Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Thoughts on the "Rise of the Guardians" Trailer

Today, the trailer for DreamWorks' animated film Rise of the Guardians was released. I checked it out and I must say, this looks like it's going to be one of DreamWorks' best films if not their best. The trailer was great, and I barely say that about trailers. Unlike the other trailers for DreamWorks' films, there was a lot of focus on the story and only one joke, which wasn't as cringeworthy as some of the other things we've seen in the trailers for their other films.

The trailer also mentioned "From the creators of How to Train Your Dragon" instead of the usual (Shrek, Madagascar, etc.) films. It also mentioned Guillermo del Toro and William Joyce, so basically the trailer made an effort to tell people who was involved with this production. The trailer also does a good job at giving you the gist of the story and who the characters are. Another stand-out is the animation, which is some of the best animation I've seen in a DreamWorks film. The character designs are fabulous, the art direction is inspired and the footage was just downright colorful.

We also get a good glimpse of the villain, the Boogeyman. It looks like this film will be a little darker than their usual films, and it's probably that way because of Del Toro. (After all, they are working on a film adaptation of Alma) Aside from that, the writing was good, no pointless jokes were thrown around and nothing that makes the film seem like it's trying too hard. This looks like another How to Train Your Dragon, an attempt at just telling a great story without pop culture references or what I call "wannabe adult" jokes.

After years of derivative variations of Shrek and Shrek 2, DreamWorks has been getting back to their pre-Shrek roots. Story is more important now, as the films have deviated from the Shrek 2 formula. Being an admirer of How to Train Your Dragon's strengths (where that film succeeds, it really succeeds), I am beyond excited for this film. From this trailer, it definitely looks like something worth seeing on opening weekend. In all, great animation, interesting storyline, colorful art direction and good writing. I am officially psyched for this film.

What were your thoughts on the trailer? Were you impressed? Or not? Do you think it looks like it's going to be DreamWorks' best film to date? Or one of their best? Sound off!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Thoughts on "Wreck-It Ralph"

This isn't a "thoughts on upcoming animation" sort of thing, since I'm finished with that. This isn't a series either, this is basically my thoughts on a certain upcoming animated film that doesn't have any trailer out. Today I'll be focusing on Walt Disney Animation Studios' next animated feature, Wreck-It Ralph, which will be #52 in the animated feature "canon". It is supposed to hit theaters this autumn, on November 2nd.

Wreck-It Ralph tells the story of... Well... Wreck-It Ralph. Who is Wreck-It Ralph? He's a gigantic man who is the villain of a 1980s (arcade) video game named Fix-It Felix Jr. His life? Wrecking big buildings. A little hero's job is to fix the buildings Ralph has destroyed. Basically it's similar the original Donkey Kong arcade game from 1981, a little guy vs. a big brute. Instead being the bad guy, Ralph wants to prove that he can be a good guy. Ralph travels through several elaborate video games to defeat a threat that he ultimately started.

The story sounds interesting, and it's definitely unlike anything Disney's animation studio has tackled. It's not an adaptation of a fairy tale or a classic novel. It's an original idea, much like one of their more recent films, Bolt. This story is more akin to Tron than anything else. This story screams "ambitious". A family-friendly adventure comedy about video games? Well, if Tron: Legacy worked, so could this. Looking at the whole plot and the details from last summer's D23 expo, it seems like a lot of effort was put into the storyline.

A few comparisons have been made to Illumination's Despicable Me and DreamWorks' Megamind, since Wreck-It Ralph is the bad guy who wants to be the good guy. If you look at the story, however, it's different. If it's similar to any of the two, it's Megamind, since Megamind himself creates a hero to fight after finishing off his rival. The hero ultimately turns into a threat. On the other hand, this story is more interesting because I felt that, despite a few impressive moments, Megamind didn't go all out. It was a rather restrained superhero spoof that tried a little too hard to be serious, although I appreciate the effort on the behalf of DreamWorks. At least they were trying to tell a story here. Given Disney's good track record as of late (Bolt, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Winnie the Pooh), it's possible that this film will have a great story, great characters and good writing. Why wouldn't it?

We don't know if Disney went all out with this story or not. They would have to, since they have several different video games. One of which is "Hero's Duty", a sort of science fiction shooter game with enemies called Cy-Bugs. Another video game in the story is "Sugar Land", a bright and colorful Mario Kart meets Candy Land world. That's what we know so far. What we also know is that several video game villains will have cameos in the film. Among the cameos are Bowser, Dr. Robotnik, a Pac-Man ghost, Dr. Wily from Mega Man, Kano from Mortal Kombat and Coily the snake from Q*Bert. It's obviously that the crew is taking this project seriously. Apparently, Kano pulls his classic Mortal Kombat fatality on someone in the film. Hard PG rating? Maybe? Or will it be implied?

So what have we got so far? A story that's unlike anything else in a Disney animated film, well known video game characters making cameos, ambition, and various video game settings. There's a lot that we don't know. Will the animation change styles as the film progresses? Will the different video game lands have a different style of animation? We've seen art shifts in Disney films before, especially in the more recent films. We had the "Barking at the Moon" scene in Bolt, where the trio's travels are illustrated through a flat art style for the US map in addition to the painterly look they used for the film's backgrounds. The "Almost There" scene from The Princess and the Frog is done in an Art Deco/Harlem Renaissance style. Winnie the Pooh has the "Backson Song" scene where everything looks like it was drawn on a chalkboard. Will Wreck-It Ralph have this too?

Just think about it. One minute, everything looks like an 8-bit video game. Then the next minute it's really good computer animation. Then next minute, everything is hand-drawn or done in a less realistic style. Imagine that, an animated film with so many art shifts. (which is what TV Tropes calls them) That could make the film worth seeing, even if the story is flimsy or the writing isn't up to par.

