Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Shattering Images

NOTE: Edited for accuracy

Last year, when Meg Ryan went gave an interview to coincide with the release of her latest film The Women, she made certain comments with respect to her ex-husband Dennis Quaid's indiscretions during their now-defunct marriage (which were actually appropriate considering that the film dealt with the topic of marital infidelity among other things). These comments were reported in a lot of media outlets as the bitter tirade of someone who hasn't gotten over something.

Now, if these comments were simply a recollection of her own experience in relation to her film or a backhanded swipe at her ex-husband, it's impossible to say. But granting that it was a dig at Quaid I can't really say I blame her; her much publicized roll-in-the-hay with co-star Russell Crowe on the set of the 2001 thriller Proof of Life effectively killed her career, though it had no perceptible effect on Crowe's. Her stature as Hollywood's girl-next-door, or, more aptly, America's Sweetheart, meant that extra-marital affairs were a no-no for her.

Quaid, who won a fair amount of sympathy after Ryan had two-timed him, has since his breakup with Ryan seen a bit of a career resurgence with films like The Rookie, The Day After Tomorrow, Vantage Point and even the upcoming G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra. Maybe Ryan felt it incongruous that he should enjoy success after infidelity while she has effectively been kicked to the curb. Whether or not that was what she meant, it does seem a little unfair when one thinks about it. But then perception is not often governed by the laws of fairness.

The thing is, her fall from grace wasn't even a matter of her being a woman; Angelina Jolie has been married and divorced twice and is perceived by many, rightly or wrongly, to be the reason why Brad Pitt left his ex-wife Jennifer Aniston, and yet she not only has post-"homewrecking" hits like Wanted under her belt; she garnered an Academy Award nomination for Changeling to boot. Apparently bad girls are more in fashion now than sweethearts.

Speaking of "bad people" such as the aforementioned Crowe, apparently there is a limit to what "bad boys" can get away with as Crowe learned when he gained some notoriety for reportedly injuring a hotel clerk with a telephone even though based on some accounts the clerk, who supposedly uttered "whatever" when Crowe complained about a malfunctioning phone service, may have at least partially deserved to get pummelled. Crowe's image took a beating especially considering that at the time he was trying to sell a movie where he played a downtrodden depression-era boxer. Not much chance of that happening if you're a real-life bully. Perhaps as a result, Cinderella Man tanked at the box-office.

Kobe Bryant's career was, less than two years after the fact, none the worse for wear after the woman who accused him of raping her settled out of court with him. His star was not dimmed in the least when he won Olympic gold last year or hoisted his first Shaq-free NBA title trophy over his head a few weeks ago. His multi-million dollar endorsement deals are still pretty much intact (though they admittedly were in jeopardy for awhile as was his public image). He took a hit, but ultimately bounced back.

Lest people argue that the case was settled and that Kobe should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty, one could look to the case of the late Michael Jackson for a sterling example of how allegations of sexual impropriety can be a real kiss of death for one's career. Now, I'm not even a Michael Jackson fan (as I've written elsewhere), and admittedly there's something about pedophilia that arguably makes it even more heinous than rape of an adult but the fact of the matter is that while the first case was settled, in the second instance Jackson was acquitted. That is to say, it was ruled that it had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he had had sexual relations with his accuser. This was not some case of some shady out-of-court deal. And yet, the first case had already done enough to make sure his chances of selling new albums ere dead and gone, long before he was. In many people's minds, Michael died a pedophile, regardless of whether or not he was. Of course, he didn't do himself any favors by admitting he had little boys sleep in his bed, no matter how much he insisted that it wasn't sexual.

Mel Gibson, of course, with his sanctimonious, hear-mass-in-my-own-private-chapel-in-Latin, make-a-movie-in-ancient-languages-about-how-our-sins-killed-Christ pontification basically set himself up for a fall, and his DUI in 2006 was quite the fall, so much so that three years later fellow Hollywood star Brad Pitt was able to rib him about it. He really does look quite foolish in his mug shot. As to whether or not it's killed Gibson's career remains to be seen as either later this year or early next year he is slated to make his first onscreen appearance since 2002's Signs in a movie directed by Martin Campbell.

