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A film as lazy as its character
The adventures of Garfield the cat were at a premium throughout the 80s and the mid 90s. Jim Davis's wry cartoon strips about the lazy, lasagne-loving couch potato hold a fond place in my childhood. What astonishes is how the character grew to such a phenomenon. How often does it happen that three panels about a fat, flabby tabby cat becomes not just a widely successful comic strip, but also grew to several animated specials, mass-produced merchandise, and Garfield dolls staring out the back windows of cars all over America?
Which is why there seems something decidedly odd about a Garfield movie being made about ten years after the hype had died down; it feels like its come too late in the day (although it still grossed a blockbusting 200 million at the box-office). One suspects was because it wanted to compete with all of the other CGI talking animal movies that were greenlit following the mega-success of Babe, but unfortunately, judging from the finished product, it has more in common with the similarly misjudged Scooby-Doo rather than the delightful Babe.
I must admit to not being a fan of the CGI talking animal genre. Babe may have been the one that got the ball rolling, but all the ones that followed in its wake studied its technology but not its thinking. While on the one hand Babe was wowing us with its effects, at the same time the filmmakers crafted a strong story being enacted by a cast of delightful animal characters. But all of its imitators are far more concerned with animals referencing things they couldn't possibly know about, e.g. the latest films and celebrities as well as anachronistic pop songs that only date the film that much quicker, etc.
In some sense, Garfield could get away with that, since one of his favourite things to do is watch TV, when he's not sleeping the day away or eating his owner Jon Arbuckle out of house and home (and lasagne). But for a film about such a beloved character, it still emerges as a big disappointment.
To its credit, Garfield doesn't come off as cringeworthy as most talking animal movies (just look to Bill Murray's fellow Ghostbuster Dan Aykroyd's Yogi Bear to see how bad Garfield could have been). The requisite film references and animal flatulence that have become sad staples of the genre are kept to a merciful minimum, and all of the characters are here, e.g. Garfield, Jon, Odie, Liz the vet, Nermal, even Pookie, Garfield's beloved teddy bear, etc. And when it comes to Garfield's lazy sarcasm, who better to play that than Bill Murray?
But one wishes the lip-service had been worth it, because the story is nothing to get worked up about, only because we've seen it in so many other talking animal movies. Talking animals going on a big adventure is just Homeward Bound, while the villain of the film wanting Odie for nefarious purposes is 101 Dalmations. Even Garfield softening up is something Bill Murray has done before in Scrooged to Groundhog Day (the connection is more overt with GD's Stephen Tobolowsky cast as the villain Happy Chapman).
If the plot seems slight, that's because of a fundamental flaw at the heart of the film. How do you turn a three-panel comic strip into a treatment worthy of a feature film? I'm not sure you can, and the film we get is evidence of that. The characters we know are there, but the plot is too threadbare for us to care for any of it. Breckin Meyer's Jon and Jennifer Love Hewitt's Liz bring nothing to the film, even though Liz is an unfeasibly sexy vet. The movie is just as idle as Garfield is.
Also, where Garfield should have been the triumph of the film, the special effects are not. Although the other talking animals are done with conviction, the film's biggest special effect, Garfield himself, is a failure on all levels. Just like the then recent Scooby-Doo, he looks too cartoony. He never seems integrated with everyone else, which makes me wonder why he couldn't have been animated just like the other cats in the movie.
The film does have an ace in the hole in Bill Murray. Although the script isn't worthy of a comedic actor of Murray's calibre, his dry, wry, laconic voice is perfectly suited to the character. This is hardly one of Murray's funniest performances but he can enliven any film just by showing up. Although he's reduced to a voice, his instantly recognisable sarcasm is the one true success of the movie.
The talking animal movie is an extremely difficult thing to pull off. And while I would argue that there are worse, there are better ones too. Garfield falls into neither the former, nor the latter, and certainly without the presence of Bill Murray, Garfield would be a completely throwaway movie. And he's a character who deserves far better than that.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
A wonderful film at any time of the year
Is It's a Wonderful Life the greatest Christmas movie ever made, or the greatest film ever made, period? Certainly many people on the IMDb think so; although a strong contender for the former, I'm not sure about the latter. One is hesitant about pronouncing any film something that eclipses all others, because that means every film you watch thereafter will seem inferior somehow, and I love movies too much to be pigeonholed.
The film's genesis is an interesting one; to my knowledge, It's a Wonderful Life is the only movie in history to originate from a Christmas card. Written by Philip Van Doren Stern, and originally titled The Greatest Gift, it told the story of George Bailey, and how his guardian angel Clarence shows him a glimpse of what life would be like if he had never been born. Stern shopped the story to various studios, and many of them turned their noses up at what sounded like such a frivolous idea for a movie.
But when it fell into Frank Capra's hands, he loved it, and wanted it expanded into his first feature after World War II had put his directing career on hold. After selecting fellow war veteran James Stewart as his leading man, and a rather troubled production, It's a Wonderful Life got the go-ahead.
But the film was met with indifference, where the public seemed to share in the studio heads distaste for the source material. It wound up forgotten about for several years, until the 1970s when copyright expired and the film landed in the hands of the public domain; suddenly It's a Wonderful Life was hailed as not only a Christmas classic, but a shining icon of cinema itself.
