Animation Nation

French Rarebit

By Steve Herte

French Rarebit (WB, 1951) – Director: Robert McKimson. Animation: Phil DeLara, Emery Hawkins, Charles McKimson, Rod Scribner. Backgrounds: Richard H. Thomas. Layout: Cornett Wood. Voices: Mel Blanc, Tedd Pierce (uncredited). Color, animation, 7 minutes.

Being a self-proclaimed gastronome, one of my all-time favorite Warner Brothers’ cartoons is Robert McKimson’s delightful portrayal of Bugs Bunny in Paris. The Brooklyn-raised and accented character expresses his diametrically opposed culture in his first few sentences and we know this is going to be funny. After he pops up from a crate of carrots that fell off a truck he concludes his location by reading street signs, “Eye-full Tower” and “Champs Elly-Eye-zeeyay.” Then he strolls off to look at the Mon-sewers and Madamoiselles.

What he’s not expecting is to be sized up and measured for the stew pots of two rival chefs with restaurants directly across the street from each other. But he catches on quickly. “Somethin’ tells me this little grey hare is in the middle again.” Chefs Francois (Mel Blanc) and Louie (Tedd Pierce) both attack with covered plates simultaneously and Francois returns to his door victorious. But it isn’t Bugs he’s caught. “Eh, whatcha got in the tooreen, Doc?” Francois is still bubbling over his prize, but Bugs takes a look and disagrees. Flustered, Chef Louie stumbles from the plate and the two argue over whose the rabbit (they say rabbeet) is.


Bugs can’t help but interfere. He whispers into each one’s ear and has one tweak the other’s “pink tomahto nose” and get his beard yanked in return. The battle goes on until Chef Francois snatches Bugs up with an “Ah Ween!” Into the pot on the stove goes Bugs. He asks Francois what’s cooking and proudly, Francois recites his famous rabbit dish. “Oh,” says Bugs, dismissively, and hints at knowing the recipe for Louisiana Back-Bay Bayou Bunny Bordelaise a la Antoine. “Antoine of New Orleans?” “I don’t mean Antoine of Flatbush.”

At the time of the creation of this cartoon, Antoine’s of New Orleans was already 110 years old and the name was virtually synonymous with fine food. Ignoring the ridiculous title of the dish, Francois takes Bugs out of the pot and insists he teach him the recipe. 

OK Doc, I’ll be the chef.” Bugs dons and apron and a toque. “And you’ll be the rabbit.” “But I don’t look like a rabbeet.” After cutting off two fingers from a rubber glove and putting it on his head, shoving two sugar cubes to act as buck teeth into Francois’ mouth, and making whiskers from a broom, Bugs holds up a glassless mirror and looks through it at Francois. 

Convinced he does resemble a rabbit, he allows Bugs to dowse him in a barrel of wine, stuff him into a jar, shake it violently, coat him with flour, roll him out with a rolling pin, knead him severely, and fill his mouth with the fieriest spicy ingredients in the kitchen until flames burst out of his lips. Then it’s back into the bowl to be showered by vegetables, when Francois hoists up a sign saying “Hold La Onions.” “Oh, OK.”


At this point Monsieur Louie bursts in and tries to take Monsieur Francois back as his rabbit but Francois slams him on the head with a mallet. “Monsieur Francois!” “You were expecting maybe ‘Umphrey Bogart?” “Wha Hoppen?” When Francois explains that he’s learning a recipe, Louie wants to learn as well. Bugs is only too happy to accommodate him, putting him through all the tortures he visited on Francois. Now there are two faux rabbits in the bowl.

Bugs carries them to “La Oven” commenting to the audience, “Don’t they look yummy, yummy?” Lastly he hollows out a “nice big carrot” and puts in a stick of dynamite, closing the oven door. The blast blows the oven door off and there they both are, basting themselves, singing Alouette and shouting “Vive Antoine!” Bugs again turns to us and says, “Poisonally I prefer hamboiger.”

Afterwords

The title of this cartoon is a play on the delicious cheese and beer dish, Welsh Rarebit, often mispronounced as “Welsh Rabbit.” Tedd Pierce is credited for the clever writing of this wonderful bit of animation and was fabulous as the voice of Chef Louie.

In fact, it was this cartoon that motivated me to make a reservation for myself and my quartet at Antoine’s of New Orleans when I visited there in 1992 at the time of the Barbershop Harmony International Convention. Though I do not remember all I ate (we only arrived at about 10:30 pm) I will not forget the experience. Our waiter spoke slower than Droopy the Dog and I thought our order would never be taken, much less fulfilled, but it was, and it was worth it.

Antoine’s was established in 1840 by Antoine Alciatore and set a standard not only in New Orleans, but in the entire United States. When Antoine returned to France and died a year later, his son Jules took over and eventually invented Oysters Rockefeller. I’m almost sure I ordered that dish. I love it. We sat in the large annex, one of ten different rooms to choose from and it was charming. There was Potage Alligator au Sherry on the menu and a choice of a Demi-Bordelaise Sauce, but no Louisiana Back-Bay Bayou Bunny Bordelaise a la Antoine.


Hold the Lion, Please

By Steve Herte

Hold the Lion, Please (WB, 1942) – Director: Chuck Jones. Writer: Tedd Pierce. Animation: Ken Harris, Robert Cannon (uncredited), Ben Washam (uncredited). Background: Gene Fleury (uncredited), Bernyce Polifka (uncredited). Layout: John McGrew. Voices: Mel Blanc, Tex Avery (uncredited), Harry Lang (uncredited), Tedd Pierce (uncredited). Color, 8 minutes.

It was in my teens that I discovered my horoscope sign, Leo, the Lion. Since then I’ve embraced the qualities and tried to minimize the weaknesses of such a proud and strong symbol. Everywhere I’ve traveled is remembered in lion memorabilia, be it a photograph of the statue of Cuthbert in London, the two outside the Chicago Museum of Art, or Patience and Fortitude in front of the main library in New York. Most of the images and figurines are dignified and life-like. A few, like my statuette of Burt Lahr as the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz (1939) are less “lion-like” and some are just silly. And speaking of silly brings me to the cartoon in question.


Hold The Lion, Please is a Chuck Jones cartoon in the Merrie Melodies series that pits an out of shape, not too bright lion against a developing Bugs Bunny character. I say developing because Bugs is in the middle stages of transformation from an annoying, looney prankster to the suave, wise-cracking victim we know today, who always gets the best of a situation.

The cartoon opens with a hippo (voiced by Tex Avery) bathing (not wallowing in mud like a real hippo – he even cleans the bath tub ring before toweling off), a giraffe and a monkey touting the short-comings of Leo, who sits nearby. “There he is. The King of the Jungle, The Mighty Hunter, The Killer of the Congo.” (Note: there are no lions in jungles or even in the Congo.) To each of these titles Leo nods his head excessively. “Why that palooka (an old boxing term for a loser) couldn’t catch a rabbit!” Leo is still nodding as if it were another flattering title. He suddenly realizes he’s been insulted and tries to prove he’s still got it by striking a comic boxing pose, but though he jabs out with his right paw, his left paw socks him in the jaw. The three taunters are hysterical with laughter. Getting angry, Leo tries to roar, but when he opens his jaws we see only a few teeth, none of them sharp, and his roar gets choked off in a cough. The other animals feign fright by pretending to pick up their skirts and back away. As they continue to laugh, Leo stalks off to prove he can catch a rabbit.

Being a lion aficionado, I feel sorry for Leo but I know which rabbit he’s going to encounter. The familiar laugh of Tex Avery as the hippo has been heard in other cartoons, but this one is significant because it’s the last one before he left Warner Brothers for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Leo’s misguided hunting technique sees him walking upright holding a carrot by the bottom tip, calling out, “Here, bunny, here rabbit!” as if he were calling a dog. He breaks the fourth wall to inform the audience, “Carrots are good for rabbits.” In a clearing, he comes upon a railroad crossing sign bearing the words “Stop, Look, Rabbit Tracks.” There’s a sound of a train approaching and Bugs Bunny zooms by smoking a cigar (for the smoke effect). We hear brakes applied, he backs up, snatches the carrot, and zooms off.


Our slow-witted feline suddenly reacts with recognition that he just saw the rabbit. He zips after Bugs but has to screech to a halt as he approaches the hollow log seen in many Warner Brothers’ cartoons. Instead of going off a cliff though, he skids into it backwards and shoots out the other end with his head in his front paws, mane covering them. When he lifts up his head, he’s cradling Bug Bunny. At this point, any lion worth his stuff would have started chowing down. Not Leo. He talks with Bugs. Bugs pulls out a carrot from a cigarette holder as Leo pushes invisible buttons in his paw to extend his claws (one of which turns out to be a cork screw, for which he’s embarrassed). Leo swipes at Bugs with his claws and only connects with the carrot Bugs holds out, slicing it neatly. “That’s a nice trick, Doc. Can you do this?” Bugs wiggles his ears. Leo struggles to do so but can’t. He gets frustrated and angrily announces to Bugs that he’s a lion.

Bugs starts a string of logic that if Leo is a lion (to wit), then he’s to be scared (unto wit), and suddenly, he realizes that he is scared and goes into a screaming fit. This time Bugs breaks the fourth wall by speaking the words “Shriek, shriek, scream, scream” to the audience and makes an elaborate, terrified exit.

In the next scene, Bugs, wearing a lady’s gardening bonnet is picking carrots, snipping off the greens and singing “When The Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” For the first time, Leo acts like a lion and stalks Bugs crawling close to the ground (but in obvious, full view). When Bugs notices him, he stops, nonchalantly whistling. The scene continues and Leo creeps closer. When Bugs sees him again he pretends to be swimming the backstroke to the “Blue Danube.” But when Leo pounces, Bugs escapes, losing his bonnet to the lion’s head.

Bugs heads for his rabbit hole and sets up a door (which we’ve seen him do in other cartoons). Leo (of course) knocks. “Who is it?” “It’s me. The Lion.” Bugs opens the door and starts giggling, then laughing at the lion, now wearing the bonnet. He holds up a mirror and the lion starts laughing uncontrollably. Bugs takes the opportunity to re-position the door and slams it shut. “Hey, let me outta here!” says Leo banging on the door. Bugs reaches around the door to show him the key, but snatches it back before Leo can grab it.

The door-to-nowhere is so Bob Clampett. One is reminded of Porky Pig’s adventure with the Dodo. Rather than just going around the door, Leo takes several steps back and gets a running start to (hopefully) push open the door, but Bugs opens it as he gets there and he flies through off-scene and we hear a crashing sound. Chuckling, Bugs walks through the door to encounter a snarling, bandaged lion. He tries to escape but Leo’s too angry now and pins him to the ground.


As Leo raises a claw to strike however, a telephone rings in Bug’s rabbit hole. “It’s for you.” He hands it to Leo. His anger drains away and is replaced by fear as he speaks to his wife Hortense and beats an embarrassed retreat. “Sorry I can’t stick around and kill ya.”

Bugs discusses the fact with the audience that the King of the Jungle isn’t even master of his own home. But as soon as he states that he wears the pants in his family (strictly a euphemism, Bugs rarely wears pants at all) we suddenly see a female rabbit and a sign appears identifying her as Mrs. Bugs Bunny. “What’s up, Doc, Dear?” she says and he slinks into his burrow. This is the only time we see her in any cartoon. She has the last line, “who wears the pants in this family?” She raises her skirt and a pair of pants covers her legs. The End.

This cartoon, in the middle stages of Bugs’ development, is also one of the few times he shows fear. Yes, he realizes danger later on but he never slinks away from anyone, actually cowering. We know him as the one who is harassed until we hear the line, "Of course you realize this means war!" And…he’s still being drawn similarly to the way he originated, the oval head with few defining features and the short stature.

The ice-water hoarse tone of Leo’s voice reveals Tedd Pierce’s characteristic sound. He put that voice on for the cartoon of course. Ted actually sang second tenor in a barbershop quartet and provided coming-attractions voice-overs for Universal Pictures. Having been a barbershop singer myself, I know they love to have an “afterglow party” after each performance and Pierce indulged avidly in parties. At these parties, Chuck Jones would hear of Pierce’s love exploits (true or not) and used them as a model for the lovelorn skunk, Pepe LePew.

Leo is, as I said, not the prime example of a lion, but he’s fun in a backward sort of way and respectable when his dander is up. That’s one thing I read in the horoscope of a Leo. Don’t get them angry. In a discussion, they’ll insist that they’re the only ones who are right. I try to control that and think of all points of view. Even though the main character is silly, Hold The Lion, Please is a special part of my lion collection.

A note for the younger readers. Before cellphones, there were phones with rotary dials most texters would not even recognize. But before that, there were phones that only required picking up the receiver and an operator would connect you to your party. What’s an operator? Ever seen Lily Tomlin do her routine as Ernestine? If not look it up on YouTube. Operators were famous for the line, “Hold the line, please” when they were connecting you. Hence the punny title of this cartoon. You might know it simply as a computer saying, “Please hold.”


Bully for Bugs

By Ed Garea

Bully for Bugs (WB, 1953) – Director: Chuck Jones. Writer: Michael Maltese (story). Animation: Ken Harris, Lloyd Vaughan, Ben Washam. Background: Philip DeGuard. Layout: Maurice Noble. Sound: Treg Brown. Music: Carl Stalling, Milt Franklyn (uncredited). Voices: Mel Blanc. Color, 7 minutes.


If there was anything that could be considered as the quintessential Bugs Bunny cartoon, this might be it, a knock-down, drag-out battle between Bugs and an angry bull loaded with marvelous sight gags.

According to Chuck Jones in his memoir, Chuck Amuck, the idea for the cartoon came one afternoon when Jones and Michael Maltese were in their workroom wrestling with a new story idea:

Suddenly, a furious dwarf stood in the doorway. ‘I don’t want any gags about bullfights, bullfights aren’t funny.’ Exactly the same words he had used to Friz Freleng about never using camels. Out of that dictum came Sahara Hare, one of the funniest cartoons ever made, with one of the funniest camels ever made.

After Eddie Selzer, Warner's animation producer and the “furious dwarf” mentioned above, returned to his office, Jones and Maltese had solved their storyline dilemma. Selzer was famous among the staff for his lack of judgment about cartoon subjects. He had once told Jones that a skunk that speaks French wasn’t funny. Result: For Scent-imental Reasons, which won an Oscar for Best Short Subject in 1950. Selzer, as Jones recalls, had no trouble going up to accept the award. 

Bully For Bugs opens at a bullring somewhere south of the border. An impeccably dressed and self-assured matador is standing in the middle of the arena. We hear a bellow and a bull crashes through the doors marked “Toros.” He sizes up the matador and smiles knowingly. The matador grows nervous and we see sweat beading up on his forehead. He throws his cape up in the air as the bull charges through it and begins to chase him around the arena.

Suddenly we see that someone is tunneling into the arena. It’s Bugs, who immediately grasps that he’s in the wrong place. “Hey, this don’t look like the Coachella Valley to me,” he says as he gets out a map and issues that frequent line: “I knew I should’ve made that left toin at Albuquerque.” He sees the matador run by. “Hey, I know. I’ll just ask this gent in the fancy knickerbockers.” He catches up to the fleeing matador and asks if he can direct him to the Coachella Valley and “the Big Carrot Festival therein.” But the matador is too busy fleeing for his life and climbs over the wall. Toro stops right behind Bugs and is snorting heavily. Bugs turns around and smacks him on the nose. “Stop steaming up my tail!” Toro retreats and chalks his horns like a pool cue. He then charges and rams Bugs out of the arena into town. As Bugs sails through the air he tells us, “Of course you realize this means war!”


Toro celebrates his triumph by moving a bead over a line like in a pool hall and bowing to the cheering fans, who are throwing roses at him. We quickly cut to two doors marked Cuadrillas. The doors open to reveal Bugs in a matador’s outfit holding a cape. Toro charges. Bugs stands still. Just before Toro reaches him Bugs holds out the cape, pulls it away and Toro runs head-on into an anvil atop a concrete block. Dazed (his eyes turn from red to light blue), he follows Bugs, who is waving his cape at him and they prance to the underscore of “La Cucaracha.” Toro regains his senses and makes a full charge at Bugs, who once again lifts the cape as Toro runs into the bull shield, piercing it with his horns. Bugs quickly nails them down with a hammer, as one would do with a nail. He thinks he has Toro where he wants him and remarks, “What a gulli-bull! What a nim-cow-poop!” But he is unaware that Toro has detached his horns (this is a cartoon) and bops Bugs in the head with his hoof, knocking the rabbit cold.

While Toro sharpens his horns on a manually powered grinding wheel Bugs interrupts to place a large rubber band over the horns. He then pulls back the band and places a boulder on the end like a slingshot. As he lets it go we see everything from the bull’s perspective. Now it’s Bugs’ turn to bow to the cheers, but as he does so he has his back to Toro and the bull rams him in the behind as he takes his bow, driving him through the wall. Bugs merely peers out at us with his hand on his face, much like Jack Benny, and gives us an embarrassed look.

The next scene finds Bugs wearing a sombrero, dancing up to the bull in tempo to the accompaniment of “Las Chiapanecas,” slapping Toro twice in the face each time he comes up to him. Toro follows, but gets the same treatment. As Bugs goes into a wild dance Toro charges and Bugs disappears into his hole. His arm reaches out to pinch the bull twice on the nose.

A very angry bull is once again sharpening his horns on the wheel as Bugs waits with a shotgun behind his cape. He turns to the camera and says, “Booby trap,” as Toro charges through the cape, swallowing the shotgun, which transforms the shape of his tail. When he strikes his tail against the ground, one of his horns fired a round. The Bull quickly grasps what’s going on, and smiling at the rabbit, begins to chase him, firing bullets from each horn. Suddenly we hear a ‘click, click’ as Toro runs out of bullets. He quickly gets a box of elephant gun bullets and proceeds to swallow the entire box. When he hits his tail against the ground to test fire, however, he explodes.

All this is noticed by Bugs, who is standing before the entrance gates, remarking, “What an im-bezzile! What an ultra-maroon!” Suddenly Toro charges and Bugs realizes he’s trapped against the doors. He awaits his fate by writing out a will and praying, but as the bull reaches him, Bugs simply opens the gates like a garage door as Toro runs past him through the town and out into the horizon. We hear the sounds of hammer and saw in the ring as we cut back to Toro, who bellows loudly and begins running back to the arena. Just before he arrives, Bugs has laid a slick of axle grease, which the bull hits dead on, sliding him up a ramp. He sails over a platform on which there is a paint brush laden with glue, on past a platform with a sheet of sandpaper, which sticks to the Bull’s underside, then past a platform holding a match. The sandpaper lights the match, which in turn lights a fuse. The bull floats at the same speed as the fuse burns and they arrive simultaneously over a barrel of TNT, which explodes, sending the unconscious bull flying into the wooden bull shield. 


The cartoon ends with the unconscious bull’s hindquarters sticking out, over which Bugs holds up a cape with the words “The End” stitched on it.

Afterwords

Several things about this cartoon stand out. One is that Jones did take some of his producer’s advice seriously and made sure the bull he drew was merely a caricature. In later interviews he remarked that if he drew the bull anatomically correct, it would have the effect of making the audience root for the bull and evoke feelings of pity, considering what happens to him.

When the bull moves, Jones and his animators have him leave behind multiple hooves in the air to simulate quick movement. He would do the same thing with Witch Hazel later on; when she moved quickly, hairpins were left in the air.

The gag with the bull holding the rubber band in his horns as Bugs placed a boulder on the other end and lets it go was first used in Jones’ 1948 boxing cartoon, Rabbit Punch. In that cartoon, the boulder moving forward and connecting is also shown from the victim’s perspective. Over the years, Jones experimented with perspectives. In his 1946 cartoon, Hair Raising Hare, he shows Bugs inside a suit of armor atop a horse galloping quickly to the sound of a freight train at the monster, who is also in a suit of armor, waiting to waylay Bugs. The action is seen from overhead as Bugs’ lance hits the monster head-on, driving him into the wall and bouncing off as a tin can labeled “Canned Monster.” 

The cartoon follows the format of Tex Avery’s Señor Droopy (1949) which sees challenger Droopy taking on the champion matador The Wolf for the affections of actress Lina Romay. Avery’s gags, however, were a lot wilder than those of Jones. 

In turn, the opening segment of Bully For Bugs would be reused by Friz Freleng in his 1963 Speedy Gonzales cartoon, Mexican Cat Dance. Animator Ken Harris also used part of the cartoon in his 1959 Hare-Abian Nights, in which Bugs entertains the Sultan with tales from his cartoons Bully For BugsSahara Hare, and Water, Water Every Hare. And even the Pink Panther got in on the act, as Bully For Bugs was remade twice as Bully For Pink (1963) and Toro Pink (1979).


Jones’ memoir, Chuck Amuck has other anecdotes about producer Eddie Selzer. According to Jones, Selzer’s stupidity knew no bounds. He was always asking to see the script for a cartoon. The simple fact of the matter is that cartoons do not have scripts, but are laid out on storyboards. No matter how many times his directors told Eddie about this, it simply went in one ear and out the other, and he continued to ask for scripts.

Another classic Selzer story as related by Jones was the time he walked in as four or five of the staff were laughing over a storyboard. “Just what the hell has all this laughter got to do with the making of animated cartoons?” he thundered. 

Those interested in the art of animation should obtain a copy of Chuck Amuck. It’s a scintillating peek into the mind of a creative genius, who, along with Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, Robert McKimson, Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Michael Maltese, Tedd Pierce and a group of superbly talented artists gave us some of the finest animation ever produced.


The Big Snooze

By Ed Garea

The Big Snooze (WB, 1946) – Director: Bob Clampett (uncredited). Story: Warren Foster. Animators: Izzy Ellis, Manny Gould, Bill Melendez, & Rod Scribner. Backgrounds: Philip De Guard and Thomas McKimson. Voices: Mel Blanc & Arthur Q. Bryan. Color, 7 minutes.

There’s an old saying to the effect that if you’re going to go out, go out with a bang.

And that’s exactly when Bob Clampett did in 1946, making some of not only his best work that year, but also some of the best cartoons in the history of animation: Book RevueKitty CorneredThe Great Piggy Bank RobberyBacall to Arms, and this, which would be his last cartoon for the studio. A year after Clampett left, the studio took one of his classic Looney Tunes from 1938, Porky in Wackyland, and remade it in color, adding in some footage from Clampett’s 1943 Tin Pan Alley Cats, and renaming it Dough for the Do-Do, with Friz Freleng directing uncredited. Nor was any credit given to Clampett; as far as the studio was concerned he ceased to exist.  


There is some conjecture as to Clampett’s exit from Warner Bros. The generally accepted story is that Clampett quit over matters of artistic freedom and to explore new vistas, but animator/director Arthur Davis, who took over Clampett’s unit after he left, said in an interview that Clampett was fired by the new head of animation, Eddie Selzer, who took over after the studio bought the unit from then-owner, Leon Schlesinger, who worked as a subcontractor. 

Clampett’s style was becoming increasingly divergent from that of established directors Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones. Clampett, like Tex Avery (who left the studio in 1941) and Frank Tashlin (who left in 1945), hewed more closely to a plot line while Jones and Freleng used the plot line for witty dialogue and a series of gags. When Schlesinger ran the studio, Clampett was his favorite, and the executive frequently told his other directors to emulate Clampett’s style.

Eddie Selzer was a producer given an assignment he neither wanted or particularly liked. Chuck Jones in his autobiography, Chuck Amuck, described Selzer as someone who not only had no conception of animation, but also had no sense of humor. That Clampett would have problems with him was a given. When Clampett left, his name was taken off the credits for The Big Snooze (Art Davis finished it) and the projects he had in preparation were given to directors Davis, who took over from Clampett and headed his own unit until 1949, and Robert McKimson, Clampett’s master animator, who was promoted to director the year before and given Tashlin’s unit. 

The Big Snooze, whose title is a take-off on the Warner Bros hit of the same year, The Big Sleep, is actually a cartoon within a cartoon. We begin with Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny. Bugs tricks Elmer into following him into a hollow log, which Bugs spins around so that the exit is over a cliff. This occurs the usual three times (the “Rule of Three”) until Elmer finally scrambles to safety. 



Having reached safety, Elmer becomes enraged. He breaks his gun in two and vents his anger: “I quit! I’m through! I get the worst from that wabbit in every one of these cartoons!” He then looks at the camera. “Of course, there’s the little matter of my contract with Mr. Warner.” Elmer then begins to angrily tear the document to shreds. “Well, this for my contract and that for my contract!” (Was Clampett venting his own anger at management?) Bugs is aghast: “Hey Doc, you’re not being serious, are you? You’re kidding, ain’t you?”

Elmer’s isn’t kidding. He grabs a fishing pole and basket. As he walks away he declares, “From now on nothing but fishing for me. And no more wabbits!”

Bugs begins following Elmer, begging him on his knees to stay. “No, Doc, no. Think what we’ve been to each other. Why we’ve been like Rabbit and Costello, like Damon and Runyon, Stan and Laurel. You can’t do this to me, I tell you. You don’t want to break up the act do ya?” Bugs then looks at us, breaking the fourth wall, and says, “Bette Davis is gonna hate me for this.” Some think this is a reference to the fact that Davis also wanted to get out of her Warner’s contract, but I think Clampett is poking fun at Davis’ overly histrionic style. Bugs continues to follow Elmer, telling him, “Think of your career.” And for that matter,” he says as he turns to the camera, “Think of my career!”

Catching up to Elmer, Bugs sees him peacefully asleep under a tree, dreaming gently of a saw cutting a log on a pink cloud. “I gotta look into this!” Bugs exclaims as he takes out a bottle of sleeping pills, marked on the label Sleeping Pills: Take Dese and Doze, a typical Clampett pun. (In recent years, Turner Networks, which acquired the rights to the Warner cartoons, often deleted this sequence for its supposed celebration of drug use.) 

As Bugs falls asleep, we see him ascending towards Elmer’s dream on a sailboat. As he weighs anchor on Elmer’s dream, Bugs looks around. “I reiterate, what a heavenly dream. You know it would be catastrophe if perchance harm were to befall this serene scene.” At that he brings out a can of “Nightmare Paint” and begins repainting the dream in surrealistic style. Elmer pops up, clad only in tights made from leaves as rabbits begin hopping over his head with Bugs singing “da rabbits are coming, hooray, hooray,” to the tune of “The Campbells Are Coming” four times over. “Biwwions and twiwwions of wabbits,” Elmer says. “Where are they all coming from?”