Scandal has different ways of affecting different people. For that matter, different things constitute scandal for different people. For Meg Ryan, scandal is having sex with a man other than her husband, while for other celebrities it involves DUI. But the thing about people who are well-known is that the effect of a scandal upon a person's career ultimately depends on what people have come to expect from that person.

Maybe, in that sense, a scandal can be liberating because then the person involved is free from all expectations.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Different Shades of Celebrity Deaths

I have no doubt that the internet is now chock-full of obituaries for Michael Jackson, and to a lesser extent, Farrah Fawcett who died less than 24 hours before he did. Not having been a huge fan of either of these celebrities, I really have nothing much to contribute by way of an obit. I do have a bit to say on the matter, though.

Celebrities are, by no means, any better as human beings than the average person; they are simply better known than we are. That comes with so many things; the ability to get across whatever they want to say to more people, often a higher salary than most of us, and often, the unwanted attention of several people, something that usually follows them all to their graves.

But just as not all celebrities (or people for that matter) live in the same way, neither do they die in the same way, and I'm not referring to causes of death. No, that's often secondary to the stage of a celebrity's career when he or she dies.

On the one end of the scale there are the celebrities who die so soon in their careers that all at once there is regret that they were unable to realize their full potential, that the public did not get the chance to know them better, and essentially that they died far, far too young. Probably the most recent such death would be that of Heath Ledger, although in the celebrity world there's really no shortage of them from the passing of such iconic figures as James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly and Kurt Cobain to deaths of other promising artists as those of River Phoenix, Brandon Lee, Aaliyah and even lesser-known talents such as Brad Renfro. These are people who died even before the age of 30, so young that they left so many questions behind as to what they could have achieved as actors or performers given the opportunity. There are also artists who may have died a little bit older than that but whose passing felt only a little less premature; the thought that there was so much more they could have given still weighs on people's minds. While John Candy was obviously not in the best of health, his passing to me was a real tragedy because quite honestly that guy was one of the funniest comedians around and had he lived even another ten years there was so much he could have done.

On the other extreme there are peformers who have lived long, full lives and have had the stellar careers to go along with them. These are celebrities who have achieved everything they possibly could have in their chosen careers and who pass on from this life as revered icons who rise above any controversy that may have popped up in their lifetimes. I think it's fair to say that industry legends like Frank Sinatra, Katherine Hepburn, Paul Newman, and even Charlton Heston fall into this particular category. If he were to die twenty to thirty years from now instead of tomorrow without making more Dan Brown-based movies and more of the caliber that won him his two Oscars, I think Tom Hanks is pretty much destined for this pantheon, as Will Smith, at his current trajectory, would be if he died an old man.

And then there's all the other permutations somewhere in between.

Farrah Fawcett left quite the pop-culture impression on the public in her heyday, but her time as a star basically came and went. She was able to settle into a relatively quiet life (for a celebrity anyway) and endure her battle with her esoteric cancer privately. She was most certainly an icon in her day, and she certainly died quite young, but all things considered, had it not been for her death less than two days ago she would have gone on living a relatively quiet existence.

Then there's the celebrity death which is defies ready categorization. This is the death of a celebrity who has had an impact on the cultural landscape that is so distinctive and so indelible that even if he or she dies long, long after his or her star has waxed and waned, that death leaves people talking about that particular celebrity for years after the fact.

It used to be that the only celebrity I could think of that would fit this bill was Elvis Presley, who, at the time of his death, was well past his lean, mean movie star days and had literally and figuratively gotten fat off the legend he had built. This notwithstanding, his death at the very young age of forty-two ignited worldwide mourning and volumes of conspiracy theories, many of which have managed to persist for over three decades.

Now, I'm convinced Michael Jackson will be the one other celebrity whose death will be viewed in the same way.

I am not what I'd call a Michael Jackson fan by any stretch of the imagination but I cannot deny the impact he had on popular culture in the eighties and the early nineties. He was not just some flash-in-the-pan; he didn't come and go with a particular musical era. He defined the era himself and set the stage for dozens of acts that came after him.

More importantly than that, even years after Jackson's popularity as a performer had waned with the record-buying public, he was still a hot-button topic of conversation. In short, even when were no longer listening to him as much, they were still talking about him. Even when the musical landscape had changed, he still lingered in the public consciousness, even if it was as an oddball recluse.

