Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Wh-wh-wh-wh-wh-WHAT?!

Per this article posted today by Jerry Beck, Disney is planning a DuckTales reboot for 2017 (its 30th anniversary, I note)?!

And this announcement comes three days after the world lost Chris Barat, which seems like a cruel joke. Even if it ends up being terrible -- though it does seem like at least at this point, the project is fueled by respect for the original series and for Barks -- Chris would want to be there to see it and to assess it for himself. And who knows -- maybe his magnum opus, his DuckTales 20th Anniversary Retrospective blog project influenced the conception of this new series.

I like that it sounds like Donald might be a regular this time around.




-- Ryan

Aladdin (the TV series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 17: " Plunder the Sea" (9/22/94)

Out of the entire series, this might just be the episode that, until watching it so as to write this review, I’d retained the weakest memory of. However, I did remember being nonplussed by it. As such, being merely underwhelmed by it – as opposed to actively disliking it – would account for the poor impression that it originally made on me. This time around, I hoped to discover something that I didn’t pick up on twenty years ago that would give me a wholly new appreciation for it (as happened with “Never Say Nefir”).  That hasn’t panned out; not only am I disappointed by the episode again, I'm disappointed to find that I was disappointed by it again. (I just made my own mind spin a little.)




Clinched by using Mechanicles as the antagonist, the episode recycles key components of “My Fair Aladdin”, in terms of structure, premise, and characterization: we open on a pair of characters (two nomads in “Fair”, a merchant ship captain and a lone crewman here) in the midst of their travels, alone in a remote location, suddenly and surprisingly attacked by an unidentified, fantastical, monstrous entity. Here, we cut right to the captain having obtained the Sultan’s audience, recounting his wild story and demanding that something to be done, as his ship was destroyed in the attack and his cargo lost. On the other hand, in “Fair”, the nomads weren’t seen after the opening; instead, a couple of scenes later, we returned to the scene of their encounter, which Razoul and his men are examining. (Presumably, the nomads had reported their incident to the palace, just as “Plunder”’s the captain is seen doing.) When Aladdin’s gang investigate and search for the reported monster, it ends up being a Mechanicles invention, its purpose to subject a large chunk of the world to his “clean freak” impulses. (In “Fair”, he’s trying to turn the desert into glass. Here, his intention is to filter all of the salt out of the ocean’s salt water.)

But that’s not all: in both episodes, Aladdin has as a foil a suave, pompous, self-infatuated, impeccably groomed jackass who makes Aladdin feel inadequate, which motivates him to prove himself equal or superior to this new-on-the-scene alpha male. While Daru Tavelevil had turned out to be a phony who was hiding a dirty deal that he’d made with Mechanicles, Captain Al Bahtross is the “dashing”, athletic, but aloof type in the tradition of Duke Igthorn’s brother or (the super-powered version) Comet Guy, who, despite his bravado, self-absorption, and obnoxious-to-the-average-bloke penchant for seeming to have never had anything not go his way, is basically good-hearted. The twist at “Fair”’s climax was Daru being exposed for the rat that he was, while on the other hand, Bahtross, who hitherto had appeared preoccupied with being the “reigning champ” of sensational, super-human heroic feats, redeems himself through an act of selfless heroism, urging Aladdin not to rescue him from one of Mechanicles’ vessel’s mock-giant octopus tentacles, but instead to find a way to disable the machine, which in the skirmish, Mechanicles has kicked into some type of overdrive.

One peculiar difference between the two episodes is that here, wanting to show up Bahtross is what motivates Aladdin to take on the mission; in “Fair”, he had actually brushed off the matter of the rumored giant centipede and sent Genie to look into it, because as long as Daru remained a guest at the palace, that’s where Al had to be if he wanted to best Daru in front of Jasmine. This scenario engendered my major criticism of that episode: Aladdin’s rivalry with Daru, and Daru himself, was awkwardly dropped for the duration of the Mechanicles-giant centipede set piece and abruptly forced back in at the last minute with the revelation of his “arms transfer” to the shrill-voiced inventor. On the other hand, Aladdin’s rivalry with Bahtross plays out over the course of the whole adventure; its zenith and resolution are fully integrated into the zenith and resolution of the Mechanicles scenario. Given that, it’s not just the better crafted of the two episodes, but it in fact plays as what the earlier-aired one should have been.