What is it about It's a Wonderful Life that has earned it that distinction? When reading other reviews on various sites, one thing that doesn't come through about the film is how little of Christmas there is in it. The framework Capra was working from only took up the last half-hour of the movie; nearly everything before that isn't even set at Christmas. It's a long road that we're on before we even get to George on that frigid bridge, considering suicide on that dark and snowy Christmas night.
Frank Capra takes his time with the story, investing plenty of development in the character of George Bailey. George has lived his whole life in the town of Bedford Falls; he has lofty ambitions that take him far, far away from this place, but he's forever having to make sacrifices for others.
Although he puts on a brave face while giving up his dreams of travelling the world and a college education, secretly a frustration burns deeply within George. He has to take over the Bailey Building & Loan, a job he really has no love for, and he watches friends and family go off and live their dreams and even become war heroes in the case of his brother, while he feels trapped in Bedford Falls.
This type of story could easily become saccharine in the hands of a lesser director, but Frank Capra's skillful direction makes sure the film avoids all of the obvious pitfalls (something the film's imitators often fall into). If George had taken each setback with a smile and a kind word, that is unrealistic, and I'd agree the film is worthy of the term Capra-corn that It's a Wonderful Life coined.
In fact this is a dark, relentlessly harsh Christmas film. Just look at George's face fall when he knows he must take over the BB&L to thwart the ambitions of the town miser Mr Potter, or when he forces a smile at the news that his brother Harry has gotten married and accepted a job offer, meaning the burden of responsibility over the future of the BB&L now rests in George's hands.
James Stewart was never better as George Bailey; as his life snowballs into an avalanche of misfortunes, he handles the increasingly depressing situation perfectly; even he believed this was his finest role. But equally good, if not better, is the film's villain, the heartless and chilling miser Mr Potter, played to perfection by Lionel Barrymore.
Potter makes Ebeneezer Scrooge seem a wimp; this is a man with no redeeming qualities, none whatsoever. He leans on the town of Bedford Falls like the Devil atop of Bald Mountain; he has no respect for the people who live there, and crushes anyone who dares challenge him, with George his favourite victim. He delights in seeing George's ambitions come to nothing, and vindictively pockets money that if not recovered, will bankrupt the BB&L and ruin George. He doesn't even get any kind of comeuppance; Potter is one of cinema's most chilling villains.
The final 30 minutes is where It's a Wonderful Life becomes ever more wondrous, and is the film at its blackest. George's failures have finally bested him, but just as he's about to end it all, Clarence Odbody, his guardian angel falls to Earth and shows him what Bedford Falls would be like without him. The town becomes a dark, twisted shadow of its other self, with Potter as its king and the people as his subjects. It's the film's darkest chapter, and a stunningly nihilistic vision of how things might have been.
The fact that things end on a happy note is never in doubt of course, but those who say seeing the townspeople come to George's rescue is Capra giving in to the soppy stuff before the end missed the point. After such a thoroughly miserable ordeal, George deserves his happy ending, and truly earns his redemption, like all the great film heroes. It's a Wonderful Life is often thought of as an upbeat, sentimental Christmas fable. What utter tosh! This is a film that takes us on a journey fraught with raw emotion, and rightfully earns a hallowed place in the Christmas pantheon.
The classic horror that's out of this world
The Thing From Another World birthed the alien invader film, and the theme proved so popular it quickly became its own genre. Where most of these, especially The War of the Worlds, showed aliens arriving en masse in gigantic spaceships to obliterate humanity from the face of the Earth, TTFAW and its ilk took the same basic idea and ran with it to more invasive places.
And Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the finest example. At the time it was made, it was one of the most terrifying alien invader films yet to emerge. There are other worthy examples but few have unsettled audiences like this dark and eerie film.
Jack Finney wrote The Body Snatchers up as a serial and then expanded it to a novel. The book is an efficient read but Don Siegel makes a much more interesting story out of it. Indeed The Body Snatchers is such a fertile idea its been adapted into a film no less than four times. And spawned dozens of imitators.
Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is the local GP of Santa Mira. Coming back from an out-of-town conference, his patients come to him with the same story. Friends and loved ones no longer seem like the same people. They look the same. Talk the same. But on the inside, they're different; or more accurately, something is missing. Miles is sceptical, until a friend brings him a featureless replica of himself. Miles realises an alien influence is slowly taking over Santa Mira.
Many people have read into Invasion of the Body Snatchers as an unconscious metaphor against McCarthyism and Communism. Siegel and Finney have always denied this, although screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring had Hollywood run-ins with blacklisting, so there may be something to that; besides, what else are you supposed to think when the lead actor's last name is McCarthy?
Political overtones aside, I just liked the film for what it is, a chilling horror story. The film gains its effect from the way Don Siegel brings the invaders into the story and just waits for the audience to catch on. In fact he's so successful at this that the film didn't really need Miles providing an ominous voice-over (but more on that later).
In the first scenes at Santa Mira, Siegel establishes the apparent normalcy of the town with everybody going about they're business as if it were any other day. But the invasion of Santa Mira has already begun, and Siegel litters the film with clues from the off-set. Like a little boy running into the path of an oncoming car, like he's trying to get away from something. Or a man mowing the same patch of lawn over and over again.
None of these things are conclusive, but as the story presses on, these things become harder to ignore. People think there's something weird going on, and then retract they're claims. And when featureless clones of the townspeople start appearing in cellars and basements, the clues all point to something we hadn't even considered; an alien invasion.