This is neither an attempt to canonize or condemn him; it's simply a fact. Talent...controversy...people have asked others to forget the other and focus on the one, but the truth is it's all part of the package, the totality of who he was. Thanks to a whole confluence of factors he became who and what he was and part of his public image.

And THAT's what makes his death so unique. Talented artists have died before him and will inevitably die after him, but none like him. He was arguably one of the most polarizing figures in the world of entertainment; there was never any middle ground with the guy, who was adored by his followers and profoundly despised by his detractors. To those who called him Jacko and those who called him Wacko his death represents something significant and certainly worth talking about at length.

Another thing about Jackson is that his is the ultimate cautionary tale. In a world where child stars fall from grace with alarming regularity his fall was the longest and the hardest and not even because of any dip in his popularity or his ability to sell records; that is actually irrelevant. He could have died with a billion dollar bank account and his albums selling like hotcakes but his fall, from the way he basically turned his body inside out for decades to the way he seemed unable to cope with going out in public, would still have been self-evident.

Earlier I blogged about how America and in particular Hollywood should take a closer look at how child stars are handled (or manhandled) by their parent/managers. Maybe stricter laws should be enacted or more maybe existing laws should be more strictly enforced.

His death, just like his life, is certainly unique in terms of the overall effect it's had on people so far, but if one were to categorize him it would have to be as someone whose celebrity may well have been the death of him.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hasbro: Bringing Our Childhood Memories to Life...Or Not...

One summer, when I was about ten years old, I watched the animated feature length film, Transformers: The Movie on Betamax. About a year later I watched G.I. Joe: The Movie on Betamax too. I have no doubt I'd probably find them quite trashy if I were to watch them again today (especially the G.I. Joe movie, which I already found kind of silly a year or two after I first watched it) but back then they were pretty much the cat's pajamas.

I'm pretty certain that people like me, who grew up watching those cartoons and who "oohed" and "aahed" at the films of Michael Bay and Stephen Sommers in the mid-to-late nineties and the early part of this millenium, were the target audience for 2007's Transformers and the upcoming Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

Now, I liked Bay's The Rock and Sommers' The Mummy. I grew up with both Transformers and G.I. Joe in terms of the toys and the animated TV shows. But for some reason the thought of these properties being adapted to the big screen didn't push the buttons for me that I might have thought they would when I was younger. Whereas my reaction to the title-sequence of Spider-Man was akin to a nerdgasm, the best reaction these movies merited was a "hmmm, that looks cool." I even understand why.

Spider-Man and the rest of the comic book characters whose adaptations I eagerly patronized were derived from mythologies that were shaped over several decades. While the main directive of the writers, artists and editors responsible for these characters was basically to sell comics, there were a considerable number of them who, out of a real love for them, were, over the years, able to tell some very compelling stories which have gone into the characters' mythologies and have made them astonishingly rich.

As for the Hasbro properties, well, the fact that they first appeared as toys kind of says everything. All of the media built around them, in the form of Saturday morning cartoons, comic books, novelizations, video games, was designed to sell toys. Not much mythology there.

Even Transformers: the Movie, which I watched a total of TWENTY-SIX times in that fateful summer, was aimed at launching the new line of robot toys, which was why Optimus Prime was offed. Guess who had a toy of Rodimus Prime, the hero of that cartoon, by Christmas that very year? The idea of all of these media was to SELL toys. That's why they've been rebooted ad nauseam for the last quarter of a century; they had to be constantly reshaped and retooled with new continuities and supporting characters and sensibilities, because apart from Optimus Prime, and very few other characters, none of the robots are charismatic or compelling enough to survive the number of different iterations that the product line has gone through.

G.I. Joe is, while also primarily about selling toys, nonetheless a different can of worms. It's older than Transformers by a few years and has a rather well-developed history courtesy of writer Larry Hama's loooooooong tenure on the Marvel Comics series (spanning easily over ten years) among others as opposed to the Transformers comics which had several different writers swapping duties. The thing is, hope of translating any of that mythology intelligently has considerably dimmed with Stephen Sommers coming on board, as anyone who has seen the second Mummy film and 2004's Van Helsing can surely attest. The latter of those two movies is probably one of the worst films I've seen this decade. The rubber muscle suits that have been showcased in the G.I. Joe's promotional stills, which presumably serve as the characters' body armor, are anything but confidence-inspiring. When one thinks about it, though, how else does one translate the look of these toys onto the big screen? Those of them that aren't dressed in generic U.S. military uniforms look downright garish, like Scarlett in her blue and tan tights. And exactly how will the fights between G.I. Joe and Cobra look in real life, with everyone parachuting out of his or her airplane in time and nobody ever dying from the hail of gunfire that is exchanged?