Also, “Plunder”’s third-act set piece is much better. In "Fair", we just had the gang dropping rocks on the goofy-looking separated, individual, autonomous but clunky giant mechanical centipede pods in a nondescript chasm in the desert at night. But the situation at "Plunder"'s climax involves Mechanicles’ submersible vessel -- with its exterior shaped as a male human head with an austere, bearded face, it has a unique design that makes it a more imposing setting-cum-obstacle. The  “majesty and might” and linear perfection of the face, and the appearance of Mechanicles' control room, which looks like it was crafted by a master metalsmith, is more befitting of the classical Greek ideals of beauty that I’m sure Mechanicles values highly. And not only are the visual ideas here better, but the action is more complex; again, instead of just dropping rocks on the bad guy’s machines, there’s interdependent stuff happening on multiple fronts: Bahtross scrapping with the tentacle, Genie at one point scrambling to and succeeding in (more on that below!) plugging the suction intake portal thing (with the treasure chest recovered from the ship that sank at the beginning of the episode, which was actually the whole point of their mission, so they won’t want to lose it or see it destroyed, but its predicament is just one of several things going on at the moment), which has and Mechanicles in turn scrambling to get things operating again, and finally, Aladdin racing to confront Mechanicles and their duel of wits which results in the machine’s destruction.

And, yes, that’s even with the incongruous and frankly ugly tentacles (whereas the face has a “unique” design, the tentacles are “generic”), but at least they serve in the opening scene to create mystery and hide the true nature of whatever it is they’re attached to, and as objects of conflict at a few points in the plot, especially when one of them is what indisposes Bahtross, allowing him to say, in essence, “No, Aladdin, it’s more important that we stop this guy – forget me, even if it means you being the hero and not me!”

But let’s take a few steps back.  Yes, “Fair” is better in execution than “Plunder”. But it’s just a better execution of a construct that’s inherently limiting and unappealing, the character arc that both episodes subjected Aladdin through: he is driven to prove himself better than some smooth, narcissistic showoff, and in the end he learns … er, something … in “Fair”, he learns that his rival isn’t so great after all, and in “Plunder”, he learns…er, I guess he learns that true heroism isn’t about hogging the glory by doing all the big flashy stuff that stops the bad guy and saves the day, but that true heroism is in acts of selflessness made for the greater good … and he learns this the optimal way, by being the one – because Al Bahtross is busy being about to get killed – who gets to do all the big flashy stuff that stops the bad guy and saves the day? In the original movie, Aladdin was shown as cocky, competitive, and, yes, prideful (see the “One Leap Forward” number and his clashing with Razoul), so the show was justified in using said traits as a starting point. And I liked the quasi-realism of the sequence in which he stubbornly keeps himself tied to the mast for the duration of the storm. But as the series had no long-term, ongoing character arc for or any of the other regulars, this “Aladdin is threatened by some big shot but learns a lesson about what really matters” episode structure template is self-defeating. They may as well have foregone the pretense and just had him defeat the bad guy and save the day … after all, it’s good enough for pretty much every other episode, isn’t it?

And speaking of being good enough for other episodes, why can’t they just do a straightforward “Al and the gang vs. Mechanicles” episode? He’s a fine villain, and the build-up around a “mystery of the sea” only disappoints when we reach the “reveal” that it’s “just” another Mechanicles scheme. He can hold his own, and it just feels like there was a “one-shot”, non-Mechanicles story that was set up but left untold.

And isn’t there something familiar about Al and signing on as crew for a ship with an overbearing captain to search for an elusive monster? In part, it’s “Raiders of the Lost Shark” redux, with a one-note (un-)comedic character confoundingly and awkwardly voiced by Jason Alexander.





Genie Watch: He actually has an extended proactive, effective involvement here – see the undersea “search” scene in which he’s accompanied by Iago and Abu, and his above-mentioned plugging of the suction portal. While he lets himself be overpowered by the vacuuming force longer than he should before doing something about it, his “moment of glory” – in which he turns himself into a “majestic” whale and “heroic” music plays – is a welcome turn of events. 

___________________


As always, written with you in mind, Chris, old friend and mentor.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Soon, I will plunder "Plunder the Sea" ...

... and get what I can from it (and it's an uneven haul, to say the least).

... oh, where I have been? It's been a rough winter (but, no, it's not that I was buried under during that "blizzard", such as it was, that I last posted about, and they just dug me out ... or that I'd been sleeping, like I showed Donald doing, for the past few weeks ... although in the interim, there has been a weekend or two that I've slept almost all the way through ...), and though my job is tiring, I'm almost back on track.

