This week’s special edition of the Cinefantastique Laserblast podcast forgoes the usual rundown of recent horror, fantasy, and science fiction releases on home video, instead offering a 50th anniversary tribute to a beloved genre classic. Back in 1961, producer Charles H. Schneer and special effects supervisor Ray Harryhausen brought Jules Verne’s novel MYSTERIOUS ISLAND to the big screen, with Herbert Lom as Captain Nemo presiding over a strange land overrun by giant crabs, enlarged insects, and one or two other monstrous menaces.
Listen in as CFQ podcast regulars Steve Biodrowski and Lawrence French are joined by Ted Newsom, who wrote the extensive and excellent multi-part coverage of Ray Harryhausen’s career, which graced the cover of three issues of Cinefantastique magazine. Together, they offer fond reminiscences of the film, an assessment of how well it stands the test of time, and a look at the limited edition Blu-ray disc released last month by Last month, Twilight Time released, featuring a high-def transfer that makes MYSTERIOUS ISLAND look better than it has in decades.
Having survived the rocky shoals of THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons decide to kick it freestyle (as the kids all say — the kids do all say that, don’t they?) in a wide-ranging, nay, recklessly random episode of THE CINEFANTASTIQUE POST-MORTEM PODCAST. Covered in the discussion are Larry’s impressions of Julie Taymor’s daring adaptation of THE TEMPEST, Dan’s reactions to Bill Plympton’s impertinent animated short THE COW WHO WANTED TO BE A HAMBURGER, and Steve’s serene confidence amidst his critical brethren. Plus vag-monsters, John Lasseter, the COMMUNITY Christmas special, competing George C. Scott impressions, and the waning tyranny of THX Certification.
So how about a break from the Fab Three ragging on the latest release? How about a few, carefree minutes with Matt Senreich, the twisted mastermind who, along with the equally twisted Seth Green, oversees Adult Swim’s wickedly funny, sharply satirical, and supremely nerdy stop-motion animated puppet show, ROBOT CHICKEN? Before he was felled by the dread Martian crud, Dan Persons sat in on the New York Comic Con roundtable with the amiable Mr. Senreich, and found out more than anyone needed to know about what kind of person throws it all in to start playing with toys for fun and profit. Turns out it’s the kind who still has his original, C-3PO carry-case of mint STAR WARS action figures. Not a surprise, actually.
Click on the player to hear the discussion.
New Blu-ray release offers improved picture and sound quality but little in the way of additional bonus features.
Riding on the delightfully cobwebbed coat-tails of Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, poor JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH was probably predestined to be a disappointment, for what film could possibly live up to that level of expectation? Even with the NIGHTMARE team of director Henry Selick and producers Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi reassembled, it was unlikely that the mad scientist’s lightening would animate a new creation of equal quality.
Sad to say, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH not only failed to meet unrealistic expectations; it was also an under achiever on its own terms. Although a technical marvel of production design, stop-motion animation, and other special effects techniques, the film is felled by annoying characters, flat songs, and a limp screenplay straining to pad a slim story out to feature length. The bottom line is that it lacked the magic that made THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS a joy to watch again and again.
The reason for this becomes clear during the fist act’s live action sequences. The notion that young James became an orphan when a rhinoceros gobbled up his parents is awkwardly handled by depicting the rampaging rhino as a cloud. After that, the film finds its tone; unfortunately, that tone can best be summed up as “annoying.” The live-action scenes of James being mistreated by his aunts, Spiker and Sponge (Joanna Lumley and Miram Margoylyes), are achingly unfunny despite the obvious attempt to portray the campy pair as vile villains of the black comedy variety. When James escapes from Spiker and Sponge in the giant peach of the title, the film shifts to stop-motion. The transition is smoothly handled, adding an extra level of fantasy to the material. Unfortunately, James’s new friends, a small group of insects, turn out to be almost as annoying as his aunts, especially the brash-talking centipede voiced by Richard Dreyfuss. James himself is a fairly non-descript character, whom the others praise for his cleverness, even when he is doing only what is obvious. His big scene, confronting the rhinoceros that gobbled his parents, plays like a hollow victory, because we can see that he is merely yelling at a dissipating cloud – not the most courageous act of heroism ever recorded on camera.