From me, Doc,” replies Bugs, “from me. See, I’m multiplying.” He’s punching an adding machine and producing the rabbits. Bugs takes out a giant volume titled A Thousand and One Arabian Nightmares. “Let’s see,” he muses, “what can I do to this guy next?” He looks up from the book, “Oh no! It’s too gruesome! But I’ll do it.” He carries a bound Elmer to the railroad, where he ties him to the track. “Good gravy!” exclaims Bugs. “Here it comes, the Super Chief!” As Elmer shouts “Oh agony, agony,” a conga line of baby rabbits led by Bugs in an Indian headdress crosses over Elmer’s head. 

Elmer angrily breaks his bonds and chases Bugs, who jumps into a rabbit hole. As Elmer prepares to follow, Bugs pops out of a nearby hole and moves the hole, causing Elmer to fall on his head. As he melts to the ground, he is briefly naked as the leaves fall onto his body. Elmer stands up, angry. “Brrrrrrrr!” he exclaims. “What’s the matter, Doc, you cold?” Bugs asks as he wraps a green dress around Elmer, places a wig on his head and applies lipstick to Elmer’s mouth. Looking over his handiwork, Bugs lifts the backdrop to reveal a pack of wolves dressed in zoot suits at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. One of the wolves howls, “Hooowooooold … is she?” and they begin chase. “Gwacious!” says Elmer as he runs. He then stops to ask the audience “Have any of you girls ever had an experience like this?” 

Bugs tells the perplexed Elmer, “Quick, run this way!” taking Elmer through a surrealistic version of the Cossack dance, which also includes flipping upside down and hopping like a frog. Bugs and Elmer continue the dance as they run to the edge of the cloud, then jump off. Elmer thanks Bugs for his help, then realizes they’re falling. “What’ll we do, Mr. Wabbit? What’ll we do?” Elmer asks as they continue to fall. “I dont know about you, Doc, but as for me ...” Bugs says as he pulls out a bottle with the label Hare Tonic, Stops Falling Hare. Bugs drinks from the bottle as Elmer continues to fall and comes to a screeching halt. “Gosh, ain’t I a stinker?” Bugs asks the audience. 


Elmer falls into his sleeping self, which awakens him from the nightmare. “Oooh, what a howwible nightmare!” he exclaims, and speeds back to the set, where he reassembles his contract as he gets back into the log. Oh Mr. Warner, I’m back. Okay Mr. Wabbit, woll ‘em.” The cartoon closes with a close up of Bugs exclaiming “I love that man!”

Afterwords

The Big Snooze is probably the best of Bob Clampett’s Bugs Bunny cartoons and shows the influence of his friend and mentor, Tex Avery. The sequence with the log in the beginning of the cartoon is directly lifted from Avery’s 1940 cartoon All This and Rabbit Stew, where Bugs is being hunted by a stereotypical African-American hunter. Clampett simply substitutes Elmer for the hunter, copying the scene even down to Elmer turning into a lollipop labeled “sucker” as he realizes he’s been fooled, as in the original.

The cartoon also shows Clampett’s fascination with surrealism, as exemplified in the dream sequence. Clampett was heavily influenced by Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali. The most obvious example of Dali’s influence comes in Clampett’s 1938 cartoon, Porky in Wackyland, where the entire short takes place in a Dali-esque landscape complete with melting objects and abstract forms. (I think it would be fair to say that Clampett’s work can be considered part of the surrealist movement.) The animation in the dream sequence is simply amazing as Clampett continues to push the boundaries, something he began doing when he started back in the mid-‘30s working in Avery’s unit. 


The highlight of that sequence is the Cossack dance (said to have been animated by Manny Gould), a play on the old “walk this way” gag. A man enters a pharmacy. “I’m looking for talcum powder,” he says to the clerk. The clerk answers, “Walk this way,” to which the man replies, “If I could walk that way I wouldn’t need talcum powder.” As Bugs and Elmer make their way doing the dance, they stop to shout “Hey” into the camera as Clampett uses an extreme close up of their faces to highlight it. 

Clampett was also famous for incorporating catchphrases and tunes from popular culture into his cartoons. For instance, as Bugs sails towards Elmer’s dream he sings “Someone’s Rocking My Dreamboat,” by Leon Rene, Otis Rene, and Emerson Scott.  When Bugs and Elmer do the Cossack dance, the traditional Russian tune, “Vo sadu li, v ogorode” (“In My Garden”) is mixed with the traditional tune, “Chicken Reel.” When Elmer panics after they jump off the cliff, Bugs stands serenely, with one hand out, as if leaning against an invisible wall singing “September in the Rain” by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. The losing line, where Bugs exclaims: “I love that man!” is taken from the popular radio show Fibber McGee and Molly and was one of the trademark catchphrases of Beulah, their maid. 

The wolves in the zoot suits seem to be copied from Avery’s 1943 MGM cartoon Red Hot Riding Hood (the inspiration for Jessica Rabbit, by the way). As the wolves chase Bugs and Elmer they go right through a fence as if the fence wasn’t there, or if they melted through, another instance of surrealism. 

In the ‘40s, Clampett’s cartoon style became wilder and more violent, with his trademark animation of a character stretching out to double his body length whenever frightened, excited, or hurt. After he left, his style was kept to an extent by his master animator Robert McKimson, but after a few years McKimson toned down his style to the often mediocre style we are familiar with today. 


To fully appreciate Clampett’s style, compare The Big Snooze to other cartoon releases that year by Jones and Freleng. Shorts like Jones’ Hare-Raising Hare and Freleng’s Baseball Bugs display the evolution of Jones’ and Freleng’s style as the humor is somewhat milder, the background designs are much more sophisticated (especially Jones). Facial expression (more muted than Clampett), gags and dialogue dominate and are pushed almost non-stop through the shorts while Clampett seems trapped in a time warp of sorts. (Jones in particular became famous for introducing the concept of subtlety into his cartoons.) The Big Snooze and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery play out almost like mini-movies, with characterization first and the gags unique to and used to emphasize the characters. They’re full-frame, with plenty of flexible animation.

But for all his genius Clampett was despised by many of his colleagues. Chuck Jones doesn’t mention him once in his autobiography, and he ignores the contributions of Clampett to the character of Bugs Bunny, as he has Bugs review his “several fathers” in The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979). The only “father” missing is Clampett, proving the survivors write history. 

Those who despised Clampett saw him as someone who tried to claim the contributions of the other Termite Terrace animators for himself. In a 1946 interview, Clampett claimed he conceived the character of Bugs Bunny after watching Clark Gable munch on a carrot in It Happened One Night. (Daffy Duck was created by Tex Avery, but it was Clampett who first animated him. Daffy would go on to become the quintessential Clampett character.) However, there is no doubt that Clampett, along with Avery, provided the influence that would prompt the Warners directors to shed the Disney influence and take the direction for which they are famous today. 


After leaving Warner Bros., Clampett briefly worked for Columbia and Republic Pictures before turning to television, where he won acclaim and Emmy awards for the puppet show Time for Beany, which later morphed into the animated Beany and Cecil Show in the ‘60s. He leaves behind a body of work second to none.


SpongeBob SquarePants

By Steve Herte

SpongeBob SquarePants (Nickelodeon Network, 1999-present) – Creators: Stephen Hillenburg, Derek Drymon, Tim Hill, & Nick Jennings. Voices: Tom Kenny, Rodger Bumpass, Bill Fagerbakke, Clancy Brown, Dee Bradley Baker, Mr. Lawrence, Carolyn Lawrence, Sirena Irwin, Lori Alan, Mary Jo Catlett, Ernest Borgnine, Tim Conway, Paul Tibbitt, Bob Joles, Guy Siner, John Rhys-Davies, & Jill Talley. Color, Rated TV-Y7.


Most animation fans know the answer to “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?” when Patrick Pinney starts the theme song, and shout “SpongeBob Squarepants!” at the appropriate time. Created by Stephen Hillenberg and released on May 1, 1999, the yellow, porous, and absorbent character with the annoying laugh is now 17 years old and his nautical nonsense continues to the delight of fans everywhere.

My admiration for the art of animation goes back to my childhood. I grew up with Warner Brothers’ cartoons and preferred them to the Disney characters who, by comparison to Bugs Bunny and his crew, were more for children and less sophisticated. And like other WB fans, a great part of my appreciation for classical music comes from background music to their cartoons. This love affair took me to the early 1990s, when the supply of new episodes petered out. Fortunately, in 1993, Animaniacs took center stage and renewed my love of the clever, hilarious WB wit and the flawless animation. That lasted until 1998, when again I had to search for a comparable quality cartoon. Then, seemingly in the “nick” of time, along came SpongeBob.

Why SpongeBob (voiced by Kenny)? He’s only an innocent, childish character who loves his job flipping Krabby Patties at a fast food joint called the Krusty Krab. His best friend Patrick Starfish (Fagerbakke) is one step up from a total ignoramus and he continually drives his clarinet-playing, would-be-sophisticated next-door neighbor Squidward Tentacles (Bumpass) completely crazy. And that laugh of his!

There’s something beyond the basic premise of SpongeBob. Those who’ve seen the Warner Brothers' 1992 cartoon Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers, directed by Greg Ford and Terry Lennon, know what I mean. In that cartoon, anyone who eats a radioactive carrot becomes a “badly drawn” automaton. Bugs Bunny notices all of his friends going from three-dimensional to two, and it’s more like a scribble than a clearly defined figure. When put side-by-side with many other cartoons created since 1999, SpongeBob is definitely not flat and not “badly drawn.” That was the first thing that drew me to the series.


With a combined staff of about 40 writers, the dialogue is funny, sometimes hilarious, and many times as clever as a Bugs Bunny aside. My favorite example is in Season 1, Episode 11b, Squidward, the Unfriendly Ghost, that has Squidward coated in a white substance and SpongeBob and Patrick convinced he’s a ghost. They think they’re responsible and wind up obeying Squidward’s every command. While carrying him around on a litter, they repeatedly ask him where he’d like to be set down. Squidward is fully taking advantage of this situation. “No, too wet!” “No, too dry!” (remember, this all takes place under the sea) Then they walk onto a scene recognizable from a poster of Moulin Rouge, and Squidward negates, “No, Toulouse Lautrec!” Excellent! I can hear children saying, “Why is that funny?” This sort of writing is the link for me between Warner Brothers and Nickelodeon.

What also draws me in is the big element of absurdity – both in the various plots and the cartoon as a whole. SpongeBob’s other best friend is the karate-chopping squirrel Sandy Cheeks (Carolyn Lawrence), who prefers living in her underwater home to living on land. She wears an underwater suit when she leaves her glass home and SpongeBob and Patrick have to don water-filled helmets to visit her. 

SpongeBob’s boss, the pirate-accented, penny-pinching Eugene H. Krabs (Brown), has a daughter Pearl Krabs (Alan) who is quite obviously a sperm whale. His mother Mama Betsy Krabs (Tibbitt), the widow of Victor Krabs is undeniably a crab. You have to wonder what Eugene’s wife was (hopefully a whale, but we don’t even want to think about that). And we mustn’t forget SpongeBob’s pet snail Gary (also Kenny) who meows.

The absurdity continues in the second SpongeBob Movie; A Sponge Out of Water (2015) (read our review here) when a pirate steals the secret formula for Krabby Patties and causes chaos to break out in Bikini Bottom, including gang warfare and houses being set on fire (we’re still under the sea, mind you). In a few episodes of the television show, campfires are lit as well. It’s a part of the unique attraction of the cartoon.


But what about conflict? Besides the usual head-butting between SpongeBob and Squidward, there is Sheldon J. Plankton (voiced by Mr. Lawrence), the owner of the Chum Bucket restaurant just across the way from the Krusty Krab. He never has customers because his food is ... well … chum! With his W.I.F.E. (Wired Integrated Female Electroencephalograph) Karen (Talley), Plankton (also the smallest character in the cartoon) is always plotting to steal Mr. Krabs’ recipe. We also occasionally meet the master villain ManRay (voiced at various times by Bob Joles, Guy Siner, and John Rhys-Davies) and reinforcements have to be called in (sort of). SpongeBob’s superhero favorites Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy (guest stars Adam West and Burt Ward) are now almost senile (Borgnine and Conway, respectively) but still fighting crime. Absurd, no?

Among the cast of wacky characters, we can’t forget Driving Instructress Mrs. Poppy Puffs (Catlett), appropriately a blowfish who inflates with terror whenever SpongeBob is behind the wheel. Oh, and by the way, everyone drives in wheeled boats in Bikini Bottom. There’s the body-builder Larry the Lobster (voiced again by Mr. Lawrence) who, strong as he is, cannot defeat Sandy. In one episode, we see Squidward’s former classmate, the debonair, successful Squilliam Fancyson (Baker) and Squidward is embarrassed to be seen by him as a mere cashier in a fast food restaurant – a fun episode.

Besides the regular characters the voices of other famous people, some because they are fans, are heard in various episodes. The list includes Marion Ross and Amy Poehler as Grandma SquarePants, John Hurley and Jeffrey Tambor (in the movie) as King Neptune, Ray Liotta as Bubble Poppin Leader, Charles Nelson Reilly as the Dirty Bubble, David Bowie as Lord Royal Highness, Johnny Depp as Jack Kahuna Laguna, Henry Winkler as Sharkface, Mark Hamill as the Moth, Ricky Gervais as a narrator, Dennis Quaid as Mr. Krabs’ Grandpa Redbeard, Laraine Newman as Plankton’s Grandma, John Goodman as the Imaginary Santa, Gene Simmons of Kiss as the Sea Monster alongside his wife, Shannon Tweed, Betty White as the aged Beatrice, a fish who owns a store called Grandma’s Apron, and Pat Morita as Karate Master Udon.

Playing themselves in cameos on the SpongeBob series are: Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, LeBron James, Pink, Robin Williams, Gene Shalit, and – strangely and appropriately – Davy Jones of The Monkees.


If this were not enough, like Warner Brothers, the cartoons are still funny after multiple viewings. Whenever I’m away from home and just want to rest and watch TV, if I find SpongeBob, I’m hooked. (pun intended.) The series has been nominated for 16 Emmy Awards, winning two. It’s not a substitute for Warner Brothers and it's had tough competition with The Simpsons, which is 10 years older, but when you want laughs and you don’t want to think about it, SpongeBob is waiting for you in a pineapple under the sea.


Witch Hazel

By Steve Herte

Bewitched Bunny (WB, 1954) – Director: Charles M. Jones. Writer: Michael Maltese (story). Voices: Mel Blanc & Bea Benaderet. Color, 7 minutes.

Broom-Stick Bunny (WB, 1956) – Director: Charles M. Jones. Writer: Tedd Pierce (story). Voices: Mel Blanc & June Foray. Color, 7 minutes.

A Witch’s Tangled Hare (WB, 1959) – Director: Abe Levitow. Writer: Michael Maltese (story). Voices: Mel Blanc & June Foray. Color, 6 minutes.

Halloween. In my early years, it was one night I looked forward to, planned what costume I would wear for and hoped for cool, but not rainy, weather. Getting together with friends and visiting house after house for who-knows-what goodies was great fun. And ... back when it was safe to go out after dark without a parental escort. The worst that would happen is you came home chalky or streaked with lipstick.

Ghosts, goblins, vampires and witches, and things that go bump in the night were always stars in my favorite stories in books and on film. The scarier the movie, the more I liked it. Now, with the advanced stage of computer graphics, horror can be (and is) taken to the give-you-a-heart-attack level, which makes me a little wary of spooky films today.

But Warner Brothers cartoons took those same creatures of the night and made them funny and memorable characters. Remember Gossamer, the red-haired monster in Hair Raising Hare (1946)? How about the Mr. Hyde creature that terrorized Bugs in Hyde and Hare (1955)? One of my all-time favorites was Witch Hazel, who appeared in three cartoons: Bewitched Bunny (1954), Broom-Stick Bunny (1956) and A Witch’s Tangled Hare (1959). Bea Benaderet provided Hazel’s voice in the first and June Foray brought the character to her place in my heart in the other two cartoons.

In the late ‘40s into the early ‘50s, the animators for Warner were looking for a new enemy for their most popular character, Bugs Bunny. Until that moment, Elmer Fudd had been the most popular of Bugs’ foes, but they realized there were just so many takes on stories revolving around the two. Friz Freleng’s unit came up with Yosemite Sam (said to have been modeled on Friz himself), who became very popular with audiences. Robert McKimson’s unit developed one of the studio’s most popular characters in the Tasmanian Devil.


Chuck Jones’ unit, for its part, experimented with several characters, each of which faced Bugs in a few cartoons, but none of which became a long-term answer. The most popular of those characters were Marvin the Martian and Witch Hazel. Witch Hazel appeared in three cartoons with Bugs, beginning in 1954 with Bewitched Bunny. The ‘toon proved so popular with audiences that she was brought back in 1956 by Jones. The final Witch Hazel cartoon from Jones’ unit was made in 1959 with veteran animator Abe Levitow taking up the director’s chores. It’s unclear whether Jones was ill during the shooting or simply wasn’t interested, or perhaps it was intended on Jones’ part to give Levitow directorial experience.

The character’s name, Witch Hazel, is a takeoff on the name of a North American shrub and the astringent made from it. Other studios have also had a character with the same name. In 1952, Witch Hazel appeared in Disney’s Donald Duck cartoon, Trick or Treat, where she helped Huey, Dewey and Louis get candy from Uncle Donald. Ironically, Foray provided her voice. Her appearance is very different from the Warner Bros. cartoons: short with a warty chin, large red nose, green eyes, traditional witch’s outfit, long blonde (sometimes grey) hair, and as tall, black hat. She is also far more benevolent that the Warner version. After the cartoon appeared, she was relegated to Disney comic books.

The character also appeared for Famous Studios (Paramount) and MGM, though not as a starring or co-starring character. Independent Rembrandt Studios had a character called “Hazel Witch.”

But no one used her like Jones did. He admitted in an interview that he got the idea for the character from Disney’s cartoon, but he thought he could improve on it by making her a villain and teaming her with Bugs. Despite the common name, Jones' conception of Witch Hazel differs greatly from the witch appearing in the Disney cartoon. Jones’ witch is much more stylized, with a rotund, green-skinned body wrapped in plain, blue dress and supported by twig-like legs. She also has wild black hair, out of which hairpins fly, spinning in midair whenever she zooms off on her broom or cackles in glee over her next evil scheme. Her crumpled hat looks as though it had been through one too many campaigns. Her nose and chin jut out from her face, as she sports only a single tooth. And she's far more villainous than Disney's witch, who was benign.


In Bewitched Bunny, the first of the series, Hazel is the witch in the classic tale Hansel and Gretel. She has lured a boy and a girl into her house to eat them, looking up recipes like "Waif Waffles" or "Moppet Muffins." Bugs Bunny is reading the classic fairy tale, and happens by just as she’s luring the two greedy children into her cottage singing, “Let’s go eat the goodies.” Bugs gives the audience a Superman-like, “This looks like a job for…” and dons a disguise as a truant officer. He finds the two porcine urchins already in a covered pot wolfing down ice cream. Learning their names Bugs puts two and two together and advises them to run for their lives. But before they do they stop in front of Hazel saying in a thick German accent, “Ach, your mother rides a vacuum cleaner.” (I told you they were urchins, right?)

Unfazed by this sudden change of events, Hazel realizes Bugs is a rabbit. She quickly switches her menu to rabbit stew and the chase begins. Hazel makes sure the audience knows she’s a lady of quality by riding her broom sidesaddle. Tiring of the chase, she fills a carrot with poisoned brew and dangles it in front of Bugs, who can’t resist and chows down. He passes out after a hilarious gagging scene and into the pot he goes.

While Hazel goes to her root cellar, a character resembling Prince Charming makes a dramatic entrance and kisses Bugs’ hand, bringing him out of the spell. Bugs wakes up and says: “You’re looking for Snow White, this is the story of Hansel and Gretel.” The Prince leaves, confused over how Bugs pronounced the name “Hansel.” The chase is on again. Our Hero attempts an escape down a hallway, but Hazel has him trapped. He passes an emergency box on the wall and notices a vase of her magic powder on a shelf bearing the sign “In Case of Emergency.” He breaks the glass, and throws the vase at Hazel, instantly transforming her into beautiful female rabbit with a soft and sexy feminine voice, albeit with Hazel‘s laugh. She’s more enticing than a carrot to Bugs. As they walk off he remarks to the audience, "Ah sure, I know. But aren't they all witches inside?"

Yikes! You can’t say that today. The cartoon caused controversy in Canada over the last line, the complainers averring that the lines made Bugs into a misogynist. It was also edited out of commercial showings in the United States and replaced with the line: "Sure uh, I know. But after all, who wants to be alone on Halloween?" However, the original version has been aired in Canada as recently as this year on the Canadian cable channel Teletoon Retro.

As drawn by Jones and company, Witch Hazel is quite jovial in her villainy, with a strong sense of humor. During the cartoon, she frequently says things that cause her to break into hysterical, cackling laughter. She can also laugh at herself when she blunders. During one sequence when she mounts her broom, it goes backwards and she crashes into a wall. She looks at the audience and says with a smile, "Oh, we women drivers... I had the silly thing in reverse!" Jones wanted Foray to voice Witch Hazel, as he loved her voice of the Disney Witch Hazel, but she was contracted to Disney at the time, which led him to cast Warner contract player Benaderet.

Broom-Stick Bunny opens on Halloween night. Witch Hazel is preparing a batch of witch’s brew while singing her own words to the old standard, “A Cup of Coffee, A Sandwich and You.” In her case, they come out as, “A cup of arsenic, a spider, some glue.” She pauses at her magic mirror, asking it who's the ugliest one of all. The genie in the mirror (something of a takeoff on Rex Ingram, who famously portrayed the genie in 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad) replies that she, Witch Hazel, is the ugliest one of all.  Hazel turns to the audience and explains that she “deathly afraid” of growing prettier as she gets older, a statement she concludes with a laugh. 


She returns to mixing the potion in her bubbling cauldron, but finds herself missing one ingredient, when the doorbell rings. It’s Bugs Bunny dressed as a witch for Halloween, his face hidden by an ugly green mask. She howls, “DARLING!” and drags Bugs to the table for some tea, hoping to “worm all of your ugly secrets” out of him. “Funny,” she notes, “I don’t remember seeing her at any of the union meetings.” Realizing how ugly the creature is, in a pique of vanity she consults her magic mirror, which confirms, “that creep is uglier far than thou!” Whoops! Can’t allow that. After she leaves, Bugs turns to the audience. “She isn't pretty now, but she was someone's baby once,” he says.

Witch Hazel makes a tea brewed with an assortment of beauty enhancers to make this new witch a pretty one, and grows impatient when she won’t drink it. When Bugs takes off the mask, revealing that he’s really a rabbit, Hazel flashes out of the room to her recipe book, where it reads, “a rabbit’s clavicle.” It’s the last ingredient she needs for her brew.

Innate fear is rising in Bugs as he starts to leave, when Hazel zips back in with a cleaver behind her back. And the chase is on. Hazel chooses the wrong broom from the broom closet and chuckles at her mistake in trying to ride her “sweeping broom.” (“Crazy me, that was my sweeping broom!”) “Dat old babe means to do me serious hurt!” Bugs gasps, as a carrot on a fishing line appears behind him. Hazel reels him in and ties him up head to toe.

Back at her cauldron, Hazel prepares to kill Bugs and use him in her brew. But as she’s about to bring the cleaver down on his head, Bugs gives her his patented big tear-filled eyes routine in an attempt to win her sympathy. Bugs’ routine catches Hazel off guard and she breaks down in a torrent of tears, claiming he reminds her of Paul, her pet tarantula. Bugs, still hog-tied, tries to calm her down. He brings her the cup of “tea” clenched in his teeth, walking on tip-toe. She guzzles it down and becomes beautiful, instantly changing into a slender and curvaceous redheaded beauty wrapped in a tight teal-colored dress that exposes her finely shaped legs and the top of her cleavage as music director Milt Franklyn strikes up “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” in the background. (Her new look was based on Foray, even copying her hairstyle.) Shocked, she runs to her mirror and asks in a new softer, sexier tone of voice whether she’s still “the ugliest of them all.” The genie immediately becomes enamored of her, making Bob Hope type lecherous guttural noises and trying to grab her. Hazel then flees on her broomstick, with the genie on a flying carpet closely in pursuit.  

Bugs, still at Hazel’s house, looks at the two flying in the sky, silhouetted by the moon and makes a call to the local air raid headquarters, telling them, “You’re not going to believe me, but I just saw a genie with light brown hair chasing a flying sorceress.”

Critics and historians alike have cited Broom-Stick Bunny as the funniest of Jones’ Witch Hazel cartoons, praising the film's witty dialogue, written by Tedd Pierce. The cartoon contains hysterical lines, such as such as Hazel's asking the costumed Bugs, "Tell me, who undoes your hair?" He replies, "Do you like it?" and her response is a gleeful "Like it? Why, it's absolutely hideous!” Later, when she leaves the room to prepare the beauty tea, she tells him, "Make yourself homely!"


Philip DeGuard’s backgrounds and Ernie Nordli’s (who came over to Jones’s unit from Disney) layouts remind me of those pioneered by UPA Studios in the early ‘50s. The minimalist, expressionistic backgrounds help the audience not only focus on the characters but add a bit of other worldly-ness to the proceedings.

The feather-in-the-cap for Jones for this cartoon was in wooing Foray away from Disney and signing her to Warner Brothers. When first informed of the carton, Foray expressed reservations about Jones “stealing” a character from Disney, but, as Jones well knew, the fact that “witch hazel” was long ago established as the name of an astringent rub prevented Disney from establishing any ownership. And when Foray first saw the depiction of Witch Hazel and read the script, she knew this character was as far removed from Disney’s character as an apple from as orange.

