iron Giant has so much to offer for those who are looking for something different, or just for something that honors the medium of traditional animation with every lovingly crafted frame.  Brad Bird clearly put a lot of heart into the film, both as a fan of the story and of animation itself.  It’s no mistake that Hogarth’s surname is a nod to the original author of the book, and there is a wonderful little Easter egg for animation buffs when we meet the two elderly train conductors, based on real life Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (who also provided their own voices too).  But what’s probably most important about The Iron Giant’s 20 year legacy is that it’s universal themes feel even more relevant today.  It’s all about a character built to be destructive choosing to reject those instincts and learning to be a good person.  The Giant chooses not to be a gun, which is the fundamental message of Ted Hughes original narrative.  In a world we live in now, when it’s become so easy to act out in destructive ways as weapons of division and destruction are more widely available to us, it’s all the more inspiring to see a literal weapon of war making the conscious decision to reject his programming and choose to be better than all that.  He chooses to be a hero; he chooses to be Superman.  And that’s what makes The Iron Giant more than just a great cartoon; it’s a great and profound movie in general, and one that will remain a Giant in cinema for all time.

Who’s in Charge? – Directorial Vision and the Shifting Dynamics of Control in Hollywood

Last week, director Quentin Tarantino released what he considers to be his 9th (if you count both volumes of Kill Bill as a single movie) and penultimate feature film; Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  The movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt and set in and around the heart of the film industry at the height of the 60’s counterculture, with the upending Manson Family murder of actress Sharon Tate as the backdrop, is quintessential Tarantino, which is good news for anyone who’s a fan of his work.  It’s indulgent, lengthy, and extra violent, but also hilariously observant of all the quirks of both the world of Hollywood and the people who inhabit it.  But what makes the movie even more remarkable is the way it stands out in the current field of the summer box office.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood it turns out is a real oddity in today’s Hollywood; an original concept film from an acclaimed director that’s not a sequel or a remake, and one that is capable of opening to healthy blockbuster numbers against tough competition.  Had this movie come from another director, I don’t think it would have nearly been as successful as it has, and would have probably quickly run through the art house circuit before fading into obscurity.  But because Tarantino has built a reputation and a fan base over the last few decades, he was able to generate enough hype around this movie to give it the best opening weekend box office of his career.  And even more amazing is the fact that he did it without ever having to compromise his vision.  Once Upon a Time is through and through a Tarantino film, and that is why people are showing up in big numbers to watch it.  All this makes Quentin Tarantino one of the most envied filmmakers in the business, because he has the power to deliver the movies he wants to make and have them succeed at the box office.  For most others, power like that is very hard to come by.

There really are only a handful of directors today that have the kind of artistic sway that Tarantino has on his movies, and even fewer are able to consistently deliver at the box office as well.  The only other director who is able to deliver an un-compromised vision like that and still generate huge grosses is Christopher Nolan.  Nolan certainly has his history working in mainstream franchises (the Dark Knight trilogy) but it’s his own original work that people have become most fascinated with.  His 2010 film, Inception, became one of that year’s most profitable movies, and cemented him not only as one of the most acclaimed directors of his time, but also gave him the goodwill to pursue even more ambitious projects in the future, something he has continued to do with Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017) and his upcoming Tenet (2020).  And like Tarantino, his name now is synonymous with big screen grandeur, which may seem strange today to think as being unusual for a filmmaker, considering the fact that there are so many big name directors out there.  But, here’s the thing: how many directors out there can sell a film purely on their own name alone, let alone have it be their untarnished vision brought to the big screen.  Most of the time, for a director to see their complete vision make it to the big screen, they either have to tamper expectations or compromise, because Hollywood just doesn’t invest in bold, directorial styles anymore.  If a director is lucky or talented enough, they may be able to work outside the system to maintain the purity of their vision within their body of work, but it’s a rare thing, and rarely do you get to the level of Tarantino or Nolan from it.  You have your Wes Anderson’s and David Lynch’s in this group, but you also have your Richard Kelly’s and M. Night Shaymalan’s as well.  The director is a powerful position within the film business, but over time the role of a director has diminished as a level of importance when it comes to determining whether or not a movie will be a hit.