And that, in a nutshell, encapsulates the main problem facing these movies; they adapt properties that may or may not translate very well on the screen. It's a good thing in a way because it reduces expectations, but then, is it really a good thing when filmmakers are excused from making movies that make any sense? I found the first Transformers movie quite juvenile especially with lines that just made me cringe like "whatever happens, I'm glad I got in that car with you." And although it seems that in the entertainment world, a particular property is deemed to have hit its zenith when it has a live-action, Hollywood movie made based on it, I remain in the minority that believes that maybe some things shouldn't be translated.

I'm not narrow-minded though; as little as I enjoyed the first Transformers, I'll probably go see the second, scathingly bad reviews (so far) notwithstanding and G.I. Joe. If I don't like them, then I'll know I was right.

Say what one will about Mattel, but at least they've held off on making a live-action Barbie movie, though they came this close to making one based on the Hot Wheels line. Maybe, just maybe, they recognize that by making live-action films they will attempt a translation that just isn't really possible.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Surprise, Surprise, Captain America's Coming Back to Life.

When the mainstream media broke the news over two years ago that Steve Rogers, aka Marvel Comics icon Captain America would meet his death in issue #25 of his own series, I doubt there was anyone who reads comic books or who was alive in 1992 (when Superman was "killed") that seriously believed he would stay dead. The question, at least among comic book fans and in particular Marvel Comics fans, was always how and when he would be brought back. Another question was how the stories would be told in the meantime, and with Ed Brubaker handling the writing duties the answer was: very well. Bucky, Cap's sidekick in World War II whom Brubaker had resurrected, assumed the mantle of the star-spangled hero to the surprising approval of many, many comic book fans. So great was their approval, in fact, that a lot of them are lamenting the announcement of Rogers' return after only two and a half years. That says a lot about Brubaker's craft; he made New Coke taste good.

Who better, therefore, than Brubaker to bring Rogers back? And this time he's joined not just by the very talented artist Steve Epting, with whom he made his mark on the character; no, drawing the book is a man who has drawn arguably one of the most iconic images of Captain America since Jack Kirby, Bryan Hitch of The Ultimates fame.

What strikes me as funny about this book, and why I'm even writing this post even without any of my own news to bring to the table, is how people have mentioned that it seems to coincide with the climate of change. When Steve Rogers "died" two years ago I quipped while chatting with my comic-book fan friends, that he'd be back when George W. Bush was out of the the White House, when America had recovered a sense of self-respect and hope in their leaders. For all I know, the story was given the green light the moment Barack Obama's victory was announced; maybe if John McCain had won the 2008 U.S. Presidential Elections and perpetuated Bush's policies Marvel would have shelved the story for at least another four years. President Obama has given Marvel Comics their highest selling book in many years, after all and has tickled them pink with his declaration that he was (is?) an avid collector of The Amazing Spider-Man; it isn't too far-fetched to think his victory and the wave of optimism that followed somehow shaped Marvel's decision to reinstate Rogers as Cap. They could have elected to resurrect him closer to the release of his long-planned feature film but maybe they fear that by that time President Obama may have turned out to be a disappointment. I don't know. In any event, coincidence or not, they are certainly striking while the iron is hot, i.e. while "America" is no longer a four-letter word outside of the U.S.

Questions of timing and conspiracy theories about why they've done it now aside, though, one cannot deny that Marvel is definitely bringing Cap back in style. It would have been just as nice to have another high-profile artists on the book like Steve McNiven, who's got a similar eye for detail or Jimmy Cheung, whose work hasn't been seen in so long it's worrying, but if Hitch's work is anything like his 26-issue, two-volume run on Ultimates I will be the last person to complain.