As if sensing that the third act needs something more, the script throws in a ridiculous scene in New York, where the peach lands on top of the Empire State Building – only for James to be met by his aunts, who have apparently driven beneath the Atlantic ocean in their beat-up old car! What is clearly meant to be taken as a hysterically surreal moment is too obviously an awkward writer’s device, providing an opportunity for the aunt’s to get their come-uppance at the hands of James’s insect friends. But this is par for the course: the entire script feels like an episodic grab bag, with occasional threats and obstacles showing up randomly just to give the characters something to do.
JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH deserves credit for attempting to translate the wicked, semi-scary tone of Roald Dahl’s children’s book to the screen; unfortunately, the attempt fails, creating an odd mix of the whimsical and the weird that feels less like an audacious conflation of contradictory elements than an awkward jumble, a point too often underlined by Randy Newman’s score, which becomes the audio equivalent of someone repeatedly elbowing you in the ribs to remind you how wonderful and amazing all of this is supposed to be. Perhaps Dahl’s combination of childhood fantasies and fears is difficult to realize on screen, but THE WITCHES (1990), directed by Nicolas Roeg, proved that it can be done without diluting either element.
BLU-RAY & DVD DETAILS
Disney’s new special edition 2-disc combo pack (Street Date: August 3, 2010) includes JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH on both Blu-ray and DVD. The picture quality on both is quite nice. Of course, the high-def Blu-ray transfer is superior; however, the picture quality of the 1996 film is not up to the standards of more recent films when transferred to the high-def medium. The result looks very good, but it does not pop off the screen in the same way that the Blu-ray discs own menu features do.
Unfortunately, both discs feature what Walt Disney Pictures likes to call “Fast Play,” which is touted as an “easy start up without using a remote control.” What this means is that, instead of going immediately to the main menu, the disc immediately starts playing promos and trailers for other Disney products, through which you must chapter stop to get to the film you actually thought you were purchasing. This is not so much a problem with the DVD, but it is annoying with the Blu-ray, which has a longer loading time – god forbid you should accidentally push the Eject button midway through the movie, and then have to go through the whole loading process again.
Both discs port over bonus features from the 2000 special edition DVD release: a making-of featurette (actually a promotional puff piece); a trailer; a Randy Newman music video; and several extensive photo galleries, divided up into Concept Art, Puppets, Behind the Scenes, and Live Action. In addition, the DVD includes a trailer for THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, which is not available on the Blu-ray.
The only new feature actually on the Blu-ray disc is a videogame that allows you to earn points by manipulating a rhinoceros to head-butt Aunts Spiker and Sponge. It’s amusing for a minute or two; little kids may enjoy it a while longer. The Blu-ray disc is also BD-Live enabled, which allows you to access more material via an Internet connection to your Blu-ray player.
Watch the Video of the BFI and BAFTA special achievement award presented to RAY HARRYHAUSEN on the occasion of the master animator’s 90th birthday:
This fabulous 42 minute minute video includes comments from:
Guillermo Del Toro
John Landis (Host)
With guest speakers:
Sir Christopher Frayling
The Tortoise and the Hare Animators
Colin Arthur (mask-maker)
Gary Raymond and John Cairney
Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren & Ken Ralston
Tony Dalton & Vanessa Harryhausen
(Jackson shows his rare amateur film inspired by Harryhausen and presents a special BAFTA Award to Ray.)