The power over what gets made and how it gets made has shifted dramatically over the years.  For many years, the movie star became the biggest selling point of a movie.  The output of a studio was very much determined by the strength of their stable of contract players and, as was often the case, the bigger the profile of the movie star the better choices of movie roles they would get.  And the studios would push their movie stars heavily, whether or not the movies were any good, because it was what the audiences wanted to see more than anything.  But, after the break-up of the studio system in the early 50’s, the movie star appeal was no longer the driving factor in Hollywood.  Now it was spectacle, as new technologies were created to help movies compete against the rise of television.  Widescreen, surround sound, 3D, and other gimmicks were introduced as the main selling point of movies of this era, and it brought to audiences larger than life productions like Ben-Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Sound of Music (1965), all of which were defined by the epic size of their productions.  And then came the 1970’s, which ushered in an era that very much changed the landscape of Hollywood, to the point where we are still feeling it’s effects today.  For decades before, the concept of the auteur in film-making had been gaining traction within the industry, thanks in  part to European film scholars who themselves became auteur filmmakers themselves and ushered in the New Wave era in movies.  Celebrating uncompromising directors of the past like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Hollywood embraced the auteur theory of it’s past glory, and gave more power to the director than ever before.  The 70’s was the era of the movie director, with up and comers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and William Friedkin being allowed creative freedom from the powers that be in the industry that they otherwise wouldn’t have been given in any other time, and gaining success at the same time.  This continued with the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who would continue to keep the identity of the director a powerful force within the industry, even as it continued to change.

Now, the seas of change have shifted again, and right now it is neither the director nor the movie star that has become the biggest draw in Hollywood.  The power of one’s brand has become the leading currency in today’s film industry, with all the biggest movies coming out today in some shape or form stemming from a pre-established franchise.  Whether it’s your Marvel, or Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or even Fast and the Furious, it doesn’t matter what the name of the movie is or what level of quality it represents, if it’s attached to the a popular brand, people will watch them.  Disney is even taking their own classic animated films and remaking them in live action, to the point of completely copy and pasting the original scripts like with The Lion King (2019), and people are still seeing these movies in droves.  For the most part, people are seeing these movies for what they are and for how they are placed within their franchises as a whole.  It matters less now who is starring in them and even fewer people in the audience are aware of who is directing them too.  Avengers: Endgame didn’t become the top grossing film of all time because the Russo Brothers directed it or because it starred Robert Downey Jr. (though both things probably helped that out a little).  It became the top grossing film because it was the Marvel movie to eclipse all other Marvel movies.  This is a business now clearly concerned with finding name brands that will capture the imagination of audiences, and the role that the actors and directors play only matter as a mean of making the brand look better.  There’s nothing wrong with using brand appeal as a means of selling a film, but as some would tell you, it’s not an ideal place for filmmakers who want to carve out their own identity.  The filmmakers and cast of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are all incredible, but they also understand that the movies they are making only have the attention they have received because they are part of the Marvel franchise, and therefore are identified as Marvel creations rather than independent films.  And in a market where franchises are continually becoming the dominant force, this leads to far less individuality and ingenuity on display in the broad market.

Which makes the Tarantino’s and Nolan’s so rare today in Hollywood.  For them to get to this point in their careers, it had to take years of establishing themselves as the brand; that their movies bear the unmistakable mark of their vision.  As their audiences grew, so did the budgets allowed to bring their visions to life, to the point where they can now make any film with their name attached into an event.  But, it has to be understood, these guys are the rare cases.  They are at the point of their careers where they can deliver on ambitious projects, because they have the trust of the studios behind them, and in many cases, they lucked out by making movies that find their audiences at just the right time.  For many other directors, they have to work through different channels in order to do something ambitious, and in many cases this leads them to sacrificing some ambition.  Unfortunately, if you are a beloved art house director who wants to make something grander, and that involves making compromises with a major studio in order to find the funding, it sadly leads to claims by their fan-base that they’ve “sold out.”  The fear of being labeled a sell out is enough to deter many a director from taking that next step.  It’s probably why you still see filmmakers with very definitive vision like Terrence Malik working well outside the system, making movies limited by smaller budgets, but are purer to the director’s intended vision.  That’s why you see far fewer “auteur” style directors working within the system.  Sure, these directors are all excellent at what they do, but their direction is far more flexible and open to compromise, which in turn makes their work less “visionary.”  For some directors, vision is everything while others value the work and the paycheck, and for the studios, they have far more confidence in investing in the latter.