Work on the review is well underway. Should be up in a day or two. Stay posted for when I post the post!




-- Ryan

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Blizzard...

Stay warm, Donald!






And that goes for you guys, too!

-- Ryan

[Screen caps from the 1947 short "Chip an' Dale", which introduced...um, Gus and Jacques.] :P [Kidding!]

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

At last!!!

Look what popped up in my Facebook feed and that someone had found at Previews:




While I'm sad that they've chosen to not resume the series' longstanding numbering, the return of an ongoing duck title hopefully, with a couple more to follow, and at least one "mouse" title) to the U.S. comic book market is cause to celebrate.Can't wait 'til April!

-- Ryan

Monday, January 19, 2015

Aladdin (the TV series) 20th anniversary (...well, now 21st...) -- Episode 16: "Web of Fear" (9/20/94)

With Jasmine's illogical sympathy and standing up for Arbutus, "Garden of Evil" would have been a near-flop of an episode had it not been so elaborately, beautifully produced. "Web of Fear" actually reiterates some of "Garden"'s themes and plot elements, but in this case, Jasmine's behavior actually makes sense and is justified by the rest of the scenario.




Arbutus actually had abducted Jasmine and intended to hold her against her will, while in the case of Jasmine being taken off into the company of the Unkbuuts, all of her friends -- and for a time, the audience, as all that transpires between her and the Unkbuut before Al and the boys catch up with her occurs off-screen -- mistakenly believe that Jasmine is being held captive and is endangered by the Unkbuut. As it turns out that they've actually received her as a welcomed guest and she's found that they pose no threats to the humans of Agrabah on the surface, then when Aladdin first sees her palling around with the Unkbuut queen and urges her to "get away", and Jasmine protests, "No, we've had the wrong idea about them! They don't mean us any harm! They're nice! They're gentle! We need to have open minds and embrace them! Stop being a bigot, Aladdin!", this time, she's actually right. (For the record, that wasn't an actual quote -- I was mocking the disparity in "Garden of Evil" between its message and its actual content.)





 While "Web" isn't on the order of "Garden" as far as its cinematic, sweeping, completely engrossing production values, and so doesn't have its (irrational) emotional impact, it's also not the sloppiest episode. The heavy use of textured purples and (for the "atmospheric" nighttime setting) blues gives the episode that mysterious, "whimsical" fantasy-adventure flavor that the series has a tendency for. Although the wide shots of the giant crater in the middle of Agrabah and the underground realms (ancient layers of the city that have been built on top of each other, per the Sultan) where the Unkbuut dwell use these textural techniques to cover the lack of actual detail in the backgrounds, this visual motif gives the episode a solid, unified feel.




The uniform appearance of the Unkbuut helps in this regard, as well -- in some episodes, it seems that the design artists went out of their way (whether it was due to pressure from executives or self-regulation, I don't know) to make some monsters look not too scary, and while the Unkbuut aren't particularly hideous, they're not particularly goofy-looking, either. In the end, that works well, considering their nature -- they don't look so cuddly so as to make it unbelievable that anyone was scared at the sight of them.

 Of course, even though its reiteration of "the moral of the story" explicitly (and confoundingly) stressed at the end of "Garden of Evil" is justified by the events of the episode (second time's the charm!), the narrative is still exceedingly predictable and as a whole a glaring clich√© -- they actually have the pitchfork-wielding (er, figuratively) mob attempting to burn the Unkbuut alive (never let it be said that this series shied away from showing kids the ugly side of human nature, eh?) swayed to "the other side" by having them witness, in a completely contrived scenario, the Unkbuut queen rescue an endangered cute little boy and cute little dog. They didn't even try to avoid this clich√© -- in fact, they went all-out with it! But in using this generic plot, they didn't mess it up, either. Thus, like the visuals, the story is "solid" -- not as impressive and memorable as its "soulmate" "Garden of Evil", but it got the job done.





Genie Watch: In the opening rescue scene (which was an unconventional way to open the episode, in the wake of a major calamity, so I have to give them that -- and plus, I liked the portrayal of Aladdin and the gang as a ready-to-go, vigilante, dilligent "rescue squad" ... with Iago's obligatory reluctance and griping, of course), on several occasions, Genie does some sort of impression or elaborate "simulation" to rescue people, and in so doing, is completely effective, with almost no bungling! Woo hoo! Unfortunately, in the flight from the Unkbuut's realm to the surface to put out the angry mob's (literal) flames, Genie botches turning himself into a flying contraption, and Carpet picks up the slack. Well, don't want to put Carpet out of a job, after all, but couldn't he and Genie split the load more often?