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In your earlier films, although you didn’t have star names, you always had excellent British character actors, such as Douglas Wilmer, Laurence Naismith and Patrick Troughton. In fact, all those actors appeared in Sir Laurence Olivier’s film version of Richard III. Did you see Richard III when in came out in 1955?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Oh yes, although that was many years ago. And as you say, we always had very talented actors, even if they were not what today you would call stars. But they were all very competent actors: Douglas Wilmer was brilliant as King Pelias in Jason and later we used him in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad as the Grand Vizier. Laurence Naismith was also in Jason, and we used him again in The Valley of Gwangi.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What led you to stop making movies after Clash of the Titans?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I had enough of spending my time in a dark room after everybody else went home. I spent most of my life in a dark room, painted black, which can be depressing if you are aware of it, although I was never aware of it. I also felt that tastes had changed. After Clash of the Titans, we were going to do a follow-up and I helped Charles develop a script with Beverly Cross called Force of the Trojans, although a lot of the effects work would have been farmed out to someone else. But even though Clash had made a lot of money for MGM, they didn’t want to back it. They felt costume pictures weren’t suitable and the pictures the studios wanted you to make all had to have explosions in them every five minutes. So I’m grateful that I got in on the tail end of the great days of Hollywood.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: So once MGM passed on making Force of the Trojans, you finally decided to retire?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, pretty much. I was able to spend most of my time doing the things I had always wanted to do for a long time. I began making bronze figures of some of the characters used in my films, and doing many other things, including getting re-acquainted with my family. Unfortunately, when you devote too much time to a film, you have very little time to see your family.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Now that all your fairy tales and early films are out on DVD, are there any animation scenes that got cut which might be included on future DVD releases—such as the Ghoul fight from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: There’s not a great deal and once I finish a picture it’s out of my hands. I don’t recall the Ghoul sequence having been cut that much. It couldn’t have been that important, because I’ve looked at the picture on DVD and it didn’t bother me. I did have a sequence we cut from Jason and the Argonauts during the skeleton fight. After Jason cuts off one of the skeletons heads, the skeleton got down on his hands and knees to look for his head, but it slowed the whole pace of the scene down, so we decided to cut it out. Unfortunately, I never kept that footage. I should have saved it, but once you finish a film, you are so glad to be done, you don’t think about those kinds of things.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What are you thoughts about the current state of the movie business compared to Hollywood in the forties when you were first starting out?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Well, today everyone is saturated with all sorts of entertainments, where in the good old days you looked forward to going to the movies on Saturday night and it was a big event in your life. The people who made pictures in the forties, the big studios and producers had great imagination. When you look back at some of those pictures, you see that they knew how to make the average person see things bigger than life for two hours. It was a relief or an escape that we all loved. But today, you are bombarded with so many different things: DVD’s, Television, the Internet, and everything else, so I think people become rather jaded. That means you have to go over the top, in the sense of showing more, to make it bloodier and more ghastly in order to top all previous productions. Where that will eventually lead, I have no idea. At the rate some of today’s horror films are going, only people who work in the slaughterhouse would care to see them. I think also, that today, the fantastic image is so overdone it no longer amazes you and they tend to do overly violent things. It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes—you have to disguise the fact that there’s nothing really there in the story with smoke, loud noises, 8-frame cuts and zoom-in and zoom-outs—all the techniques that cover up the fact that there’s no story. In some of today’s movies, you don’t even know what you’re watching. I saw The Matrix and I didn’t know what the picture was all about. When I see a picture I want to know what I’m looking at. When characters are introduced I want to know who they are and what relation they have to the hero. But today there are no more heroes. There are only anti-heroes. So it’s a different world. Everything is so negative I don’t even feel like I’m part of the film business anymore.
Produced during Ray Harryhausen’s most fruitful period, THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER is one of the special effect artist’s most overlooked films, obscured by the fact that it arrived in between such famous titles as THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (my two personal favorites of Harryhausen’s). Partly this is due to the minimal use of stop-motion animation (limited to a squirrel and a crocodile), though effects are otherwise plentiful, and partly it’s because the source novel, poses a number of difficulties, many of which the filmmakers here fail to overcome.
First off, those who have read Jonathan Swift’s complex and satirical classic Gulliver’s Travels know that the titular hero traveled to four different lands; this film contains only the first two (the 3rd world in the title being England, which is briefly presented in the opening). Like many previous adaptations (such as the famous Dave Fleischer animated version), Swift’s story is greatly simplified and presented more as a children’s adventure tale. This adaptation by Jack Sher and Arthur Ross is to be commended for at least retaining more of Swift’s satire than most, but still it descends into farce and cuteness rather than confronting the implications of Swift’s story.