Not having purchased a book featuring Captain America since Marvel's Civil War event, I have no idea how they plan to bring him back, but the goodwill Brubaker has won over, and Hitch's pencils, will definitely be reason enough to check this out.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Toy Story Films...Irresistibly Charming, Irrepressibly Illogical (Even for a Cartoon)

I realize this is my second successive post about animated films, with a particular focus on Pixar, but there's something that I've been thinking about a lot lately, specifically since my kids, thanks ot the wonders of the DVD, both got addicted to the two Toy Story movies that have come out so far. 

Now, I'm one of the millions of people whose pants John Lasseter and his merry men at Pixar have, with their eight movies (that I've seen, the latest opus, Up, not having coming out here yet) charmed off with their thoroughly entertaining and often genuinely affecting stories which often have very valid, very moving things about the human condition. I'm one of the people anxiously looking forward to the next Toy Story movie which is due out in the summer of 2010. 

That said, I think that Lasseter and his posse, at least as far as the Toy Story movies are concerned, is guilty of some pretty lazy-ass writing.  There, I said it. 

I made a pretty big stink a few posts ago about how movies should adhere to their own internal logic, no matter how skewed in the real world that logic may be. Once the writers have set the "rules of the game" they should not be permitted to rewrite them, unless the rules themselves were by design meant to be rewritten, but again this is a function of how carefully the writers have tied everything together. Boy that sounds confusing.

Anyway, as much as I love both Lasseter's Toy Story films, they, in particular the first one but also in no small measure the second one, are both guilty of some glaring holes in their own internal logic, and this has nothing to do with the films purporting to be "realistic."

At the outset, I accepted wholeheartedly the notion of anthrophomorphic, talking toys.  I accepted that they could walk around and have feelings like love, happiness, anger, jealously, and insecurity.  I didn't even have a problem with the fact that the toys seemed indestructible on several occasions.

But what bothered me as early as 1995 was the thought that the writers of Toy Story, including people I highly respect like WALL-E and Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton and geek God Joss Whedon, pretty much pissed all over their universe's own internal logic.

The toys have rules, this is explicitly stated by Woody at the end of the film when he says that to save Buzz, the toys have to break a few of them. First and foremost among these rules, apparently, is that humans must not know that toys are alive. 

Buzz Lightyear does not believe he is a toy. This is central to his role; the scene where he discovers he is a toy is supposed to be a moment of profound heartbreak for both him and the audience and it's even punctuated by a sappy, overbearing and ultimately manipulative (but nonetheless catchy) song by the film's composer Randy Newman.

And yet...Buzz wholeheartedly and without any question or misgiving embraces the cardinal rule of the toys that he must not appear alive to humans. There is no explanation, not even a throwaway one, like some one-liner about his space-ranger survival training in hostile territory, for why he does it, for why he lets Andy, the toys' owner, treat him like a toy even though he firmly believes he is not one. I wanted (and still want) to ignore this and just let my sense of wonder take over, but for the life of me I could never get over how the writers punched a hole so big in their adopted logic that one could drive a fleet of Pizza Planet delivery trucks right through it.  There's nothing wrong with the toys' set of unwritten rules, or that Buzz should follow them; the problem is that as someone who, for most of the movie, does not believe he is a toy, there is no reason for him to do so.

There is more of this tomfoolery in the second installment as another Buzz makes his appearance in the second movie as a story device for a confrontation with Emperor Zurg, but it's easy to ignofe the second time around because the story doesn't hinge on it. 

In TS2, though, there is more ridiculously flexible logic afoot. The theme is mortality, which basically hits home the way that envy did in the first movie. Woody is afraid Andy will discard him. He has no idea what it's like to be cast aside by an owner, the child whom he loves with all his, um, heart and is moved to profound pity when he hears the story of Jessie, a "Woody's Roundup" doll just like him, whose former owner Emily grew up in the sixties and basically donated her to charity when she grew tired of her. 

There's just one problem here; Woody is explicitly described by his mom as an "old family toy" and then later by another character as a "hand-me-down cowboy doll," ergo, Andy cannot possibly have been Woody's first owner. He would have to have gone through at least one other child who grew up, quite possibly even two, so the question arises; why doesn't Woody remember any of this? He's an antique; the Prospector character, who has never left his box when the movie starts, remembers watching "every other toy get sold" while sitting on a dime-store shelf." Why doesn't Woody, a toy of similar vintage, remember being owned by someone other than Andy?