Who is working on the film? Rich Moore, who has directed several episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama (which already reminds me of the episode "Anthology of Interest II" which featured a segment where the world is like a video game, Moore wrote "Anthology of Interest I"), is a fabulous choice. Having never directed an animated feature before, who knows how his leap to a feature-length film will be. From what I've heard about the film's first five minutes, it looks like he's going to put a lot of adult humor in this. Adult humor that works. A PG rating is guaranteed, something the Disney animated features rarely get. (Tangled didn't deserve that PG rating if you ask me, ditto Home on the Range) The producer is Clark Spencer, who produced Lilo & Stitch, Bolt and Winnie the Pooh. He was also an executive producer for Meet the Robinsons. John Lasseter is of course the executive producer of the film. The cast includes John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer, Sarah Silverman and Jamie Elman. While these people have comedy backgrounds, they can still work wonders. It just depends on how good the screenplay is, along with the story.

About that... The last few Disney animated films have received positive reviews. Meet the Robinsons is a slight exception, but that's because that film was produced when Michael Eisner stepped down as CEO, Robert Iger took his place, and Lasseter rejuvenated Walt Disney Animation Studios. Still, it has a 66% on Rotten Tomatoes. I believe it got those reviews because the first half of the film is out of control, whereas the second half feels like a Pixar film. Well-written, heartfelt and devoid of anything that doesn't ruin the flow of the story.

Everything else has gotten very good reviews. Bolt's charm and simplicity, along with its likable characters, won itself great reviews. The Princess and the Frog got good reviews as most critics felt it was a very good return to hand-drawn animation and the Disney musical format. Tangled was very entertaining, thus it got great reviews. Winnie the Pooh may have been a box office flop, but got extremely positive reviews. With a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, it stands higher than the recent crop. Will Wreck-It Ralph continue this streak? I'd say a big maybe, if the storytellers at Disney offer an engaging story with great characters. Why? Films based on video games or films about video gaming usually don't have any of that. Disney's own Tron: Legacy was criticized for being a cold, hollow film that lacked a strong story and great characters. All Wreck-It Ralph needs is likable characters, a great story and heart. It doesn't need to be a love story or anything, but still, the film has to have characters that you root for. Disney can still aim for fun action and spectacle, but they can also tell a very good story at the same time.

Why am I rooting for Wreck-It Ralph so much? The answer: It's a big risk. A HUGE risk. I love it when Disney takes risks, and pulls them off.

Wreck-It Ralph, to me, is a risk along the lines of Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. Both of those films had a more sci-fi/fantasy-like tone and boasted pulse-pounding blockbuster action. Animation is perfect for this kind of thing, but unfortunately, those two films fell short of their ambitions. Atlantis: The Lost Empire was originally envisioned as a Jules Verne-styled adventure film (and Disney has tackled Verne before, with the masterful 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954, In Search of the Castaways in 1961 and The Island at the Top of the World in 1974) with tons of battles with monsters. It was going to be an epic 2-hour adventure film, and it showed that directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale wanted to break away from the Disney formula that plagued the 1990s films.

It would've been perfect, coming off of The Emperor's New Groove, a film that mocked the studio's own formula. (In return, that poorly-marketed film turned out to be a sleeper hit of sorts) Shirts that said "Less Songs. More Explosions." were worn by the crew during production. This was shaping up to be one of Disney's most ambitious, non-formulaic projects yet. Something Walt would've made. What happened? Well, Disney Animation was dictated by executives. Several cuts were made, and the story turned out to be a mess. It couldn't appeal to critics, family audiences or adults. It was perceived as too violent for kids (naturally, given the attitudes towards Disney and most animation in general) and too juvenile for kids over 13 years old, because the film wasn't mature enough for "them".

Treasure Planet's story was stronger, but the characters weren't as likable as the ones in Atlantis. While some of the characters (John Silver, Doppler) were likable, the others were either okay or just uninteresting. You also had the typical annoying sidekick. (B.E.N.) Treasure Planet and Atlantis suffer from what I like to call the Titan A.E. syndrome. That 2000 Don Bluth film was aimed at preteen boys who normally shun animated films as kids' stuff, with its sci-fi tone and blockbuster-style action. The film received mixed reviews, but it bombed at the box office. Atlantis managed to gross $84 million stateside, but it still underperformed. Treasure Planet went on to become one of Disney's biggest box office bombs, although it did very well on home video.

How come that couldn't at least take in $50 million? Well, a terrible choice of release date (Disney has a love for picking bad dates to release their animated films) and poor marketing killed it. I remember when I saw the trailer for it at the age of 9 back in early 2002 or so. I was not interested. With Jim Hawkins flying around on his solar surfer, I felt that the movie was trying too hard to be "awesome!" and "kewl!" When I saw it for the first time not too long ago, I really liked it. I wasn't too fond of the story or how they handled the character development, but the ambition and the incredible visuals make it worthwhile.

Wreck-It Ralph is similar to these two films, but it most likely won't be plagued with the problems that plagued them. Those films were produced when Disney executives had their way. Read up on all the horror stories. A love song called "If I Never Knew You" being cut from Pocahontas because kids at test screenings got antsy, the decision to throw comic relief into something dark and adult like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the various cuts done to Lilo & Stitch (not counting the revised final chase scene, they had a good reason for altering that) and the butchering of Atlantis... The list goes on. Now that the Eisner era is over, Walt Disney Animation Studios' artists and storytellers don't have to worry about this. No more pandering to kids, no attempts to make the film more appealing to younger audiences. They're following Walt Disney's footsteps, creating great films for all ages without having to pander to any particular audience.

This is why the recent output is superior to a majority of the films released in the last 15 years. I'll take Bolt, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Winnie the Pooh over Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear and Home on the Range any day. Still, fascinating work shines through in these films. Look past the executive meddling and you'd be surprised. Now we're in an era where we don't have to look past that. I have a feeling that Wreck-It Ralph could be the first ambitious Disney animated film that will work, because no executives will be sticking their spoons into the broth. Disney hasn't made a risky, ambitious film that worked for a while. Now the time has come...

So if the film turns out to be a risky, ambitious film that delivers, will it be a box office hit? Bolt, The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh got great reviews. Bolt had a small opening weekend, but pulled a good-sized multiplier and crept past $110 million domestically. The Princess and the Frog performed similarly. Winnie the Pooh came and went, grossing only $30 million domestically making it one of Disney's least-attended animated films of all time if not the lowest. Yet it was a very good film. What happened? How come these films couldn't clear $150 million domestically? $200 million?