In fact, rather than originating with Harryhausen (as did most of his films), THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER was a project that producer Charles Scheer took on, based on Sher and Ross’s script. Sher was retained to direct the film as well. The amiable and appealing Kerwin Mathews was hired to play the main character, Dr. Lemuel Gulliver, whose name is meant to suggest someone who is gullible. Whereas Swift’s Gulliver starts off as a something of a conceited, clothes-obsessed naïve fool who lacks self-understanding, Sher’s Gulliver is a frustrated idealist who decides that he must make his fortune to get anywhere in the world, much to the consternation of his fiancée Elizabeth (June Thorburn). (In the book, Gulliver is already married and his wife is barely present, but for commercial concerns, the filmmakers decided to add a love interest whose potential nuptials can make for a traditional “happy ever after” ending). Gulliver’s Travels implicitly poses the question of what should be the governing factor in social life: physical prowess or moral righteousness? In his voyage to Lilliput, the first and most famous part of the story, Gulliver has physical might as a giant in Lilliput, where he can defeat the Blefuscudian navy by virtue of his immense size; however, it becomes readily apparent that “might does not make right.” Gulliver does not share the Lilliputian emperor’s (Basil Sydney) appetite for the destruction of his enemies and quickly loses favor when he refuses to accede to the emperor’s demands that the Blesfuscudians be wiped out.
While Sher and Ross eliminate much of Swift’s satirical dialogue, they do at least retain some of Swift’s ironic commentary. For example, the emperor admits he doesn’t need a prime minister to wage a war, “but I need one to blame in case we lose it.” Gulliver discovers that the basis for the war with Blesfuscu is over which end of an egg should be opened first (the Lilliputian emperor favors the small end); the source of the disagreement is a passage in their holy book, rendering the seemingly ridiculous question a religious and moral issue that justifies, in their eyes at least, the warfare it has sparked. The Lilliputians’ moral beliefs easily lead to a very immoral result.
Naturally, as a family-oriented children’s film, THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER eliminates Swift’s scatological humor, which is present throughout the novel. Swift uses this excremental motif to drive home the point that humans are not wholly spiritual or mentally transcendent figures (a typical Enlightenment notion), but are governed by crass, vulgar physical needs. The film version replaces Gulliver alienating the Lilliputian empress (Marian Spencer) by urinating on the palace to effectively put out a fire with him spewing a mouthful of wine to extinguish the flames, and soaking her gown in the process. (Naturally, references to Brobdingnagian flies defecating on Gulliver’s meals get excised entirely).
What THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER does retain is the portrait of Lilliputians as very small, petty people who imagine themselves to be quite grand and glorious. They are filled both with immense pride and also backbiting and conspiracy. Though they are pumped up with self-importance and national pride, Gulliver comes to see that they are actually quite puny and pathetic. When the Emperor accuses him of being a traitor, Gulliver responds, “I stop wars, put out fires, feed people, give them hope and peace and prosperity — how can I be a traitor?”
Conversely, Gulliver experiences life at the opposite end of the spectrum in Brobdingnag where he encounters a land of giants. Initially, his first encounter with the Lilliputians was one of entrapment, as the tiny people tie the giant Gulliver down with many ropes. Similarly, the book, Gulliver becomes enslaved by a Brobdingnagian farmer who later sells him to the royal family.
However, in THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER, Gulliver is found by Glumdalclitch (Sherri Alberoni), who takes him to the Brobdingnagian king (Gregoire Aslan), where he is re-united with Elizabeth, who had stowed away on the same boat on which he set sail. Most of the Swift’s Brobdingnagian episode is eliminated in favor of a simple story wherein the king (a very serious and philosophical character in the original) becomes a comic villain whose pride is wounded when Gulliver happens to best him in chess. Swift’s Brobdingnagians represent how the coarse, physical side of human existence cannot really be ignored, as Gulliver encounters difficulties with the flies they ignore, and is repulsed by their enormous pores and their stench and their sexual appetites. Instead, Sher and Ross add the character of Markovan (Charles Lloyd Pack), the court alchemist, who accuses Gulliver of being a witch and imposes a test designed to turn Gulliver blue. As a physician, Gulliver knows enough chemistry to make himself acidic, turning his clothes red instead, but Markovan continues to advocate against him until the formerly benevolent king orders Gulliver be attacked by a pet crocodile (the main stop motion setpiece of the film). Glumdalclitch helps Gulliver and Elizabeth escape by placing them in her basket and tossing it into a river that leads out to the ocean.