In a 1989 interview with writer/historian Michael Mallory for Animation Magazine (www.animationmagazine.net), Foray speaks of her experience:

My agent called me and said, ‘You’ve never worked at Warner Bros. before.’ And I was just getting my feet wet (in animation), I really didn’t know too much about Bugs Bunny, or all that had gone on before. So in 1954, Chuck called my agent and said, ‘I’d like to hire June Foray,’ and I did Witch Hazel over there, you know, with the hairpins flying, and who had a pet tarantula named Paul. He named her ‘Witch Hazel’ too, and Disney of course was unable to sue because Witch Hazel had been copyrighted by some alcohol company. They couldn’t do anything about it. Chuck Jones fell in love with Witch Hazel.”

A Witch’s Tangled Hare is the last made by Jones’ unit. As the cartoon opens, we see a character that looks like William Shakespeare on the scene with pen and scroll at the ready, pausing at the castle Macbeth (clearly labeled on the mailbox in front of the castle). We then see Hazel quoting, “Double, double, toil and trouble...” and the Shakespeare character scribbles frantically. Hazel lifts a platter dome to reveal a sleeping Bugs Bunny. She awakens him and he flatters her by calling her Zsa Zsa. He sees the boiling kettle and, thinking it’s a bath, gets in.

Immediately, Bugs reprises similar scenes from Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt (Freling, 1941) and Wackiki Wabbit (Jones, 1943) where he’s in the same situation and comments on how good it smells (in this case until he looks at cook book and realizes he’s the main ingredient). Hazel chases him once again with a cleaver (her kitchen tool of choice), then goes to mount her broom, but her bloomers show. She covers up and comments to the audience about her modesty being one of her girlish qualities.


When Hazel catches up to Bugs, she cackles and Bugs imitates her laugh. She laughs again and he goes through a ridiculous, exaggerated laugh with crazy bodily contortions and retorts, “Top that, Lollobrigida!” This cartoon has everything. Bugs even hands Hazel an anvil from one of the turrets to foil her broom riding. The highlight, though, is a parody of Romeo and Juliet. Hazel stands on a balcony and shouts, “Romeo,  Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” (with the Shakespeare character scribbling furiously) “I art down here.” “Why don’t thou come up here?” “I art shy. Why don’t YOU come down here? I’ll catch you.” (You just know Bugs doesn’t mean that.) Hazel lands on the ground with a thunderous crash. (Continuity mistake: When Witch Hazel is chasing Bugs Bunny up the castle tower, Bugs throws a stone through the window before Hazel appears from behind the curtains. When we see Bugs dressed up as Romeo, the glass panes disappear. When we see Hazel dressed up as Juliet, they are back.)

The final chase leads Bugs to the Shakespeare character. He is sitting and moaning that he'll never be a writer. When Bugs praises him as being William Shakespeare, he denies it. “I’m Sam Crubish!” Hazel recognizes him from her past. “Yes, I waited outside apartment 2-B for you.” “But I didn’t say 2-B,” Hazel protests. As Sam and Hazel walk off together, Bugs picks up the perfect last line, “2-B or not 2-B, that is the question!”

As mentioned above, Jones turned over the director’s reins to Levitow, who does an excellent job with the story by Michael Maltese. Mel Blanc voices Bugs, while Foray once again provides the voice of Witch Hazel. The carton is very funny, with several references to plays by William Shakespeare: HamletMacbethRomeo and Juliet, and As You Like It.

Other Appearances

In Chuck Jones’ 1963 Merrie Melodies short Transylvania 6-5000, Witch Hazel makes a very brief cameo appearance as Bugs transforms the cartoon’s vampire villain, Count Bloodcount, into Witch Hazel by chanting a magic spell.

When Warner Bros. shut down its animation studio in 1963, production of Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes shorts was contracted out to Freling’s DePatie-Freling Enterprises, who produced animated shorts from 1964 to 1967, when Warner Bros. again resumed production, finally closing for good in 1969. Director Robert McKimson made her one of the stars of his 1966 cartoon A-Haunting We Will Go, with Daffy Duck and Speedy Gonzales, which borrows several elements from previous Warner cartoons.

It’s Halloween, and this time around Daffy Duck's nephew (essentially a pint-sized version of Daffy) goes trick-and-treating as a witch, in the same outfit that Bugs Bunny wore in Broom-Stick Bunny. He visits Witch Hazel's house, and after seeing her hideous face (her skin is more a yellowish than green), he runs home screaming. At home, Daffy's nephew tries to tell his uncle that he saw a witch, but Daffy is unimpressed, explaining that Daffy "there is no such thing as a witch, and that she's just a poor old lady trying to get along." He tells him that he will prove it by meeting Witch Hazel himself.



We cut to Witch Hazel's home, where she’s complaining that "all she does is work in front of a hot stove making potions." She concludes she needs a vacation, but, before going, she must find someone to take her place. At this point, Speedy Gonzales knocks on her door asking for a cup of cheese. Hazel complains, but soon gets an idea, grabbing a special piece of cheese and feeding it to Speedy. This causes Speedy to turn into an identical copy of Witch Hazel. The real Witch Hazel asks Speedy if he can act like her. Speedy (who takes this all quite calmly) says okay and runs around the house yelling his usual "Ándale, ándale, arriba, arriba, arriba, epa, epa." Witch Hazel notes that he still acts like himself, but it will have to do. She takes off to Hawaii, leaving Speedy in charge of the shop.

Soon Daffy comes over and Speedy welcomes him in, offering him a cup of tea. As Speedy goes off to make the tea, Daffy begins to get a little frightened. He tries to reassure himself by stating "She can be somebody's mother, or father, or something." Witch Speedy gives Daffy the tea, which turns him into the flower creature from Duck Amuck.

Hazel, returning from Hawaii, sees what Speedy has done and turns him back into a mouse. Spotting Daffy, she gets in the mood for a duck dinner and returns Daffy to his old self. Daffy immediately runs away, but Hazel catches him on a broom. Daffy jumps off her broom and parachutes down, but Hazel turns the parachute turns into an anvil. Witch Hazel laughs so hard at what she’s done she fails to see where she’s going and runs into a rock.

Down on the ground, another witch scares Daffy, but this turns out to be his nephew in his witch disguise. His nephew asks him if he saw the witch, but Daffy just tells him, "She's just some creepy old lady trying to scare people, and that witchcraft is just a myth, an old superstition." On the way home, Daffy turns back into the flower creature, unbeknownst to his nephew.

Witch Hazel has also appeared in cameos in various Warner Bros. productions, such as the 1966 movie, Space Jam, and the video games Bugs Bunny: Lost in Time (in which she appears as a boss and also appears on the cover of the game) and Looney Tunes Collector: Alert! (2000). She has also appeared in one episode each of Animaniacs (in a Rita and Runt episode), The Sylvester and Tweety MysteriesPinky and the BrainTiny Toon Adventures, and Duck Dodgers (which not only alludes to Broom-Stick Bunny, but also brings back Foray to do her voice).

In 2011, she evolved into Witch Lezah (Hazel spelled backwards) in The Looney Tunes Show, and was voiced by Roz Ryan, but she was never quite the same wacky character she was before. Sometimes change is not good.


Witch Hazel is one of my favorite Chuck Jones creations. She’s incredibly vain, completely at home with the audience (she breaks through the fourth wall in every cartoon), and consistently funny. I love how her scene exits in Broom-Stick Bunny always end in a flurry of hairpins, a masterful Jones addition. She’s a great foil for Bugs Bunny. Even though she may want to cook and eat him or just needs an essential part of his body for another potion, he’s still able to distract her by playing on her femininity. She’s all witch, but at the same time, she’s all woman, and vulnerable to flattery and sentiment. She can be fierce, or she can be tender. And, similar to Steve Allen, she enjoys her own jokes enormously. “That’s sharp enough to split a hair…Split a hare!” (gales of cackling laughter). But whatever mood she’s in, she’s a great, funny character.

I still like Halloween. I still love costumes, but I don’t go gallivanting in the dark wearing one – too dangerous. I’ll stick with my cartoons, especially those by Chuck Jones.

Where To Find The Witch Hazel Cartoons

Bewitched BunnyLooney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 5 (audio commentary by Eric Goldberg). Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol. 1.

Broom-Stick BunnyLooney Tunes Golden Collection set, Vol. 2 (audio commentary by June Foray). Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol. 1.

A Witch’s Tangled HareLooney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol. 1.

A-Haunting We Will GoLooney Tunes Golden Collection set, Vol. 4. Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol. 1.


Duck Amuck

Demolishing the Fourth Wall

By Steve Herte

Duck Amuck (WB, 1953) – Director: Charles M. Jones. Writer: Michael Maltese (story). Animation: Philip DeGuard (background), Ken Harris (animator), Maurice Noble (layout), Lloyd Vaughan (animator), & Ben Washam (animator). Music: Carl Stalling. Voices: Mel Blanc. Released on February 28, 1953. Color, 7 minutes.

From 1946 to 1958, Warner Brothers made some of the best and most remembered (and quoted, if I may add) cartoons in the history of animation. In the forefront was the dynamic duo of directors, Isadore “Friz” Freleng and Charles M. “Chuck” Jones. Most notably, it was Jones who contributed most to the art of animation. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck have him to thank for the characterizations we know today, and in the process he made some of today’s best-loved and most innovative cartoons.

In 1953, he created Duck Amuck, a cartoon that not only totally demolishes the fourth wall, but also asks “Just who is Daffy Duck?”

The short proved so popular with critics that in 1994 it was voted #2 on a list of the 50 greatest cartoons of all time by members in the animation field, second only to the remarkable 1956 short What’s Opera, Doc? (also by Jones). In 1999, the film was deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.


The cartoon opens in a conventional manner; the titles, in an Old English font, suggest Robin Hood or other swashbuckling characters. The heroic opening music by Carl Stalling reinforces this notion. A medieval setting appears with a castle in the background. Daffy Duck bursts onto the scene brandishing a sword saying, “Stand back, Musketeers! Let them sample my blade!” Daffy continues to charge forward to discover the scenery has disappeared and he’s now on a blank background. Confused, he lowers his sword, and almost embarrassed, he leaves the scene, later sticking his head out and reminding the animator about the empty whiteness: “Hey, whoever’s in charge here, the scenery … Where’s the scenery?”

A farm scene is hastily drawn and Daffy reappears in Musketeer costume, repeating his opening line, until he looks behind him. “OK, have it your way,” he says as he walks offstage. He reappears in overalls and a straw hat, singing, “Daffy Duck, he had a farm…” right onto a snow scene, “and on this farm he had an … igloo?”

He turns to the unseen animator, “Would it be too much to ask if we make up our minds?” Suddenly, on skis he sings “Dashing through the snow” into a Hawaiian jungle set. Quickly changing into a flowered sarong and strumming a ukulele, he switches to “Farewell to thee, farewell to thee.” And the scenery goes blank again.


There is no better way to get Daffy’s goat, as he is by now totally flustered. “Buster, it may come as a complete surprise to you to find that this is an animated cartoon. And that in animated cartoons they have scenery…“ But before Daffy can finish his sentence, a giant pencil comes into the scene and erases him. “All right, where am I?” he growls.

He is quickly drawn as a cowboy with a guitar, but as he tries to play the guitar, there is no sound. He holds up a sign asking for sound and gets every sound but the right one. Even when he tries to remonstrate, all he gets are auto horns, barnyard squawks, and the sound of a kookaburra.

By now he’s red-eyed angry, and throws a tantrum. All we hear is the end of the tantrum “...and I’ve never been so humiliated in all my life!”Embarrassed at what has been done, he looks at the animator, asking him to get organized and repeating his demand for some scenery. The animator answers by pencil-sketching a simple black and white cityscape. “That’s dandy. Ho, ho. That’s rich, I’ll say. Now how about some color, stupid?” But instead it’s Daffy that is painted in bright patterns. “Hey! Not me, you slop artist!”


Once again he’s erased, except for his beak. “Well, where’s the rest of me?” he asks. He’s redrawn as a flipper-footed quadruped with a purple daisy around his head and a yellow flag flying from his upright tail. On the flag are a screw and a baseball, signifying ‘screwball.” “That’s strange, all of sudden I don’t quite feel like myself,” he says. The artist draws a mirror and Daffy sees himself. He screams. “EEEK! You know better than that!”

Another erasure and redrawing shows Daffy as a sailor and he’s pleased; he says he’s always wanted to do a sea epic, until the background drawing sets him over water and he sinks. He swims to a deserted island in the distance. Demanding a close-up, he finds the frame shrinks around him. “This is a close-up? A close-up, you jerk! A close-up!” Then the opposite, the camera zooms in until all we see are his eyes.

As he walks away, he mutters, “Thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin.” (A line Jones and Maltese picked up from Ben Washam. It was one of his favorite sayings.) Daffy walks into a background of neutral green. He tries to reason with his tormentor, suggesting letting bygones be bygones, when the frame suddenly begins sagging in from the top. Daffy futilely tries to prop it up with a stick provided by the animator, but it breaks (“Brother, what a way to run a railroad!”), and the frame keeps sagging until Daffy eventually shreds it in a loud tantrum.

All right! Let’s get this picture started!” Suddenly, the end title card comes into view. “No, No!” Daffy shrieks as he pushes the card out of the frame. Dismissing the artist (he thinks), “You go your way and I’ll go my way,” he apologizes to the audience and tries to entertain them with a tap dance when the scene rolls up and his bottom half is on top and his top half is on bottom. He winds up arguing with himself. “Listen brother, if you wasn’t me, I’d smack you in the puss!” “Don’t let that stop you, Jack!” But as he swings at this twin the animator erases the twin and Daffy’s punch goes wild into empty space, landing him on his butt.

Daffy is now redrawn as a pilot in a plane, “Oh brother, I’m a 'Buzz Boy,'” he exclaims as he flies the plane. But the animator quickly draws a mountain and we hear the crash of the plane, which is gone except for the canopy. Daffy bails out and deploys his parachute, which is erased and replaced with an anvil, and Daffy quickly crashes.

In a daze, he’s next seen hammering the anvil and quoting the “Village Smithy” when the animator replaces the anvil with a blockbuster bomb, which explodes.


Now, burnt, blackened and beyond rage and frustration Daffy demands to see his tormentor. “Enough is enough. Who’s responsible for this … this! I demand you show yourself! Who are you, hmm?” A door is drawn in front of him and a pencil shuts the door. The frame pulls back to reveal that the artist is none other than Bugs Bunny, who looks at us, and snickers, “Ain’t I a stinker?”

We have mentioned that Duck Amuck breaks (an understatement) the fourth wall. Other critics have mentioned that as well. But this act is hardly revolutionary, for cartoons have shattered the fourth wall since the late 1930s. Tex Avery was the first, with I Love to Singa (1936), when the policeman giving the report on the radio about the missing young owlet answers his mother after she asks her husband if the police have found him yet. In Avery’s Thugs with Dirty Mugs (1939), a patron viewing the cartoon in the audience gets up to inform the police about the plans of Killer and his gang.

In Bob Clampett’s Falling Hare (1943), the plummeting sabotaged plane stops seconds before hitting the ground. The gremlin responsible tells us “Sorry, folks, but we ran out of gas.” To which Bugs adds, “Yeah, you know how it is with these 'A' cards,” pointing with his carrot to the card in the plane’s window, a reference to gas rationing. And in Clampett’s The Big Snooze (1946), Elmer Fudd tears up his contract and quits, tired of being made a fool of by Bugs Bunny. After a Bugs-induced nightmare, not only does Elmer (in drag) turn to the audience with “Has this ever happened to any of you girls?” but he returns to the studio and pieces his contract back together, saying, “Oh, Mr. Warner. I’m back.”

But in Duck Amuck there is no fourth wall. The entire cartoon is a confrontation between its star – Daffy Duck – and the unseen animator who is foiling his every move, later revealed to us as Bugs Bunny. The only remnant of the wall left standing is visibility. Daffy cannot see the cause of his frustration and has no idea who it is.

What is revolutionary about the genius of Chuck Jones is actually more evolutionary. He is the catalyst that allows the character of Daffy Duck to ascend the cartoon development scale. When Avery first created Daffy in Porky’s Duck Hunt (1937), the character was totally loony and out of control, serving as a foil for the likes of Porky Pig and Egghead (early Elmer Fudd).

As the years wore on, Daffy began to headline cartoons, but was still a loose cannon and prone to surreal wackiness. After the war, Robert McKimson and Chuck Jones began to work on the character, giving him a sense of savvy to counteract his explosive tendencies. But whereas the character of Bugs Bunny was dominated by reason, Daffy’s emotions controlled him: he was vainglorious, staunch in his assumptions (even when usually proven wrong), mercurial, and quick to erupt. Given the chance to do the right thing, as in Tom, Turk, and Daffy (Jones, 1944), it only lasts until he realizes that in doing the wrong thing, there’s something more in it for him. He agrees to hide Tom Turkey from hunter Porky until Porky mentions all the Thanksgiving goodies Daffy would miss out on if Porky didn’t kill Tom. After a short wrestle with his conscience, Daffy is only too glad to reveal Tom’s location. But things backfire when Tom places his tail feathers on Daffy, gobbles loudly, causing Porky to mistake Daffy for a turkey.

When teamed with Porky in Drip-Along Daffy (Jones, 1951), Duck Dodgers in the 24½ Century (Jones, 1953), and Deduce, You Say (Jones, 1956), Daffy is the arrogant Know-It-All hero-type and Porky is his comic-relief assistant. While Daffy blusters and strides boldly into inextricable traps, Porky quietly saves the day. When up against Bugs Bunny in Rabbit Fire (Jones, 1951), Rabbit Seasoning (Jones, 1952), and Duck! Rabbit, Duck! (Jones, 1953), Daffy is again a slave of his emotions, arguing to have Bugs killed by Elmer. But he’s the one who always gets shot, as Bugs traps Daffy in his own verbiage. In Freleng’s Show-Biz Bugs (1958), Daffy’s ego and his jealousy of his co-star leads him to perform a dangerous trick that finally wins the audience applause. But when Bugs tells him he’s a hit and that they want him to do it again, Daffy replies that he can only do it once as he ascends to Heaven.


Remarkably though, in Duck Amuck Daffy is not the instigator (for once, if ever). He’s the victim. He’s the one trying to bring reason into an unreasonable situation, and try as he might, he never gets through to his tormentor. He even questions what he might have done to deserve such treatment. As he’s being depicted as a screwball, he says to himself, “Goodness knows, it isn’t as if I haven’t lived up to my contract, Goodness knows. And Goodness knows it isn’t as if I haven’t kept myself trim, Goodness knows. I ... I’ve done that.” But he still keeps to whatever script he’s given because he wants to be the good employee (and star of the cartoon, for once). It’s only at the end that Daffy totally loses it and demands to see who it is.

The true magic of Jones shows in the unmistakable personalities of his characters no matter what their appearance, environment, or even their voice. According to Jones, the ending, showing Bugs as the animator, is for comedic purposes only. He’s asking the audience to identify Daffy Duck. Would they still recognize him if the artist changed something about him? What if he didn’t live in the woods, or didn’t live anywhere in particular? What if he had no voice, or no face? In fact, what if he wasn’t even a duck anymore? It doesn’t matter. Whatever happens, even if he’s totally erased, Daffy is Daffy. (“All right, where am I?”) If Bugs is for comedic purposes only, then we ask, is there a real life figure he’s allegorically symbolizing? Who would be so conniving as to deliberately misunderstand everything Daffy requests? The simple answer is Edward Selzer, the unit’s producer.

After Leon Schlesinger sold his studio to Warner Brothers in 1944, the studio assigned Selzer to head the department. In his delightful autobiography, Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist, Jones painted a grim portrait of Selzer, depicting him as beyond difficult, boorish, and totally without an understanding of or talent for animation. His inept managerial style was more like the man beating the drum for the slave rowers on a galley. His obtuse Judge, Jury and Hangman attitude nearly caused Freleng to quit when he poo-pooed the pairing of Sylvester and Tweety. (Tweetie Pie, the first cartoon to co-star the two, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 1947.) Thank goodness that difference of opinion was resolved.

In a way, Selzer’s humorless lack of instinct was a boon for animation directors. Whatever he disapproved of would no doubt turn out to be a hilarious hit. For instance, Selzer thought that camels and bullfighting weren’t funny!” Hence, Freleng’s Sahara Hare (1955) with Yosemite Sam and a dim-witted camel, and Jones’ and Mike Maltese’s Bully for Bugs (1953) – one of the funniest Bugs Bunny cartoons. Selzer proved a dependable source for doing exactly the opposite and the clever directors cashed in on it.


One of his own quotes sums up his genius level for being wrong: One, upon entering a room and seeing his animators standing around a storyboard laughing, he asked aloud, “What in the Hell does all this laughter have to do with the making of animated cartoons?” In Duck Amuck, Selzer is represented by Bugs as the interfering supervisor. The poor beset Daffy is Jones himself. He knows his own worth as an employee makes him immune to change or deletion. Jones once said, “We all want to be Bugs Bunny, but most of us are Daffy Duck.”

Trivia

In 1955, Jones created Rabbit Rampage recasting Bugs Bunny as the harassed victim and Elmer Fudd as the manipulator. It was not nearly as funny. It didn’t work. Bugs is cool, savvy and doesn’t get flustered. Bugs finally gets even, but only does when backed into a corner. Elmer’s last line, “Well, anyway, I finally got even with that scwewy wabbit!” may satisfy him but not the cartoon viewers. It’s about as believable as Daffy decking Nasty Canasta with one punch.


Up - The One That Got Away

By Steve Herte

Up (Disney/Pixar, 2009) – Directors: Pete Docter & Bob Peterson. Writers: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson & Thomas McCarthy (story); Pete Docter & Bob Peterson (s/p). Voices: Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, John Ratzenberger, Jeremy Leary, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo, Jerome Ranft, David Kaye, & Elie Docter. Color, 96 minutes.

Recently I have been talking about “the one that got away” – the animated film that left the theaters before I could see it. Imagine my surprise when that very film appeared on network television.

Up is one of the marvelous productions from Pixar that seriously separate the animated feature from the cartoon. The differences are so obvious that even the biggest cartooniphobe (new word) could recognize them. The characters are three-dimensional and move believably as actual people and animals. There is nothing flat about it. The digital details can be seen in the movement of hairs, feathers and eyelids, and articulation of joints. This all combines to make characters not just credible but identifiable personalities.

The movie starts with an old-time newsreel in a movie theater touting the intrepid explorer and naturalist, Charles Muntz (Plummer). Muntz has just returned from South America with incredible skeletons of huge beasts and an enormous bird thought to be extinct. Upon inspection of the bones, however, scientists pooh-poohed his discovery, and he angrily vowed to take his zeppelin back to retrieve a live specimen. Little Carl Fredericksen (Leary) is in the front seat of the theater cheering his idol on while wearing an aviator’s leather cap and goggles. On his way home he hears a girl’s voice coming from an abandoned Victorian-style house and he sees the weather vane atop the roof turning in a purposeful manner. He enters and is bowled over by Elie (Docter); she is adventure personified and an extroverted tidal wave. She shows him her “Adventure Book,” turns to the page marked “Stuff I’m Going To Do,” and tells him she’s eventually going to Paradise Falls in South America. He has now become hooked and in love.

Fast-forward and we see them get married, buy and fix up the old Victorian house, save their money (from his job as a balloon salesman in the park) in a jar for their adventure, and grow old together. However, each time the money mounts up, something happens to require its use. They never make it to Paradise Falls and Elie passes away before they can. Now Carl (Asner) is elderly and alone; fighting a development company building skyscrapers all around his property. He speaks to the mailbox and the house as if Elie’s spirit inhabits them. He’s grouchy and even sends Russell (Nagai), an aspiring Junior Explorer, on a “snipe hunt” just to stop the kid from bothering him about his merit badge for helping an old person. When he clobbers a construction worker with his cane, thinking the guy was stealing his mailbox, the court sentences him to be placed in a nursing home.

The orderlies that come to pick him up don’t even notice the abundance of helium tanks littering his front lawn. As he distracts them with his suitcase and re-enters the house, the chimney blossoms into thousands of colorful helium balloons and lifts the house into the air. He’s off to South America. What he doesn’t know is that Russell was tracking the “snipe” under the house at the time and is clinging to his front porch. Grudgingly, he lets Russell in.


From there it’s the adventure of a lifetime, navigating a flying house to South America (Carl thinks he’s going to drop off Russell by cutting loose a number of balloons), landing only a few miles from Paradise Falls. Now they have enough to keep the house off the ground but not to fly the last few miles. They start walking, dragging the floating house. On the way they meet Dug (Peterson), a dog with a collar that allows him to talk, and the colorful giant bird, which is the object of Muntz’s search. Russell befriends it with chocolate and names it Kevin – although it turns out to be a female.

The real surprise is when they discover that Muntz is there as well his zeppelin and an army of talking dogs all trained to seek out the bird – now known as Kevin, and who has a brood of his own chicks to care for.

Up is one of those rare animated films that successfully mixes comedy, action and pathos into a blended treat that makes the viewer suspend rational reality and willingly fly into fantasy and fun. Yes, even I was surprised that Muntz was still alive when Carl was an old man (and could still handle a sword), but I too was caught up in the story, and it didn’t matter what was real or not. When Carl opens the Adventure Book for the last time and sees the “Stuff I’m Going To Do” part filled with photos of his life with Elie, I also got teary-eyed. Pixar did their usual excellent job in producing a film enjoyable by both children and adults. I’m glad I was home to see it, finally.


I Love to Singa

By Ed Garea and Steve Herte

I Love to Singa (WB, 1936) – Director: Tex Avery. Animators: Chuck Jones, Virgil Ross, & Bob Clampett. Voices: Billy Bletcher, Tommy Bond, Joe Dougherty, & Martha Wentworth. Color, 8 minutes.

Slowly, but surely, Leon Schlesinger began to recover from his personal debacle of 1933, when Rudolf Ising and Hugh Harman’s dispute over budgets led to the animators leaving Schlesinger for the cozier climes of MGM. What particularly stung was the fact that Harman and Ising took their animated creation, Bosko, with them, as they owned the rights, leaving Schlesinger without a main attraction.