Bolt was poorly marketed. I remember when they played the trailer before WALL-E in the summer of 2008. I thought it looked horrible (part of me was angry that Chris Sanders' original American Dog concept had to go), not to mention the marketing department felt the need to advertise John Travolta and Miley Cyrus' names on the poster as if it were a DreamWorks film. Miley Cyrus' character isn't in it that much. If they wanted to promote the two leads, they should've promoted Susie Essman. Mittens was a much more important character. Oh, and people know who Susie Essman is. It's not like she's an unknown. They promoted Cyrus because they probably felt that the Hannah Montana crowd would race to see the film. Pandering. Not the film itself, but the marketing. It was a combination of bad blunders that caused that film to score such a low opening, losing to the inferior Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa during the holiday season. The Princess and the Frog was released right before James Cameron's Avatar along with tough competition like Sherlock Holmes and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel (which probably stole the film's family audiences), and the marketing made it look like a lame revival of the Disney Renaissance. Seriously, the marketing was terrible! Tangled's was even worse, but yet that film was a hit. At least the marketing was a little more energetic and in your face. Winnie the Pooh was barely promoted. It was thrown into a battlefield that included the final Harry Potter film, Captain America: The First Avenger and The Smurfs. Okay, maybe the stuffed bear wouldn't make $150 million, but it could've been a small sleeper hit! Disney blew it. Again.

With no teaser for Wreck-It Ralph out, or any marketing, I fear that this will be another underperformer. If it underperforms, Disney might can any ambitious projects. Frozen, Disney's Snow Queen project, was thought to be a hand-drawn film. Apparently, Frog and Pooh's performances probably convinced them that no one cares for hand-drawn animation anymore. People do care for hand-drawn animation. You have to make them care! Better marketing, come on! The Princess and the Frog had strong legs that carried it to $100 million. It could've made twice that amount if it had a better opening weekend, but no, marketing held it back.

I fear that this will happen to Wreck-It Ralph. It's already a hard sell, and a lot of hard work went into it like any good animated film, and with some very good trailers, they can get people interested. This should be an event that everyone will want to see, like any good Disney film. If they market it the same way they did with the last few films, then it will underperform. Less than $150 million won't satisfy Disney. They can't be blamed, right? Right?! Audiences didn't like the films! That's why they didn't do well! This is why Disney's films aren't doing well. The same goes for their live action output. (Must I bring up John Carter's horrendous marketing?) They'll promote the hell out of Pixar's films, but how come they can't do the same for their animated films? Their big budget live action films?

Anyways, before this turns into a Disney marketing rant, I will say this: If Wreck-It Ralph turns out to be a great film that exceeds expectations but it doesn't do well, I won't be happy. This won't spell a good future for Disney animation, they'll play it safe after that. While I'm very happy with the recent output, some of it feels a little too safe. This film doesn't look safe at all, and while I can't make any judgments, I have high hopes for this film. This is the ambitious blockbuster Disney has been waiting for. We need the marketing campaign to kick off now, before it's too late. If Disney were smart, they'd give us the first trailer before The Avengers. Being a Disney release, and being a film that's sure to clear $300 million at the domestic box office, attaching the trailer could bring things off to a great start. That is, if the trailer is any good. Maybe they'll wait until Brave comes out. Maybe not, but they better get the word out soon.

What are your thoughts on this upcoming film? Do you think it looks good? Or do you think it looks like an absolute turkey? When do you think the first trailer will debut? Do you think it will be a success? Sound off!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Classic Animation Theater : "Heavy Metal" (Part 3)

Heavy Metal
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Studio: Guardian Trust Company, Canadian
Film Development Corporation and Famous Players
Individual Segments Created By TV Cartoons, Halas and
Batchelor Cartoon Films, Atkinson Film Arts, Haines-Camron,
Votetone, Boxcar Films and Wally Bulloch-Anicam
Director: Gerald Potterton
Producer: Ivan Reitman
Original Release Date: August 7, 1981

It seems that Heavy Metal is... Well... Problematic... We know that it isn't trying to be anything special, yet the film is bogged down by the poor side of its animation, some of the writing and the overall juvenile tone of the picture. We know that some of the animation is also very good including some then-groundbreaking special effects that either work well ("So Beautiful, So Dangerous") or don't. ("Soft Landing", "Taarna") So we're now down to the last thing about this film, and this is what really works... The soundtrack!

The film is called Heavy Metal because of the magazine it's based on, but that doesn't mean it can't have a hard rocking soundtrack now can it? If you love classic rock and animation, this is a dream come true. The individual songs are very good, making this one of the best soundtracks for an animated film. Regardless of what scenes the songs play on, they often show up out of nowhere. Elmer Bernstein's score is also good, adding that fantasy element to the picture and it suits the art direction very well.

Some tracks actually qualify as heavy metal, while the rest is actually just really good hard rock. The title track, sung by Sammy Hagar, is awesome. It's loud, it's ear-shattering and it just rocks... Don Felder of the Eagles (not Don Henley, mind you) provides two songs, one of which being titled "Heavy Metal (Takin' a Ride)", a great rock song with a chugging riff. This song plays over the first minute of the "B-17" segment, and it suits it perfectly. His other contribution, "All of You", is a slower piece that still works and it's just as good as "Heavy Metal (Takin' a Ride)".

Black Sabbath (with Ronnie James Dio as the lead vocalist) contributes two songs, one of which isn't on the soundtrack itself but in the film only. "E5150" and "The Mob Rules" are used in the "Taarna" segment. "E5150" is a strange instrumental that leads up to "The Mob Rules", and that's the way they're sequenced on Black Sabbath's Mob Rules, which came out the same year. "E5150" is left off of the film's official soundtrack. This baffles me, why did they leave it off the original soundtrack? Perhaps there wasn't enough space on the vinyl? Okay I can understand that, but how come it's not on the CD? Anyways, "The Mob Rules" is another hard rocking song that works well with the scene it's used on. To me, it beats the version on Black Sabbath's Mob Rules album.

We also have a contribution from Journey, a song that already appeared on their 1981 hit album, Escape: "Open Arms". Cheap Trick contributes two energetic rockers, "Reach Out" and "You Must Be Dreamin'". (Which has an incredibly cool intro) Blue Öyster Cult was to offer two songs, but only one made it. "Veteran of the Psychic Wars" is a fine song that's a little lengthy. The other song was unfortunately left off, "Vengeance (The Pact)". The producers turned the song down because they felt that the lyrics summarized the "Taarna" segment in just a matter of minutes. The song appeared on their 1981 album, Fire of Unknown Origins.