Siegel structures IOTBS like the film-noir thrillers he made his name in. Harsh silhouettes, long shots of cramped corridors, tight closeups, an edgy piano score. One of the most effective tricks he springs on us is where the film stops in the midst of it, and tries to convince the characters (and I think the audience too) that none of this is real, and we're imagining the invasion of Santa Mira.
The duplicates that cropped up in the cellar are now suddenly gone. They didn't leave any fingerprints so there's no proof they were ever there. And when the film brings in a psychiatrist and explains with calm rationalism that we're all part of a shared delusion, its something that almost succeeds in making you rethink yourself.
Of course that type of second-guessing doesn't last for very long, but it was great while it lasted. When some unusual sea-pods crop up in Miles' greenhouse, giving birth to a replica of himself, you realise you were right the first time. Siegel saves his scariest scenes for the second half, when Miles and his girlfriend Becky go into hiding.
One of the eeriest scenes is one that takes place in broad daylight, when some strangers from out-of-town are passing through, and as soon as they're gone, the townspeople crowd in from all sides in perfect silence. That scene stays with me more than anything else in the movie. Equally creepy is the pod-people trying to reason with Miles and Becky, telling them its so much better this way. And ultimately they don't have a choice in this.
Siegel refuses to compromise (except right at the end). Miles and Becky are forced up into the hills and when they separate for a moment, Miles looks into Becky's eyes and sees nothing there. When the reality sinks in that she's been took over, its as scary as it is tragic. But Siegel even manages to top this with that classic scene with Miles getting to the highway screaming about the oncoming invasion, and being dismissed as a lunatic.
That would have been a fantastic ending. But unfortunately it wasn't to be. The studio were quite taken aback by what Siegel had created, and forced upon him an ending that promised hope to the audience. Where Miles is relating his story to a therapist, who calls in the FBI to deal with the threat. Its an extremely silly coda that ends the film on a big anticlimax. Actually, Jack Finney didn't get it right either. The book ended on the ridiculous notion of the aliens giving up on they're world domination plot and returning home.
In spite of that, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a timeless classic. Its so-called metaphors are easily dismissed in the face of such an absorbing icon of genre cinema.
A Close Shave (1995)
Better than A Grand Day Out, but slightly lesser than The Wrong Trousers
Wallace & Gromit made a likable debut with A Grand Day Out. The film had some problems to iron out, but by the time of The Wrong Trousers, Nick Park had gained a command of the stop-motion process, and captured lightning in a bottle. The Oscar-winning success of the film turned Wallace & Gromit into household names.
Aardman were quick to find the funds for a third instalment. With every Wallace & Gromit film, the animators refine they're craft a little bit further. They become more ambitious. The plots run even deeper. And the animation becomes ever more polished. This is all certainly clear to see in A Close Shave. The Wrong Trousers has a slight edge over the film, but A Close Shave is yet another lively, hilarious Wallace & Gromit adventure.
A Grand Day Out had a giddy innocence to it. But it was obvious from The Wrong Trousers that Nick Park was taking the characters into darker areas. A Close Shave goes even deeper, and is further proof that the Wallace & Gromit series is now in a very different place from where it first started.
Wallace & Gromit are into a new business venture, window-cleaning. Wallace falls for Wendoline, the owner of a wool-shop he (or rather Gromit) does the windows for. But Wendoline has a secret. A secret that ropes Wallace & Gromit into an adventure with sheep rustlers and a dog who is not the good shepherd he appears.
Every film in the series develops an increasing maturation. Not just in the way they're made, but also in the way they're written. Its difficult to remember at this point that A Close Shave was made by the same team of animators who produced the light romanticism of A Grand Day Out. Aardman are working from an all new rule book.
The Wrong Trousers had a seriousness to it over its predecessor. But it took some time into the film before we began to notice. With A Close Shave, its impossible not to see it. Heck, the film even abandons Julian Nott's signature theme music, and dives into the storyline.
Right from the opening frame, an unmistakable dourness permeates the picture. Wendoline and Preston pull up outside Wallace and Gromit's house in the dead of night. The way Preston is dressed, you know he's got crime on his mind. His face is stern, no-nonsense. Right away we know he's the villain of the film. We need to remind ourselves here that we're watching a Wallace & Gromit picture.
That doesn't mean the film isn't funny. We get the usual sidesplitting scenes with Wallace's inventions. Especially good is Wallace gearing up for work with chutes and levers, while Gromit just sits in a sidecar waiting for Wallace to finish up.
This film is also a departure from the others in the series by having the first character, other than Wallace, who can speak. Anne Reid gives a sympathetic voice to Wendoline's plight, and never comes between the delightful double-act of Wallace and Gromit, always the heart of the series.
One of the best things about The Wrong Trousers was the surprising poignancy Nick Park managed to make us feel for Gromit, watching Feathers McGraw slowly oust him from Wallace's house. He pulls off the same trick again when Preston frames Gromit for sheep-rustling. Seeing Gromit sitting in a jail cell without a friend in the world is a raw, emotional moment. Especially when he gets a present, a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle, and he starts crying. Its impossible not to feel real sadness for the character.
A Close Shave ups the action quotient too. Everyone remembers the train set chase in The Wrong Trousers, but Nick Park and his animation team have gone all out to top that sequence with even more dizzying thrills and spills. Gromit's sidecar going over a cliff and turning into an aeroplane is just as exciting as anything in a James Bond film.