Schlesinger attempted to fill the void with the creation of another cartoon star, Buddy, created by animator Tom Palmer. But Schlesinger hated Buddy from the start; so unhappy was he with the first cartoons he screened, that he sacked Palmer and brought back Friz Freling (who had left with Harman and Ising) to fix the cartoons into something that could be released to Warners.

Buddy was perhaps the most unappreciated cartoon star of all time, starring in only 23 shorts before Schlesinger and his crew dumped him in search of new characters. As with his predecessor Bosko, music dominated the cartoons and plots were treated almost as an afterthought. But over the life of the series the plots began to become more complex and Buddy gained a girlfriend (Cookie) and a dog to tag along on his adventures. In 1935 the character was retired in favor of Beans the Cat, who didn’t last long with the animators, either. (See Trivia) It wasn’t until Porky Pig came along that Schlesinger finally had a main attraction for his cartoons.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the void left by the departure of Harman and Ising (who took their animators with them), Schlesinger began hiring new talent. Fred “Tex” Avery came over from the Walter Lantz studio and fast-talked Schlesinger into letting him head his own production unit. Schlesinger agreed and assigned animators Chuck Jones, Robert Clampett, and Virgil Ross to the new unit. (They dubbed the building in which they worked as “Termite Terrace” due to the large population of the insects there.) It turned out to be the best hire Schlesinger made, as Avery and his co-horts began to create a new style of cartoon.

The new unit’s first cartoon, Gold Diggers of ’49 (alluding both to the famous California Gold Rush and to the popular series of Warner musicals from Busby Berkeley), set the mark for the direction Avery and his unit would take. Though its star was Beans the Cat, it was Porky Pig who stole the cartoon and became a star in his own right.

Avery and his unit were initially assigned to make Looney Tunes, which were strictly black and white. To make an entry in the Merrie Melodies series, which were in color, meant that the cartoon had to be shaped around a song, taken from the vast Warner Brothers library. This Avery did, and in doing so, he created what later critics see as an early masterpiece, and one that has gained a cult following over the years.

I Love to Singa is a fond parody of The Jazz Singer. It opens with an iris shot featuring a house in a tree. A sign hanging near the door, reads “Prof. Fritz Owl, Teacher of Voice, Piano, and Violin, BUT – No Jazz!” Inside Papa Fritz is pacing back and forth as Mama Owl is sitting on four eggs. Finally she nods with a smile – the eggs are about to hatch. The Professor (voiced by Bletcher) taps each with his conductor’s wand and gets a harmonious sound from each until he taps the last egg; it rings with a metallic clang. The first hatchling comes forth singing the opening of "Chi mi frena in tal momento" from the opera Lucia di Lammermoor. “Ah, what a fine voice,” Papa Fritz exclaims, “A Caruso.” The next hatchling enters the world playing the beginning of “Traumerei” by Robert Schumann on the violin. “What sweet music, a Fritz Kreisler,” says Papa Fritz. The third comes out playing Felix Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” on the flute, and Papa Fritz calls him “another Mendelssohn.” The last youngster (voiced by Bond) upon hatching (and dressed in a red coat with a blue bow tie) looks at his father and says “Hello Strenza!” (See Trivia) He then launches into the title song. “Ach! A Jazz Singer! A Crooner! Stop! Stop! Stop!” exclaims Papa Fritz as Mother faints. Papa fans her and tells her not to worry, “Listen Mama, if we must sing, we will teach him to sing like we want him to.”


However, all is not going to plan. Forced to sing “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes,” while his mother accompanies him on the pump organ, the youngster does a little rendition of “I Love to Singa” between verses. He’s caught doing this by Papa Fritz, who picks him up and boots him out of house, yelling, “Enough is too much! Out of my house, you hotcha, you crooner, you falsetto, you jazz singer! You, you, you!” The youngster takes it all in stride, pointing back and telling us “That’s mein pop.” He then goes on his way, whistling the title tune. Meanwhile, Mama Owl (voiced by Wentworth) is telling Papa Fritz that he was too hard on the boy. She calls the police, describing him as “a little fellow with big eyes and a red coat.”

As the youngster is walking he notices music coming from a tree. It’s radio station GONG, which is broadcasting “Jack Bunny’s Amateur Hour.” Numerous contestants are gonged and dropped down a trap door. One stutters his way through the rhyme “Simple Simon” before saying “Oh well, shucks,” and gongs himself down the trap door. (He was voiced Joe Dougherty, the original voice of Porky Pig.) Cut to Mama Owl as she listens to the police report on the radio. She wonders if the police have found her son, to which the radio answers back “No we didn’t lady,” as both Mama and Papa Owl look at each other in astonishment. This was the first use of a trick Avery was to repeat and be noted for in later cartoons: breaking the bounds of reality to enhance the laughter.

Finally out young hero gets to show what he can do. When Jack Bunny asks who he is, he’s handed a card that simply reads “Owl Jolson.” He then breaks into his song, which is winning Jack Bunny over to the extent that he’s getting out the “First Place” trophy. Mama hears him singing on the radio and bring Papa and the children to see him. They are looking through the window of the studio when young Owl notices them and freezes. He then lapses back into his rendition of “Drink to Me Only,” and Jack Bunny is about to gong him. Papa and the family enter and Papa shouts, “Stop! Stop! Stop! Enough is too much!” He turns to his son, “Go on and singa about your moon-a and your June-a and the spring-a.” Young Owl returns to his music and the cartoon ends with Jack Bunny handing him the First Place trophy. The film irises out to black, but the trophy remains outside. Young Owl opens the iris and grabs his prize before the cartoon officially ends.


This combination of a strong plot with tricks such as the radio gag, was to launch a new style in cartoons, as Schlesinger’s unit slowly moved away from a simple animated backing for a song to entities in their own right, establishing strong, and eventually lasting, characters, and shifting the music to the background. We see the beginnings of this new philosophy of cartoons here, for although the cartoon is supposedly built around the song, in actuality, the song itself becomes secondary to the story of young Owl Jolson and is used to explain his persona. Leon Schlesinger and Warner Brothers came a long way since the debut of Bosko in 1931’s Sinking in the Bathtub.

Trivia: The short is one of the earliest Merrie Melodies produced in Technicolor’s three-strip process.

The song, “I Love to Singa,” was written by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg and featured in the 1935 Warner Brothers musical The Singing Kid, where it was performed three times: first by Al Jolson and Cab Calloway, then by the Yacht Club Boys and Jolson, and finally by Calloway and Jolson.

Bert Lahr supplied the original voice of Papa Fritz, but Billy Bletcher replaced him in the final version. There are rumors that while Tommy Bond did the voice of Owl Jolson, Johnnie “Scat” Davis did the singing. That isn’t true.

“Hello Strenza!” is a Yiddishism for “Hello, Stranger,” and was the catchphrase of a character from Jack Benny’s radio program named “Schlepperman.” (To “schlep” in Yiddish means “to drag along.”) It was a popularly quoted catchphrase of the day.

Buddy made a weird comeback of sorts in a 1994 episode of Animaniacs titled “The Warners’ 65th Anniversary Special.” In this episode it was revealed (according to the series’ fictional history) that Yakko, Wakko and Dot were created to add life to Buddy’s very dull cartoons. During the cartoons they would smash Buddy over the head with a mallet. After Buddy was dropped by the studio and replaced by the Warners, he retired to Ojai, where he earned a living as a nut farmer, all the while plotting revenge against the Warners. This came to a head on the Anniversary Special where he tried to exact his revenge but was foiled in the attempt.

The cartoon is also referenced in the very first episode of South Park (August 13, 1997) titled “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe.” During the course of the episode, whenever an alien beam hits Cartman or Officer Barbrady, they break into “I Love to Singa,” as warbled by Tommy Bond.

For those interested, the cartoon is available in a beautiful digital Technicolor transfer as an extra in the three-disc Deluxe Edition of The Jazz Singer. It is also included in the Looney Tunes: Volume 2 DVD, and Looney Tunes: The Platinum Collection, Vol. 1 (also available in Blu-ray). 


Warner’s One-Hit Wonders

By Steve Herte

So far we’ve written about the most repeated songs in the library of Warner cartoons and the cartoons with the most musical pieces in their soundtracks. It’s only fair that we present the rare songs that appear just once, as a scene enhancement or only as a lyric reference to add to the humor. Although there are several tunes that fit this category, most of them have been covered in the two previous articles of Animation Orchestration. I’ve put together 10 of my favorites (there are probably more that the die-hard fans can come up with) from cartoons with which I will always associate these melodies. 


1. “Alouette,” an 1879 French-Canadian children's song, composer unknown, was sung at the end of French Rarebit (1951 - Robert McKimson) by two wacky French chefs while basting themselves and sitting in a roasting pan in an oven. They were celebrating being taught the recipe for “Louisiana Back-Bay Bayou Bunny Bordelaise” a la Antoine of New Orleans by whom else? Bugs Bunny. 

2. Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” was written in 1616 by Ben Jonson and was instrumentally played in the opening of The Hardship of Miles Standish (1940 – Friz Freleng). The original story is retold by a grandfather and has Elmer Fudd as John Alden performing a singing telegraph (“You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby”) to an Edna Mae Oliver-styled Priscilla just before Indians attack them. 


3. “I Love to Singa” came out on July 18, 1936, and was written by Harold Arlen and sung by both Al Jolson and Cab Calloway. But in the cartoon I Love to Singa it is performed by a little owl (Owl Jolson) who is born to sing jazz rather than the traditional classical music his father teaches. (1936 – Tex Avery) “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” is sung partially in this cartoon as well. 

4. “Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?” by Billy Austin and Louis Jordan in 1940 is one song that was not sung or played. In fact only the title appeared as a line spoken by Bugs Bunny in a comically “romantic” moment with Elmer Fudd in The Unruly Hare (1945 – Frank Tashlin) He had just shown a series of pin-up girls to Elmer through his surveyor’s scope.



5. “Mutiny in the Nursery” is a bouncy, jazzy tune composed in 1938 by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer. A chorus of book characters come-to-life in the cartoon Sniffles and the Bookworm (Chuck Jones – 1939) sings it. The climax of this mild version of Book Revue has Sniffles the mouse saving the shy, retiring bookworm from the Frankenstein monster merely by tripping him. 

6. “Sweet Georgia Brown” is a song I’ll remember not only from a cartoon but also from my Barbershop quartet career. I sang it in a competition with a quartet and we were fortunate enough to place second. (Don’t ask me who was first; too long ago.) Written in 1925 by Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard (music) and Kenneth Casey (lyrics), it was played on trumpet by Yosemite Sam to Granny (“Emma” in this case) in Hare Trimmed (1953 – Friz Freleng). Sam is trying to woo the flattered Granny into marrying him so he can get her money and Bugs Bunny competes with him to thwart Sam’s avaricious plans.

7. “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” is a strange song about a lover’s promise to return (on the title occasion) but it never happens. It was sung most notably by the Ink Spots and later by Pat Boone, and was written by Leon René in 1940. It devolved into the comic and trivial when Bugs Bunny sang it nonchalantly while bathing in a cooking pot in Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt (1941 – Friz Freleng). This is also the only cartoon I can recall where Bugs misses his rabbit hole on one of his famous “dives” and has to shame-facedly skulk to where the hole actually is. 

8. “We're in the Money” was the hit song of the movie Gold Diggers of 1933, written by Al Dubin & Harry Warren that year to cheer up a population going through the Great Depression by forecasting a time of plenty. A cartoon of the same name was also released in 1933. Produced by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising and animated by Friz Freling and Larry Martin, it takes place in a closed department store where a group of toys come to life and sing the title song. 


9. “A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich and You,” one of the most memorable tunes (but not for its original lyrics) was written in 1925 by Joseph Meyer, with lyrics by Al Dubin and Billy Rose. In Broomstick Bunny (1955 – Chuck Jones), Witch Hazel stirs her cauldron while adding “A cup of arsenic, a spider, some glue…” before meeting Bugs Bunny dressed as a witch on Halloween. Later, she sings “A cup of tea, a cookie and you…” when she mixes up a potion Bugs tricks her into drinking that makes her beautiful. This cartoon is one of my all-time favorites.


10. Lastly, “The Five O'Clock Whistle,” by Josef Myrow, Kim Gannon and Gene Irwin from 1940, so wonderfully sung by Ella Fitzgerald and orchestrated by Glen Miller, appeared in Little Red Riding Rabbit (1944 – Friz Freleng). Here it lost any class it originally had by being sung by an obnoxious, loud-mouthed, Bobby-Soxer, Red Riding Hood, who interrupts every scene with her annoying, gargled “Heeey, Grandma!” Even the Big Bad Wolf doesn’t want her. Bugs Bunny makes sure she gets her due in the end with, “I’ll hate myself in the morning, but I’ll do it.”

On the television show Seinfeld’s episode, The Opera, Elaine tells Jerry, “All of your knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons.” When it comes to music, that is true of me in great part. The rest of the obscure melodies in my memory were supplied by 35 years in Barbershop choruses and quartets. Add in all the Rock and Roll music I’ve collected, classical college courses I took and 45 rpm records my family inherited from others, and everything in life has become a song cue for me. Come to think of it, writing about these cartoons has made me want to watch them again. I think I’ll do just that. Want to join me?


Animaniacs

After Bugs, Daffy, Sam and Foghorn

By Steve Herte

Animaniacs (WB/Ambllin, 1993-98) Producers: Steven Spielberg, Tom Ruegger. Voices: Tress MacNaille, Rob Paulsen, Jess Harnell, Frank Welker, Maurice LaMarche, Sherri Stoner, John Mariano, Chuck Vennera,  Nathan Ruegger, Laura Mooney, Mary Gross, & Bernadette Peters.


When the heyday of Warner Brothers cartoons ended in the 1960s we were all pretty happy watching the reruns knowing that nothing would compare to the sheer brilliance of comic writing, plots and superb synchronization of sight and sound. And pretty much, nothing did until Stephen Spielberg presented The Animaniacs in 1993. The characters were all new, the situations much shorter and compiled into a variety-style cartoon show knitted together by the two Warner Brothers, Yakko and Wakko and the Warner Sister, Dot. These three madcap monkeys (all evidence points to this as their species) heckle other stodgy characters with Marx Brothers’ style quick humor (Yakko is definitely descended from Groucho) and in many cases, education. Yes, education. There are a few vignettes where Yakko dresses in a cap and gown and performs such amazing feats as singing “All the Countries of the World” to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance.


All of the characters in the cast are drawn with the same three dimensional, fluid motion techniques of the originals and this adds to their charm. Yakko (Paulsen), as I mentioned is the wisenheimer, always quick with a joke, pun or witty remark. Wakko (Harnell) speaks with a Liverpuddlian accent and eats anything in sight but also comes up with many a clever quip. Dot (MacNeille), though she prefers to appear sweet and cute (she has an alter-ego title of Princess Angelina Contessa Louisa Francesca Banana Fanna Bobesca the Third) keeps up with her hyperactive brothers and never misses a punchline.

When Yakko, Wakko and Dot are not running from Ralph, the guard (Frank Welker) at the Warner Brothers Studio Lot, or locked in the water tower (from which they continually escape) we are treated to various other characters, such as The Goodfeathers, three pigeons – Bobby (Mariano), Pesto (Vennera), and Squit (LaMarche) – who worship Martin Scorsese and are obvious spoofs of Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci of Goodfellas (1990). Their faux-mob antics on a New York background are hilarious and push the envelope of ethnic comedy.

Adding a vaudeville note to the cast are Rita the cat (Peters) and Runt the dog (Welker), who always turn the dangerous situations they confront into a song opportunity.

The only characters to spawn a successful spin-off of the show in 1995 are the team of Pinky (Paulsen) and The Brain (LaMarche), two white lab rats who conspire night after night to “take over the world.” Pinky, per the opening song is “insane” but his goofiness perfectly balances the straight-faced Orson Welles-like Brain. My Mom loved this cartoon the best. Once and only once did I see Pinky succeed in his quest; only to be disappointed in the power he acquired.

Slappy the Squirrel (Stoner) is a post-menopausal misanthropic survivor of the Golden Age of cartoons whose only friend is her nephew Skippy (Ruegger). Whoever else is unfortunate enough to appear in her scenes gets the worst of the episode, no matter how big or bad they are. Slappy always has the upper hand and ends each segment with, “Now that’s comedy!” At first she’s hard to take, but once you get the idea of the cartoon you look forward to the next one.

Whenever Mindy (Nancy Cartwright), a toddler who literally gets into everything finds herself in a bind (and that’s every episode) it’s up to Buttons (Welker), a watchdog to extricate her.

A character we don’t get to see often is Chicken Boo, a giant chicken optimistic enough to believe he can be a part of normal society.

Also occasionally we see the short incidents in the life of Katie Ka-Boom (Mooney) a highly-strung teenager who wants things her way or else – KA-BOOM! It’s amazing her long-suffering Mom (Gross) can survive her tantrums.

Lastly, there is the amorous couple, Flavio and Marita, two very funny hippos. There’s something attractive about them despite their great mass. It could be the sexy accents.

I personally treasure the DVDs of the first four seasons on Animaniacs because I love every cartoon and it deserves to be in my collection. The only question is, where are the rest of them?


Animation Orchestration, Part 2

Music Profusion

By Steve Herte

Not only did Warner Brothers cartoons use the same popular pieces of music over and over in different situations, there were also cartoons in which dialogue was minimal to non-existent and took a backseat to the music. The most glaring example of course is Chuck Jones’ What’s Opera, Doc? (1957), in which Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny play parts in the Wagnerian opera Die Walküre (1870) singing alternative lyrics while still performing the hunter and rabbit roles. For those who don’t recall it, all I have to say is, “Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit!” and it should come back to you. And you thought Wagner was impossible to sit through (well, maybe the entire “Ring” series).

The minimal dialog concept is best exhibited in Bob Clampett’s Corny Concerto (1943) and Elmer has all the lines (what there are). He looms up in silhouette to the podium as orchestra conductor and when the spotlight hits him we see he’s unshaven, slightly disheveled and having a comic battle with his tuxedo front. In his introduction of two Johan Strauss pieces, Tales from the Vienna Woods (1868) and The Blue Danube Waltz (1866), Elmer quotes the lyrics of  “And it Comes Out Here” (Mike Riley, Ed Farley & Red Hodgson, 1935).

In the first scene, it’s Porky Pig’s turn to be the hunter stalking Bugs with his faithful but goofy dog. The movements of the characters are beautifully choreographed to the music while simultaneously delivering the loony comedy. The second piece depicts a mother swan gliding along the water followed by her babies while a little black duck longs to join the family. After being thwarted several times he sees them being attacked by a vulture and saves them. Though not as funny as the first cartoon, it’s still excellently synchronized with the music.

Two cartoons in particular stand out as musicals in the Vaudeville or English Musical Hall Night styles. Both involve bookstores where everything comes to life after closing time. The first was Have You Got Any Castles? (Frank Tashlin, 1938) where, after a cuckoo announces the midnight hour a town crier (based on critic Alexander Woollcott, who hosted a popular CBS radio show called The Town Crier and who opened each show with “Hear Ye! Hear Ye!”) plays emcee backed by “The Poet and Peasant Overture” by Franz Von Suppé (1846) and the book characters become the audience.

There is scene where Fu Manchu, the Phantom of the Opera, Mr. Hyde and the Frankenstein Monster leave their books menacingly and growl at the audience, then break character and do a dainty minuet to the “Gavotte” by Francois-Joseph Gossec (late 1700s). This piece of music also appears in Porky’s Party (also 1938) as the background to a knitting silkworm. The Invisible Man does a lively tap dance to Vincent Scotto’s “Vieni, Vieni” (1937), which segues into a cartoon Cab Calloway and group performing “Swing for Sale” (Saul Chaplin & Sammy Cahn, 1937). Then Old King Cole sings (appropriately) “Old King Cole” (Richard A, Whiting & Johnny Mercer, 1937). The Thin Man leaves his book to the tune of “Boulevardier from the Bronx” (Harry Warren, 1936), enters a cookbook and returns pear-shaped backed by “You’re the Cure for What Ails Me” (Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, 1936). The Three Musketeers and various book characters sing the title song, written by Richard A. Whiting and Johnny Mercer in 1937. Then they go literally “Three Men on a Horse,” steal keys from another book cover and liberate the Prisoner of Zenda.


In the hilarious Book Revue (Bob Clampett, 1946), Daffy Duck takes center stage in a zoot suit and blonde Cab Calloway hairdo while praising “La Cucaracha” (1910) “wooh-hoo-hoo-hoo!” with a Russian accent. He then launches into a chorus of “Carolina in the Morning” (Gus Kahn & Walter Donaldson, 1922) while Little Red Riding Hood skips by to her possible doom at the hands of the wolf. When Daffy realizes where she’s headed he instantly switches to a fabulous Danny Kaye scat (from his Melody in 4F, 1944) to warn her. The cartoon ends with the wolf jailed to the tune of the sextet from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) and a wild jitterbug celebration, interrupted only by the wolf screaming, “Stop that dancing up there! Ya sillies.” (The actual title of a 1944 song by Harry “the Hipster” Gibson, with the lisping delivery of "sillies" caricaturing Joe Besser.)

Then there are the big “concert” cartoons, with song after song, most notably Friz Freleng’s Notes to You (1941) where Porky Pig is kept awake by a serenading alley cat. His repertoire includes “The Umbrella Man” (James Cavanaugh, Vincent Rose & Larry Stock, 1938), “Largo Al Factorum” (Rossini, Cesare Sterbini) Figaro (1782), “Make Love With A Guitar” (Maria Grever/Raymond Leveen, words by Jimmy Messene & Al Bowlly, 1940), “Jeeper Creepers” (Harry Warren & Johnny Mercer, 1938), “Rockabye Baby” (Old English, 1765), “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” (Chauncey Olcott & George Graff Jr., 1912), and ends with the “Sextet” from Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti, 1835).


The remake of Notes to You in 1948 was Back Alley Oproar and starred Elmer Fudd as the harassed sleeper and Sylvester as the insatiable singer. His song list is even longer with two reprises; “Largo al Factorum” and “Sextet.” Poor Elmer gets to hear “Angel in Disguise” (Paul Mann, Stefan Weiss, Kim Gannon, 1940), “Carissima” (Arthur A. Penn, 1907), Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody # 2” (1847), “Moonlight Bay” (Percy Wenrich, Edward Madden, 1912), “Some Sunday Morning” (Ray Heindorf, Ted Koehler, M.K. Jerome, 1945), “Sweet Dreams, Sweetheart” (Ted Koehler, M.K. Jerome, 1944), “Wiegenlied”, op.49 no 4 (Johannes Brahms, 1868, aka “Brahm's Lullabye”), and “You Never Know Where You’re Goin’ ‘Til You Get There” (Jule Styne & Sammy Cahn, 1945).

The library of popular as well as obscure songs available to Carl Stalling was incredibly large and it seems the copyright laws were less strict than now (or the fees were a lot less) so Warner Brothers could easily create such cartoons as Friz Freleng’s Yankee Doodle Daffy in 1943. Daffy is the promoter for his nephew, Sleepy Lagoon, and is desperately trying to get Porky Pig to hire him. In the process, we’re treated to an entire show complete with costume changes and hear: “Angel in Disguise,” “Can-Can” (1858) Offenbach, “I'm Just Wild about Harry” (Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, 1921), “Laugh Clown Laugh” (1928) Ted Fio Rito & Sam Lewis & Joe Young, “Lone Ranger Theme” (actually the William Tell Overture) Rossin, 1829), “Rebola a Bola” (1941) Arranca-Telhados (in full Carmen Miranda costume), “We Watch the Skyways” (Max Steiner & Gus Kahn, 1941), and “Cheyenne” (Egbert Van Alstyne, 1906) with new lyrics to make it “I’m a Cowboy.”

When Porky Pig needs to get egg production stepped up in Frank Tashlin’s Swooner Crooner (1944) he hires a rooster who sings like Bing Crosby and it works, even on Porky. The music in this cartoon gives us an idea why women loved the sounds of Crosby, Frank Sinatra and the great crooners. The cavalcade includes “September in the Rain” (Harry Warren & Al Dubin, 1937), “Minnie the Moocher” (Cab Calloway, 1931), “When My Dreamboat Comes Home” (Clifford Friend & Dave Franklin, 1936), “It Can't Be Wrong” (Dick Haymes, 1943), “As Time Goes By” (Herman Hupfeld, 1931), “Blues In The Night” (My Mama Done Told Me) (Johnny Mercer & Harold Arlen, 1941), “Lullaby of Broadway” (Al Dubin & Harry Warren, 1935), and “Shortnin' Bread” – a plantation song written by James Whitcomb Riley in 1900.

Did I mention “obscure” songs before? Well, in 1948, Chuck Jones gave us Long Haired Hare. Bugs Bunny is trying to have a great time singing and playing various instruments out in the field while an opera singer is trying to rehearse “Largo al Factorum” at home. Invariably he winds up singing whatever Bugs is playing, he goes out to Bugs and stops him. “Of course you know, this means war!” says Bugs and he means it. In the beginning, Bugs sings “A Rainy Night in Rio” (Arthur Schwartz & Leo Robin, 1926), “My Gal Is A High-Born Lady” (Len Spencer & Barney Fagan, 1896, with substitute lyrics), and plays “When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on the Tuba”(Herman Hupfeld, 1931), of course on a tuba. Later, we hear the “Prelude,” second theme from Act III of Lohengrin, Richard Wagner (1850) when the opera singer is signing autographs and “Beautiful Galathea Overture” by Franz Von Suppé (1865) when Bugs walks into the concert hall to the hushed tones of “Leopold!” (Stokowski).

Lastly, a new singer is introduced in 1955 when Chuck Jones directs One Froggy Evening and Michigan J. Frog gets to strut his stuff. The story involves a man who discovers a singing frog in the cornerstone of a building and thinks it will make him rich. But Michigan J. Frog will only sing for him. The high-stepping frog belts songs old and new: “Come Back to Erin” (Claribel, 1830-1869), “Hello! My Baby” (Joseph E. Howard & Ida Emerson, 1899), “I’m Just Wild About Harry” (Eubie Blake & Noble Sissle, 1921), “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” (Sam H. Stept & Sydney Clare, 1930), “Won’t You Come Over To My House” (Egbert Van Alstyne & Harry Williams, 1906), “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby (Harry Warren & Johnny Mercer, 1938), and a new song, “The Michigan Rag” (Michael Maltese & Chuck Jones, 1955), for which he was named, as well as (you guessed it!) “Largo al Factorum.”