Again, it's all about INTERNAL logic. Never mind that the entire premise is completely and unabashedly fantastical; the fact is that the writers set rules for themselves and in the next breath broke some of the biggest ones.

What is the point of this post? Well, partly it's to say that such is the sleight of hand of Pixar that even with such enormous holes in their writing, they've got audiences and critics the world over singing odes to them. The Toy Stories are among my favorite films, animated or otherwise, ever, which really goes to show how comprehensively I embrace them for all their flaws. 

But really, is it too much to ask that their writers at least adopt and employ consistent logic in their otherwise sterling storytelling? I know they can do better.

Most of me is pretty sure I'll enjoy Toy Story 3 in 2010 a whole lot, especially when I watch it with my kids, but part of me is wondering what internal, self-imposed logic its writers will trample upon this time.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Pixar's John Lasseter: The Savior of Hand-Drawn, 2D Animation?

In 1989, Walt Disney Studios, whose animated feature films had been box-office kings in the forties, fifties and sixties before their grosses started tapering off for most of the seventies and eighties, enjoyed a bit of a resurgence with the release of The Little Mermaid, their biggest box-office hit in several years. This was followed up two years later by one of the most beloved animated films ever to come from the studio and the only film ever receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, Beauty and the Beast. A string of critical and commercial successes followed with Aladdin, The Lion King and Pocahontas. The early nineties were pretty much a renaissance for the hand-drawn Disney feature length animated film.

Now, what the makers of these hand-drawn wonders may or may not have known that the very studio responsible for releasing their movies was about to push their product to the brink of extinction with an all-new breed of animated film: the computer generated kind.

In 1995, the year Pocahontas grossed roughly $142 million ( numbers which, while solid, definitely represented a disappointment considering The Lion King's gross of $312 million the year before) , Disney released their first ever offering from Pixar Films: Toy Story, directed by John Lasseter and featuring the voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, it was a film animated entirely using computer generated imagery in lieu of the old hand-drawn techniques. The film went on to gross $192 million, the highest of the whole year.

For masters of the hand-drawn animated film such as Glen Keane, James Baxter and Eric Goldberg to name but a few, this would mark the beginning of the end of the world as they knew it. In the latter half of the 1990s, hand-drawn animated films like The Hunchbank of Notre Dame, Hercules and Mulan all failed to achieve the commercial success of their counterparts that had come out pre-Toy Story. Although Tarzan, with its impressive $171 million box office haul in 1999, gave hope for one brief, shining moment that the hand-drawn animated film would endure, it was followed by more out-and-out disappointments like the David Spade vehicle The Emperor's New Groove which even featured songs by Sting and the expensive summer misfire Atlantis: The Lost Empire. That wasn't even the worst of it. In 2002, after Lilo & Stitch grossed a respectable $140 million in the U.S. box office, the last hand-drawn Disney film to earn over $100 million domestically, Treasure Planet, made for a staggering $140 million (which, for the sake of perspective, was the same amount of money Sony Pictures spent making Spider-Man, that year's biggest hit), proved to be the studio's biggest flop ever, grossing a measly $38 million domestically and effectively driving the last nail into the coffin of the hand-drawn animated film. Considering that a Disney cartoon takes between two to three years to make, the next two releases, Brother Bear and Home on the Range, were probably in the can or in prodcution well before Planet bombed, but as a result they were released to little to no fanfare, with Range being dropped into a mid-spring release rather than into the traditionally preferred summer or Thanksgiving slot, where it bombed. It was also announced, not long before that film's release, that it would be the studio's last hand-drawn film.

Hand-drawn animated would surface for portions of 2007's Enchanted and a few minutes of Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda, but it truly seemed as though the world was done with hand-drawn animation.

While all this was going on, Pixar churned out hit after hit for their distributor, Disney. Not a single one of their films has grossed less than $150 million in the United States alone, with only two of their films grossing less than $200 million. In 2003, the $339 million gross of Finding Nemo, Pixar's highest-grossing film to date, was second only to the $377 million of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, a film everyone knew would be huge.