And A Close Shave gets itself together for a marvellous climax, when Preston is revealed to be a robot underneath. Gleefully cribbing The Terminator, the sequence with all of the characters on a conveyor belt trying to avoid being crushed is as breathless as it is funny.
One criticism you could make of the film is that it isn't as tight as The Wrong Trousers. The film makes many swoops and dives, and the plot line is an engaging one. But A Close Shave takes several viewings to get a proper grasp of the narrative, meaning its not as dramatically taut as The Wrong Trousers, or as instantly accessible as A Grand Day Out.
We would have to wait a staggering ten years for the next instalment, Wallace & Gromit's feature film debut, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, a delightful story just as engaging as any of the shorts.
A Close Shave is yet another worthy addition to the canon with plenty for everyone. And look out for Shaun the Sheep, who steals every scene just by being in it.
The Wrong Trousers (1993)
The Wallace & Gromit movie all others are measured against
Wallace and Gromit exploded onto TV screens in 1989 with A Grand Day Out. Although a little rough around the edges, it was consistently charming, and left us breathless with anticipation for the next adventure. And four years later, Aardman delivered with The Wrong Trousers.
The Wrong Trousers is by far Aardman's masterpiece, and the best adventure we've seen with Wallace & Gromit to date. Where the first film had some obvious kinks to work out, The Wrong Trousers is all that A Grand Day Out should have been.
Nick Park has polished his craft immeasurably in the years since. Everything about The Wrong Trousers works. It gives us many things A Grand Day Out didn't have. It pays more attention to plot. The characterisation is deeper. The writing is tighter. Every scene adds something. The animation is flawless. Its the perfect Wallace & Gromit movie.
Wallace and Gromit are a bit strapped for cash. And to make ends meet, Wallace has to take in a lodger. A penguin called Feathers McGraw. Feathers doesn't waste any time at all making himself at home, in Gromit's bedroom no less. Feeling neglected, Gromit decides to move on, but not before he discovers that Feathers is really an escaped jailbird. And he plans to use Wallace to pull off a diamond heist, with Wallace's latest invention, the Techno-Trousers.
Nick Park has made a conscious effort not to repeat the mistakes of A Grand Day Out. Although charming, the film was let down by a slightly skinny storyline driving it all. But with The Wrong Trousers, Park depends on a more substantial plot to spur the film on. Park has ironed out all the deficiencies, and turns in a tightly scripted, slickly directed stop-motion feature.
One of the things that strikes you about The Wrong Trousers is the far darker tone. A Grand Day Out was made with a light exuberance. But The Wrong Trousers, right from the very beginning, is a more sinister story, that takes the characters of Wallace & Gromit into some very dark areas. This is surely indicative of the opening title sequence where we see the Techno-Trousers in harsh silhouette, and Julian Nott's playful musical score rushes to an abrupt halt.
The film begins innocently enough, with Nick Park showing Wallace & Gromit doing they're usual routine. This film sees the debut of Wallace's outlandish way of getting up in the morning. Full of chutes, mechanical arms, and ready-made long-johns. But as soon as Feathers McGraw comes into the picture, there's a palpable sense of tension. Right away we take an instant dislike to him. And its hard not to feel for Gromit as Feathers slowly ousts him from Wallace's home.
The film begins to resemble nothing so much as a classic noir movie. When Gromit gets wise to Feathers, he trails him through dark alleyways to a museum, where Feathers is sizing the heist. I love the part when Gromit keeps him under surveillance, by cutting a pair of eye-holes through a box, not realising the box has a picture of a dog on it, and he cut the holes where the eyes should go. Who in the audience didn't jump when Feathers sees someone (from Gromit's POV) peering at him?
If you ran A Grand Day Out and The Wrong Trousers side by side, the differences are clearer. The former is light, escapist entertainment. The latter pushes the envelope far more than stop-motion had ever gone before. When watching the film prior to writing my review, it was inescapable how serious it was. Nick Park doesn't have as much time for the witty sideswipes of the first film. The Wrong Trousers is a film carried almost entirely by plot.
Every time you think the film is about to do something funny Park subverts it. The sight of Wallace in the Techno-Trousers is funny by itself, but when it comes to the robbery, instead of playing it for slapstick, Park milks the scene for suspense. Feathers remote controls an unsuspecting Wallace, getting him to scale the museum, hang from the ceiling, and try and grab the diamond in a claw like one of those grabbing games. It could rival anything in the Oceans 11 series.
Park pulls out all the stops in the last ten minutes. Just because its animated doesn't mean it will patronise the audience. When Gromit threatens Feathers with a rolling pin, who could have predicted that the bird would respond by producing a gun? And one that fires real bullets too? What kind of a film are we in here?
The highlights of the Wallace & Gromit movies are almost certainly the frenetic action sequences and the climax is a thrilling chase around the living room on a model train set with the Techno-Trousers running wild and Gromit frantically trying to keep up with Feathers without running out of track all at the same time.
The Wrong Trousers is a triumph, in every possible way. The 30 minutes are over before you know it. It holds up in all the right places, even in repeat viewings. And who didn't cheer when Feathers gets his comeuppance? The film won a well deserved Oscar, and although I love all of the subsequent movies, The Wrong Trousers is still unsurpassed, and remains Wallace & Gromit's, and Aardman's finest hour.