Just the mention of these songs from these various cartoons has the melodies playing in my head. I was amazed at how many actually had titles and authors. It seemed the deeper I researched the more I found and the memories came flooding back. I actually wanted to re-view the cartoons and re-experience them with my new perspective (in some cases I had to). I hope you will too. Next, I hope to explore the “One-Hit Wonders of Warners.”


Animation Orchestration, Part 1

By Steve Herte

Those of us who grew up with Warner Brothers’ cartoons will proudly admit that our store of musical knowledge increased with our enjoyment and we didn’t even know it at the time. This prompted me to do some research and compile a spreadsheet of music used in various cartoons.

It became obvious that certain songs appeared in more than two features and this gave me the basis for a “top ten” of frequently used melodies.

10. At three iterations is “Jeepers Creepers” by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer (1938). It was the title of a Bob Clampett cartoon in 1939 with the hapless Porky Pig as a cop who has to investigate “strange sounds” coming from a haunted house. The loony ghost inside sings the song with his own appropriate lyrics before driving Porky crazy. Then in 1941, Friz Freleng had an alley cat sing it to Porky as a part of his nightly repertoire in Notes to You. Most famously, though, in 1957 it provides Daffy Duck with a fast-paced tap dance in Show Biz Bugs, also directed by Freleng. Unfortunately poor Daffy only hears crickets from the audience for his efforts.

9. Also at three times is “On Moonlight Bay” by Percy Wenrich and Edward Madden (1912). Freleng’s Porky’s Duck Hunt used it first in 1937 as Porky and his dog unsuccessfully try to capture Daffy. Then in 1942, it arises again in Chuck Jones’ My Favorite Duck again with Porky and Daffy. And in 1948, it is a part of Sylvester the Cat’s repertoire in Back Alley Oproar, the remake of Notes to You, once again directed by Freleng. Porky is now kept awake by a different cat.

8. Again at three appearances is the “Sextet” from the opera Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti (1835). Freleng used it first in 1941 as six of the nine lives of the alley cat in Notes to You sing it as a finale. Then it comes up twice in 1948, in Friz’s remake, Back Alley Oproar, and in Jones’ Long Haired Hare. In the latter, Bugs Bunny is a major distraction to a practicing opera singer. It is also one of two cartoons where we hear, “Of course you know, this means war!”


7. “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down,” by Cliff Friend and Dave Franklin (1937), with two cartoons and a full-length film to its credit. In 1938, we hear it sung by Daffy Duck in Daffy Duck and Egghead. Egghead would later evolve into Elmer Fudd. Then Robert McKimson used it in 1950 for Boobs in the Woods, where Porky and Daffy are once again paired. And in 1988, Rob Hoskins sings it in Who Framed Roger Rabbit to foil the weasels into laughing themselves to death.

6. “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle (1921), which also had three cartoons. Three different directors chose this song. Freleng was first in 1943 with Yankee Doodle Daffy, where Daffy puts on an entire show to promote his nephew Sleepy Lagoon to a more than reluctant Porky Pig. Then in 1948, Daffy Duck comes home drunk to Porky with an invisible kangaroo named Hymie and sings it substituting Hymie’s name in Robert McKimson’s Daffy Duck Slept Here. Most recently, Michigan J. Frog sings it in 1955 in One Froggy Evening, directed by Jones.

5. Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody # 2” (1847) takes the number five slot, having been featured four times. The first is in 1941 in Rhapsody in Rivets, where Freleng has a construction crew playing the piece while building a skyscraper. Then, Friz does it again in 1946 with Rhapsody Rabbit. Bugs Bunny is a concert pianist trying to play it while being interrupted by a mouse in the piano. Friz gives the song to Sylvester in 1948’s Back Alley Oproar and in 2012, we see Daffy Duck sing his own lyrics in 3D while Elmer tries to shoot him in his first one-duck show.

4. Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” (1937). The dual jazz melodies of this masterwork have become second nature to anyone familiar with the rat-race/assembly-line experience. It appears twice in 1943. Frank Tashlin uses it in Porky Pig’s Feat while Porky and Daffy desperately try to escape a hotel without paying. Then Clampett featured it in Falling Hare while Bugs Bunny grapples with a Gremlin who is gradually destroying the plane he’s flying. Next, Clampett used it for the assembly line aspect where the babies are physically riding on one in his 1946 Baby Bottleneck. Jones is last to play “Powerhouse” in Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½ Century (1953) as Daffy passes under a huge eye on his way to his director.


3. With four playings, the third spot belongs to “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” by Warren and Mercer (1938). Jones makes it a backdrop to his 1939 Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur while a Jack Benny-like cave man hunts Daffy with his goofy Brontosaur (Apatosaurus now) “dog.” Then in 1940, Freleng has Elmer Fudd play John Alden delivering a singing telegram to an Edna Mae Oliver as Priscilla in The Hardship of Miles Standish. Then Robert McKimson gets on the bandwagon in 1952’s Muscle Tussle where Daffy Duck must win back his girlfriend from a muscular Southern duck. One Froggy Evening has Michigan J. Frog sing the song in 1955 under the direction of Jones.

2. “Largo al Factorum” by Rossini and Cesare Sterbini (1782), the familiar “Figaro” aria at five iterations. The same alley cat in Notes to You counts it as a part of his performance as does Sylvester in Back Alley Oproar (1948). Then again in 1948, Jones includes it in Long Haired Hare. It also appears in Jones’ 1950 cartoon Rabbit of Seville, with new lyrics supplied by Bugs and Elmer Fudd, and then Michigan J. Frog sings it in One Froggy Evening, also for Jones.


1. The undeniable number one is “Those Endearing Young Charms,” a 19th century Irish folksong with words by Thomas Moore, again with five airings. Every time this piece is played, someone is blown up. In 1944, Clampett blows up Private Snafu in the U.S. Army’s training cartoon, Booby Traps. Then when Yosemite Sam vows if elected to eliminate rabbits, Bugs Bunny runs against him in Ballot Box Bunny (1951), directed by Freleng. Sam gets blown up. Then Friz has Daffy Duck blown up in Show Biz Bugs (1957) at a xylophone he rigged for Bugs. McKimson was not to be outdone when Wile E. Coyote is blown up at a piano rigged for the Roadrunner in Rushing Roulette (1965). And lastly, in 1993 as a part of the Animaniacs TV show, Slappy Squirrel blows up Doug the Dog as she plays the xylophone intended for her in Slappy Goes Walnuts (1993). Jon McClenahan and Chris Brandt were co-directors of this cartoon.

Of course, this is still a work in progress and these 10 pieces of music are only ones I have counted so far. I probably missed some. But there is one song that beats them all because it was sung in every cartoon my favorite Warner Brothers character starred in. That character is none other than Foghorn Leghorn, and the song is Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” (1850) – Do Dah, Do Dah.



How Warner Brothers and Leon Schlesinger Changed Animation
  
By Steve Herte With Ed Garea 

With the coming of sound in the late 1920s, the playing field for animation changed but little. In fact, one could say that the biggest change was the inclusion of a cartoon on a theater’s nightly bill. In order to get people in, especially during the Great Depression, theaters led off with a newsreel, a cartoon, a short, the first feature, and then the second feature

THE RULING PARADIGM

During this time, cartoons consisted of animation and little else. There was practically nothing in the way of plot, as characters like Mickey Mouse and Bosko paraded around with a bevy of animated tricks. Max Fleischer, head of Fleischer Studios and a subcontractor to Paramount for cartoons, came upon his first big star –Betty Boop – and give audiences a simplistic plot to go along with her. In Minnie the Moocher (1931), Betty ran away from home rather than follow her parents’ order to eat. In Stopping the Show (1932), she performed a vaudeville act consisting of impressions of popular singers of the day. In Betty Boop, M.D. (1932) she ran a traveling medicine show, selling a tonic that caused her customers to mutate. With the addition of Popeye the Sailor to the Fleischer Studio, more simple plots were added, all around the same theme: Popeye and Bluto are fighting over Olive Oyl. With Betty Boop, the plots weren’t nearly as important as her look. She was a Pre-Code baby, a symbol of the carefree days of Jazz Age flappers, and unique among female cartoon characters because she was a fully realized sexual woman. When the crackdown of the Code came in 1934, Betty was greatly toned down and gradually lost her audience.


RKO bought its cartoon from Van Beuren Studios, most famous for the Mutt and Jeff duo, Tom and Jerry (before the famous cat and mouse). Van Beuren cartoon featured minimal plot, lots of music and antics. The studio folded in 1936 and RKO entered into a distribution deal with Disney.

In 1932, Disney blazed the way with Flowers and Trees, the first Technicolor cartoon. But there was little in the way of a plot. The studio also produced a cartoon adaptation of The Three Little Pigs (1933), a straightforward re-telling of the fairy tale, albeit one that contained, for the first time, actual characterization (through posture and movement). It also contained an original song written especially for it: “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” by Frank Churchill. Yet, in the next few years, cartoons evolved little.

Meanwhile, Warner Brothers subcontracted their cartoon to producer Leon Schlesinger. Schlesinger hired ex-Disney animators Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising, and they brought their new character, Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid with them. Although the Bosko cartoons are plotless, he was nevertheless a popular figure with Warners audiences. Bosko would go on to star in 19 cartoons for Warner Brothers, until a budget dispute with Schlesinger caused Harman and Ising to take Bosko and move over to MGM.

Left in the lurch, Schlesinger lured several animators from other studios and pushed his staff to create a new starring character. Tom Palmer, a refugee from Disney, came up with Buddy, a character Bob Clampett later described as “Bosko in whiteface.” (See Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic.) Because the Warners brass rejected the first two Buddy test cartoons, Palmer was fired and replaced with Isadore “Friz” Freling. Freling gave Buddy a flapper girlfriend, Cookie, and a dog, Towser. Buddy went on to star in 27 cartoons over two years. Because his reception by audiences had always been lukewarm, it was decided to retire him in favor of another star: Beans the Cat, created by Freling.


Beans was said to be modeled after the Van Beuren character Waffles. Both are black cats dressed in overalls. Beans made his debut in Freling’s I Haven’t Got a Hat (1935), along with other characters Schlesinger hoped would catch on: brothers Ham and Ex, Oliver Owl, Little Kitty, and Porky Pig. The cartoon is modeled after the Hal Roach Our Gang comedies in that it takes place in a schoolroom and everyone is acting up. Though Beans was to be the focus, all audiences could talk about on their feedback cards was Porky, a character developed by Clampett, who has a short scene where he stuttered his way through “Paul Revere’s Ride.” The studio decided to focus on Porky as its main star. As for Beans, he would appear in 11 cartoons, most directed by Jack King.

Discovering Porky Pig was only the start of Schlesinger’s renaissance. The important new hires were to make their mark, and with the promotion of another staff animator, would take Warner Brothers cartoons into the pop cultural stratosphere, leaving the competition behind.

THE REVOLUTIONARIES

Frederick Bean “Tex” Avery joined the studio in 1935, coming from Walter Lantz’s studio where he worked on the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons. He convinced Schlesinger to let him head his own production team and create cartoons the way he thought they should be made. Schlesinger, desperate to keep his contract with Warner Brothers, gave Avery what he wanted. Avery took studio animators Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones and set up shop at a five-room bungalow at the Warner Brothers Sunset Boulevard backlot, which they dubbed “Termite Terrace” because of the plethora of termites there.

Avery’s unit was assigned to work on the black and white Looney Tunes instead of the Technicolor Merrie Melodies. The unit’s first short was Gold Diggers of ’49, a parody of Warner’s “Gold Diggers” series of musicals. It was credited as the cartoon that made Porky Pig a star. Avery’s continuing experimentation with his cartoons laid the foundation for a new style of animation that dethroned Disney as the king of short animated films and created a legion of cartoon stars whose names are still well-known today. Avery, a perfectionist, spent long hours with each cartoon, crafting gags, providing voices (including his well-known belly laugh when needed) and editing each cartoon so that scenes were added or deleted from the final negative if he felt the gag and its timing weren’t right.

Looking for new characters, Avery and Clampett created Daffy Duck, originally as a foil for Porky Pig, in the 1937 short, Porky’s Duck Hunt. Daffy was possessed of a lunacy for lunacy’s sake, a style that had not been seen before in cartoons. He was almost completely out of control as he bounced around the film’s frame in double speed, screaming “Hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo!” in a sped up high pitched voice supplied by new hire Mel Blanc, who also took over the voice of Porky Pig.

Also in 1937, Avery created a human character he named Egghead. He was initially drawn with a bulbous nose, eccentric clothing, and egg-shaped head. He spoke like popular radio comedian Joe Penner and was voiced by mimic Danny Webb. He was introduced in the 1937 Merrie Melodies short Egghead Rides Again. Eventually Egghead crossed paths with Daffy Duck in the 1938 short Daffy Duck and Egghead, famous for introducing the song “The Merry Go Round Broke Down,” sung by Daffy.  By this time Blanc took over voicing the character. Egghead’s career lasted for 13 shorts, until Jones, promoted to director, took the character and modified him into who we now know as Elmer Fudd. Elmer debuted in Jones’s 1940 short, Elmer’s Candid Camera, where he was driven crazy by a rabbit that Tex Avery modified and fashioned into Warner’s most enduring cartoon star.


The success of Daffy Duck begat imitators, one of which was a crazy rabbit created by Ben “Bugs” Hardaway and Cal Dalton in the 1938 cartoon Porky’s Hare Hunt. It is almost a frame-by-frame copy of Porky’s Duck Hunt, only his tormentor this time is a crazy rabbit. The short also gives the rabbit his famous Groucho Marx line “Of course you know, this means war!” The rabbit caught on with audiences and more cartoons were planned.

The rabbit returns in Jones’s 1939 short Presto–O, Change–O, as the pet of an unseen magician that torments two wayward dogs who enter his master’s house. He then appears in another Dalton and Hardaway cartoon, Hare-Um, Scare-Um, where he torments a hunter. Charlie Thorson, lead animator on the film, gave the rabbit the name “Bug’s Bunny,” after Hardaway, his creator. This was later changed to “Bugs” Bunny. In Jones’s Elmer’s Candid Camera (1940), the rabbit looks like the present day Bugs, taller and with a similar face, but sporting a primitive voice.

It was now up to Avery to see what he could do with the rabbit. Because the recycling of storylines was commonplace in the studio, Avery took his material from Porky’s Duck Hunt and Porky’s Hare Hunt. He also incorporated the gags from Elmer’s Candid Camera and slightly altered the design of Elmer Fudd. The finished cartoon was A Wild Hare. Besides polishing the timing, Avery provided the rabbit with a new character, one of a New York-esque cool character in control of every situation and with even more of a Groucho smart aleck attitude. Blanc, advised of the refining of the character, searched for a new voice, finally coming up with a combination Brooklyn-Bronx accent. It proved so successful that it became the permanent voice for Bugs. Avery also provided Bugs with his famous catchphrase, “What’s up, Doc?” explaining that back in his native Texas, everybody was addressed slangily as “Doc.” And so Bugs was born.


Avery directed only four Bugs Bunny cartoons: A Wild Hare (1940), Tortoise Beats HareAll This and Rabbit Stew, and The Heckling Hare (all 1941). He also directed a number of travelogue parodies, Hollywood caricature shorts (Hollywood Steps Out, 1941), and a number of fairy tale parodies and one-shot character shorts often featuring Bugs Bunny clones (The Crack-Pot Quail, 1941).

Carl W. Stalling arrived at the Schlesinger studio in 1936. While in his early 20s he conducted an orchestra that accompanied silent films at the Isis Movie house in Kansas City. While there he befriended a young Walt Disney and began composing musical scores for several of Disney’s early cartoons. Eventually he went with Disney to California and scored the Silly Symphonies series. When animator Ub Iwerks left Disney, Stalling went with him and scored Iwerks’s cartoons. In 1936, he left to sign with Schlesinger, which gave him access to the vast Warner Brothers music library.

Although his composing technique was rooted in the musical conventions of the Silent Era, Stalling was also an innovator. Until his arrival at Warner Brothers, music was used strictly as background in cartoons. Working with Avery, Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Freleng, and Jones, Stalling was encouraged to broaden his horizons, so to speak. He became adept at what is known as the “musical pun,” using references to popular songs or classical pieces to add to the humor on screen. He also, in coordination with the above directors, developed the style of very rapid and tightly coordinated musical cues. These would be punctuated with either instrumental or recorded sound effects, contributed by the equally brilliant soundman Treg Brown. And occasionally, Stalling would develop a full-blown musical piece for such cartoons as A Corny Concerto or What’s Opera, Doc?

Stalling used all kinds of music for his compositions: folk, classical, jazz, even nursery rhymes. When Warner Brothers licensed the music of jazz genius Raymond Scott in the early ‘40s, Stalling was given a gold mine of music and wasted no time putting it to use. His rendition of Scott’s “Powerhouse” is so familiar that anyone who hears it will associate it with Warner Brothers cartoons.

Stalling knocked the lid completely off American animation and it would stay off for quite a while.

Tashlin came originally to Schlesinger in 1933 as an animator after a short but acrimonious stay at Amadee J. Van Beuren’s studio. He made an impression as a fast but accurate animator. In his free time he drew a comic strip that ran in the Los Angeles Times from 1934 to 1936 called Van Boring and was based on his former boss Van Beuren. Signing the strip “Tish Tash,” it became obvious that he was drawing the strip on Schlesinger’s time. Schlesinger asked for a cut from the money he received and Tashlin basically told him to go to hell and quit.

When he returned to Schlesinger in 1936 as a director, he did so with a view to incorporating film technique into animation. He was assigned the task of making Porky Pig into the studio’s major star. He did so by making Porky into an innocent chump, which perhaps reveals his dislike of the character. His first cartoon as director, Porky’s Poultry Plant (1936) contains high and low angled shots, rapid editing, and montages of bugles being blown and rifles raised. In Porky’s Romance (1937), Porky, armed with a ring, flowers and candy, rings Petunia’s doorbell with an eye to a marriage proposal. When she rudely turns him down, he walks away dejectedly. Petunia is alerted by her pet dog that something is going on and looks out the window as the dejected Porky walks away. She spots the candy, done with a fast iris close-up of the box and rushes out at breakneck speed to retrieve her would-be beau and, more importantly, his candy. Tashlin uses a goodly number of frames to achieve a scene that takes about five seconds.

The peripatetic Tashlin left in 1938 and returned once more in 1943, making several Bugs Bunny features and three Private Snafu films.

While all Schlesinger’s animators used clean lines, bold colors, topical references, and caricatures, Tashlin’s cartoons, especially his black and white Looney Tunes, were some of the most elegant on the lot, beautifully drawn and shaded. Tashlin’s animation career often gets lost when reviewing his career as a director, but he remains an important cog in the Warner’s revolution.

Last, but certainly not least, is Robert Emerson “Bob” Clampett. Clampett began with the studio in 1931 and was promoted to director in 1937. Serving under Avery for two years had a great influence on him and, along with Tashlin, Clampett re-designed Porky Pig and gave him the character that would last throughout later years. He also took over Avery’s Daffy Duck and made him the star of many a cartoon, including The Daffy Doc (1938), The Wise Quacking Duck (1943), Draftee Daffy (1944), and his classic The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946). Clampett also created Tweety for his 1942 A Tale of Two Kitties, although it was left to Freling to pair him with Sylvester. Other memorable cartoons helmed by Clampett include Porky in Wackyland (1938), Horton Hatches the Egg (1942), Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarves (1943), and Book Revue (1946). Film historian Jerry Beck had said that Clampett put the “looney” in Looney Tunes.

AFTERMATH

Nothing lasts forever. While Tashlin was in and out with the studio, Avery left for good in 1942 after an artistic dispute with Schlesinger. He landed at MGM, where he created some of the most memorable cartoons ever made. Tashlin returned in 1943 and left in 1944 to pursue a career in film proper. Carl Stalling remained with the studio until his retirement in 1958, and Clampett left, against the advice of almost everyone, at his creative height in 1946 to pursue television.

But not a beat was missed as Jones, Freling, and Robert McKimson stepped in to keep the product rolling and of quality. But that is a subject for another article.

STEVE’S 7 FAVORITE WARNER CARTOONS:

Porky’s Party (1938): Bob Clampett invites us to Porky’s house party which becomes hilarious when he receives a gift of a silkworm that knits embarrassing clothing on the command “Sew!” (or “So?” – it doesn’t matter.)

Porky in Wackyland (1938): Bob Clampett takes us through Dark, Darker, and Darkest Africa with Porky in search of the last of the Dodo birds and we witness his looney discoveries.

Corny Concerto (1943): Bob Clampett dresses Elmer Fudd in an out-of-control tuxedo and has him conducting an orchestra which backs the most memorable version of “Tales from the Vienna Woods” and “The Blue Danube” I’ve ever seen.

Racketeer Rabbit (1946): Friz Freleng stages a stormy night for Bugs to find a dry place to sleep, but he soon finds out it’s the hideaway for gangsters Edward G. Robinson and Peter Lorre.

Easter Yeggs (1947): Robert McKimson depicts Bugs as being tricked by a fat, lazy Easter Bunny to do his job and he finds out it’s not all fun and games when he meets a mobster family.

Broomstick Bunny (1956): Chuck Jones introduces us to Witch Hazel who thinks she’s the “Ugliest of Them All” (or so her magic mirror says) until Bugs arrives in a witch costume for Trick or Treat.

Ali Baba Bunny (1957): Chuck Jones directs Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck into a “wrong turn at Albuquerque” that leads them into Ali Baba’s treasure cave.
  
ED’S 7 FAVORITE WARNER CARTOONS:

Duck Amuck (1953): Chuck Jones breaks down the fourth wall completely in this short about Daffy and his problems with his animator.

Duck Dodgers in the 24th and a Half Century (1953): Daffy and Porky battle it out with Marvin the Martian in this hysterical short directed by Jones.

The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946): Bob Clampett at the height of his powers, as Daffy stars in a clever parody of Dick Tracy.

One Froggy Evening (1955): A Chuck Jones masterpiece as a construction worker finds what he thinks will bring a fortune, but brings nothing but trouble.

Book Revue (1946): Bob Clampett directed this best of the “books come to life” cartoons.

Hair-Raising Hare (1946): Bugs meets mad scientist Peter Lorre and his orange monster in this wonderful Chuck Jones cartoon.

Buccaneer Bunny (1948); Friz Freling has a field day as Bugs outwits pirate Yosemite Sam.




Animated Movie Reviews


Leap!

By Steve Herte

Leap! (The Weinstein Company, 2017) – Directors: Eric Summer & Eric Wann. Writers: Carol Noble (s/p), Laurent Zeitoun (s/p and story), Eric Summer (s/p, story & original idea). Stars: Elle Fanning, Dane DeHaan, Carly Rae Jepsen, Maddie Ziegler, Terrence Scammell, Tamir Kapelian, Julie Khaner, Joe Sheridan, Elana Dunkelman, Shoshana Sperling, Jamie Watson, Bronwen Mantel, Ricardo El Mandril Sanchez, Nat Wolff & Kate McKinnon. Color, Animated, Rated PG, 89 minutes.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “It lost something in the translation.” This is what I suspect happened to this film. It must have been much funnier in French.

This feature takes place in the 1880s. Felicie Milliner (Fanning) and Victor (Wolff) are orphans who grew up together and vowed to stay together, even in their attempts to escape the orphanage. Felicie, as her name suggests, is happy and lively and dreams of being a great ballerina. Victor must have been greatly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci because he’s trying to perfect a set of artificial wings to enable him to fly.


Though Mother Superior (McKinnon) pooh-pooh’s Felicie’s dream as just that, Felicie is undeterred. Early one morning, Victor hatches an escape plan, “This plan is so ‘A’, there’s no plan B.” He dresses up as Mother Superior (using live chickens for breasts) and escorts Felicie past fearsome Custodian Luteau’s (Brooks) room. The disguise only fools Luteau until the chickens squawk, and the chase is on. Running along the ridge of the orphanage roof he soars off with Felicie on his latest invention, “Chicken Wings.” “But chickens can’t fly,” Felicie advises just before take-off. It looks like it’s going to work until they crash into an oxcart and Felicie drops the music box her mother gave her (it has a pop-up ballerina). Luteau is now chasing them on his motorcycle. The chase ends up at the railroad tracks where both children catch the freight train to Paris.

In Paris, Victor shows Felicie a postcard photo of the Academie de Ballet, and in her enthusiasm to see it Felicie tears it in half. Meanwhile, the Parisian pigeons are attacking Victor and he falls of the bridge onto a passing boat. Alone, Felicie wanders the streets of Paris until she stumbles upon the Academie, which is open because there is a performance on stage. She witnesses a prima ballerina executing a Grand Jeté (a long horizontal leap – hence the title of the movie) and she knows she’s where she wants to be. But a guard (Watson) tries to take her to the police for trespassing and possibly stealing. She’s rescued by a cryptic, disabled cleaning woman named Odette (Jepsen). Felicie’s persistence gains her access to Odette’s servants’ cottage, provided she assists her in the cleaning.

By now the audience is suspicious of Odette because her name is the same as the White Swan character in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and we’ve already heard two excerpts from that ballet. Odette cleans house for the haughty and hateful Madame Régine Le Haut (also McKinnon) and her stuck-up ballerina wanna-be daughter, Camille Le Haut (Ziegler). One day, Felicie walks in on Camille while she’s practicing her ballet. Camille insults Felicie, telling her that she’s a nobody and will never be a ballerina. Then she throws the music box out the window, breaking it.

Felicie is upset, but not discouraged. The next day she intercepts the postman and uses Camille’s invitation to try out for the part of Clara in The Nutcracker as if it were her own. The first day is almost a disaster with ballet Choreographer Mérante (Scammell), but Odette intercedes once more and offers to train her.

The next day on the same bridge, Felicie is practicing positions while Victor tries to get her attention. When he finally does, he repairs the music box and takes her to his job site, the workshop of Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel. The tremendous head of the Statue of Liberty is just beyond the gate and a tall scaffolding surrounds the incomplete body behind it.