It came to a point where the guys at Pixar got tired to paying the lion's share of the profits to Disney, and a protracted negotiations ensued. Pixar wanted to pack up and set up shop somewhere else. Disney's knee-jerk reaction was to close down their hand-drawn department and set up their own CGI studio, which churned out such dreck as Chicken Little and the stunningly mediocre Meet the Robinsons. However, they recognized that there was no way they would ever be able to approximate the quality of what Pixar had to offer (and probably that they'd get eaten alive by not only Pixar movies but by the stuff from Dreamworks Animation, which had positioned itself as the Other Major Player in the CG animation game with films like the Shrek trilogy, Madagascar, and Shark Tale. So eventually, a deal was reached giving Pixar not only greater control over their own destiny, but putting Lasseter in charge of Disney's entire animated division.

One of Lasseter's first edicts as the new czar of Disney animation? Bring back hand-drawn animation. You gotta love the guy.

Of course, he's pretty much bringing it into the 21st century, with a lot of updated computer-aided techniques supplementing the hand-drawn work, replacing the now-antiquated Computer Animation Production System Disney had been using from the early 80s up until the demise of its hand-drawn department.

The first new hand-drawn film under the Lasseter era will be The Princess and the Frog, a musical adventure which features a first for any Disney film, a leading character of African-American descent, a pleasant change of pace from a studio once described by activist/director Spike Lee as "the plantation," and which cast a wimpy-voiced and very white Matthew Broderick as the voice of the Lion King, an unmistakably African character.

Heck, I like the new Disney hand-drawn department already!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Another of My Childhood Heroes Finally Gets His Big-Screen Break...

I grew up with Belgian hero Tintin's adventures. At one point or another I've had every one of the books except for the controversial Tintin in the Congo and Tintin in Russia. Likewise, I don't have the last, unfinished work of Herge, Tintin and Alph-art.  But more than any American superhero, including Spider-Man, the Hulk or Batman, Tintin is a comic book character to whom I had the most exposure right up until puberty, so the impression left was pretty much indelible.

I am, as a result, thoroughly excited about the upcoming trilogy of motion-capture films featuring Tintin and his entire supporting cast, including his dog Snowy, my favorite character from the series Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, and the bumbling English detectives Thompson and Thomson. 

These are movies that have been a long, long time in the making as producer/director Steven Spielberg has long held the option on the movies, which is just as well because now the motion capture technology which is being used to film it has matured to the point that realizing Tintin on the big screen in a manner faithful to Herge's striking visuals is now entirely possible. Neither a straight live-action nor a hand-drawn adaptation, in my opinion, would have captured Herge's extraordinary eye for detail, not for the kind of budgets Hollywood is used to working with, and motion capture and CGI is simply the way to go. Who better to pull this off than Spielberg himself, one of original the masters of visual effects-laden films (ignoring the shoddiness of the CGI in the last Indiana Jones movie, of course)? Well, as if that was not enough he has chosen to collaborate with Peter Jackson, whose work in motion capture for the LOTR trilogy and King Kong were groundbreaking, and apparently dazzling enough to get Spielberg to forgo his usual collaboration with his usual F/X vendor Industrial Light and Magic for this series.

I love the casting as well from Jamie Bell (of Billy Elliot and King Kong fame) as Tintin himself to Andy Serkis (who achieved worldwide fame as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies) as Captain Haddock to Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) as Thomson and Thompson.

The films are a long way off (the first to be released in December 2011) which is good because it will give its distributors Paramount Pictures and Sony Pictures plenty of time to market the film, which may well prove a hard sell in the United States despite having the names of Spielberg and Jackson attached. Tintin is kind of like Formula 1, loved in the rest of the world but ignored in America, so their ability to put butts in the seats will be almost purely down to the two directors' drawing power rather than any goodwill the character may have in America.

The distributors recognize the risks involved in this production; rather than the usual U.S./rest of the world split, Paramount and Sony appear to be splitting the distribution territories around the world equally, with Paramount perhaps recognizing that the film may, in spite of everything, flounder in the U.S. market and therefore wanting to hedge its bets with a couple of other territories. Well, the studios can play poker all they want, as long as they give Spielberg and Jackson free rein to make my most anticipated comic-book movie since the first Spider-Man. I know I'll be lining up for this one.

On Messing Up Child Stars

Yesterday I read a little blurb on Yahoo News about Candace Cameron, one of the stars of the now defunct sitcom Full House. Unlike her more infamous former child co-stars Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen she seems to be somewhat more well-adjusted and managed to grab attention for looking great in a black dress, something positive for a change. 