 -- Ryan

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

(Assorted) Christmas tidings.

A break from the Aladdin reviews (it's been months of nothing else -- I fear I may have lost some readers!) to acknowledge that I am actually aware of the calendar that the rest of the world follows and wish my regular readers (all of the ones whom I know of I consider my friends) a merry Christmas!

________________


Last Sunday, I attended a special screening at Amherst Cinema.




Hard to believe that it's 22 Christmases since, at the age of 11, I saw it at the theater during its original release with my parents and sister. Being that my earliest memories are of watching reruns of The Muppet Show in syndication and that it was the first show that I was crazy about, it was very, very considerate, kind, and generous of my parents to take us. (And my sister was a good sport in coming along. But it made me very happy when, during the opening scene, she recognized Doc's companion from Fraggle Rock and whispered to me from her seat, "Ryan, Sprocket!" 

The first Muppet feature film to be produced without Jim, when seeing it for the first time in 1992, I was very moved when the film began rolling and the dedication below appeared on the screen. It was a powerful, solemn moment. (This time, I applauded.)




In the post-Jim Henson world, until 2012's The Muppets (which not only was clearly a dream project for Jason Segel, but he had a deft understanding of what makes the Muppets tick), I was almost convinced that I would ever again see a new Muppet production that I didn't find heartless and to be trying too hard. For some reason, though, Christmas Carol, hit upon a certain magic. I don't know if Jim's spirit was still lingering, or if it was the raw emotion from the Muppet team having been dealt such a massive emotional blow -- especially director Brian Henson, Jim's son. Or maybe it's just that Brian had a "special touch" similar to his father's -- however much of it is Brian, it's worth noting that its lacking in all the subsequent projects that he hasn't been involved in.

Whatever the case, Christmas Carol's "magic" is an earnest romanticism and its vivid, detailed (liberty-taking) period piece approach. In part, these qualities and can be attributed to the essential trappings and sentiment of the source material. Dickens' classic story (I'm not saying that because I think that it's the thing to say; I consider it a classic) is so good, it's hard to do wrong, and so all of the good things about it would inevitably carry out, right? As if, when chosen to be told, it comes to life and tells itself, more or less? Think again: consider Hanna-Barbera's bland, uninspired 1994 animated TV movie A Flintstones Christmas Carol.) 

So, let's think in terms of practicality, and try to get a handle on what this movie has going for it and why it works:

1. The rich sets. costumes, lighting, and cinematography (from the drab stuffiness of young Scrooge's classroom to "Fozziwig's" bright, joyful, mirthful party to the warm, gilded glow of the Ghost of Christmas Present's "spread" that Scrooge finds in the room adjoining his sleeping chamber). These aesthetics bring intto realization a romanticized only slightly surreal and fantastical vision of Dickens' 19th century London-in-December. 

2. Paul Williams' incredibly tasteful score and songs, with their minor key melodies and string-and-brass-heavy arrangements. Though clearly following the traditions of 20th century showtunes, they still are very fitting to, and greatly enhance, the movie ambience of the movie's "reimagined" fantasy Victorian setting. 

(The following year, a certain other Christmas movie that featured puppetry of a different sort went REALLY overboard on the outlandishness in its sets and music. [Christmas Carol only becomes truly ghastly and distorted in the Christmas Yet-to-Come scene.] The latter film's visual and aural elements alike have since become deeply embedded, iconic -- albeit niche -- pieces of pop culture. While a part of me may resent that by comparison, Muppet Christmas Carol hasn't gotten its due, I can take solace in that least half of every topic isn't devoted to merchandise based on it.) 

3. The casting ... of the Muppets. They seem to have not made it a priority to give all of the "major" characters an important role (e.g., Miss Piggy and Fozzie have minimal screen time), taking care so that each Muppet was a "natural fit" in their role, allowing each to simultaneously be his or her "self" and the character they're "playing". Also, commendable discretion was used in not casting known Muppets as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, instead following a purist's approaching, creating original Muppets(*) that are wholly based on Dickens' conception of each of these three entities. They're supposed to be unfamiliar and not of "this" world. Kermit's familiarity to the audience makes him as protagonist an easy sell. (I know, someone out there wants to chew me out, as Scrooge is actually the protagonist. I used the term for its connotations.) Thus, the juxtaposition between such a "grounding" character and the alien-ness of the ghosts (besides arguably having been more more stark) allows this iteration of the story to, at least in my opinion, retain the severity of the orignal's thrust. (More on this below.)