At the end of THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER, the couple wash up on a shore that turns out to be England (we see a normal-sized basket in the background rather than a Brobdingnagian-sized one), and the dialogue suggests that the whole experience might have been a dream (a la THE WIZARD OF OZ), but the end result seems to be that Gulliver has learned the folly of ambition and will be perfectly content to settle down with Elizabeth after all, a rather unsatisfying conclusion to the tale. (After all, Harryhausen didn’t get to be a master of his craft by being unambitious).
Harryhausen pulls off most of his effects fairly seamlessly, though one sequence in which Gulliver pulls fish from the sea using his hat is wildly off-scale. Bernard Herrmann’s musical score for THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER is one of the composer’s finest, though the two songs in the film by Ned Washington and George Duning are negligible. Kerwin Mathews hero is suitably decent and appealing. The addition of the fiancée to the storyline probably prompted a similar addition to Harryhausen’s adaptation of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON. Overall, though overshadowed by other Harryhausen’s fantasies, THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER is just what it was meant to be—a reasonably entertaining family-friendly fantasy adventure, lacking Swift’s bitterness and complexity, but still possessing some satirical jabs as the satire has been leavened by farce. THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960). Director – Jack Sher, Screenplay – Jack Sher & Arthur Ross, Based on the Novel Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, Producer – Charles H. Schneer, Photography – Wilkie Cooper, Music – Bernard Herrmann, Visual Effects Supervisor – Ray Harryhausen, Art Direction – Derek Barrington & Gil Parrendo. Cast: Kerwin Mathews (Dr Lemuel Gulliver), June Thorburn (Elizabeth Wesley), Sherri Alberoni (Glumdalclitch), Gregoire Aslan (King Brobdignag), Lee Patterson (Reldresal), Basil Sydney (Emperor), Charles Lloyd Pack (Makovan), Martin Benson (Flimnap), Marian Spencer (Empress), Mary Ellis (Queen), Jo Morrow (Gwendolyn Bermogg), Peter Bull (Lord Bermogg)
The concept of a single artesian working away in monkish solitude might seem quaint by today’s standards – think of the end credit roll on Avatar with its thousands of digital effects technicians – but Ray Harryhausen was able to create a wonderful world of monsters and myths using nothing more than his hands and his imagination. Sony has long recognized the treasure trove they have with their Harryhausen catalogue and are lovingly upgrading the home video versions to meet the digital standards of a new century. The new Blu-ray release of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS features what has to be the finest transfer of a Harryhausen film ever, in any format.
Although THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD may rank as the critical (and my) favorite among Harryhausen’s films, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is still his personal favorite. The film is fine vintage Harryhausen, with its roots in classic mythology and its effects state of the art, for the time. Harryhausen manages to tell an epic tale on a low budget in less than two hours without sacrificing grandeur. There are some pacing problems, but there is also some of Harryhausen’s best work, including the giant Talos and the Hydra which guards the Golden Fleece. Most people agree that the skeleton fight at the end of the film is the finest stop motion sequence in cinematic history.
In case you feared another Blu-Ray fiasco like THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD transfer – wherein the grain was so pronounced that it looked as if the film was made in a blizzard of black snow – you can relax. On the new JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS disc, the picture is sharp and vibrant, with the day-for-night scenes – most notably, the Harpy sequence – properly color corrected as they were first seen theatrically in 1963. For those who were lucky enough to see the film in the theater as I did in 1963, this comes close to recreating that experience.
As with the picture, the sound mix has been vastly improved and is presented in HD DTS 5.1. For the purist, the film is also offered in its original mono. However, in 5.1, Bernard Herrman’s music has never sounded so good.