A Grand Day Out (1989)
To The Moon Wallace
Aardman Animation started as a small company founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton in the mid-70s. They're speciality was the almost lost art of stop-motion animation, particularly with claymation figures. They enjoyed some success with the amazing Peter Gabriel music video Sledgehammer, that was an eye-popper in its day. But the company really found its feet when novice animator Nick Park joined the studio.
It was Park who would put the company on the map, and introduce two of the most endearing animated characters the world would ever see, Wallace & Gromit.
The Wallace & Gromit world is a most peculiar one. Wallace is a scatterbrained inventor, always working on the next madcap invention. Gromit is his faithful dog, and much smarter than Wallace ever will be. With his incredibly expressive monobrow, he watches in silent dismay as Wallace's cock-ups get them into the wackiest adventures.
Everyone of the Wallace & Gromit shorts has been a delight. So far we've seen the likes of a skiing oven, robotic trousers, a cyber-dog, a cereal killer, and with they're feature film debut, a Were-Rabbit. The films manage a perfect blend of laugh-aloud comedy and smart visual invention. My mouth always waters at the prospect of the next adventure.
And A Grand Day Out is where it all began. Wallace and Gromit are lounging they're Bank Holiday away, but Wallace wants to go somewhere exotic. When there's not a piece of cheese in the house, Wallace on an impulse, decides to build a rocket ship, and fly to the Moon, where everybody knows, is a place paved with cheese. When they get there, they have to contend with a ski-obsessed oven/cooker, who won't leave them in peace.
Even in they're debut, Wallace & Gromit and A Grand Day Out is a charming adventure. All of the things we would come to expect about them are plain to see, albeit in a slightly rougher, uncut form. They're characterisations have already been established, with Peter Sallis nailing Wallace's dimwitted inflections. And Aardman's love of nutty contraptions is there too.
The film comes with many delightful sight gags packed around every corner. I especially liked the rocket ship's wallpapered interior, and the throwaway sight of a handbrake on the control panel. But the most inspired idea is a coin-operated oven lying neglected on the Moon. I've always been an enormous fan of silent comedy, which is one of the reasons I like Gromit so much as a character. And Park and Aardman create an intriguing character with this oven.
Wisely they don't give it a voice of its own (perhaps the budget didn't allow for two voice-over artists?). Instead they just build a character out of incidental details. And its all done in total silence. Like the cooker's daydreams of skiing, giving a parking ticket to Wallace's rocket, gluing the surface of the Moon back together, trying to hit Wallace with a truncheon only for the money to run out mid-swing.
Nick Park directs it all with such a light touch that the film breezes by. However, as much as I enjoyed the film, it does have its flaws. A Grand Day Out is probably the weakest of the Wallace & Gromit shorts. The animation is a little rough around the edges, and lacks the pristine sleekness of the subsequent entries. It also falls down in the plot department.
All of the other Wallace & Gromit films are driven by far stronger stories. This one is quite thin. For instance, we never learn how the cooker wound up on the Moon in the first place. (You'd almost swear it was something Wallace had dreamt up). The plot, such as it is, is made to take a backseat to the (admittedly funny) visual puns and Wallace & Gromit's effortless double-act.
Perhaps A Grand Day Out hasn't aged as well as the other films, but a lot of the things we've come to love about Wallace & Gromit are already in place. One area where it does have the edge is the fact that its the most conceptually ambitious. All of the other films in the series have remained earthbound, and A Grand Day Out is the only one so far to aim for something a little more profound. It touches upon themes that are rarely seen in animation today. If it had the budget accorded to The Curse of the Were-Rabbit then perhaps A Grand Day Out may have become something extraordinary, rather than just an engaging entertainment.
To look at it in the harsh light of day, A Grand Day Out is really the prototype. It was The Wrong Trousers that set the style for the series, and struck up the balance between top quality writing, sidesplitting comedy and fabulous animation in all of the right places. Still, a highly promising debut nonetheless, that rightfully converted an entire nation.
13 Going on 30 (2004)
Rip Van Twinkle
Just when it seemed the fad for bodyswap comedies had been consigned to the 80s, the 00s saw a surprising revival of the genre, with the amiable remake of Freaky Friday carrying the banner, and 13 Going On 30 one of the first to emerge in its wake. A teenage girl wishes for womanhood, and is magically transformed into an adult. Her future self is a high-flying magazine editor, but she's still a kid at heart.
I thought 13 Going On 30 had a lot of promise, no matter how much a rehash of Big it sounded. It brought into the spotlight the welcoming presence of Jennifer Garner, the lovely and talented star of TV's smart spy series Alias. It co-starred Mark Ruffalo, one of the most underrated American actors. And it was directed by Gary Winick, who had just made a splash at Sundance with the edgy teen comedy Tadpole. But 13 Going On 30 emerges as a thorough disappointment.
The film has obviously taken Big as its main inspiration, but Jennifer Garner never captures the same authentic sense of a child lost in an adult world. Tom Hanks gave a career making performance where both he and director Penny Marshall had they're fingers on the pulse of lost childhood innocence. Winick and Garner by comparison barely get to grips with it.
Hanks' gangly body language and boyish expressions were a perfect fit for Big. Garner's girlie affectations never seem like an actual performance. Ironically she seems to be doing too much acting for the role, and misses the natural ease that came through so effortlessly in Hanks' delivery.