The rule, however, seems to be that child actors who enjoy even moderate success in film, television or music end up basket cases with extensive records of substance abuse, wild partying or even going around town without underwear. Whether it's Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, the aforementioned Olsen twins, Macauley Culkin, Edward Furlong or the more tragic examples like Brad Renfro, who died of a drug overdose last year there seems to be a direct correlation between ascension into celebrity at a very young age and an eventual downward spiral into an essentially troubled existence. I'd say this correlation is so clear that it's not even up for debate anymore. The question is, can anything be done about it?

It's a relevant question because a lot of these performers, like the kids of High School Musical or Hannah Montana, may often reach global audiences thanks to brands like Disney, Nickelodeon or Warner Brothers, (with Lohan in particular owing the career she once had to Disney) and like it or not many of them may be viewed as role models. 

Celebrity children are just like any other children, after all; they need guidance, parental figures and values formation, something the aforementioned child stars/former child stars clearly didn't get. They need to keep their feet planted firmly on the ground, which, too often, isn't what happens.  Now, not all child stars are messed up in the head; kudos to the likes of Billy Ray Cyrus and the handlers of a lot of Disney's and Nickelodeon's child stars, all of whom seem to be turning out okay...so far. Clearly, they've done something right. And there's always the example of Jodie Foster to show that a career as a child actor does not have to go bad.

My guess is that in many of the cases where it goes wrong it's the parents who are to blame, and in particular the parents' overwhelming greed that comes with the thought that their children can make them rich.

Well, considering how zealous the anti-child abuse legislation is in the United States one would think there would be some kind of legal infrastructure protecting children from such rapacious parents. Surely by now there's enough empirical evidence to justify concrete action to guard against this kind of occurrence? It doesn't exactly seem like it.

Till the day that the Americans in general figure out how to keep their child stars from going batty I am glad I've been able to keep my kids from going ga-ga over any child star.


Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie

Recently, Marvel Comics launched a new ongoing series featuring the popular X-Men entitled X-Men: Forever, written by renowned X-Men writer Chris Claremont. The idea behind the series was to give Claremont the opportunity to tell the X-Men stories he had wanted to write waaaaaaay back on his all-too-brief tenure on the then-newly-launched adjectiveless X-Men book back in 1991, but had been unable to write after leaving the book due to creative differences with then white-hot artist/co-plotter Jim Lee. In short, the series was set 18-year-old X-Men continuity. Even after such masters as Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon conclusively proved to the comic-book reading world that there was, indeed, life after Chris Claremont, Marvel, for some reason, still saw the need to go back to that well, filled with water that, arguably, had already stagnated.

This seems to be a microcosm of the entertainment industry in general. I know I already lamented this several posts ago on this very blog but considering that, whether in the movies, television or comics, the sheer amount of sequels, prequels, remakes, "reimaginations" and now "reboots" has gone up rather than down, the complaint stands, even though I did enjoy the new Star Trek.

I mean, for every Star Trek, Casino Royale or Batman Begins there is Knight Rider, Bewitched, Beverly Hills 90210, Planet of the Apes, Pink Panther, Psycho, The Wicker Man, and so on and so forth. Probably in the time it takes me to write this blog post three or four more sequels, prequels, remakes or reboots will be greenlit.

Now, in the case of comic books, which are serialized, the retreading of old storylines (e.g. Crisis and now, this exhumation of an X-Men continuity which are nearly two decades old) is the equivalent of the remake, etc.  Sometimes it works, as it did with Ultimates and Ultimate Spider-Man, but regurgitating old material (or using old writers to write "old style" material) is just as likely to turn off fans as it is to push their nostalgia buttons. It's worth noting that the current incarnation of Marvel's entire Ultimate line which was meant as a "modernization" of forty-year old storylines and characters has been discontinued due to flagging sales, with a "relaunch" planned for this year. Ugh.

Hollywood probably won't learn its lesson anytime soon with Batman, James Bond, and now the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise making a killing at the box-office long after they were left for dead, but one can always hope audiences and subsequently filmmakers get sick of "reimagining" the same thing over and over again. One need only to look at the Pixar films, only one of which was a sequel and most of which were completely original material, to know that it's still possible, in this day and age, to produce work that is both original and successful.