Back at the Academie, Felicie meets Rudolph (Kapelian), a handsome, blonde Russian dancer. She is immediately attracted to him and it seems the reverse is true. She’s floating the next time she meets Victor, and so is he. He’s invented the wing-suit so many daredevils are using today to jump off mountains and soar at ridiculous speeds. But a wind picks up and sends him into a lamppost before entangling him in the rear of a horse and carriage.

Felicie’s ruse is uncovered the next day as she confronts Mme. Le Haut and her angry daughter with Mérante and admits to the lie. Mérante has by now been impressed with Felicie’s progress and enthusiasm and allows both girls to stay and compete for the role. The loser must agree to never come back. Previous to this encounter, Mérante witnessed a powerful and exciting performance by Felicie at a pub Victor took her to, where she half-ballet, half-clog danced to the Shannon Reel.

The build to the climax of this movie sees an awkward meeting between Rudolph and Victor on the Eiffel Tower, a chase scene up the Statue of Liberty, and a ballet dance-off between Felicie and Camille. The chase scene is problematic in its believability. Seriously, would you chase a young girl onto the crown of the Statue of Liberty (the statue was nearly completed by the end of the movie) wearing a full-length green velvet gown and heels? Mme. Le Haut does.

The beauty and only reality in this animated feature is the dancing itself. The key frame animation of two actual stars of the Paris Opera Ballet, Aurélie Dupont and Jérémie Bélingard kept the film from falling into the river of disbelief. That and the spectacular musical soundtrack. The character depictions and the animation were superb, and the voice matching excellent. I didn’t even recognize Mel Brooks’ voice.

Leap! Is an entertaining film for both young and old (some did applaud at the end) and is good clean fun. The story flowed for an hour and twenty-nine minutes without dead space. Forget the anachronisms and remember the wisdom of a little black, ring-necked duck, and enjoy it. Or maybe get a hold of the original version.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature

By Steve Herte

The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature (Open Road Films, 2017) – Director: Cal Brunker. Writers: Bob Barlen, Scott Bindley (s/p), Cal Brunker (s/p & story), Daniel Woo (story), Peter Lepeniotis (story & characters). Stars: Will Arnett, Katherine Heigl, Maya Rudolph, Jackie Chan, Isabela Moner, Peter Stormare, Bobby Cannavale, Bobby Moynihan, Jeff Dunham, Gabriel Iglesias, Sebastian Maniscalco, Tom Kenny, Karl Wahlgren, Rob Tinkler & Julie Lemieux. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 91 minutes.

When I saw The Nut Job back in 2014 I was totally drawn in by the animation, the characters and the writing. This sequel was a must-see for me from the first trailer viewing. I still love the characters, I laughed often and I think I learned something from the animators.

Look closely at this film, and you’ll notice that the animals are all soft and furry (even the mole) and close-ups show every detail, every hair on the squirrels’ tails. That’s superior computer graphics and it makes them more lovable as the victims in the story. The people, on the other hand are hard, less detailed and stiffer drawn. They’re the aggressors.


This sequel starts where the first movie left off. Surly Squirrel (Arnett) and his woodland friends: Mole (Dunham), groundhogs Jimmy (Iglesias), Johnny (Maniscalco) and Jamie (Wahlgren); his best friend Buddy (Kenny) a blue rat, fatalistic mouse Redline (Tinkler), Daredevil Chipmunk and pug Precious (Rudolph) are all living high on the hog in the abandoned Nut Shop on the immense stock of nuts in the basement.

Andie Squirrel (Heigl) is busy trying to teach the remaining chipmunks how to forage naturally. She wants Surly to come back to the park and use his instincts and even turns down a huge Brazil nut when he proffers one to her. But Andie can get no followers. They all prefer the bounty to having to scrounge for a living. That is, until Mole forgets to shut off the boiler and the Nut Shop blows up (much like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining)Now they have to return to Oakton City’s Liberty Park, clueless about finding food. Redline now cries his repeated line, “We’re all gonna die!” This line becomes a running gag throughout the movie.

Meanwhile, Mayor Muldoon (Moynihan), who owns most of Oakton City and is making money from every sector, has his eyes on the only plot of ground not making him a profit, Liberty Park. His war with Surly and friends begins when he breaks ground for an ill-conceived, shoddily-built amusement park called Libertyland. One of the swings on the revolving ride is an office chair held up by ropes. An omen happens on opening day when the Mayor gives the cue to light the park’s name and all the bulbs fail except for the ones spelling “Lie Land.”

Surly and Andie separate to find an alternate food source and a place to live. Surly and Buddy meet Mr. Feng (Chan), an adorable white mouse and kung-fu master, in a dark alley in Chinatown. (Don’t call him “cute”!) He and his army of white mice chase Surly and Buddy out of their part of the city on the bumper of the next cab.

Andie and the groundhogs find a beautiful park across town. But the audience already knows it's a golf course owned by Mayor Muldoon. Jimmy learns this when he tries to eat a golf ball and it gets stuck in his teeth. Two crazed golfers try to “play it where it lies” from a speeding golf cart. We later learn that the park was the one the white mice inhabited before being ousted by the Mayor’s construction crews.

The park animals fight the construction any way they can, but Mayor Muldoon hires a two-faced Animal Control Officer named Gunther (Stormare). He’s all about non-cruelty to animals to the public, but in the Mayor’s presence he’s an evil sadist. He captures all but Surly and Buddy. On the other hand, the mayor’s daughter, the evil and severely spoiled Heather Muldoon (Moner) – this darling makes Veruca Salt in the movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) look like and angel – sends her Boston bull terrier Frankie (Cannavale) after them, but he falls in love with Precious. She takes them both home

What to do? Surly decides to put himself at the mercy of Mr. Feng and manages to recruit the whole army of white mice into the battle for Liberty Park.

I loved every minute and actually wish it were longer. It’s great for both children and adults. There are “gifts” sprinkled in every scene. My favorite was Mayor Muldoon’s license plate, MBEZLR (embezzler). The only mistake I noticed was that the arched entrance to Liberty Park read correctly from both sides when it should have been backwards from the inside. This isn’t Disney or Pixar, but the animation is superb. The writing is clever and the voices match the characters. It’s believable even though Surly is a purple squirrel and Buddy is a blue mouse. I’m looking for another sequel. After all, Surly finally says “I love you” to Andie and kisses her on the cheek, and they’re the only two squirrels in the park.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Cars 3

By Steve Herte

Cars 3 (Disney/Pixar, 2017) – Director: Brian Fee. Writers: Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson & Mike Rich (s/p). Brian Fee, Eval Podell, Ben Queen & Jonathon E. Stewart (story).  Voices: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Nathan Fillon, Larry the Cable Guy, Armie Hammer, Ray Magliozzi, Tony Shalhoub, Bonnie Hunt, Lea DeLaria, Kerry Washington, Bob Costas, Margo Martindale, Darrell Waltrip & Isiah Whitlock, Jr.  Color, animated, Rated G, 109 minutes.

Eleven years after Cars (2006) and six after Cars 2 (2011) this sequel hits the screen racing and racing.

Lightning McQueen (Wilson) is winning and winning until a new car named Jackson Storm (Hammer) comes speeding into the picture. Jackson beats him in a race and the movie slows down radically after that. By the time the first hour was finished the kids in the audience were bored and acting up. 

Pixar’s magical animation couldn’t save this story, though their work was remarkable. I found myself trying to keep interested but noticing the soundtrack instead. Randy Newman’s composition and orchestration was excellent. Listed as an animated comedy, it was definitely animated. But comic? No.

McQueen is so shaken by a crash he suffers from a second race against dozens of cars like Storm he returns to hometown Radiator Springs to recover. Friends Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Sally Carrera (Hunt), a Porsche 996, give him encouragement. Dusty and Rusty (Ray and Tom Magliozzi) recommend he train with Sterling (Fillion), the new owner of Rust-Eze, their former racer training facility. There, he meets trainer Cruz Ramirez (Alonzo), who is excited about taking on the challenge of working with an “older” car.


The rest of the film is involved with the interaction of McQueen and Ramirez. In any other movie, it would be classified as a love affair, but not with Disney. Instead, it’s cutesy and moralistic. Not coincidentally, it’s the exact point where the film lost the kids. 

McQueen’s unorthodox training ideas involve him with Ramirez in the only funny scene where they travel to Thunder Hollow’s track and are trapped into a “Crazy Eight” demolition derby, hounded by a lunatic school bus named Miss Fritter (DeLaria). McQueen is further demoralized by the fact that Ramirez wins the derby, being the last car moving at the end. His only option is to seek out the car who trained his mentor, Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman), i.e. Smokey Yunick (Cooper). He will race with them in the Piston Cup Rally in Florida to prove to himself that he’s not washed up.

Aside from the stunning imagination coming from the Pixar studios, there were amusing characters with famous voices such as Tony Shalhoub, John Ratzenberger, Cheech Marin, and Katherine Helmond as a Ford Model T named appropriately named Lizzie. Also among the cast of voices were several racing stars including Richard Petty and Kyle Petty.

Of the three movies the rule applies. Sequels are rarely better than the original. The first Cars was by far the best with the two sequels decreasing noticeably in entertainment value. Visually, all three were stunning. As to the story...that is, as they say, another story.

Rating: 1 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Smurfs: The Lost Village

By Steve Herte

Smurfs: The Lost Village (Columbia, 2017) – Director: Kelly Asbury. Writers: Stacey Harman, Pamela Ribon (s/p). Peyo (characters and works). Voices: Demi Lovato, Rainn Wilson, Joe Manganiello, Jack McBrayer, Danny Pudi, Mandy Patinkin, Dee Bradley Baker, Frank Welker, Michelle Rodriguez, Ellie Kemper, Julia Roberts, Ariel Winter, Meghan Trainor, Bret Marnell & Brandon Jeffords. Color, Animated, Rated PG, 90 minutes.

Would you see a movie where the main characters are called “Les Schtroumpfs?” That’s what the Smurfs were called when Peyo (Pierre Culliford), a Belgian cartoonist, created them in 1956. They take the diverse personalities of the Seven Dwarfs to the extreme. Supposedly there are 100 Smurfs and, to date, only 83 have been named. All have a qualifier in their name to justify their attitude or their profession. Imagine your many different emotions becoming a separate personality and then have to rally them all as a team to solve any difficulties.

From 1981 to 1990 they starred in a television cartoon series and become a fad beloved by many. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a fan. Looking back, I realize I don’t know how or why I got to like the Smurfs, but I did. I even played a computer game based on a Smurf adventure with my niece. When the game descended into a cave and the music went from major to minor, she would always say, “This is the scary part.” It never was, but the music hinted at it. 

This is the third Smurf movie and the first one completely in CGI animation. The Smurfs (2011) and The Smurfs 2 (2013) were both live-action movies with animated Smurfs mixed in. The evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria) and his cat Azrael (Mr. Krinkle) were both live performers. But the way the Smurfs were drawn was wrong, along with their voices. Smurfs 2 was a box office failure.

Accurate” is the word to describe this film,  as it’s cinematically beautiful, masterfully animated, and well cast. From the start, the camera takes the audience on a Smurf’s-eye-view trek through a colorful forest to the familiar village of mushroom houses. Like a newscast, the proposition is posed that every Smurf knows who and what he is or does by his name. But what does Smurfette (Lovato) do? According to Farmer Smurf (Durham): “We know Smurfette is a Smurf. All we have to do is figure out what an ‘ette’ is.”


Even Smurfette wonders. Then she meets another Smurf in the forest wearing a jungle camouflage outfit. The other Smurf doesn’t say a word but runs off, disappearing through a chink in the stone wall marking the boundary of the Forbidden Forest and dropping a characteristic Smurf-cap. Papa Smurf (Patinkin) has strictly warned all of his Smurfs not to venture into the Forbidden Forest, but Smurfette is convinced there are Smurfs living there. The audience knows from the previous films that Smurfette is not a true Smurf, but was created from a lump of clay by Gargamel as both his spy and a lure to capture Smurfs. It was Papa Smurf’s magic that converted her into the loving, gentle creature we know.

Shortly after her encounter, Smurfette is captured by Gargamel (Wilson) and the cap provides him an ingredient to add to his cauldron (Jeffords), which provides him a hint as to where the Lost Village is. Azrael (Welker) finds the same hint on a tapestry on the castle wall, thus making it a map for Gargamel. Hefty Smurf (Manganiello), Brainy Smurf (Pudi) and Clumsy Smurf (McBrayer) rescue Smurfette and, thanks to a ladybug called Snappy Bug, voiced by Bret Marnell (who by the way, was also film’s editor), the Smurfs have a picture of the same map.

When Papa Smurf refuses to allow the four to seek out the Lost Village and warns them of Gargamel’s plan, they sneak out and go on the adventure of their lives. They find flowers that snap them up and spit them out, fire-breathing dragonflies, luminescent rabbits, a river that acts more like a rollercoaster, and a village of Smurfs – all female. From there on it’s their job to outsmart Gargamel, Azrael and their newest crony, a goofy vulture-like bird named Monty (Baker), and thwart his plans.

Peyo would be proud of this film. We all miss Jonathan Winters as Papa Smurf and Grandpa Smurf in the cartoon (he died in 2013), but Mandy Patinkin fills in marvelously. Joe Manganiello does a provocative Hefty Smurf and his interest in Smurfette is undisguised. Jake Johnson leaves George Lopez in the dust as Grouchy Smurf. And who could not find humor in Gordon Ramsay voicing Baker Smurf? The only voice that’s off is Gargamel’s. Paul Winchell set the bar in the cartoon and Hank Azaria matched it. Rainn Wilson needs more rehearsal.

On the other hand, Jokey Smurf is a tribute to the original cartoon voice, June Foray (remember Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Natasha Fatale, Cindy Lou Who, and Warner Brothers’ Granny and Witch Hazel?). Also, the 83 named Smurfs has been increased to 84 with the addition of Nosey Smurf, who finds everything interesting and hears “None of your business, Nosey!” as a running gag.

I enjoyed Smurfs: The Lost Village and so will children, once you explain it to them. It was entertaining, funny, and even had pathos. While you’re explaining, you may have to eventually tell the kids who Alan Young was (Farmer Smurf in the cartoon).

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Rock Dog 

By Steve Herte

Rock Dog (Summit Entertainment, 2016) – Director: Ash Brannon. Writers: Ash Brannon (s/p & story), Zheng Jun (story), Denise Bradley, Vincente DiSanti, Will Finn, Carolyn Gair, Nicole McMath, Kurt Voelker & Josh Zinman (additional story material). Stars: Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard, J.K. Simmons, Lewis Black, Kenan Thompson, Mae Whitman, Jorge Garcia, Matt Dillion & Sam Elliott. Color, Animated, Rated PG, 80 min.

My mind must have been seriously preoccupied when I purchased my movie ticket. I expected the theater to be devoid of people and it was, but I didn’t expect the average age of the theater-goers to decrease so far. Thinking I had bought a ticket to see A Dog’s Purpose, I was at first confused by the Chinese-style music at the beginning of this film. Then, the flat, badly drawn animated characters for the backstory made me think that this would be a cartoon short before the feature movie. Eventually, I realized that this was indeed Rock Dog and not A Dog’s Purpose. A character by the whimsical name of Fleetwood Yak (Elliott) narrates the basic premise of the film.

Somewhere in Tibet there is a lamasery-like village inhabited by sheep on Snow Mountain. They are guarded from the wolves by a large Tibetan mastiff named Khampa (Simmons). Khampa expects his son Bodie (Wilson) to follow in his footsteps and be the future guardian of the sheep. He’s locked up all musical instruments because he knows that Bodie will neglect all of his duties for music. Bodie performs all of his chores diligently, even anticipating ones his Dad could come up with but he hasn’t mastered a kung-fu-like move called the “Iron Paw,” which is his Dad’s secret weapon against the wolves. Khampa explains that it takes concentration and one has to put one’s heart into it and “feel the fire.”

No wolves have shown up in a long time due to Khampa and Bodie outfitting several sheep to look like an army of mastiffs guarding the flock, but that doesn’t mean they are not out there waiting. In my opinion, neither Khampa nor Bodie look anything like mastiffs, but that’s animation for you.


One day, it’s Bodie’s turn to dress up the sheep (who by the way, are dumber than a box of wool) and one costume’s head springs off and rolls away. Bodie chases it to a flock of birds, shoos them away, and they fly off taking the head with them. A single-engine plane appears in the sky heading for the flock of birds. When it veers to avoid them several items fall out onto the snow below, including a working pink radio. Bodie soon discovers that by turning the tuning knob different music forms emanate from this mysterious box. He tunes in a rock and roll station and is transported into a colorful fantasy, thus finding his passion is not just music, but rock and roll. He breaks into the locked cabinet and swipes a dramyin (a kind of Tibetan lute) and starts playing it like a guitar.

Khampa sees his son once again neglecting his duties for music and hatches a plan to scare Bodie out of this dream. He dresses three sheep and himself as wolves and attacks the village. But Bodie doesn’t react the way his Dad expects and he sends a false alarm through the village. In the chaos that results several balls of yarn act like fuses and, when lit by dropped torches, set off the fireworks shack. Khampa discusses this with Fleetwood Yak and Ian (Ash Brannon), the oldest sheep (and head shearer) and, against his better judgment, provides Bodie with a bus ticket to the city. Only one caveat, if he doesn’t “make it” there, he’s to give up music and come home.

The idea of a remote place like Snow Mountain having a bus stop is silly enough, but an Abbott and Costello team of wolves named Skozz and Riff (Thompson) watch Bodie’s every move. These two only remind me of Abbott and Costello in their size and shape, not in their comedic abilities, and the roles are reversed. Riff, the short fat one is the noisy, arrogant character and the tall thin one Skozz is silent and stupid. They are tasked with following Bodie into town and kidnapping him for their leader, Linnux (Black).

Bodie’s first destination in town (per the radio) is Rock and Roll Park, where various bands are competing for the crowd’s attention. He sees one group not playing and guesses they need a guitarist. He introduces himself to Darma (Whitman) a red fox bassist and Germur (Garcia) a spaced-out but likable goat on drums. Before he can start playing, Trey (Dillon), a Snow Leopard challenges him to a riff-contest as an audition and wins when Bodie tosses his instrument into a tree. But Trey knows how to get rid of Bodie. He tells him that he can get guitar lessons from the ultra-famous Angus Scattergood (Izzard) – whom Bodie had already learned of from the radio – and then he can try out again.

Angus is a skinny white cat who lives like a hermit in his mansion with only his robot butler Ozzie. Currently, he has a case of writer’s block and is being harassed by his producer to cut a single in the next three days or his career would suffer. After a few run-ins with Bodie – once where he’s kidnapped by accident by Riff and Skozz – he agrees to let him in and is forced to agree that the dog has talent. Together they write the song “Glorious.” Not an Oscar-winning tune, but good enough.

Nobody at Rock and Roll Park believe that Bodie and Angus composed a song together until they turn on a radio and hear Angus take sole credit for the song. Saddened by this, Bodie retreats from his new-found friends and is anesthetized and captured by Riff and Skozz. In his delirium he reveals that the army on Snow Mountain is actually sheep and, after putting Bodie into a fight cage with the hulking character named “The Griz” (a bear, of course) Linnux and his wolf pack/gang drive off at top speed to eat grilled lamb chops.

This may all sound exciting, but all the action in this film is dumbed down to a child’s level. The children in the audience were rapt. The pre-teens were on their devices throughout the film, and I was wondering why I was there. Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear and Augie Doggie had much better writers. Fortunately, the only flat-drawing was during the opening narration – which was only good because it was Sam Elliott’s voice – the rest was three dimensional, computer graphic enhanced characters. I read one review where the writer complained that the characters didn’t even have fur. Yes they did, and very well done in CGI. If you didn’t notice the close-ups of Linnux, you might possibly have fallen asleep at that point.

Even though its $60 million production cost made it the most expensive animated film in China, I don’t anticipate it being nominated for any Academy Awards in 2018. The production company, Reel FX also made Free Birds (2013) – seriously funnier – and The Book of Life (2014) – a remarkable achievement – which prompts the question, “What went wrong this time?”

Rating: 1½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Lego Batman Movie

By Steve Herte

The Lego Batman Movie (WB, 2017) – Director: Chris McKay. Writers: Seth Grahame-Smith s/p, story), Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington (s/p). Bob Kane, Bill Finger (creators of Batman). Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster (creators of Superman). Voices: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Hector Elizondo, Ralph Fiennes, Zach Galifianakis, & Channing Tatum. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 104 minutes.

The strong points of this silly spoof are the outrageous computer animation, the remarkably complex sets composed of Lego bricks, the funny (though juvenile) comic lines and the cast itself. No wonder they had an $80 million budget.

The story is simple. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Arnett), though he saves Gotham City over and over, is a lone vigilante and he likes it that way. Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (Dawson) takes over as Police Commissioner from her Dad, Jim Gordon (Elizondo). She wants to eliminate crime, not just fight it over and over and have Batman work with the Gotham City police. Alfred Pennyworth (Fiennes), who virtually raised Bruce Wayne, thinks it’s time for him to experience family and raise Robin/Dick Grayson (Cera), an orphan Bruce unwittingly adopted at a Gotham City gala as his own.

Meanwhile, the Joker (Galifianakis) believes there’s a special hate/love/need relationship between himself and Batman, and is willing to surrender his army of villains to get Batman to admit it (which he doesn’t), and all are sent to Arkham Asylum. This makes Batman unnecessary. But he’s sure Joker is plotting something and, after watching a television interview of Superman (Tatum), he decides that the only place that the Joker could be genuinely contained is in the Phantom Zone, where Superman sent General Zod. Realizing that he cannot directly steal the device that can accomplish this feat from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, he trains Robin and directs him through all the gyrations needed to get it. In the process, however, Batman stumbles into a party where every super hero but himself was invited. Awkward.


With the device, Batman sends Joker to the Phantom Zone. Barbara locks him and Robin up for the deed, noting that he might just have done what the Joker wanted him to do. She’s right. Joker amasses a super army of villains including King Kong (Seth Green), Sauron (Jemaine Clement) from Lord of the Rings, Medusa, the Wicked Witch of the West and her Winged Monkeys, the bad Gremlins, a Velociraptor from Jurassic Park, the Kraken Sea Monster from Clash of the Titans, Lord Voldemort (Eddie Izzard) from Harry Potter, the Daleks from Dr. Who, Swamp Creature, Agent Smith from The Matrix, the Shark from Jaws, and a T-Rex. To battle this juggernaut, Batman is forced to ally with Barbara, Robin and Alfred and recruits all of Joker’s former villain army to help. Did I mention how large the cast was? This included Harley Quinn (Jenny Slate), Scarecrow (Jason Mantzoukas), the Riddler (Conan O’Brien), Bane (Doug Benson), Two-Face (Billy Dee Williams), Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), Clayface (Kate Micucci), Poison Ivy (Riki Lindhome) in speaking roles and a host of others. My personal favorite was Condiment King, who had ketchup in one hand and mustard in the other.

Joker’s plan is to bomb the Gotham City Power Company and destroy the city. Conveniently, a commentator comes on a television screen before he leaves for the Phantom Zone to tell him exactly how to do it. If you realize that this is basically a Lego Gotham City, then it must have been built by some extremely imaginative child and must sit on a table in someone’s basement. Hence the commentator’s statement that the city is built on a single slab with nothing underneath it and a crack in the center would cause the entirety of Gotham to fall into an abyss. Unlike the first Lego movie, no mention of “the man upstairs” is made. But we can guess from this revelation.

Among the huge cast we also hear Susan Bennett, credited as “Siri,” the Bat Computer, Phyllis the Phantom Zone Gatekeeper (Ellie Kemper), a single Lego block with lights for connecting knobs, Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), the Flash (Adam Devine), and surprisingly, Mariah Carey as Mayor McCaskill.

I mentioned the funny lines. Two quotes stand out for me:

Alfred: “Sir, I have seen you go through similar phases in 2016 and 2012 and 2008 and 2005 and 1997 and 1992 and 1989 and that weird one in 1966. (The many iterations of Batman in the movies and on television. The last one with Adam West playing the part and doing a strange dance.)
Batman: “I have aged phenomenally!”

And:

Dick Grayson: “My name is Richard Grayson. The other kids call me Dick.”
Bruce Wayne: “Well children can be cruel.”

The soundtrack uses older pop songs to accentuate the comedy, such as playing “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” by Cutting Crew when Bruce sees Barbara for the first time, and again when Batman sees her. Other tunes heard including “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley, “Fly Robin Fly” by Silver Convention, “Wake Me Up, Before You Go-Go” by Wham!, “The Batman Theme” by Neal Hefti, and the classical Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johan Sebastian Bach.

The kids will love this film. It’s geared mainly to them, naturally. Adults will find some content appealing but the majority is just, as I mentioned, silly. A surprise for me was that it actually did something I abhor and got away with it because it worked. A narration at the outset of the film and at the end. We hear Batman say, “Every great movie begins with a black screen and some scary music and large imposing logos. Hmm, Warner Bras (sic).” And then, “Every good movie ends with a white screen.” I was impressed. But I still don’t think it was as good as the first Lego Movie (2015).

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.



Trolls

By Steve Herte

Trolls (DreamWorks/ Fox, 2016) – Directors: Walt Dorn, Mike Mitchell. Writers: Jonathan Aibel & Mike Mitchell (s/p). Erica Rivinoja (story). Thomas Dam (creator, Good Luck Trolls). Voices: Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Zooey Deschanel, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Christine Baranski, Russell Brand, Gwen Stefani, John Cleese, James Corden, Jeffrey Tambor, Ron Funches, Aino Jawo, Caroline Hjelt, Kunal Nayyar, & Quvenzhané Wallis. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 92 minutes.

The trailers prepared me perfectly for this saccharin-sweet sappy story. The movie opens in Bergentown at the time of year called “Trollstice.” King Gristle Sr. (Cleese) has promised his son the future King Gristle (Mintz-Plasse) his first literal taste of happiness by eating a troll. 

Somehow the film doesn’t explain why these goofy ghouls are called Bergens, they just are. The Chef (Baranski) has just picked the right troll from the huge Troll Tree growing in the town square. but it proves to be a fake, as do all the trolls on the tree. For this, the Chef is banished and thrown out of town.