Aside from that, Big was a film that delighted in its own sense of fun. Everybody remembers Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia playing Chopsticks on a gigantic keyboard in an upscale toyshop. The scene became an instant classic. The nearest 13 Going On 30 ever gets to that is Jennifer Garner leading a group performance of Thriller, which just doesn't amount to anything and is quickly forgotten once the film is over.
I expected something more interesting from the director of Tadpole, where Gary Winick was quite attuned to the mixed, conflicting emotions of teenage years. Since the theme was a teenage boy growing up too fast, Winick seemed an ideal choice to make 13 Going On 30. But it seems by abandoning Tadpole's indie sensibilities, Winick's direction just disappears into a blandness. He fails to make anything of the situation, and never explores it the way Penny Marshall did with Big.
Sadly, the promise that Gary Winick showed on Tadpole quickly evaporated with each and every film that he made thereafter. His career became a series of production line mediocrities until his sudden death of brain cancer last year. Tadpole was the only film he should ever be remembered for.
One of the things that was also gratifying about Big was the way it explored all of the different permutations to Tom Hanks' situation. The way he fumbled through the adult world, seeing it through childlike eyes. Trying to hold down a job. Forming relationships and struggling to fathom the meaning of commitment. The sense of losing touch with your own childhood innocence to survive in a grownup world.
But 13 Going On 30 makes things incredibly easy on itself, where Jenna Rink not only wakes up as an adult, but has a home of her own, a lucrative job, and a relationship all magically handed to her. Big never bothered with a time travelling aspect and worked perfectly well (arguably better) without it.
I found it difficult to care for Jenna's dilemma. As she grew older, she cut her family and her only friend out of her life. And she discovers she's really a backstabbing bitch who thinks nothing of peddling other people's ideas to rival publications. When she tries to rebuild relationships with her parents and Mark Ruffalo, and tries to turn the fortunes of Poise around for the better, all of this is rendered irrelevant anyway as soon as she wishes herself back into a kid so you wonder why they bothered with this at all.
The film could have salvaged itself with an interesting coupling fronting the film, like Tom Hanks and Elizabeth Perkins. I know I keep returning to Big, but it gets everything right that 13 Going On 30 manages to fumble so badly. Certainly the film has two engaging performers, Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo, but Garner's natural intelligence only works in combination with an excellent script. This film just doesn't have one.
And then there's Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo is one of the most versatile actors currently working in Hollywood. Just look at his excellent work in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and In The Cut. But 13 Going On 30 makes the woeful mistake of trying to turn him into a romantic lead, and Ruffalo looks decidedly uncomfortable with the arrangement. He's an actor who loves to be challenged, or likes to sign onto films that travel into very dark areas. The fact that he agreed to be in such an eminently predictable film is surprising, and something I wouldn't pay to see again.
13 Going On 30 is a film that was so promisingly put together its dispiriting to see it flop as badly as it does. Fans of Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo are advised to steer clear of the film. I wish I could take that advice.
Toy Story opened up a whole new market in animation. It was a quantum leap forward, and showed us the infinite possibilities in computer animation. After it put Pixar on the map, other studios were quick to jump on the bandwagon, with DreamWorks emerging as the first to go where only Pixar had gone before.
Pixar and DreamWorks are arguably the premier studios in this type of field. All the others vie for the same type of acceptance but have never wrested the crown from them. When it comes to computer animation, Pixar have the edge over DreamWorks, by a very wide margin. They manage an effortless blend of involving stories, characters we care deeply for, beautiful animation, and a rich vein of humour.
On the other hand, I'm not quite as excited whenever a new DreamWorks film hits cinemas. A lot of them wind up infected with a modern cynicism, as well as an annoying habit of filling them up with film references and product placements. But they're animated debut Antz is definitely one of they're best, and one I have no problem watching time and time again.
Its interesting that Antz was released in the very same year as Pixar's A Bug's Life. There are uncanny similarities. They're both about a misfit worker ant at odds with the society they live in. A relationship between the hero of the film and an ant princess. And even a similar climax where the colony must learn to combine as a whole to save it from destruction.
Of the two films, Antz is better. It does much more with the conceit of an idealist out of step with the colony he lives in. Also, where the hero of A Bug's Life was rather too anonymous, Antz has a fabulous protagonist, Z.
Z has always felt like an outsider. He was the middle child in a family of five million. He gets no satisfaction from his job. And he has a problem with following the unblinking, unquestioning worker ethic of the ant colony. This is all revealed to us in the opening scene where Z is in therapy, running off a list of inadequacies to a counsellor.
The voice of Z is none other than Woody Allen. How DreamWorks ever managed to land him I'll never know, but it was a stroke of genius. This opening monologue is classic Allen and could easily lay the stage for Manhattan or Annie Hall.
Z comes in the unmistakable "world is against me" neurotic vibe Allen's perfected over the past four decades. I've never liked Woody Allen the actor as much as I like Woody Allen the director, but he's perfectly at home here. He's not really stretching himself, nor is it any different from what he usually does in any of his films, but he's the perfect choice for Z.
In fact Antz has a very interesting lineup. Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken, Anne Bancroft, even Sylvester Stallone. Its even more interesting to discover how good they all are at voicework. You wonder why they've never attempted it before now.