The turn to devalue the auteur identity of the director and embrace the value of the brands occurred mostly because of two reasons.  One, was the decline of the studios trust in the director’s ability to deliver through on their ambitious projects.  Despite seeing the rise of the prestige directors in the early part of the decade, the latter part of the 70’s saw many runaway film projects that got to big to handle, all because the directors had been given too much power.  This was the case with Francis Ford Coppola’s massive Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now, which went massively over-budget.  Coppola actually had to be sent back home by Paramount, because he was just continuously filming with no real idea of where to end his movie.  Thankfully for Coppola and Paramount, the movie recouped it’s massive budget, but Coppola was never trusted with anything as ambitious ever again.  The same luck didn’t pan out for Michael Cimino.  Having just come off the success of The Deer Hunter (1978), Cimino was granted almost complete control over his next film, which was going to be the epic Western Heaven’s Gate (1980).  It too went massively over-budget and over-schedule, but unlike Apocalypse Now, it didn’t recoup it’s then record breaking budget, and it even put it’s studio, United Artists, out of business as an independent producer.  Heaven’s Gate is widely regarded as the movie that spelled the end of the era of the director in Hollywood, but it was the rise of the blockbuster in the 80’s that really diminished the impact of the director even more.  Even though a name like Spielberg still carried weight in this time, general audiences were far more interested in high concepts and broader entertainment than they were interested in who was behind the camera.  People didn’t watch Back to the Future (1985) because Robert Zemekis’ name was attached to it; they watched because it was a movie with a time machine made out of a DeLorean.  The time had arrived when the movies far out-shined the people who made them.

It is interesting how time has flipped the power dynamics in Hollywood.  First it was the movie star and then director, now it’s the name recognition of the franchise itself that carries the weight in the business, and that mostly puts the power within the industry into the hands that control the brands themselves; the producers and executives.  That’s probably why so many cinephiles lament this time in Hollywood so much, because far less power belongs to the artists and far more is given to the people running the business.  But, when box office grosses matter, fewer creative risks are taken.  We just have to trust that the people investing the money and organizing the productions have a vested interest in entertaining as well.  That’s mainly what separates a Marvel from everything else; because producer Kevin Feige has a clear intention on doing justice to the brands that he’s in charge of.  But even as the business of theatrical film-making has been coursing in this direction for years, the industry itself is also evolving once again, which in a way is allowing for more creative freedom to return to the directors.  Streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and the upcoming Disney+ are giving filmmakers a chance to experiment once again with more ambitious budgets, because they are being funded by companies less concerned by box office results.  That’s why we’re seeing so many directors flocking to these channels, because they are finally being given the opportunity to make more personal projects again, but with unbound ambition thanks to platforms that care more about having something unique on their platform and less generic.  This is something that recently has challenged the status quo within the industry, and it will be interesting to see if this does open up a new era where the director becomes king once again.

For one thing, you’ll never see Quentin Tarantino leap over to streaming only for his films.  He’s a stickler for the in theater experience, which is why he always shoots his movies on film with the intention of having them screened in large formats.  Christopher Nolan likewise shoots most of his movies in IMAX, which demands the viewer to watch his films on the largest screens possible, as they lose much of their impact in home viewing.  But, they have reached the point where they can comfortably survive doing things the old fashioned way in this “new Hollywood.”  For other directors who haven’t gotten to that point, there is a dilemma that they have to face.  To deliver a movie on the big screen, they either have to compromise or work within a budget, or they can see their visions fully realized with substantial budgets in the streaming world, but never have it play theatrically as a sacrifice.  If anything, streaming has given back some clout to the brand of a director, but with their insistence on exclusive access, they also restrict the ability for the director’s vision to be seen in the way it sometimes should.  Movies like Roma and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman should be seen on the big screen, but unfortunately Netflix just doesn’t have the ability or the desire to give these films wide releases.  As a result, maintaining one’s vision now has another compromise within this industry; albeit, one that at least grants them more access to funding than what’s been allowed in the last couple decades.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out as streaming becomes a far bigger player within the industry.  In the meantime, it is reassuring that some visionaries like Quentin Tarantino still have the clout within the business to pull together un-compromised films that still find a large audience.  It’s also pleasing to note that this new stand out film from him is also a love letter to the glory of Hollywood itself, particularly hearkening back to an earlier time when movie stars and directors were the star attractions.