This new Blu-Ray package is a little skimpy on bonus features, recycling earlier DVD extras; however, it does feature two commentary tracks: the first by Harryhausen and writer Tony Dalton; a second with director Peter Jackson (THE LORD OF THE RINGS) and special effects artist Randall William Cook THE GATE). For serious students of Harryhausen, neither audio commentary provides much in the way of new information (like which actor actually dubbed Todd Armstrong’s voice) but they are fun and entertaining.
Harryhausen and Dalton in their audio commentary take us through the film with the ease of a couple of old friends. Harryhausen at 90 sounds somewhat frail, but still has the mind of a master craftsman as he pulls the curtain open and reveals how many of the effects were created. His behind-the-scenes recollections create a fascinating guide of how to create a masterpiece with a smallish budget.
Jackson and Cook alternate between geeky reverence and interesting analysis of Harryhausen’s animation techniques. Both have a genuine love for the film while still being objective enough to point out its shortcomings. Most interesting are their personal antidotes including the revelation that Cook discovered a trove of Harryhausen’s animation dailies, which Jackson has had transferred to high quality digital masters. They hint that some, or all, of this material could be seen in a documentary that Harryhausen and Dalton are planning for the near future.
Features ported over from the DVD include the Skeleton Fight Storyboards, a John Landis’ interview with Harryhausen, the Ray Harryhausen Chronicles and The Harryhausen Legacy. Unfortunately, the special features are presented here in standard format, not remastered for high definition.
To say that Ray Harryhausen is unique among filmmakers is putting it mildly. No other behind-the-scenes movie technician has achieved the same iconic status. His vision and artistry have inspired succeeding generations of filmmakers, including most of the “A” list directors working in Hollywood today. He set the standard for what great special effects should be, no matter what the budget.
This JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS Blu-ray stands as a fitting tribute to a master. Hopefully, Sony will follow with other special editions of Harryhausen’s work especially MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and FIRST MEN IN THE MOON.
Today, June 29th 2010, is Ray Harryhausen’s ninetieth birthday.
Special effects innovator, stop-motion animator, concept artist, story generator, producer, and a genre icon, responsible for many of the more imaginative science fiction films and fantasies that shaped 20th century cinefantastique.
Beginning (from the genre fan’s point of view) with 1949’s MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, Harryhausen’s work captured the imaginations of millions. Inspired by his mentor Willis O’Brien, the effects man was kind and intelligent enough to give the public a look behind the scenes of the once secretive world of film effects, often appearing in his friend Forry Ackerman’s FAMOUS MONSTERS, and extensively in the pages of CINEFANTASTIQUE Magazine.
Some of his best known films are THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953, based in part by his friend Ray Bradbury’s The Foghorn), EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956) 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957), THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), JASON & THE ARGONAUTS (1963), FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964), ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966), THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974) and the original CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981).
Often, Ray Harryhausen would generate the basic ideas and storylines for his films himself, using his artistic skills to create pre-production concept art to map out his larger-than-life imaginary adventures.
He’s probably the very first genre film fan to become a filmmaker himself, and his own films would inspire many others.
For my favorite nightmare from Elm Street, I’m gonna go with NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, mainly ’cause it’s got a guest appearance by John Saxon and I got a soft spot for the guy. He co-starred in the first Hollywood film I ever worked on, MY MOM’S A WEREWOLF, and though he was a rather quiet, reserved fellow, I personally thought of him as calm and patient. I never saw him get upset around the crew.
But to focus on the less personal, I also got a kick out of the battle in the junkyard with the stop motion Freddy skeleton. It’s jiggy, man! And how can you not like the decapitated head of Kristen’s (Patricia Arquette) mommy dearest (Brooke Bundy) telling her that she always spoils things whenever mom brings home a beau?
True to its title, FANTASTIC MR. FOX is an absolute astonishment of a picture, seamlessly merging the literary sensibilities of author Roald Dahl with the droll, urbanite wit of Wes Anderson. Ironically, it was the participation of Anderson that initially worried us; the director’s recent films have been polarizing, to say the least, and we found his arch, hyper-finicky visual style in THE LIFE AQUATIC (and especially THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS) to be at odds with the development of any real emotion. Maybe puppets are Anderson’s preferred medium.