Antz is a film that could never be made in the traditional hand drawn animation style. Not without compromising it. Toy Story could be done like that, because there was nothing in it that couldn't be accomplished the old fashioned way. But the computer animated medium allows Antz greater freedom. We see sweeping vistas of hundreds upon hundreds of ants, all performing individual tasks as far as the eye can see. You can imagine a hand drawn animator going blind trying to achieve the same thing.
One thing I especially liked about the film is the way it credibly depicts an ant colony. The animators have made an effort not to make them seem too warm and cuddly. They come in all the right colours, and the world they live in is a gritty and dirty one. Whereas A Bug's Life went the other way and bent over backwards to make them much more accessible to the kids in the audience.
Antz is not afraid to do things that might be considered shocking to an audience. The most striking setpiece in the film is when the ants go to war against they're enemies, the termites. And its a nightmarish sequence. It comes out like a collision between the Battle of Normandy in Saving Private Ryan and the souped-up bug hunt of Starship Troopers. This type of carnage is something that never assailed the safer horizons of A Bug's Life.
Not only that, and unlike most kiddie films today, Antz will kill its characters, even the likable ones, with no chance of a return from the dead cliché. When the ants are nearly wiped out en masse at the climax, there is never any question in your mind that they're lives are in danger. You really wind up feeling for they're plight. There's also a level of casual swearing that quite surprised one. The film's PG certificate is well deserved.
One of the unpalatable things about animated fare nowadays, and DreamWorks is a particularly guilty offender is the way they play to a modern audience. Because Antz is they're first animated film, its not as overtaken by product plugging and film referencing like DreamWorks' subsequent films. All you have to do is hold it up to Shark Tale and Shrek 2 and you'll see what I mean. The scenes at Insectopia have a few intrusive brand names but never enough that they have the run of the film.
It all gets itself together for a thrilling climax, even if General Mandible doesn't get the end a villain of his stature deserves. But Antz is a real charmer with a smashing soundtrack. Antz fired the starters pistol between DreamWorks and Pixar, and while Pixar are normally a sure bet, this is the one time where DreamWorks outstripped Pixar in every possible way.
Mum's the Word
Tadpole made a splash at Sundance, announcing the arrival of Gary Winick. But after Tadpole provided him with a ticket to the mainstream, Winick showed a predilection for blander, more middling material. The increasingly dire likes of 13 Going On 30, Charlotte's Web, Bride Wars and Letters to Juliet. This dreary, undistinguished career would have probably continued until it was suddenly cut short when Winick succumbed to brain cancer earlier this year.
Tadpole was quite risqué for the normally conservative Winick, and the one shining light in an otherwise throwaway career. You have to wonder what it was about Tadpole he got right that he managed to get wrong on everything else. And when a theme is a teen being romanced by a woman twice his age, something bound to raise the eyebrows of more than a few in an audience, Winick's accomplishment seems all the more remarkable.
Winick seemed to fancy himself a Martin Scorsese or a Steven Spielberg. Someone with the capacity to take on any genre regardless of what it was. Kid films, rom-coms, fantasy. Tadpole seemed to be Winick's attempt at a Woody Allen movie. Tadpole lacks the same introspection, but compared to everything still ahead for Winick, its a gem.
Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford) is visiting his parents in New York for Thanksgiving. He's got all the girls swooning over him, but he's only got eyes for Eve. She's smart, classy, sophisticated. Everything he wants in a woman. She's perfect except for one pesky detail. She's his stepmother! Oscar hasn't even finished prep school yet, and just sees the age barrier as a hurdle to surmount.
While his father Stanley (John Ritter) tries to set Oscar up with every teen girl on the Upper East Side, things spiral out of hand when Oscar falls into bed with Eve's best friend Diane (Bebe Neuwirth, delightful). She's quick to brag about it, while Oscar tries to sort out mixed emotions before Thanksgiving dinner.
There's a scene in Tadpole when Oscar is described as having the soul of a man in a teen's body. Gary Winick later conducted a gender reversal on that idea, to far blander effect in 13 Going On 30. Tadpole was one film where Winick pulled everything together. Since he never pulled off that trick a second time, I suspect it was more to do with the excellence of the cast, and having such a witty script at his disposal.
Admittedly Tadpole makes things easier on itself by having a male teen (instead of a teen girl) caught in a love triangle with two older adults. Aaron Stanford is also too old to credibly play a teenager. But the script is deft the way it deals with Oscar's romantic entanglements. Part of the reason for this is because scriptwriters Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller place Oscar at the centre of a marvellous triptych of conflicting adults.
Eve, Diane and Stanley are all well defined. Sigourney Weaver gives Eve a great injection of class. Its obvious why Oscar loves her so, even if she is his stepmother! John Ritter plays Stanley with perfect indifference to the insane situation going on around him. But the performance that lights up the film comes from the vastly underrated Bebe Neuwirth.
Its great for the way Neuwirth walks a fine line between spicing up her love life and committing such a reprehensible act. Diane doesn't mind sleeping with a teen, who showed interest in a woman her age. Granted he was drunk at the time but Diane can live with that! What amazed me more than anything about Tadpole is that for such a potentially squeamish topic, and something Winick never managed with the far safer Bride Wars or 13 Going On 30, is that the film is funny in spite of that.
I did find it difficult to believe that Diane would want to boast to the girls in her age range about Oscar, but Neuwirth's obvious delight at watching the situation snowball into a sublime comedy of errors is joyous. It all blossoms into one wonderful scene in a NY restaurant, where Oscar, Eve, Stanley and Diane are at dinner together. Weaver's sobering intelligence, Ritter's condescension and Neuwirth's glee at Stanford's discomfort play off of one another superbly.