The real live trolls are escaping through a series of tunnels led by their King Peppy (Tambor) and his repeated calls of “No troll left behind!” Not surprisingly, he’s the last troll out of the tunnel with his daughter and heir Poppy.

About 20 years later, Poppy (Kendrick) has grown into the role of princess and leads her life singing, dancing and hourly hugging people in party after party. That is except for Branch (Timberlake). He doesn’t believe they’re safe from the Bergens and lives in an underground bunker. He doesn’t sing, dance or hug and he reproves Poppy for making the parties increasingly loud for fear of attracting the Bergens. And it does attract the attention of one Bergen, the exiled Chef.


In the confusion of scattering trolls, she manages to snatch up Creek (Brand), DJ Suki (Stefani), Biggie (Corden), Cooper (Funches), Satin (Jawo), Chenille (Hjelt), Guy Diamond (Nayyar) and Harper (Wallis), and puts them into her fanny pack for delivery to the king and reinstatement as Chef.

Poppy is shaken but determined to save them. She begs Branch to help her, but when he refuses, she invites all the other trolls into his bunker. Rather than experience “hug time,” Branch accompanies Poppy on her quest just in time to save her from a group of spiders that may just have come from the movie Queen of Outer Space (1958), only the animated version.

When they gain access to the castle, they discover that the lowly scullery maid Bridget (Deschanel) is in love with King Gristle and, in return for their freedom, the trolls give her a Cinderella-style makeover. They transform her into Lady Glitter-Sparkle and it’s love at first sight for the King. What do Bergens do on a date? They go roller skating, of course.

If it weren’t for the exceptional animation and music (sometimes forced into the scenes) this film would have the rubber stamp of “been there, done that” all over it. The use of color versus Branch’s gray, gloom and doom attitude is remarkable, especially when things look worst and the entire cast of trolls go gray one by one. Popular tunes mixed into the movie include “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” “Sounds of Silence,” “Total Eclipse of the Heart,, “Celebrate” and Zooey Deschanel gets to sing Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello.” The one original song, “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake will probably be nominated as Best Song, but it has tough competition.

Children, especially little ones will love this movie. Adults may find it levels more juvenile than the Smurfs. It’s colorful, musical, technically fantastic and hackneyed, all at the same time. It’s the kind of film you watch when you don’t want a show that makes you think. I’m glad I saw it, but once is enough. Oh, in case you’ve seen the trailers and heard a yellow peanut-shaped character say, “Oh snap!” that’s Mr. Dinkles (voiced by Walt Dorn – along with five other characters) and his only line.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Moana

By Steve Herte

Inner Workings (Disney, 2016) – Directed and written by Leonardo Matsuda. Voice: Raymond S. Persi. Animated, Color, Rated G, 7 minutes.

This animated short tells the story of a day in the life of a man stuck in a boring, repetitive job as well as a daily routine from the inside out. In fact, it’s the same concept as Inside Out (2015) only not as clever, entertaining or well-drawn. His purple rectangular brain rules his other bodily organs and keeps him from adventure, love and excitement with the same promise of outcome, death. The only organ with a vocal part is the stomach, voiced by Raymond S. Persi, who also plays the monk canting over the man’s coffin at the end of each thought.

It succeeds in getting its point across and the running gag of the monk chanting quasi-Latin is funny, but it looks more like an instructional video trying to be a Disney short.

Rating: 1½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Moana (Disney, 2016) – Directors: Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker, & Chris Williams. Writers: Jared Bush (s/p). Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kendall, & Jordan Kendall (story). Voices: Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk, Oscar Knightley, Troy Polamalu, Puanani Cravalho, & Louise Bush. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 103 minutes.

Disney’s got another princess even though she doesn’t like to be considered a princess. This one’s Polynesian. It starts with a narrative of how the demigod Maui (Johnson) steals the pounamu stone, which is the heart of Te Fiti, the Island Mother and source of all life. He then has to battle Te Ka, the lava monster, and loses both the stone and his magic fishhook (from which he derives his shape-shifting powers) to the depths of the ocean.

The people of Motunui island have everything they need: ample fishing and coconuts until the fish leave the lagoon and the coconuts turn black inside. The daughter of Chief Tui (Morrison) and Sina (Scherzinger), Moana Waialiki (Auli’I Cravalho) has had a special relationship with the ocean. She communicates with it, and it reveals pretty conch shell for her. Her name even means “Ocean” in a few dialects. She sees the problems of her people and longs to take a canoe past the reef to find fish for them but her father forbids it. We learn later on that he once rowed past the reef as a young man and lost his best friend to the unfriendly sea.

But the sea reveals the “heart” to Moana and, after a few consultations with Gramma Tala (House) she discovers a cave behind a waterfall where the men of Motunui hid their ocean-going canoes. Things do not improve on the island, and Gramma Tala urges Moana to go from her death bed. Despite her father’s misgivings, Moana sets off to find Maui and make him take her across the great ocean and give Te Fiti back her heart. Once past the reef, Moana discovers a stowaway, Heihei (Tudyk) the rooster. This fowl is easily the dumbest character Disney ever created. He eats rocks, has to be shown where food is and repeatedly walks off the canoe into the ocean and has to rescued.


Maui, however, has been stranded on a desert island for millennia and is not quite ready to do a girl’s bidding. Though without powers, he’s more interested in escaping captivity than saving the world and being a hero again. He’s too full of himself and even argues with the many tattoos covering his upper body. We learn later that his own parents abandoned him.

But Moana’s persistence breaks through his armor and not only do they sail across the ocean together, he teaches her “wayfinding” – the art of navigation using currents and gauging the stars. They defeat the fearsome (but also self-centered) Tamatoa (Clement) the giant evil coconut crab, to regain Maui’s fishhook and escape hordes of attacking Kakamora pirates (really just animated coconuts – there are many uses of coconuts in this film).

Though this movie starts slow and is exceptionally Disney-cute at the beginning, it gains momentum with increasing interaction of water and people. The soundtrack is powerful and the big musical numbers are majestic and glorious. Look for “How Far I’ll Go” sung by Cravalho as a number one contender for best song at the next Academy Awards ceremony. The song is on a par with “Let It Go” from Frozen. The choral numbers in the Tokelauan language compare in sheer emotion and splendor to those in The Lion King. Though technically not a musical, there are a few reprises of the main song and, just when it threatens to become a musical, Maui snidely remarks to Moana, “You’re not going to break into song are you?”

Maui is the best role for Dwayne Johnson I’ve seen so far. The character can do all the physical acting his voice implies. It’s a perfect combination. Cravalho has an exceptional voice, with the strength and timbre of Idina Menzel’s. Her character Moana is an example for all young girls who aspire to greater things. The movie is a constant build of emotion until the end, where it almost leaves the audience breathless. It’s one of two movies this year where I heard the audience applaud at the end. Bring the family to this one. Once you get past the “cute” you’ll love it.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Coraline 

By Steve Herte

Coraline (Focus Features, 2009) – Director: Henry Selick. Writers: Henry Selick (s/p). Neil Gaiman (book). Voices: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey, Jr., Ian McShane, Aankha Neal, George Selick, Hannah Kaiser, Henry Selick, Marina Budovsky, Emerson Tenney, & Jerome Ranft. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 100 minutes.

When I first saw advertisements of Coraline, I was sure Tim Burton had something to do with it because it was so similar in look to The Nightmare Before Christmas. As it turns out, the only things the two movies have in common are the stop-motion animation and director Henry Selick. What a surprise. I borrowed the DVD from a friend and I’m glad I did.

The story is excellent and teaches a lesson in the nicest, but scariest, way. Coraline Jones (Fanning) and her parents Charlie (Hodgman) and Mel (Hatcher) move into this old Victorian three-level house called the Pink Palace Apartments. They share the house with the ridiculously acrobatic Mr. Sergei Alexander Bobinsky (McShane) upstairs, and two wacky, elderly actresses – Miss April Spink (Saunders) and Miss Miriam Forcible (French) downstairs.


Coraline is a savvy, active teenager who desperately wants to be with and do things with her parents but she’s having a hard time even communicating with them. Both are too busy at their computers – Mom writing a gardening catalogue and Dad is slowly doing who knows what – to pay Coraline the kind of attention she needs. Charlie tells her to explore the house and count the windows and Mel tells her to finish the unpacking.

Coraline finds a door in the wallpaper of the dining room and begs her Mom for the key. Strangely enough, there is a drawer full of keys, but only one has a handle the shape of a button. It fits, the door is opened and a wall of bricks is all they see.

Disappointed, Coraline dons her yellow coat and goes out. She feels she’s being stalked and soon makes the acquaintance of a mangy black cat and her neighbor, Wyborne ‘Wybie’ Lovat (Bailey), who talks so much she soon calls him “Why were you born?” Wybie gives her a gift he claims was made by his grandmother. It’s a doll with blue hair (just like Coraline) and a yellow coat (just like Coraline) with two buttons for eyes. Though she groans about being too old for dolls, but she accepts it and calls it “Little Me.”

That’s when her adventures begin. One night, she hears a mouse in her bedroom. It’s a long-tailed jumping mouse. She follows it downstairs and it vanishes behind the door in the wallpaper. Looking in, she no longer sees the brick wall, but a magical glowing blue passageway to an identical door in the distance. She crawls through to a duplicate dining room to her own, only this one is nicely decorated and set for dinner. 

She goes to the kitchen and finds her Mom cooking! Mom doesn’t cook, Dad does, and it’s always awful. This Mom however is an excellent cook. The only thing odd is that she has buttons for eyes. Dad is in his study playing piano, or rather, the piano is playing him and he sings a song about Coraline. He too has buttons for eyes. Though suspicious, Coraline loves the attention she’s getting from both of them and, after a feast of a dinner, she goes up to bed in her beautiful room where all her toys are alive.

She wakes up the next morning in her own bed in her boring house with her own inattentive parents. After a few one-way conversations, she longs to return to the alternate reality and even baits the floor with cheese to attract the jumping mice. It works.

She soon learns that not only are her “other” parents everything she could want them to be, Wybie can’t talk, but the Cat (David) can. The two elderly actresses are just disguises for two lovely young women who put on a show for her, and Mr. Bobinsky has a circus in his apartment featuring the music-playing, dancing, jumping mice. She’s delighted.

But it’s all a trap set by the evil Beldam, a metallic, spidery creature who wants her eyes and wants to sew buttons in their place. Coraline is put into a situation where she has to find her parents (taken hostage by Beldam) and free the spirits of previous child victims in order to unweave Beldam’s web.

On a Halloween-like parallel to The Wizard of Oz, this film says “be careful what you wish for.” It does so with flawless animation, clean but dark humor, and an excellent soundtrack. The DVD has commentary by director Henry Selick and composer Bruno Coulais, which are interesting and a plethora of trailers of future movies, which are not as interesting. Sorry kids, there are no Coraline games to play. But the movie is worth it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Storks

By Steve Herte

Storks (WB, 2016) – Directors: Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland. Writer: Nicholas Stoller. Stars: Andy Samberg, Katie Crown, Kelsey Grammer, Jennifer Aniston, Ty Burrell, Anton Starkman, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Danny Trejo, Stephen Kramer Glickman, Christopher Nicholas Smith, Awkwafina, Ike Barinholtz, Jorma Taccone & Amanda Lund. Color, Animated, Rated PG, 89 minutes.

Eighteen years ago, Boss Stork Hunter (Grammer) shut down the baby delivery system for an Amazon-like package mailing service called The Corner Store. Why? Because Jasper (Trejo), one of his employees, fell in love with the baby he was scheduled to deliver and accidentally broke the device that would tell him where to deliver her. Thus, Tulip (Crown) grew up on Stork Mountain and is now 18. She hasn’t been an asset to the company. Every time she attempts to help it ends in a disaster. For instance, she straps jet-packs onto a quail, an emu and a chicken to give them a taste of something they cannot naturally do – fly. The resulting crash sets fire to half the warehouse.

A young and up-coming stork with several successful flights to his resume is called into Hunter’s office by boot-licker and boss-wannabe, Pigeon Toady (Glickman). Junior (Samberg) is almost overcome by the honor of meeting the boss. Hunter plays on Junior’s ambitions and dangles the carrot of eventually being the “Boss” if he fires his friend Tulip.

Instead of firing her (a word he fails to even pronounce), he promotes her to the Letter Sorting Room, a huge space with a table and chair and nothing to do (all letters are being intercepted and stored in a large bin). The one caveat he gives Tulip is to not leave the room, ever.


Meanwhile, in another part of the world, real estate agents Henry and Sarah Gardner (Burrell and Aniston) are too busy with their endless clients to play with, or simply pay attention to their imaginative son, Nate (Starkman). On a drive in their car, Nate sees another little boy happily playing with his brother in a nearby vehicle. When he asks Mom and Dad if he can have a little brother, he gets surprised looks and “You’re all we need” from them. Back at home, Nate finds a brochure for the Stork Baby Delivery System. He writes a letter and mails it, efficiently delivered to Tulip, who is overjoyed to finally receive a letter.

While Hunter is discussing how great his life could be as Boss, Junior sees Tulip getting dangerously close to the baby-making machine on the many computer monitors and manages to shut them off before Hunter can see what’s happening and hurries down to her. But she wants to do her “job” and puts the letter in the slot before he can stop her and the magical machine starts up. The bright red “off” button is protected by a series of mangling gears and Junior disables his right wing pushing it. But it’s too late. An adorable red-headed baby girl has been produced by the Rube Goldberg device and is awaiting delivery in an Apollo Mission-like capsule.

Junior knows he has to deliver this baby before Hunter finds out that the machine has been restarted, but how? He can’t fly. Tulip is a tinkerer and has built a plane, and they’re off on the adventure that is Storks. Neither is prepared for crashing into a frozen wasteland, meeting a pack of hungry wolves led by the Alpha Wolf (Key) and his Beta Wolf (Peele) and being pursued relentlessly by the wacky canines. Nor are they prepared for the devious detective work of the nefarious Pigeon Toady, who discovers their breach of the rules.

Warner Brothers studios are one of my favorite sources of animation. They gave us Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, the Animaniacs, and Pinky and the Brain. The quality of their animation is legendary and, even though the eyes are drawn a bit too large in this film, it’s still a masterpiece of animation. Voice matching to the characters is hard enough when the speakers let each other finish a sentence. Here we have several arguments between Junior and Tulip where their lines overlap and it’s still comprehensible – and very funny. The various crazy scenes are hilarious without the wolf pack acting like army ants and forming themselves into whatever shape the Alpha wolf commands.

There are only two draw-backs: Pigeon Toady has a weird California/English accent and many of his lines are garbled, even when he sings a verse from “How You Like Me Now?” If he said anything comic, it was lost. The other is a little more concerning. The film is beautifully made with a great soundtrack and begins by debunking the myth of babies being delivered by storks. However, it reinforces it towards the end. If you’re the kind of parent who wants your child to know the truth, you might think about how well adjusted your child is before seeing this film. I loved it and really wanted to believe the myth upon leaving the theater. It was that well done.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 martini glasses.




The Wild Life

By Steve Herte

The Wild Life (Lionsgate, 2016) – Directors: Vincent Kesteloot, Ben Stassen. Stars: Yuri Lowenthal, Doug Stone, Jeff Doucette, Debi Tinsley, Laila Berzins, Joey Camen, Sandy Fox, Marieve Herington, Gerald Schaale, & David Howard. Animated, Color, 3D, Rated PG, 90 minutes.

The trailers for this Belgian animated feature held so much promise I was eager to see it. And yes, the animation is very well done. The characters move smoothly and believably and are far from flat cartoons right down to the details in feathers. The voice match-ups are excellent and fitting to the character. The story is a great concept; the tale of Robinson Crusoe as told from the viewpoint of the animals already living on the island where he’s shipwrecked. It’s even politically correct in that it eliminates the character Friday completely. But how the story is told would not convince a five-year-old.

One has to wonder from the start why the miserably seasick Robinson Crusoe (Lowenthal) is on a wooden sailing ship. The rest of the crew mock him and his only friend is his dog Aynsley (Stone), a Skye Terrier with a distinctly Scottish accent. It seems his only purpose on board is to keep the two vicious cats, Mal (Doucette), and his mate May (Tinsley), away from the chickens. May dominates the relationship and vows vengeance on Crusoe and Aynsley for thwarting her dining plans.

Meanwhile, on a rocky desert island, there’s a luau every night and all the animals gather food for the feast: Rosie the tapir (Berzins), Scrubby the goat (Camen), Epi the hedgehog (Fox) who looks more like an echidna, Kiki the colorful tropical bird (Herington), Pango the pangolin (Doucette), and Carmello the chameleon (Schaale). 

Only Mak, a scarlet macaw (Howard), is not preparing for dinner. He’s bored with the sameness of everyday life on the island and is dreaming of another place far away when he finds a ring on the shore. Not sure what it is, he pecks away the encrustations and concludes that it’s proof that somewhere else exists, and he wants to go there.


A violent storm brews over the ocean and affects both ship and luau. When our animal friends wake up the next morning, a ship, broken in two, is on the rocks off shore. As Crusoe and Aynsley struggle ashore in a barrel, the animals fear of being attacked by sea monsters. Mak, however, is undaunted; he wants to know more. There are some great aerial flying scenes as we follow him over, under, and through the ship’s wreckage. Crusoe was trapped by a broken main mast blocking the hatch above him, but he manages to break though and eventually befriends Mak with a biscuit. But when Crusoe leaves the room, Mal and May attack and Mak dislocates a wing in the fray. Crusoe heals Mak and renames him Tuesday, which he estimates would be the current day.

The rest of the story is Crusoe trying to adapt to life on the island and Tuesday being his intermediary with the other animals. Mal and May also escape to the island after a final battle with Aynsley which sets fire to the ship and explodes the gunpowder cache. Poor Aynsley, my favorite character, is never seen again.

The animals help Crusoe build his treehouse and get food and even cooperate in exiling Mal and May to Curse Island: a rocky outcrop offshore with only bugs to eat and dangerous currents surrounding it. But the vengeful May is pregnant and plans her retaliation with her brood of a dozen young.

I liked the fact that the narration (kept to a minimum, thank you) by Mak was told to two rats on board the rescue (albeit pirate) ship, but the passage of time was a little confusing. Granted, animals could care less what day it was (except for Mak), but I would have liked to have seen some gauge between May’s announcement of pregnancy and the adulthood of her kittens. There are just too many unanswered questions for my taste.

The Wild Life is a charmingly cutesy movie best seen in 3D as it takes full advantage of the 3D effects. Several items and characters are sent toward the audience and there are scenes with items hovering over you. The script is simple and not as educational as Dora The Explorer, but entertaining for the little ones. The only joke I laughed at was when Crusoe finds a pair of glasses for the near-sighted Scrubby, and he looks at Rosie and says, “Rosie! You’re not a pig! You’re beautiful!” It doesn’t really have a moral and the only award it will be nominated for is technical expertise. I enjoyed it. It just didn’t “Wow!” me.

Rating: out of 5 Martini glasses.


Ice Age: Collision Course


By Steve Herte

Kubo and the Two Strings (Focus Features, 2016) – Director: Travis Knight. Writers: Marc Haines, Chris Butler (s/p). Shannon Tindle, Marc Haines (story). Stars: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey, Meyrick Murphy, Minae Noji, Alpha Takahashi, Laura Miro, Ken Takemoto, Aaron Aoki, & Luke Donaldson. Color, Animated, Rated PG, 101 minutes.

This film is unique in the animated feature category in that the characters are exaggerated into almost abstract art and the backgrounds could be easily found on a Japanese paper room divider. For a stop-motion animation film, the results are spectacular. It was so well done that, at times, I forgot it was stop-motion. The characters move convincingly and the voices match the mouth shapes. Details like hair blowing in the wind and clothing flowing are minimized to nearly Anime austerity. On the whole, it’s very Zen and mythological, which I guess, is the intent.


Kubo (Parkinson) is a young boy who lost an eye at an early age and not only wears a patch over it, but wears his hair long to cover the patch. Presumably, he lost his eye to the Moon King (Fiennes) who, by the way happens to be his grandfather. He lives in a cave atop a promontory, far from a small village with his ailing mother (Theron).

But Kubo is a storyteller, and each day he goes to the village to gain a few coins from his stories to buy food. His problem, emphasized by kindly old Kameyo (Vaccaro), is that he never finishes a story. As his stories unfold literally, origami figures magically act out the tale while Kubo plays his magic samisen. When the gong signals sundown, however, he stops the story wherever it is and runs home, following an injunction from his mother to never stay out after dark. Hashi (Tagawa), Kubo’s biggest fan, is stunned by the unfinished narrative.

Why such a strange command in a peaceful, rural village? Because her two evil sisters (Mara) have allied themselves with the Moon King and are trying to get Kubo’s other eye.

The time comes for a special festival for honoring the beloved dead and the entire village processes to the cemetery with lanterns to pray and set them floating on the river. But though Kubo prays, he’s unable to communicate with his father, and in his anger fails to notice that he’s out after dark. The Sisters attack, destroying the village. However, just at the crucial moment, Kubo’s mother appears and fights them off. She gives the last of her magic to him and sends him off to “the Far-Lands” for safety.

In the snows of foggy who-knows-where, Kubo meets Monkey (also Theron), whom he knew from childhood as a wooden charm he carried around in the pocket of his father’s robe. Talking to a snow monkey is such a shock to Kubo he doesn’t realize that the voice is the same one as his mother’s. Monkey gives him his quest: he must seek out the magical sword, armor and helmet of his samurai father to defeat the Moon King.

On the way, they meet a former samurai who apprenticed under Hanzo, Kubo’s father, and cursed to appear as a manlike Beetle (McConaughey). When he learns who Kubo is, he swears his allegiance and joins in the quest, much to Monkey’s chagrin. The three find the sword implanted in the skull of a giant skeleton (among dozens of others} and the armor is under the sea protected by giant hypnotic eyes. The Sisters attack before they can find the final piece and Kubo must fly back to his village to escape. And there, in the bell tower, is the helmet.

But what of the two strings? When Kubo is sent to the Far-Lands, he retains a lock of his mothers’ hair. Beetle is an expert archer and Kubo uses the bowstring and his mother’s hair to repairs his magic samisen (along with a lock of his own hair) for the final battle.

The whole story is told as if from a Japanese master to a student, much like the villager Hosato (Takei) does when teaching his little girl toward the beginning of the film. Magic figures greatly and the growing power in Kubo is emphasized by things happening even while he’s dreaming. This is when “Little Hanzo.” an origami samurai figure Kubo modeled after his father, appears and becomes a paper GPS in finding the armor.

Not a film for children below toddler age, it will entertain some children, though the morals and teachings of the film are aimed mainly at adults. I enjoyed the interaction between the often clueless and childlike Beetle and the fierce guarded nature of Monkey. “Don’t mess with the Monkey!” she once growled at Kubo after he made origami mosquitoes attack her from behind.

Kubo and the Two Strings is enjoyable and flows neatly without dead spots. The music is beautiful, even with the almost droning sound of the samisen. Will there be a sequel? Maybe. It does have a subtitle. I have no idea where the story will go, but there will need to be new characters with Kubo in any next one.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


By Steve Herte

Ice Age: Collision Course (20th Century Fox, 2016) – Directors: Mike Thurmeier & Galen T. Chu. Writers: Michael J. Wilson, Michael Berg, Yoni Brenner (s/p), Aubrey Solomon (story). Voices: Stephanie Beatriz, Robert Cardone, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Adam Devine, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Max Greenfield, Ray Romano, Jessie J, Queen Latifah, Denis Leary, John Leguizamo, Jennifer Lopez, Jorge Lucas, Andrew Christopher Nichols, Melissa Rauch, Nick Offerman, Simon Pegg, Chris Wedge, Wanda Sykes, Nick Offerman, Keke Palmer, & Michael Strahan. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 94 minutes.

The fifth film in the Ice Age series begins with a serious monologue by Neil deGrasse Tyson about theories on how the solar system came to be in its current configuration. At the end he says, “Some are much dumber.” 

The scene quickly switches to Scrat (Wedge), who is still chasing the acorn and trying to plant it in the ice without disaster befalling him. This time, a hole opens up beneath him and drops him into a flying saucer encased in the ice. At first, he decides to plant his acorn in the saucer’s driving control, but he changes his mind and accidentally grabs the throttle, hurtling into space causing havoc with both planets and asteroids. In the chaos, two planets collide and the resulting debris starts on a collision course with Earth.

Back on Earth, Ellie (Latifah) the mammoth and her daughter Peaches (Palmer) are planning an anniversary party. As usual, Ellie’s mate, Manny (Romano) is clueless as to what is going on. Even consulting his best friend Diego (Leary) the saber-toothed tiger doesn’t help; and his mate, Shira (Lopez) is not about to give it away. But Manny has other problems. Peaches is in love with Julian (Devine), who is clumsy and hyperactive at the same time. They want to get married and move out on their own.

Elsewhere, Sid (Leguizamo) the ground-sloth is being dumped by girlfriend Francine (Rauch) and again mooning about having nothing left but his “boyish good-looks and a Mariachi band!” (which he hired for their wedding.) His Granny (Sykes) gives him left-handed advice which is useless at best.

On the day of the party, Manny realizes he forgot to get Ellie a gift and it’s at this point that the first scraps of the asteroid enter Earth’s atmosphere like fireworks. Ellie thinks it’s so romantic that he lit up the sky just for her when a major piece flames up and heads right for them and everyone has to run.


Meanwhile, if you’ve been following the five-movie series, in the underground Lost World where the remaining dinosaurs have survived, Buck the Weasel (Pegg) is rescuing a triceratops’ egg from three oviraptors: Gavin (Offerman), his daughter Gertie (Beatriz) and son Roger (Greenfield). As we now know about oviraptors, this trio has feathers, but unlike modern knowledge, these three can fly.

It doesn’t take too much time for Manny’s group and Buck and his pursuers to meet at the surface and figure out that a world extinction type asteroid is heading for Earth and together, they have to avert the collision. The raptors believe they can fly above the destruction and escape it.