Mr. Fox (George Clooney) a reformed-chicken-thief-turned-columnist lives a safe, if boring, life with wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) and awkward son Ash (Jason Schwartzman). Tiring of living in a hole (figuratively and literally), Fox enlists the aid of attorney Mr. Badger (Bill Murray) to purchase a grand new abode in a tree located perilously close to the industrial farms owned by Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (the latter, Michael Gambon). The proximity poses too great a temptation for Fox, who is soon breaking the promise made to his wife years ago to abandon his produce-stealing ways. Enlisting the aid of tree superintendent Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) and Fox’s nephew Kristofferson (Wes’ brother Eric Anderson), Fox embarks on an – at first – stunningly successful round of thievery at the farmer’s expense; soon, however, their luck catches up with them at the hands of Bean, and all the animals in the area pay the price for Fox’s recklessness.
Anderson showed amazing promise with his 1998 debut, Rushmore, because at the center of the film was a carefully observed friendship between a pair of seemingly desperate characters. Unfortunately, Anderson’s two subsequent efforts – The Royal Tenenbaums and TheLife Aquatic with Steve Zissou – seemed to abandon emotional truth in favor of increasingly fussy cinematics, with both characters and situations existing only as representational ciphers. The Darjeeling Limited was an encouraging departure, but it felt a bit half-baked, almost as if Max Fischer was attempting a Wes Anderson tribute. Fortunately, there appears to be something about the medium of stop-motion animation that has brought out a tenderness in Anderson’s work that we haven’t seen in a decade. All the trappings are still there (the elaborate framing and overlaid inter-titles, the all-around drollery of the humor, Owen Wilson), but here they find themselves at the service of a story that didn’t originate with Anderson.
Roald Dahl has one of the most instantly individual voices in the world of children’s literature. Dahl, who passed away in 1990, understood that the young people need a bit of darkness in their stories and, until now, only Nic Roeg’s film The Witches has been able to tap into that darkness with success. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, written in 1970, Dahl created a fanciful universe in which the creatures exist in typical ‘animal’ surroundings but with human attributes – but it is also a world of danger, with the possibility of a violent death at the hands of humans lurking just on the other side of the prose. The ultimate success of the Fox family isn’t total victory, but merely surviving for another day.
Anderson captures this underlying theme beautifully; the film is photographed in gorgeous amber hues, evoking fall – a season of death – as well as any film we’ve ever seen. The particular brand of stop-motion puppetry used for is a bit jarring at first – it hasn’t the well-sanded edges of other stop-motion like Coraline or James and the Giant Peach (interestingly, another Dahl adaptation). The textures of the individual puppets are a bit rougher, but combined with Anderson’s careful compositions and the superb, erudite vocal work of the cast (Clooney especially is outstanding here, effortlessly conveying Fox’s cocky but ultimately flawed character), they become yet another memorable component of one of 2009’s best films.
Fox’s Blu-Ray (20th Century, not Mr.) is the optimal presentation for the film, with the 1080p picture conveying the myriad colors and textures of the world – and here’s where the use of actual sets, costumes and actors (well, puppets, anyway) comes into play, as these things just can’t be replaced by computer animation.
The disc also wins in not overloading the viewer with the typical EPK ballast that weighs down so many popular films. There’s a single, long-form documentary Making Mr. Fox Fantastic (presented, as are all extras, in HD) that can be watched in pieces or as a whole. The documentary goes into the laborious stop-motion process in fascinating detail. Bill Murray acts as a tour guide for a good chunk of the footage, and it’s great to see him so tuned-in by the process. We also learn about the impression that Dahl’s home made on Anderson and learn the fate of the actual tree that inspired Fox’s swanky home.
There’s also a brief but humorous breakdown of the rules of wack bat (which isn’t that much more stupefying than cricket) and the original trailer. Fox has also taken the increasingly popular route of including a separate DVD edition of the film with each Blu-Ray set (at least in the initial pressings) alongside the more common digital copy.