Devo had two songs for the film. "Working in the Coal Mine" is used for the end credits, "Through Being Cool" is played by an animatronic band in the bar during the "Taarna" segment. Unfortunately, that great song wasn't on the LP or CD of the soundtrack, just like "E5150". It was instead included on their 1981 album New Traditionalists. Stevie Nicks contributes a lovely song called "Blue Light", which was a Bella Donna outtake, one of many songs that didn't make it to Nicks' debut album.

Nazareth offered "Crazy (A Suitable Case for Treatment)", a solid rocker. Donald Fagen's "True Companion" is a beautiful piece, although it takes a while for the song to get to the vocals. This must've been recorded before or after the recording sessions for Steely Dan's Gaucho. Grand Funk Railroad's "Queen Bee" can also be found on their 1981 album Grand Funk Lives. It's a lot harder than their usual songs, but it's good. Riggs, the band founded by Jerry Riggs (who go on to be co-lead guitarist of the Pat Travers Band), offers two energetic rockers: "Radar Rider" and "Heartbeat". Last but not least is "Prefabricated" by Trust, a French hard rock band. There's also the original French version, as they had to record the song in English for the soundtrack. It's another gem.

What about the score? It's composed by none other than Elmer Bernstein, the perfect choice for this kind of film. You can hear a little Ghostbusters throughout the film, even this came out three years before that film, which coincidentally was directed and produced by Ivan Reitman. Bernstein's score captures the settings of the different segments' atmospheres, and it's definitely one of the film's stronger points. Stand out moments in the score include "B-17", "Den" and "Taarna". It's also notable that Bernstein later composed the score for Disney's The Black Cauldron, which was arguably influenced by this film during production.

So basically, the film has a great soundtrack. The music goes very well with the setting and the tone of the film. While the film does have a lot of flaws, the soundtrack is one of its saving graces. Now that we've covered the story, the soundtrack, the animation and the writing, let's take a look at the production history and what happened after the release of the film.

Work on a feature film based on the magazine began after the success of National Lampoon's Animal House in 1978. Ivan Reitman, the producer of Animal House, became the film's producer. Mogel would also produce the film. The film would feature six stories, two of which were original stories that were true to the spirit of the magazine. They would be linked together with a main plot to make an omnibus anthology film, all set to contemporary hard rock artists and bands. A rock and roll Fantasia if you will, except with a storyline.

The individual stories would be animated by various studios in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. Gerald Potterton, who worked on projects such as George Dunning's Yellow Submarine and Richard Williams' Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure, would direct the film. With that, and a $9 million budget, this was shaping up to be an ambitious project. It was also the perfect time to make an adult animated film, as many of those came about after Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic. The Bakshi influence can be seen all over this film.

This was an ambitious idea on its own. While Fantasia's segments were all done at the Walt Disney Studios, Heavy Metal's individual segments would be handled by multiple animation houses in the states, Canada and the UK, thus each one has their own unique style. I may have criticized the work on some of the segments, but at least the segments are visually different from each other. I personally love it when animated films have what TV Tropes calls "art shifts".

During production, there was going to be a segment called "Neverwhere Land" (written by Cornelius Cole), a look into the Loc-Nar and it's influences throughout time. It starts at the beginning of mankind, showing examples of evil all throughout the centuries, and it works its way up to World War II, where it was supposed to segue into "B-17". That would've been a very effective transition, but unfortunately, this segment had to go because of time constraints.

After three years of work, the film was completed and released on August 7, 1981. The film was a success, taking in $20 million at the North American box office while receiving mixed reviews. A couple months later, the soundtrack LP hit stores and reached #12 on the Billboard 200 chart. Elmer Bernstein's score was also released on LP alongside the soundtrack. While the film was a success, it was more of a hit with midnight movie crowd much like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, thus it became a cult classic.

Unfortunately, there were legal issues over the rights to the music in the film, which resulted in the film being kept from being released on home video. If you wanted to watch Heavy Metal after its initial release, you either had to see a midnight movie screening or it wait for it to show up on HBO. Bootlegs surfaced shortly after. Kevin Eastman, the publisher of the magazine, finally settled all of this in 1995. Heavy Metal received a brief theatrical re-release on March 8, 1996 and was then released on home video for the first time in October. (With a subtitle, "Louder and nastier than ever!") The soundtrack was also released on CD for the first time.

3 years later, the film was released on DVD with loads of bonus features, including a workprint of the film that's probably from late 1980 or early 1981. Containing unfinished animation, the deleted "Neverwhere Land" sequence and some scenes that got cut, this workprint is definitely worth watching. Carl Macek provides an informative commentary, which is the way to view the workprint since the only thing you'll hear in the workprint is the dialogue and a couple sound effects. Another version of "Neverwhere Land" appears as its own features on the DVD.

The initial home video release of the film was very successful, as one million units were sold. Production on a sequel began shortly after. The sequel ended up being a direct-to-video release, Heavy Metal 2000, which was poorly received.

Plans to make another Heavy Metal film surfaced around 2008, which was to be directed by David Fincher. This sequel would feature segments directed by James Cameron and Kevin Eastman, and it was revealed that Zack Snyder, Gore Verbinski and Guillermo del Toro wanted to direct some segments. Mark Osborne and Jack Black (Tenacious D) were also set to direct a segment. Sadly, this project was canned. Apparently no distributor was interested in it. Paramount rejected it because they felt it was too risque for mainstream audiences. Are you kidding me?

Robert Rodriguez purchased the rights and announced that he will be developing a Heavy Metal film at his new studio, Quick Draw Studios. He launched a website that encouraged fans to submit ideas and contributions. When this film will ever hit theaters is unknown, but it's nice to know that the project is not dead. If it stays true to the spirit of the original with great production values, it should be something worth seeing.