Fan Made – Why it Helps to Love the Movie that You Remake

If there is one thing that people across the board are becoming tired with in Hollywood, it’s the lack of anything original on the blockbuster level.  Pretty much all the tent poles released this year during the summer season is either a sequel, a remake, or a reboot, showing just how repetitive the summer season has become over the last few years.  And that’s not to say that all types of movies of these kinds are bad; so far one of the best and most successful movies of the year is Avengers: Endgame, a sequel.  But the issue is not the quality of each individual movie, but rather the fact that there is little to no movies anymore that stand out as something wholly original.  Pretty much the one and only movie that fits that bill this year is Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood coming this June, and even a Tarantino release has an element of continuation built upon the director’s own cinematic universe.  Though it’s sad to see so little new ideas coming out each year from the mainstream of the industry, it’s also understandable in a way.  Movies that rely upon already established name recognition tend to be a safer bet, especially when the movie is expected to cost a lot of money, so that’s why they are more likely to receive a green light over something untried like a fresh new idea.  And this is something that unfortunately will always be true about Hollywood.  There are just not enough unique high concept ideas that come along that demand the $100 million treatment, and tried and true will always rise to the top in terms of being forwarded towards production.  Given all that, audiences are still discerning when it comes to the types of sequels, reboots and remakes that they like, and oftentimes this will become a big point of contention when audiences remark their level of satisfaction with whatever Hollywood is putting out.  Remakes in particular are a tricky brand of film to get right, and what it usually boils down to is whether it comes from the heart or not.

There is an interesting separation between successful and unsuccessful remakes, but the primary thing that defines the response to each movie is in how it matched up to the original.  The hardest hurdle that a remake must overcome is to justify it’s necessity for being; something that few movies ever get to do.  It becomes even harder when the movie being remade is a beloved classic.  For many people, there are untouchable movies that can never be tampered with, and even the thought of attempting a remake for these is instantly condemned.  But, with Hollywood becoming more and more hesitant to invest in newer, unproven properties, they are looking to more and more classic titles as a way to generate immediate box office.  From that point, it falls upon the filmmakers to deliver a movie that fulfills the criteria that the studios have set, while at the same time gaining the interest of the audience.  And in many cases, this can be daunting work.   For some filmmakers, the job becomes only that, and they deliver a movie that looks and feels like something we’ve seen before, but lacks anything else.  But, other filmmakers can take a familiar story and spin it into something that doesn’t feel like a rehash.  When this happens, we end up having a remake that not only matches the original, but may even surpass it.  And this is something that only happens when the filmmaker really believes and loves the movie that they are making.  For them, they are either hoping to reintroduce something they love to another generation, or take something that interested them but never quite reached it’s full potential and use their talents as filmmakers to do that film justice.  When a remake or reboot is approached in this fashion, that’s when it better appeals to an audience at large, because they can recognize that they’re not being fed the same rehash all over again.  Old can become new again when the filmmaker him or herself is just as much of a fan as the person in the audience is.

Currently, the ones who are putting the most money into remaking old titles is The Walt Disney Company.  Starting in 2010 with the surprise success of Tim Burton’s remake of Alice in Wonderland, Disney quickly realized that there was a market in adapting their own library of classic animated movies into live action, and since then a major chunk of their studio investment has gone into producing these nostalgia driven remakes.  The timing couldn’t be more opportune for the studio, since most of the audience that grew up with their movies, from the birth of home entertainment and the era of the Disney Renaissance, now are beginning to come of age and are having children of their own.  With a whole new generation of movie goers who are already a built in audience for these titles, it’s no surprise that this slate of remakes has made them enormous amounts of money.  The Beauty and the Beast (2017) remake is still the biggest March release in box office history, and that’s over heavy hitters like The Hunger Games (2012) and Captain Marvel (2019).  But, there’s also one thing that has stuck out with these Disney remakes and that’s the very mixed response that they’ve received from audiences.  Some do generally well critically, like Cinderella (2015) and The Jungle Book (2016), while others are severely criticized, like Beauty and the Beast and more recently Dumbo.  The same mixed reaction is also following the recent Aladdin remake, with fans split right down the middle either loving it or hating it.  No matter what for Disney, as long as they are making money, they’ll continue to make these remakes, but for a lot of long time Disney fans, this is a trend that is troubling to witness.  For them, they are seeing movies that are merely pandering to an already satisfied audience and what we get in return are movies that come no where close to capturing the magic of the original.