(*) Christmas Present, with his felt flesh-toned "skin" and general sweetness strikes me as a formal Muppet, while Past and Yet-to-Come seem like they would have come out of the Creature Shop. However, the credits don't indicate such. But I'm sure there was some crossover in staff.

4. Successfully walking the fine line between telling the story straight, hitting all of the right cues in terms of drama and suspense, while simultaneously being a spoof. It's crucial to note that it succeeds at the latter but is never a mockery, keeping all the Muppet-ian puns, absurd behavior, and physical comedy on an even keel, giving it consistent zest and spice without detracting from the main ingredient. And how is this consistency achieved? Delegating much of the comedic asides to a "narrator", Gonzo, and his "assistant", Rizzo was a very astute move -- in this function, they are explicitly removed from the story, allowing it to retain its, if you will, dignity. The Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come scene is considerably dark, with said ghost's visage beingactually quite scary, but that in sensing the reaction of the kids in the audience, Gonzo and Rizzo's single moment of levity during this sequence (informing the audience in hushed tones that the proceedings are too scary and that we're "on [our] own" until "the finale") broke the tension at just the right moment ... a very fleeting moment, at that; we then resume -- with no flinching -- the so-tense-you-feel-like-you're-about-to-be-a-squished-tomato buildup to the revelation of the name on the tombstone and the outpouring of unabashed pathos that immediately follows. As far as I'm concerned, Michael Caine nails this scene -- if there's an audience that would laugh "ironically" at the melodrama, I don't want to sit in a theater with it.

...and how have I not addressed the lead role? In casting a real person as Scrooge, Scrooge's "non-Muppetiness" and innate "Scrooginess" are emphasized. Michael Caine, a fan of The Muppet Show who professed that he had always been jealous that he was never one of its guest stars and so relished that he "got to do a whole movie", was only too happy to be part of this movie. Having Scrooge played straight, much like the three spirits, is a move that at least has the right idea in preserving the story's austerity, but having a world-class actor whose completely sincere and fully invested in his performance is what brings the whole thing home. (And though Scrooge being a real person and not a Muppet sets him apart from them, having other "live" human actors interspersed throughout the crowds of London's Muppet denizens affirms that he's part of their earthly world, allowing the three spirits to be just as unearthly in contrast with him as they are in contrast with Kermit and Robin.)


My favorite song from the film (drove my whole family crazy by incessantly playing it over and over, day after day, rewinding -- and possibly fast-forwarding, at least a little -- the cassette tape after each play until I found "the right spot" so that I could hear the whole thing again ... and again, and again, and again, and again ...):




Unfortunately, the above YouTube upload does a disservice to the song by jumping in after it has actually begun -- here's the full version, sans video:




Though I've seen the movie many times over the years, seeing it in the theater again really transported me back to that Saturday afternoon at Showcase Cinemas all those years ago. More than once, it struck me, "This is just how I remember it." Even though it's clearly been the same exact movie every time that I've seen it on VHS and, more recently, on the Internet, there's something about seeing it on "the [a] big screen" ... it's not just a matter of scale, but of environment and perspective/vantage point. This time around, I was particularly struck by the cinematography in the build-up to Marley "and Marley" appearing to Scrooge -- it was clearly inspired by horror movies (the more classy, atmospheric type, not slasher flicks!) Unfortunately, the only version of not just the song "Marley and Marley" but this scene in full, including the "creepy" build-up sequence that I'm talking about, is in German. But you should be able to get the idea: 




(Pretty good dubbing and mindfulness of the original voices, I must say!)


________________


I'd like to get one more Aladdin review in before the New Year. I have been giving much apprehensive thought to instituting a length cap, so that it won't take me until 2025 to get through the whole series. However, I only meant to write one or two short, casual paragraphs about The Muppet Christmas Carol in this post, and look how that turned out.


________________


Merry Christmas, Chris, Joe, Joseph, Geo, David, Mom, and whoever else who might be reading!


-- Ryan