It's no doubt that Heavy Metal was a notable film in animation history. It was certainly influential in some areas, inspiring studios to do films in a similar fashion. Nelvana's Rock and Rule, which was originally going to be a family friendly film called Drats!, was revamped as an adult-oriented rock and roll sci-fi tale. Released in 1983, it was a critical and commercial failure and like Heavy Metal, it became a cult classic. Disney's The Black Cauldron might've borrowed from it as well, being a high fantasy story with dark imagery and a score composed by Elmer Bernstein, not to mention those infamous deleted scenes that were very violent. Something tells me that the Disney animators were definitely influenced by Heavy Metal during production of that film (and the adult animation boom in general), and the studio clearly was aiming for the teen fantasy audience.

Heavy Metal may be a problematic, sophomoric film that hasn't aged well, but why do I find it so fascinating today, 31 years after it first came out? Looking at it as an ambitious, experimental film, I give it credit. I also give it credit for it being an anthology film, something you don't normally see in the world of mainstream animated feature filmmaking. The soundtrack rocks, yes. Is it a good work of storytelling? No. Is the animation good? At times, yes. It's a film that I probably would've considered "the best ever" when I was fourteen years old.

Overall, this film isn't a misfire. It's an enjoyable guilty pleasure with a lot of ambition in it. Definitely worth seeking out, not for the quality, but for something different in the world of feature animation.

Film Grade: C+
Next Up: Another experimental animated film set to the music of one of the world's greatest bands. What is it you might ask? Find on the next episode of "Classic Animation Theater"!

Classic Animation Theater : "Heavy Metal" (Part 2)

Heavy Metal
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Studio: Guardian Trust Company, Canadian
Film Development Corporation and Famous Players
Individual Segments Created By TV Cartoons, Halas and
Batchelor Cartoon Films, Atkinson Film Arts, Haines-Camron,
Votetone, Boxcar Films and Wally Bulloch-Anicam
Director: Gerald Potterton
Producer: Ivan Reitman
Original Release Date: August 7, 1981

Since I went over the storyline and the history of the film, let's take a look at the individual segments and their qualities. First off, "Soft Landing". All we really see in this segment is a poorly rotoscoped Corvette. I can tell that was a real Vette they shot, the rotoscoping can't hide that. Next up, "Grimaldi", the story that strings the segments together. Like I said, Heavy Metal's story is nothing special. It's uneven and it just serves as a crutch for the novelty: The sexual content, the effects and the overall experience. Turn your mind off and enjoy the ride. "Grimaldi" features unspectacular animation and art direction, but criticizing this is a bit unnecessary, as it's only there just to tie these stories together. The filmmakers could've done the film in the same way Fantasia was done, but without someone introducing the segments. That would be a bit awkward and uneven, but it would've been an interesting experiment none-the-less. Perhaps tying all of these segments together with a simple story was the best thing to do.

"Harry Canyon" is brought down by poor character animation and scratchy art direction. I understand that they were going for a gritty look for a dystopian New York City, but the art direction lacks any excitement. It's bland. Most of the character animation... Well, I should say the rotoscoping makes the character movements stiff and sometime laggy. To me, rotoscoping is a no-no when it comes to character animation. Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings certainly proved this three years before this film hit theaters. Snow White and the Blue Fairy taught the Disney animators a lesson, though rotoscoping would be used for other things (such as vehicles, effects, etc.) in Disney films while not looking unconvincing.

Yet rotoscoping was the big thing in the adult animation world. (Or should I say animated films that got R ratings without actually being "mature") Don Bluth seemed to love rotoscoping as well. It was a rather unhealthy trend to say the least, and it plagues Heavy Metal, big time! The "Harry Canyon" segment is one of the worst offenders. Aside from the animation/rotoscoping work on the human characters, the animation on everything else is laggy such as a car chase, which should be exciting. Unfortunately, the stiff animation holds it back from being thrilling and just ruins it. Poor animation quality aside, "Harry Canyon" is a good segment because of the storytelling. It's a short, simple noir story set in the future with decent writing and acting.

The character animation is slightly better in "Den", but still unconvincing. It seems like that $9 million budget (a huge budget for a non-Disney animated film at the time) was only used on the special effects and art direction, since "Den" and most of the other segments boast these qualities. "Den" has colorful art direction, far better than the work seen in "Harry Canyon". Some of the effects look fake today, such as the psychedelic skies, but I bet they looked cool in 1981.

"Captain Sternn" doesn't go for a realistic look, but a rather cartoony one. The characters have very cool designs. Sternn has a big square jaw, his lawyer looks like a rat, and Hannover's gimpy nature is captured perfectly. The character animation here is better than most of the segments in the film, but the movements are still laggy. A scene where some of the space station crushes flows just as badly as the car chase in "Harry Canyon".

"B-17" is jam-packed with rotoscoping. The bombers were models, and you can tell, but I do admire the work that went into making the models since they were big. (The DVD bonus features shows how big they were!) This short works because of the shear creep factor of it, Elmer Bernstein's score and the writing. It's pure horror, and it would work as a horror short. The battle scene that kicks off the segment is almost intense, the only thing that holds it back is again... The stiff animation and movements.

"So Beautiful, So Dangerous" contains the best animation and art direction in the whole film. Everything looks top notch here, close to being simply good. The animation never lags here, now slowing down or speeding up. The special effects are convincing, particularly when the aliens trip out on Plutonian Nyborg. It's a very colorful segment, with loads of small details. Some backgrounds had holes cut in them and put colored gels behind them to make them look like they were actually lit up. One issue I have with the story is that there really isn't any, although the segment was meant to be a lot longer. The segment opens with Dr. Anrack, who enters the Pentagon to discuss extraterrestrial life with the politicians. It turns out that he's a robot sent there by the aliens, that's why Gloria gets sucked into the ship. Then the story pretty much takes a back seat to the aliens' hallucinations and robot sex.

The only big problem with this sequence, technically, is the huge editing error at the end. The sequence plays out like this. Gloria and the robot exit the spaceship, but the next scene shows the aliens crash-landing at a space station. In the rough cut of the film (which is on the DVD and Blu-ray), the aliens crash-land first, then Gloria and the robot exit the ship. What the hell happened there?! Aside from the technicalities and the animation, "So Beautiful, So Dangerous" is the funniest segment in the film.