The one thing that lets the film down is a bland visual scheme. Tadpole was made extremely low budget, and to tell you the truth it shows. The film looks like its being captured through the lens of a camcorder, but not like cinema verite. I think that was all they could afford on the budget they had at hand, but because the actors are working from such a terrific script, that's enough to carry Tadpole over the rough spots.
Another plus is Winick is content to let the actors lead the show without too much interference from him. He just lets them tell the story without resorting to obvious signposting. Something that seemed to escape him on Charlotte's Web and Bride Wars. The nearest it ever gets to that is the constant quotations from Voltaire. I'm not sure the film needed these because they tend to get in the way of the narrative, and what with only a running time of 78 minutes, they feel more intrusive than informative.
Still, Tadpole is a film of surprising charm. It never does resolve the dilemma it sets up for itself, and Oscar is more naive than he likes to believe. I also would have preferred an extended running time, and it works better as comedy than it ever does as drama, but Tadpole is winning, sharp and very insightful. Something you can never say again about a Gary Winick movie.
Charlotte's Web (2006)
This Little Piggy...
Babe reinvented the talking animal movie, using (what seemed at the time) cutting edge effects to give the appearance that animals could talk just as much as any human could. It was a delightful fable of many charms. Such success never goes unnoticed by Hollywood, and Babe opened a floodgate of similar talking animal movies.
While technically on a par, most of these have failed to repeat the things that Babe did so well. What these imitators never understood about Babe was that it wasn't merely a special effects show. It was also a timeless story with clear, delineated characters we cared about, an involving plot, and it had a genuine magic.
These other films by comparison let loose a litany of pop-culture gags, animal flatulence, and an all too familiar monotony. In the field, Babe was and still is the first and last word on the subject.
And so that brings us to Charlotte's Web, based on the classic children's book by EB White, and a perfect stable-mate to The Sheep-Pig. Thankfully, the film doesn't fall into the same company as Racing Stripes, a perfect example of how not to make a talking animal movie. But neither is it in the same league as Babe, by a very wide margin.
The story is so familiar that I really don't see the need to go into detail about it. Everything has been faithfully rendered. Wilbur the Pig, Charlotte the Spider, Templeton the Rat and Fern the Girl (Dakota Fanning).
And certainly the film starts well. The scenes where Wilbur as a runt can't get any milk from his mother because all the other piglets are bigger than him, Fern saving Wilbur from the axe, bottle-feeding him, taking him to school, pushing him in a pram, it all evinces a genuine affection for the character. For a time, it seems like Charlotte's Web is on the same wavelength as Babe.
But ironically what kills the film stone-dead is the very thing that made Babe so magical. Once the animals start talking the novelty it once had has worn off. The effect has become blasé by now. There was something so natural to the first ten minutes, where Fern and Wilbur's budding friendship was warm and genuine, and not at all false and artificial.
But as soon as the voiceovers come into the film (Sam Shepard's narration is an especial irritation), it felt to me like Charlotte's Web was constantly nudging me to feel emotions at any given time. Practically underscoring every dramatic point with a bludgeoning heavy hand.
I can't say that's a surprise when the director is Gary Winick. Winick got off to a promising start with Tadpole, an insightful coming of ager. But he soon gravitated to throwaway fluff like 13 Going On 30, this, and the later likes of Bride Wars and Letters to Juliet, before a sudden death of brain cancer. Tadpole was the one shining light in an otherwise undistinguished career, where the success of that film must have been more to the script and the performers, than anything on Winick's part.
All of Winick's typical shortcomings are present and correct on Charlotte's Web. He feels the need to spell everything out to an audience in broad brushstrokes. The crucial failing of the film is that Winick lacks faith in the story's ability to tell itself. To see how it should be done, look no further than the 1973 version from Hanna-Barbara, where they got the essence of EB White's writing down perfectly. They managed to impart the same messages without having to lecture on anything.
Winick assumed he was a director of many faces. Coming of agers. Children's films. Rom-coms. But he was just a one-trick pony who put talented actresses like Jennifer Garner, Dakota Fanning, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried at the mercies of disposable material they were clearly uncomfortable with.
The biggest crime of the film is Winick lets an immensely gifted child actress like Dakota Fanning go to waste. As the plot progresses, he does very little with her, and allows her to fall by the wayside. She becomes less important to the film, and her relationship with a farmboy never connects.
The special effects are as good as you'd expect. Wilbur, Charlotte and Templeton all look and move with conviction. I barely saw the joins, but its a more gimmicky film than Babe. Babe used effects as a means and not the end. Charlotte's Web is constantly in your face with dazzling CGI shots of Wilbur backflipping and Templeton scrounging through the maze of his rathole. It really becomes quite tiring.
The fact that its a Walden Media production also says something about the film. Aside from Bridge to Terabithia and City of Ember, Walden's track-record has been banal at best. Charlotte's Web fits in nicely with Walden's production-line family fare with a vaguely Christian agenda. What else are you supposed to think when a film has the tagline "Help Is Coming From Above This Christmas."
With so many talented performers, Charlotte's Web is a disappointment. There are no jive-talking animals and endless film references, so its more tolerable than most talking animal movies, but unlike Babe, this little piggy should have stayed home.