This is where the level of the filmmakers approach to the material becomes so important.  For one thing, if the director and cast are invested and want to do justice to the movie that they are remaking, it will help to go a long way towards making the movie stand on it’s own.  Jon Favreau in particular has demonstrated his enthusiasm for the movies he’s remaking for Disney.  With The Jungle Book, he took the basic outline of the Disney original and provided his own spin on the story that fit his own tastes as a director, particularly with the sense of humor.  No lines are repeated, but the movie does honor the parts of the original that audiences would be expecting, such as the songs like “The Bear Necessities.”  And he combine this with cutting edge technology to bring the creatures and jungle itself to photo realistic life in a way that can indeed blow audiences away.  His example shows that a director with an appreciation for the original can exceed the expectations of the audience by showing them a movie that is familiar but also groundbreaking at the same time; a formula he’s hoping to also repeat with The Lion King this summer.  Contrast this with something like Beauty and the Beast, which was directed by Bill Condon.  It becomes clear from the outset of that movie that Condon was just a director for hire, because he relies heavily on the audience’s familiarity with the original to carry the narrative drive of his version of the movie.  And everything in the live action Beauty and the Beast feels devoid of that loving touch, with every creative decision proving less effective than how it played out in the original.  When the animated version feels more true to life than the live action version, than you know that you’ve made a huge error.  And that’s the dilemma that Disney is facing with these live action remakes; is it worth making all that money when the audience is all too aware that they are cash grabs that in no way replaces the original for them.

The best way to ensure that a remake works in your favor is to show for audiences that there is a reason that this movie should exist.  Disney surprisingly found that to be the case with their remake of Pete’s Dragon (2016).  And that’s because unlike many of the other movies getting remakes, the original Pete’s Dragon (1977) was a movie that was flawed and forgettable enough to warrant a re-imagining.  Surprising, Disney gave the job to art house director David Lowery, who took the goofy musical with an animated dragon and transformed it into a dramatic coming-of-age tale that took it’s premise and characters seriously and emotionally; without songs.  And it worked.  Lowery saw something in the story that he could mold through his own style, while still being true to the core of what made the original work in the first place; the relationship between the boy Pete and his dragon named Elliott.  With that, he made a movie that both fans and newcomers could both appreciate, and have it stand on it’s own.  It’s something that all the best remakes share; the ability to be seen as it’s own unique thing, and it usually is rooted in a director finding their own voice in an already established movie.  Sometime it works best by filtering the story through another genre altogether.  For instance, Sergio Leone took the samurai films of master Japansese director Akira Kurosawa and re-imagined them as Westerns, with his “Man with No Name” series, themselves becoming classics of their own.  Leone didn’t remake movies like Yojimbo (1961) because he felt that they could be better; he remade them because he admired the storytelling and wanted to bring that into the genre that he was most comfortable with, the Western, because he believed these kinds of stories were what the genre had been lacking.  When the director is devoted to the remake of a popular film, the end result will reflect that through the passion they put into every frame.

There are instances where the director can be too much of a fan of the movie they are remaking.  That became an issue when director Gus Van Sant attempted a shot for shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).  And when I say shot for shot, I mean that he recreated every camera angle and edit that was in the original, with the only major differences being the cast and that it was in color instead of black and white.  It’s a fascinating experiment on it’s own, but the end result falls into the same pit that marks all the rest of the bad remakes; it never justifies it’s purpose for existing.  Nothing Gus Van Sant does in the movie improves upon the original; all we are reminded of is how great the original movie was, and why it should never be remade at all, because everything still works perfectly as it did when it was first made.  I think that Van Sant was always aware of this as well, as he stated in interviews that he made this remake so that no one else ever would; effectively closing the door on any chance Hollywood ever would.  The only problem is that the remake itself still exists, and should never have existed in the first place, even as a deterrent.  Sometimes filmmakers try to be too reverential to the films they are trying emulate, and it robs their new film of an identity.  This was the case when Bryan Singer made his reboot of the Superman franchise with Superman Returns (2006).  The problem with his movie was the fact that he was trying way to hard to make the movie a spiritual successor of the Richard Donner originals that he undermined his own instincts as a director, and the movie ended up being a pretentious bore.  At the time, people wanted to see something new from Superman, similar to how Christopher Nolan’s Batmans felt different from Tim Burton’s, but Bryan Singer failed to make his own film work because he was trying to recapture something that wasn’t his in the first place and which audiences had already moved on from for well over 20 years.  It’s good to love a particular kind of movie, but in the end, you still need to make the case why it should be remade, and it has to stand for more than just a personal fulfillment.