"Taarna" is an epic segment, the basic revenge story with some bloody fight scenes. Unfortunately, this segment is ruined by, yet again, the animation. Taarna herself is an actress that was rotoscoped, and it doesn't look good. The art direction on the other hand is alright, but the rotoscoping and the movements are bad. The whole fight between Taarna and the barbarian leader loses a lot of its potential due to the laggy movement. Also, look at the scene where the barbarians invade the city. At times they're running like they're in slow motion, then in the next scene, it looks like everything was sped up. It takes away any intensity that this scene should have. It. Just. Does. Not. Work. The effects animation is a whole other story.

When Taarna flies around on her giant bird, we are treated to a three-dimensional flight through the realm. Models of these canyons and deserts were built. The animators traced over the footage. I admire the work that went into these models, but unfortunately, it's choppy on screen. Still, the fact that they went through all of this just to make a three-dimensional flight scene is still fascinating, especially before computer animation was used in hand-drawn films. Then watch Richard Williams' The Thief and the Cobbler, which has several scenes that look like they were done with computer animation but weren't from the 1960s and early 1990s, that look better than this scene in the film. Still, it was a rather groundbreaking idea that did not really work. Hey, at least they tried! Even worse is the final scene where the Loc-Nar explodes and destroys the little girl's mansion. Since they didn't have enough to time to finish the scene, they didn't trace over the footage of the model house exploding.

Heavy Metal's animation is a definite mixed bag. Where it works, it works incredibly well. Some of the effects are great, some look fake. I can only imagine how audiences reacted to these effects in 1981, unless they just didn't think much of the work that goes into making animated films. The animation in "So Beautiful, So Dangerous" is very good for a non-Disney animated film, it's lively and colorful. Other scenes have great art direction. Where it doesn't succeed is... Well... Not very good. There's a lot of slow, lagging animation, as if someone slowed the film down. The rotoscoping is not good to begin with.

You'd think with the budget this film had, they'd produce some very high quality animation. Instead, most of the animation houses fell back on rotoscoping. I apologize to the animators and the artists, but I firmly believe that using rotoscoping for character animation just doesn't work! It didn't work in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it didn't work in the Fleischer Brothers' works, it didn't work in Ralph Bakshi's films... I'll even say the same thing about performance and motion capture films! (Though Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin is the best looking performance capture film I've seen) It seems like that budget was just used on the special effects, though I imagine it was a big budget because of all the studios working on it.

So the character animation is hit-or-miss, but the art direction mostly isn't. "Harry Canyon" may look unexciting and bland, but the segments have their own unique style. "Den" borrows from fantasy artwork while still being trippy, "Captain Sternn" looks like a classic cartoon, "B-17" is dark and gritty, "So Beautiful, So Dangerous" is loaded with details and "Taarna" has a nice sci-fi/fantasy style.

The writing is also uneven, but it's mostly juvenile and it plays to the crowd who assumes mindless violence and cartoon breasts equals adult animation. Some of the dialogue is just downright campy as hell, in other scenes it's good enough. It's an average screenplay, that's pretty much it.

In part three, we'll look into what really elevates this film... You can probably guess what that is.

Classic Animation Theater : "Heavy Metal" (Part 1)

Heavy Metal
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Studio: Guardian Trust Company, Canadian
Film Development Corporation and Famous Players
Individual Segments Created By TV Cartoons, Halas and
Batchelor Cartoon Films, Atkinson Film Arts, Haines-Camron,
Votetone, Boxcar Films and Wally Bulloch-Anicam
Director: Gerald Potterton
Producer: Ivan Reitman
Original Release Date: August 7, 1981

What happens when you throw science fiction, fantasy, animated erotica, a soundtrack filled with late 1970s hard rock, poor rotoscoping and bloody violence into a blender? You get Heavy Metal, an omnibus animated anthology film from 1981 that went from a success to a cult classic over the years.

Heavy Metal is based on various stories that appeared in the magazine of the same name, a magazine that was the American version of a French science fiction anthology magazine called Metal Hurlant. It was discovered by publisher Leonard Mogel, as he was launching National Lampoon in France. The first issue hit shelves in April of 1977. Combining compelling stories with great artwork, Heavy Metal seemed perfect for an animated film adaptation. Animation could tell stories like this in ways a live action film couldn't. Just think, an adult animated film featuring six science fiction/fantasy segments all set to a hard rockin' soundtrack...

By the way, did I say "adult" animation? Well, Heavy Metal isn't really "adult". Sure, it's R-rated and it's got loads of violence, nudity and language in it, but it's not necessarily a mature animated film. This is basically an Adult Swim cartoon, but in the early 1980s. It's juvenile as hell, and the film certainly doesn't hold up today, but why is this an important film in animation history? How could a mindless, sophomoric film be such a notable work in animation history?

One must remember that the late 1970s and early 1980s weren't exactly a great time for animation. Sure, Disney had blown up the box office with The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound, but other studios' efforts came and went at the North American box office. What's interesting about some of these efforts was that they were unique. Films like Watership Down, Metamorphoses and Allegro Non Troppo were experimental and unlike anything else at the time of their release and tried to prove to audiences that animation is an art form for adults.

As Disney fell back on repeating themselves after Walt Disney's passing in 1966 and until Don Bluth came along in the mid-1970s, it was time for other studios to compete with the Mouse House. Films like Yellow Submarine and Ralph Bakshi's films started getting adults into animation again, at a time when adults were viewing animation as "kiddy stuff". These films were successful at the box office, thus giving Disney some competition. The adult interest in animation also made the 1969 re-release of Walt Disney's Fantasia a success, as the film finally turned a profit nearly 30 years after its initial release. Disney ultimately wised up later on, but the adult animation boom somewhat kept the art form alive in the 1970s along with the success of their films. Animation wasn't going to die, even if the public who once admired animation had turned their backs on the medium. So, with that said, does Heavy Metal succeed as a film? Or is it just an experimental piece worth remembering for the ambition alone?

Heavy Metal begins with a story called "Soft Landing". An astronaut, Grimaldi, flies through space in a badly rotoscoped 1960 Corvette and lands on Earth. He comes home to show his daughter something he found on his journey. As he opens the case containing that "something", his daughter watches in excitement. All of a sudden, that "something" kills Grimaldi and corners the little girl. It's a floating green sphere... Actually, it's the sum of all evil: The Loc-Nar. It speaks to the girl in an eerie voice provided by Percy Rodriguez.

The Loc-Nar tells the little girl six stories about its influence on societies in the past, the future and all over the universe. Why? We'll find out at the end of the film. Basically, this storyline functions as a mere string to connect the six different stories. The writers did not go the Fantasia route with this anthology film. Again, the story isn't anything special here, thus you can just ignore it and enjoy the individual segments.

The first story the Loc-Nar tells is the dystopian crime story, "Harry Canyon", an original story written by the film's screenwriters, Daniel Goldberg and Len Blum. The title character is a cabbie (voiced by Richard Romanus) in New York City in 2031. New York has become "the scum center of the Earth", as Canyon puts it. We get a taste of Canyon's everyday life, and all is the way it usually is until Harry picks up an attractive woman (voiced by prolific voice actress Susan Roman) who is being chased by thugs. He takes her to his place, has sex with her, and the next day she's gone. The girl is the daughter of a man who discovers the Loc-Nar, only to be killed by thugs who are after it, lead by a man named Rudnick. (Voiced by another prolific actor, the late Al Waxman) The girl offers to sell the Loc-Nar to Rudnick, but she fears the gangster. Canyon offers to go with her and keep her covered if he gets 50% of the take. All goes well. The girl sells the Loc-Nar to Rudnick and returns to the cab. The Loc-Nar kills Rudnick. Then she reveals that she's going to kill him and take all the money. Harry kills her with the backseat disintegrator (which he uses to kill those who try to take his money) and takes off.

The Loc-Nar then tells the story of "Den", based on Richard Corben's stories of the same name. A geeky boy named Den (voiced by John Candy, who provides a lot of voices in this film) finds the Loc-Nar in his backyard and experiments with it. The experiment sends him to a fantasy world, where he becomes a muscular man. He saves a young girl named Katherine (voiced by Jackie Burroughs) from being sacrificed to the Loc-Nar, who was also from Earth and has sex with her. That was inevitable. A gang of creatures show up and take Den and Katherine to their ruler, but the two are split up.

The ruler, Ard, has Katherine encased in glass in a deep sleep. Ard wants Den to get the Loc-Nar for him, and in return he'll get the girl. If he refuses, he and the girl will die. He travels with some of Ard's freakish goons to the queen's castle where the Loc-Nar is, only to  get caught by the queen herself. Instead of having Den killed, the queen allows Den to have sex with her in order to satisfy her. The queen plans on letting him live if he does so, which he does. ("18 years of nothing and now... Twice in one day!")

To the queen's horror, the Loc-Nar is stolen. She tries to have Den killed, but Den escapes. Ard has the Loc-Nar and attempts to perform a sacrifice, on Katherine! Den arrives and saves her. The queen and Ard fight over the Loc-Nar, until lightning strikes. Den gets a chain and gets the lightning to kill Ard and the queen. Den rejects being a ruler of the world and just rides away on a giant insect with Katherine.

The third story is "Captain Sternn" (based on stories by Bernie Wrightston), set in outer space, where the Loc-Nar is picked up by a gimpy man named Hanover Fiste. (Voiced by prolific voice actor Rodger Bumpass) The criminal Captain Lincoln F. Sternn (voiced by Eugene Levy) pleads "not guilty". He tells his lawyer he has an angle, and that angle is Hannover Fiste. He has the man glorify him in the court, but the Loc-Nar makes him say the opposite. Hannover then turns into a gigantic Hulk-like monster and gives chase to Sternn. Sternn ultimately reaches a dead end, until he decides to pay Hanover. Hanover goes back to his normal shape and loses his rage, but the sleazy captain pulls a lever and sends Hanover to his death.

Next up is my favorite segment, "B-17". Based on Dan O'Bannon's original story, "B-17" is more of a horror tale than a fantasy. It has a very eerie Twilight Zone-esque feel to it. We see B-17 Bombers at night, bombing Germany. A damaged B-17 bomber with two surviving pilots (Skip and Holden) heads back home, but the Loc-Nar hits it. This happens when Holden checks on the crew, only to find them dead. As he works his way back to the front of the bomber, he is killed. Skip overhears the chaos and realizes that the dead pilots have become zombies. Skip evacuates the bomber and lands on an island. Thinking he's safe, Skip walks around until he finds himself surrounded by zombies as the island is covered with destroyed aircraft.

After this segment comes one of the funniest in the film, "So Beautiful, So Dangerous". (Based on the story by Angus McKie) Essentially a stoner comedy told through animation, a Pentagon stenographer named Gloria (voiced by the late Alice Playten, who has provided voices in several other animated projects like most of the cast in this film) has the Loc-Nar, but she is sucked up into an alien airship. A robot (voiced by John Candy) on board the ship walks off with her with the two alien pilots take off. (Named Zeke and Edsel, voiced by Harold Ramis and Eugene Levy) There really isn't much of a story in this one. The aliens get high off of Plutonian Nyborg and the robot has sex with Gloria. Then the segment ends where the aliens reach a space station and Gloria tells the robot she will only marry him if they have a Jewish wedding.

Last but not least is "Taarna". Here, the Loc-Nar reveals that he is telling the girl these stories because she might be the future that could destroy him. Like "Harry Canyon", it's an original story but it's very much like the stories in the magazine. A volcano in another world erupts (due to the Loc-Nar) and turns a nearby tribe into a race of barbarians that sack a nearby city. The elders of the city summon Taarna, the last of the Taarakians. Taarna eventually arrives, but the city is pretty much done for.

Taarna and her bird are then captured. They are to be killed by the leader of the barbarians, but Taarna escapes and faces the leader in a climactic duel. After she defeats the barbarian leader, she sacrifices herself to the Loc-Nar. (Whose is inside the volcano) The Loc-Nar is defeated, in all its forms. As the Loc-Nar is about to explode, the young girl escapes from her house. The Loc-Nar's demise destroys the entire house. The girl is now alone, but Taarna's mount shows up out of nowhere. She happily rides the giant bird away. Taarna's spirit has been transferred to her.