But, for the most part, being a fan of the thing you make does work to a movie’s advantage, and it helps to sell that movie to a broader audience who are expecting something to live up to their previously held expectations.  That’s why you see a range of ups and downs from various franchises as they often learn the hard way that it takes a certain kind of knowledge about a popular intellectual property to translate it perfectly to the screen.  One of the most dramatic examples recently of a long standing franchise finally figuring out how to please it’s audience and transform into a better version of itself is conveniently enough the Transformers series.  For the last decade, Transformers has been under the stewardship of Michael Bay, who clearly has never delved very deep into the lore of the property he’s been asked to adapt for the big screen.  That’s not to say that Transformers has this deep, important mythos behind it, but when watching the Transformers movies, it’s clear that Bay is making a movie that satisfies his tastes, with little regard to what fans who grew up with these characters hold dear.  But, when Paramount, the company behind the franchise, decided to spin-off one of the most popular characters, Bumblebee, into his own movie without Michael Bay, something surprising happened.  The franchise enjoyed it’s first ever critical hit for the Transformers franchise, receiving the best reviews the series has ever had.  Part of what made such a difference was the fact that director Travis Knight had a vision for the story that was more closely tied to the style of the original animated series, complete with on model designs for the Transformers themselves, showing that he himself took this property seriously, and was not going to fill it with indulgences like Michael Bay had.  This was a movie made by a fan for the fans, with the Transformers themselves, namely Bumblebee, taking center stage, which had never happened to this extent before in the series.  And Paramount has taken notice, with Michael Bay no longer being eyed to make any future films in this franchise, to the delight of many.  Any franchise can reach it’s full potential when the person making it has a sense of the inherent character of what they are making, and doesn’t just try outshine it with their own self-indulgent character.

While most audiences have learned to be suspicious of remakes and reboots, there are plenty of precedents showing that these movies can work when the person behind it puts their heart into it.  Indeed, some of the most popular movies of the last decade have been movies that either re-imagined a beloved property, or re-sparked it into a whole new generation.  Look at the two franchise with J. J. Abrams involvement; Star Trek and Star Wars, both of which are clearly made by people with both knowledge of the properties they have been asked to shepherd to the big screen, as well as the creativity to try new things to help bring the franchises into a new era.  These remakes also restore things that were lost over time when the franchises became either stagnant or had completely lost their way.  Just like how Bumblebee brought back a playfulness and identity to the Transformers franchise, the Abrams Star Wars flicks helped to undo some of the bad instincts that George Lucas had let infest the beloved franchise during the prequel era by returning the series back to it’s practical effects utilizing, non-CGI enhanced simple aesthetic.   Many other examples show how giving these franchises over to fans has reinvigorated them in ways that make them work better than they have in years.  Prime examples include Ryan Coogler’s reinvention of the Rocky franchise with Creed (2015), which puts the beloved champion into the role of mentor; and also the Planet of the Apes reboot centered around the incredible motion capture performance of Andy Serkis as Cesar the Ape, taking a once campy franchise and imagining it as a harrowing saga about survival in a harsh, post-apocalyptic world.  What these movies show is that any franchise can live a long life in the hearts of audiences when the people behind them really believe in the movies that they make and have a genuine love for the final product as well.  I think that’s why the recent Disney remakes have been such a mixed bag for audiences.  They feel more like products of a machine rather than expressions of genuine art.  That probably why their best remake to date is the one that they cared the least about; Pete’s Dragon.  That was the only one where it’s clear there was much to improve upon from the original, and the director was also very willing to show how special it could actually be.  Finding room for improvement and exploiting it is what has separated the best remakes from the rest.  After all, everyone loves something new, even when it’s from something we’ve already seen before.