In the next part, I'll pick apart the different segments of this film and analyze the animation, the writing and the overall quality of the segments.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Disney Blu-ray's 2012 Release Schedule and the Future of Disney Blu-ray

Recently, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment has announced a ton of titles that will be hitting Blu-ray this year. I found out about this thanks to So far, we've gotten releases like the Diamond Edition of Lady and the Tramp and Touchstone/DreamWorks' Real Steel, alongside some throwaway releases like the direct-to-video sequel and midquel to The Lion King, and Treasure Buddies, yet another pointless entry in the Air Buddies franchise. (Please, Disney stop making these movies!) Next tuesday, The Muppets will hit Blu. The film wasn't a smash hit despite its opening week gross, but maybe it'll have some time to shine on home video formats and find the audiences it needed in theaters. Steven Spielberg's War Horse, another film in the Touchstone/DreamWorks deal will hit stores on April 3rd.

So what's coming after that? A boatload of titles. It seems like Disney is diving right into Blu-ray this time. One thing about the list that surprised me was the amount of animated features. Disney took it's time with the animated features up until this point. Every late winter and early autumn, we'd get a Diamond Edition title. Once in a while, they'd release a non-Diamond title on Blu like The Fox and the Hound and Alice in Wonderland last year, in addition to any of their recent animated features. Now they are going all out. Eight (!) non-Diamond titles are hitting shelves this year.

I won't be talking about the various Touchstone and live-action films that are hitting Blu-ray, I'll be covering the classic live-action films and the animated features. 

On July 3rd, Disney will release two films from the last decade: Treasure Planet and Home on the Range. I personally admire Treasure Planet for its ambitions, and the title should look stunning on Blu-ray since it has incredible animation and great use of computer animation for its time. On top of that, I believe it's a solid sci-fi action adventure. It's a shame that it was a flop when it first came out, but it did very well when it hit home video in early 2003. Home on the Range is not one of Disney's better films, but I'll probably pick it up since I want to have all of the "canon" classics. It's also notable for almost being Disney's last hand-drawn animated film, but let's not dredge up those bad memories.

On August 7th, Disney will release The Aristocats, the first film produced and released after Walt Disney's passing. (Although Walt gave the crew the go-head on the film prior to his passing) The Aristocats certainly has its fans, but I consider it to be a very weak in terms of the story. It shows how misguided the good folks at the Disney studio were after Walt. That said, I still think it's a passable effort and it was a favorite of mine when I was young. I'll pick it up.

On a minor note, for those who look into these things, The Aristocats is one of the few Disney films where none of the home video releases contain the Buena Vista logo that showed up before the opening credits. (Like any Disney film released between 1954 and 1984) The most recent home video release still left it out, even though Disney has done a good job (for the most part) on keeping these logos intact. Who knows, maybe the Blu-ray will restore the logo. For those who have never seen the full opening credits with the logo, here's a 16mm print of it, courtesy of a Disney aficionado who goes by the name of 8to16to35.

The rest of the titles have no exact release dates yet, though I have a feeling the upcoming Diamond Edition of Cinderella will be released on October 2nd. Fun fact, this will be the first time Cinderella didn't hit home video on October 4th. The first release (in the Classics line) was on October 4, 1988. The second (the Masterpiece Collection edition) hit stores on October 4, 1995. The Platinum Edition DVD? October 4, 2005. This will break that.

What else? Two double-packs. One is The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under (yay!) and the other is Pocahontas and Pocahontas II: Journey to the New World. (No!) Anyways, the latter will continue what seems to be this annoying trend with Disney, release a minor/non-Diamond title and package it with the awful direct-to-video sequel. Very nice, Disney. I still haven't purchased The Fox and the Hound 2-movie collection, I'm waiting for them to release the first film on its own. Pipe dream, I know!

Last but not least are two more titles from the last decade: Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Brother Bear. While I feel that both of these films are flawed in the story and screenplay department, they are certainly interesting films. Atlantis is Disney's attempt at making an epic action-adventure along the lines of Jules Verne and Indiana Jones, only to be butchered by executives. Brother Bear's production history is something of an enigma, but the film contains stunning animation and was one of Disney's last hand-drawn animated films. Home on the Range would be the last, until Disney wised up and brought back hand-drawn animation thanks to good folks like John Lasseter.

One thing though, where's Finding Nemo? The film is being theatrically re-released in 3D in September, so I assume that the Blu-ray release will follow. I always thought it would be released the same day Brave hits Blu-ray (early November), but it's not on the list, so maybe it won't be. Then again, Brave isn't on the list either. Ditto for John Carter, which should hit Blu-ray in June. Also on the list is the live action/animation hybrid Pete's Dragon (maybe we'll get the Roadshow cut this time), The Tigger Movie, another cheaply made Pooh spin-off that should've been a direct-to-video sequel, and the bad direct-to-video sequel to Lady and the Tramp, Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure.

Anyways, I am very excited. So many Disney films coming to Blu-ray in one year. The Mouse House's home entertainment division is starting to pick up steam. This leaves an interesting question, what will we see on Blu-ray next year? There are so many possibilities. Tell me what titles you think Disney will release on Blu-ray next year. Also, what Diamond Editions are we getting after Aladdin in early 2013?

The Diamond Edition collection is not following the Platinum Edition order, so here's what I'd say. In fall 2013, we're mostly getting The Little Mermaid since the 3D re-release will be in September. In the late winter of 2014, I'd say Peter Pan. Peter Pan tends to come out around the time Mermaid hits home video. Mermaid first hit home video in May 1990, followed by Peter Pan in September. Both films came back to home video in the Masterpiece Collection in 1998. Not counting the 2002 DVD release of Peter Pan, the Platinum Edition hit stores right after The Little Mermaid. I expect Disney to repeat this pattern after Mermaid's Diamond Edition comes out.

Fall 2014? The Jungle Book, since The Jungle Book followed Peter Pan and so on: One Hundred and One Dalmatians (late winter 2015), Sleeping Beauty (fall 2015) and Pinocchio. (late winter 2016)

What do you think? Do you think the Diamond Editions will come out in this order? Or will they come out in a different order? Tell me what you think. Also, like I said earlier, tell me what you think will hit Blu-ray in 2013. What Mouse House titles will hit the format next year?

Also, here's the full list of upcoming Disney Blu-ray releases.