Buck has uncovered an ancient monolith (who created it is a complete mystery) from which they get directions to the point where the asteroid will hit. Once there, they discover an asteroid already embedded in the ground. In its crystal-studded interior they meet Brooke (Jessie J), another ground-sloth who is just as looney as Sid, and they fall in love. Brooke brings them to the Shangri Llama (Ferguson) who has no idea as to how to stop the asteroid. 

The Ice Age series started off wonderfully with one and two, Meltdown (2006) and, though still entertaining, lost something in the writing and the attitude of the characters in three, four, Continental Drift (2012) and this one. Scrat remains the one consistently funny member of the cast, while the rest of the “humor” supplied is of the bathroom variety. Another problem is that that main characters have lost much of their personality. What almost makes up for this are three new characters conjured up by Buck; Pythagoras Buck, Robo Buck (both Pegg), and Neil deBuck Weasel (Tyson), who even sports a mustache and the little galaxy and stars vest Neil always wears. Inside the crystal of eternal youth, we find another funny and kind-of sexy character, a big blue bunny named Teddy (Strahan), who finds Granny to be very foxy.

Those who stay through the credits will see the final scene, which was made into one of the trailers: Scrat, his acorn and the sliding doors on the spaceship – still very funny. Kids will love it. Adults who saw all the previous movies will say, “What did you do with my characters?” I suggest the writers take a cue from the writers of the Madagascar series, which is still consistently funny and clever.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Secret Life of Pets

By Steve Herte

Mower Minions (Universal, 2016) – Director: Glenn McCoy. Animated. Color, Rated G, 4 minutes.

What do the minions do when they are not serving Gru or searching for Scarlet Overkill? Simple: they’re watching TV and thinking about bananas. 

And that’s what they’re doing in this hilarious four-minute short after they see an infomercial touting a miracle blender full of bananas for $24. 

They quickly get out the piggy bank. One puts several sticks of dynamite on it, while another simply smashes it. A single quarter is inside. What to do?  

They see children outside getting money for mowing lawns and an idea is formed. Pulling the pin from the trailer attached to a professional landscaping outfit’s truck, they have all the tools they need and head for a retirement home. Though the people can’t understand their wacky language and one elderly gentleman is just as incomprehensible, they get the job using a sign indicating $24 and pointing. The rest is pure insanity.

One uses a leaf blower to annoy another, one steps in dog poop while another in a hazmat suit places it in a paper bag. Another has a staring contest with a lawn gnome – and wins when the gnomes head explodes – and is so excited he needs to breathe into a paper bag (you guessed it, the one with the poop). The work really doesn’t get done, but the people are so grateful for the gales of laughter they pay them with a jar filled with 24,000 “shiny pennies.”

I loved the minions since I first saw them in Despicable Me and I still find them very funny. This is an excellent short that had me chuckling minutes into the main feature. Well done, Universal!

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

The Secret Life of Pets (Universal, 2016) – Directors: Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud. Writers: Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch & Cinco Paul. Stars: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan, Michael Beattie, Tara Strong, Sandra Echeverría, & Jaime Camil. Animated, 3D, Color, Rated PG, 90 minutes.

I was talking with a friend about seeing this film when he noted that his son didn’t want to see it for a most unusual (and partly correct) reason. He didn’t want to see another movie where the main character gets lost and all of his friends must go searching for him, a plot of many past movies. Yes, that’s almost it. But unlike Dory or Nemo, Max (Louis C.K.) does not become lost by his own fault.


Max is Katie’s (Kemper) little brown and white dog and he has a good life, that is until Katie has to go to work. His lifestyle is upset when Katie comes home from the dog pound and brings Duke (Stonestreet), a big, long-haired mongrel, to be his big brother. Duke uses his size to lord it over Max, but when Duke smashes a vase, Max uses a doggy form of blackmail to control Duke.

While on a dog-walk with Duke and eight other dogs, they arrive at the dog park and the young man, more interested in girls than the dogs, neglects to detach Max’s leash. Duke sees a way out of the dog park, grabs Max’s leash and runs off with him. The two wind up in an alley presided over by Ozone (Coogan), a mangy hairless Sphinx cat who, with an army of other cats, remove both of their dog collars. They escape, but are caught by the dog catchers and are headed for the pound.

Max doesn’t know he has a girlfriend in Gidget (Slate), a fluffy white Pomeranian living one story up in the next building. Unlike the dog-walker, she notices that Max is missing when his pals Buddy the Dachshund (Buress) and Mel the Pug (Moynihan) come home without him. Inspired by the soap opera she’s watching where Fernando (Jaime Camil) tells Maria (Echeveria) that she must find her true love, she climbs to the roof of her building to look for Max. But then she realizes just how big New York City is when she stands on the ledge. She hears a voice behind her coming from a creepy shed on the roof (which she acknowledges as creepy), and meets Tiberius the Red-tailed Hawk (Brooks), who is more interested in her as food than as a friend. But she manages to make a deal with him to find Max in return for freeing him from his chain.

Meanwhile, in the dog-catchers’ truck, Max and Duke see a ferocious bulldog and are stunned when the truck is ambushed by Snowball the Rabbit (Hart), who is coming to free the bulldog. Snowball chews a key out of a carrot and opens the cage and is about to leave when Duke and Max convince him that they killed their owners and thus, deserve to join his “gang.” This gang consists of every pet that was abandoned or flushed by their owners and includes alligators, snakes, spiders, as well as dogs and cats, and Tattoo the Pig (Beattie).

Tiberius brings Ozone to Gidget and her interrogation methods force Ozone to direct her to the sewer. She rounds up Buddy, Mel, Chloe the obese and apathetic Tabby Cat (Bell), Norman the Guinea Pig (Renaud), who, by the way, keeps getting lost trying to find his apartment, and Sweet Pea (Strong), a parakeet who like video games involving fighter planes. She has to argue all that Max has done for them to get them to agree with Tiberius in the room, but they all head off to see the street-wise Pops, an elderly, partially paralyzed Basset Hound (Carvey), who leads them to the sewer hideout of the “Flushed Pets” organization.

The Secret Life of Pets is much more than a lost dog story. Its purpose is to whimsically posit what pets do when the owners are away and it does so in spades, with a lot of laughs along the way. Leonard is a prim white poodle who secretly prefers heavy metal rock to the classical Vivaldi his owner plays. Chloe raids the refrigerator, which explains her size, and Buddy uses the electric mixer as a shiatsu. The voices are well-matched to the characters and the animation is beautiful. The 3D effects are eye popping, especially when the snakes guarding the sewer lair come straight out over the audience – so does the alligator’s jaw – and opening scene, while the audience is soaring over, under and through the city while Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” plays is almost stomach-dropping.

Speaking of the soundtrack, we hear “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees on the dog walk, “We Go Together” from Grease at the sausage factory raid by Duke and Max as well as “My Best Friend” by Queen, and “Happy” by Pharrell Williams (well, it did come from the people who brought us Despicable Me).

In addition to the stars, we hear Larraine Newman as Chloe’s owner and John Kassir as Leonard’s owner. The writing is great and clever. Chloe has most of the funny lines, but Pops gets in a good one. Talking about Snowball, he says, “That ball of fur has got a screw loose!” The movie is squeaky clean and lots of fun. Bring the kids to this one, even if they’ve made up their minds not to see it. And remember to stay through the first set of credits. There’s a little bit more madcap action to go.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Finding Dory

By Steve Herte

Finding Dory (Pixar/Disney, 2016) – Directors: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane. Writers: Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse (s/p). Andrew Stanton (original story). Angus MacLane (additional story material). Bob Peterson (additional s/p material). Stars: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Sloane Murray, Andrew Stanton, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bob Peterson, Kate McKinnon, Ed O’Neill, John Ratzenberger, Ty Burrell, Bill Hader, & Sigourney Weaver. Animated, Color and 3D, Rated PG, 103 minutes.

I enjoyed this film a lot more than I expected. For the first time that I can recall, I saw a prequel/sequel. Dory (Murray as a baby, DeGeneres as an adult) suffers from short-term memory loss, similar to early-onset Alzheimer’s, without the degenerative effects. It’s an integral part of the story. Dory’s parents, Jenny (Keaton), and Charlie (Levy), create songs and visual clues to help Dory remember things to keep her out of danger. But the song about avoiding the undertow is forgotten and Dory is swept away. She grows up trying to find her way home and eventually links up with Marlin (Brooks), the daddy clownfish in his search for his son Nemo (Rolence). Thus ends the prequel.


Dory is instrumental in finding Nemo, and thus begins the sequel. Marlin and Nemo conclude from Dory’s ramblings and half-memories from babyhood that her parents have to be at the Marine Life Institute in Monterrey, California. “That’s all the way across the ocean!” Marlin complains. But with the help of sea turtle Crush (Stanton), they all make the long journey. Have you ever heard of a seasick fish? Marlin nearly loses it. When the three fish surface to survey their surroundings, Dory is caught by humans and taken to the Quarantine building, where she meets the elusive escaped octopus Hank (O’Neill) whose only goal is to get onto the truck to the Cleveland Aquarium and be left alone. Hank sees the special tag on Dory’s fin, and knowing it could be his ticket to Ohio, he makes a deal with Dory to find her parents, while she in return will give him the tag. On the way to the Open Ocean exhibit, Dory meets Destiny (Olson), a near-sighted whale shark, and her neighbor Bailey (Burrell), a beluga whale who has forgotten how to echo-locate. Together, they hatch a scheme to commandeer a stroller for Hank to operate while Dory, riding in a sippy-cup, directs him. It’s hilarious and sad at the same time. Between her memories and ease of being distracted, they almost don’t make it.

Various adventures take place throughout the journey. Marlin, Nemo and Dory are chased by a frightening squid with glowing tentacles, they get separated and Marlin and Nemo meet sea lions Fluke (Elba) and Rudder (West) who set them on a harrowing thrill ride in a bucket held by a looney loon named Becky. Later, they conspire with a group of otters to stop the truck headed for Cleveland with a “cute cuddle-fest” traffic jam across the highway.

Hank is my favorite character and the real reason I came to see this movie. The computer graphics needed to make his seven arms (he lost one while in quarantine and Dory calls him a “septipus” at one lucid moment) writhe and bend as a real octopus should are truly amazing. He speaks, but being as an octopus’ mouth is under all of his tentacles, we only see a billowing of the skin under his eyes. Very good. He’s as cynical and cautious as Dory is innocent and trusting, and his ability to change colors to match backgrounds is superb.

Other characters along the way are Mr. Ray (Peterson), the school teacher leopard ray, a husband and wife fish couple (Hader and McKinnon), and a husband crab (John Ratzenberger) who is busy clipping sea grass with his pincers while giving Dory advice.
Sigourney Weaver’s voice is heard announcing welcome to the Marine Life Institute.

Finding Dory should be nominated for several technical awards, but the story is unoriginal by a long shot. The means of getting from one place to another while keeping Dory in water are imaginative, at least until she winds up in a floor washer’s bucket, after switching a few times from salt water to fresh – any one of these changes could have been her last. Her memories are so disjointed that she forgets she knows Destiny from Finding Nemo, but she remembers how to speak “whale” (actually, that would have to be “shark,” since Destiny is a whale shark, not a shark whale).

Bring the kids, they’ll love it, though at 97 minutes, it’s a little too long for what content it has. One mother had to leave early from my theater. Pixar did their usual spectacular job, right down to filling the “Tidal Pool” with ink when Hank gets poked. Get a comfortable theater as I did and think of the enormous job of animation it is.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Angry Birds

By Steve Herte

Angry Birds (Columbia, 2016) – Directors: Clay Kaytis & Fergal Reilly. Writer: Jon Vitti. Voices: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Peter Dinklage, Sean Penn, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate McKinnon, Tony Hale, Hannibal Buress, Ike Barinholtz, Tituss Burgess, Ian Hecox, Anthony Padilla, Billy Eichner, Charli XCX, Cristela Alonzo, & Jillian Bell. Color, Rated PG, 97 minutes.

Angry Birds has become quite a popular downloaded app. For instance, it has kept my great-niece occupied for hours. At first, I pooh-poohed it as a kiddie game. Then I downloaded it to my Kindle and discovered that it actually took some skill to play and win. I didn’t know why the birds were angry or what the pigs did to deserve their attacks, but it was fun destroying the pig city with the various capabilities of the different birds you hurled from a slingshot.

The movie provides the back story. Red (Sudeikis) is a loner who lives far from the main village on Bird Island. He’s sarcastic, cynical, self-centered and not too social. After ruining a youngster’s birthday party, he is sentenced to anger management classes held by Mathilda (Rudolph).

We learn in a flashback that Red was not always angry. He was bullied and teased as a young bird for his enormous black eyebrows and he was ignored by the females because he wasn’t tall and good-looking.


At Mathilda’s house, Red meets the other members of his anger group, Chuck (Gad), Bomb (McBride), and Terence (Penn). Chuck is the bird equivalent of Hammy the Squirrel from Over the Hedge and does everything fast, including talking. Bomb’s major fault is literally blowing up when excited. His topknot even looks like a fuse on his round dark gray body. Terence is a huge version of Red who generally growls and scowls menacingly.

One day, a ship arrives at Bird Island with pigs. Leonard (Hader), who we later learn is the king of the pigs, offers the birds gifts and entertainment, teaching them how to build and use a giant slingshot to get from one place to another quicker. (None of the birds on Bird Island can fly, the reason being that they don’t have to go anywhere.) Red is the only one suspicious of pigs bearing gifts. It’s not until the pigs provide a cowboy show and party for the birds while stealing all their eggs that everyone realizes that Red was right. Now he has to be a leader.

But where to find inspiration and wisdom? There is a legend on Bird Island about the Mighty Eagle, the one bird who can fly, and who lives near the Lake of Wisdom. Red concludes that if such a character really exists, he must live at the top of the central mountain of Bird Island (which looks suspiciously like a carving of an eagle’s head.) He, Chuck and Bomb start climbing and at last arrive at the Lake of Wisdom. Chuck and Bomb start swimming in it, drinking it and frolicking until the Mighty Eagle emerges from his cave and relieves himself in it.

Needless to say, Mighty Eagle (Dinklage) is a big disappointment to Red, who rallies the other birds to build a raft out of anything they can find to chase the pigs back to Pig Island (it’s easy, they just follow the waste trail the pigs left behind.). Those who have played the game know the rest.

I had wondered how a simple app would become an hour and 37 minutes worth of movie, but it worked. There were some slow moments unnecessarily emphasizing Red’s solitude, but the animation was excellent and the voice/character matches were perfect. I laughed at the photographer (Burgess) who inscribed pictures with his beak Flintstone style and the Mime Bird (Hale), who was always in the way.

The script was clever, with Red getting most of the good lines, and funny in several spots, especially his reactions to the diverse “talents” of his fellow birds during the battle with the pigs. Cinematically, it’s a beautiful bit of camera work including a gift; Red and Chuck are searching Leonard’s palace and come to a corridor full of doors. Chuck opens one to reveal two twin pigs dressed as little girls in pinafores (think The Shining). They quickly close the door.

Overall, Angry Birds is a fun movie, great for kids and adults who never forgot what it means to be a kid. Remember to stay through all the credits. There are two “afterwords” hinting at a sequel.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Rachet & Clank


By Steve Herte

Rachet & Clank (Gramercy Pictures, 2016) – Directors: Kevin Munroe and Jerrica Cleland. Writers: T.J. Fixman, Kevin Munroe, & Gerry Swallow. Voices: James Arnold Taylor, David Kaye, Jim Ward, Rosario Dawson, Paul Giamatti, John Goodman, Alessandro Juliani, Marc Graue, Dean Redman, Armin Shimerman, Sylvester Stallone, Bella Thorne, & Lee Tockar. Color and 3D, Rated PG, 94 minutes.

Now I know how those who saw the movie Dune back in 1984 (without having previously read the book) felt. This animated film is based on a computer game I’ve never played (nor would I want to). The video game “Ratchet and Clank” surfaced in 2002 and was adapted for Sony’s Playstation 2 in 2012. For some reason, the suits at Gramercy Pictures decided it would make a great movie rather than coming up with an original thought. Unfortunately, they didn’t consider that some viewers would be seeing the characters for the first time and also didn’t think anyone would need a back story.

Ratchet the Lombax (Taylor) is a cute, furry little alien with a grand ambition of being a Galactic Ranger along with his hero Captain Qwark (Ward) and his team: Elaris (Dawson), Brax Lextrus (Redman), and Cora (Thorne). But he’s just a lowly repairman at an intergalactic version of a garage for space vehicles and works for his long-suffering boss, Grimroth (Goodman).

In another part of the Solana Galaxy, Chairman Drek (Giamatti), in cahoots with the evil Dr. Nefarious (Shimmerman), is firing his deplanetizer at unpopulated worlds and selecting pieces from each to build a world of his own. Apparently, he was exiled from his home world and this is his revenge. He leads a weird group of flunky red aliens calling themselves the Blarg under a large, Transformer-ish robot named Victor Von Ion (Stallone).


Drek Industries (I was the only one in the theater who found the name hilariously funny) has a factory turning out an army of robots whose one program command is to eliminate the Galactic Rangers. But, through an apparent glitch in the assembly line, the little intelligent robot who would come to be named Clank (Kaye) is accidentally churned out. As soon as he realizes that he’s unique and that he’s going to be junked, he escapes Victor’s clutches in a shuttlecraft and crashes on Ratchet’s planet, Rilgar.

Captain Qwark and the Rangers realize this threat to their and several planets’ existence and start recruiting one more ranger (as if that’s going to make a difference). Ratchet applies but is rejected. It’s not until Ratchet teams up with Clank and they save their planet from a robot invasion force that Qwark is forced to accept him as a ranger. But Qwark’s narcissistic nature will be his undoing. Dr. Nefarious, who was a ranger at one time but turned to the evil side (echoes of Star Wars) convinces Chairman Drek to use Qwark’s jealousy of Ratchet’s new-found fame to turn him against the ranger team. But the ranger team has problems of their own. No one has the time to listen to Elaris, who would be the brains of the group.

If you view Ratchet and Clank as an arcade video game, its disjointedness almost make sense. Having two villains both mad in different ways is distracting enough, but when you have a hero who is an underdog, and a selfish ignoramus posing as a hero, that’s just annoying.

My theater seat was none too comfortable and the movie certainly didn’t help any. The 3D effects are minimal and not used to advantage. Though the animation is somewhat good, none of the characters are believable. I found myself not caring about any of them, including the beleaguered Elaris. The dialogue is mostly stock and the writers try too hard to be funny. There is a discussion about mixed metaphors between Dr. Nefarious and Captain Qwark that should have been hilarious, but which disintegrated into ennui. The Monty Python group would have had the audience rolling on the floor. Another thing I thought was funny was that Armin Shimerman, who played the character Quark in the TV series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, should be the bad guy facing off against a hero character named Qwark. The story tries to teach friendship, teamwork and loyalty, but gets slogged down in silliness.

There were many children in the audience, but I never heard a word out of them. They didn’t get the jokes and many had no vocal opinions of the movie afterward, so parents, judge for yourselves. If you go, stay through the credits. There’s the promise – or threat – of a sequel.

Rating: 1½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Zootopia 

By Steve Herte

Zootopia (Walt Disney Pictures, 2016) – Directors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore & Jared Bush. Writers: Jared Bush & Phil Johnston (s/p). Jared Bush, Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee, & Josie Trinidad, Jim Reardon (story). Dan Fogelman (additional story material). Voices: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira, Raymond S. Persi, Della Saba, Jenny Slate, & Maurice LaMarche. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 108 minutes.

In the opening scenes, we see the Bunnyburrow school play being enacted by Judy Hopps (Saba; later by Goodwin), a bunny, and her classmates describing how predator and prey behaved before the establishment of Zootopia, a city where mammals are equal. Judy, to the horror of her parents Stu and Bonnie (Lake and Hunt), wants to be a policeman and make the world a better place. Stu and Bonnie are humble carrot farmers and do nothing more exciting than sell vegetables from a stand by the side of the main road. Judy is not your usual timid rabbit. Neither are her 275 brothers and sisters. She takes on the bully of her class, Gideon Gray (Johnston), even though he’s a red fox, the rabbit’s main predator.

Judy’s parents cannot deter her when she’s old enough to attend the Police Academy. At first, she’s humiliated by her inability to complete an obstacle course, but she steels herself and uses innovation to graduate at the top of her class. This, however, does not stop her father from a teary goodbye as she boards the train to Zootopia.

Zootopia is divided into five districts to accommodate the various habitat needs of the diverse mammals that live there: the Downtown District, Sahara Square, Tundratown, Little Rodentia and the Rainforest District, all of which are reached by train. Judy travels through each wide-eyed and amazed until she reaches the downtown station. All Zootopia denizens walk on two legs and wear the appropriate clothing of their occupations. Judy confronts an enormous Times Square-style animated billboard where popular singer Gazelle (Shakira) welcomes everyone to Zootopia.

At the police station, her small stature almost goes unnoticed by the doughnut-eating, portly desk sergeant, Clawhauser (Torrence). But once he looks down and sees her, he immediately insults her.

All the other cops in the briefing room are exceedingly larger than Judy, but she’s not shy. Chief Bogo (Elba), a powerfully built Cape buffalo, is bigger than the rest and dominates the podium. He mentions that they have a new recruit but also notes that he doesn’t care and gives out the assignments. Fourteen citizens of Zootopia have gone missing and after he divides the districts among the larger policemen he gives Judy parking ticket duty. She tries to protest, given the nature of the situation at hand, but he bets her she couldn’t give out 100 tickets an hour. She successfully hands out 200 tickets in an hour (including one to herself).

Citizens are starting to complain to her about her prompt ticketing when a store owner begs her for help in a robbery. Duke Weaselton (Tucyk) has just run off with a duffel bag of stuff he stole and she pursues him. The hilarious chase ends when the weasel takes a giant doughnut from an advertisement in Little Rodentia and throws it at her. She uses the doughnut to catch the weasel and roll him into the police station. Chief Bogo remains unimpressed.


Back on duty, Judy notices Nick Wilde (Bateman), a red fox (she has a can of fox repellant on her belt from her father), skulking around an elephant ice cream parlor, and decides to investigate. Inside, she hears him ordering a “jumbo pop” and being refused by the elephant proprietor. Out of nowhere, Nick produces a little fennec fox whom he claims is his kid. Nick’s story is that the little one has always wanted to be an elephant and even has a cute elephant mask. Judy is moved and convinces the elephant to sell them a jumbo pop, even when Nick gets her to pay for it, pretending that he forgot his wallet.

Judy feels good about herself until she drives around and sees Nick melting down the jumbo pop into glass jugs. She follows him to Tundratown where the liquid is refrozen into smaller bits to be sold to a queue of lemmings. When she confronts Nick about this con, he has a logical answer for every deed.

Back at the station house, Judy is still lobbying for a real case when Mrs. Otterton (Spencer) gets past Sergeant Clawhauser and begs Chief Bogo to find her husband, who is one of the missing citizens. Judy volunteers for the job and Chief Bogo almost nixes it when Deputy Mayor Bellwether (Slate), a sheep intercedes and overrules him. To Judy’s chagrin, she agrees to solve the case in 48 hours or resign.

Since Chief Bogo will not put Judy on their computer system, she needs to get her information in a different way. Using her tape recorder pen, she hoodwinks Nick into helping her. They find out that Mr. Otterton visited a yoga expert at a new wave spa and speak to the proprietor, Mr. Yax (Chong), who takes them into the spa. Judy is shocked at first that all the animals are naked, but bravely proceeds. The elephant yoga instructor remembers nothing, but Yax remembers it all for her, even the license plate number of the car Mr. Otterton drove up in.

How to trace the license plate number? Nick has a friend named Flash in the DMV (Department of Mammal Vehicles). After a seemingly interminable time, the two learn the vehicle was a limo belonging to a “Mr. Big.” Nick does not want to go there; he sold Mr. Big a supposedly wool rug that was made from skunk hide and does not want to get “iced” (literally) by the Mafioso mammal. But Judy gets him to go. The limo is torn up inside from claw marks and they find Mr. Otterton’s wallet when two polar bears catch them and bring them to Mr. Big (LaMarche), a shrew carried in by the biggest polar bear. He indeed does want to “ice” Nick, and his minions open a trap door in the floor and hold Nick and Judy over it when his daughter runs in and tells him how this policeman saved her from being crushed by a giant doughnut. Mr. Big decides to help them if they attend her wedding.

The claw marks in the car were made by Mr. Otterton who, for some unknown reason, had “gone wild” and had attacked the driver. Judy and Nick visit the driver in the rain forest district and find him cowering in his house with claw marks on his face and muttering something about “night howlers.” Suddenly, he goes wild and attacks them. The chase leaves the two tangled in vines and suspended over a chasm when Chief Bogo and the police arrive. The driver has disappeared and Chief Bogo demands Judy’s badge. Nick vouches for her and gets Bogo to relent, calculating that she still has 10 hours.

The revelation that the missing citizens are all predators and all have “gone wild” gain Judy her first press conference and a meeting with Mayor Leodore Lionheart (Simmons), a pompous, condescending lion who proudly introduces Zootopia’s first rabbit policeman. It doesn’t go well. Her analysis alienates Nick and throws Zootopia into confusion and a veritable race war of predator against prey.

Back in Bunnyborrow, the “night howlers” clue strikes a memory in Judy’s mind and she runs to find Nick. After a tearful apology she regains his support and the two learn from traffic cameras that wolves captured Mr. Manchas and took him to the town dam. Here, they find 14 cages filled with snarling fierce predators, including Mr. Otterton. They also learn that it was Mayor Lionheart who locked them all in there.

Zootopia is an excellent family film with great plot twists, clever humor, lovable characters and lots of good clean fun. The hour and 48 minutes passed before I knew it. I was engaged constantly, wanting to know what was going to happen next. I’ve said it before, Disney made the best corporate decision ever by buying Pixar. The digital effects were superb and the animation realistic. The casting is perfect in every way. The story never lagged and the soundtrack never got in the way. Parents, take your kids to this one. There are good lessons here about friendship and prejudice. The two last lines are: Nick: “Sly bunny!” Judy: “Dumb fox!” My only question (which the movie never answered) is: if Zootopia is 90% prey and 10% predator, what do they eat, if not each other?

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Kung Fu Panda 3

By Steve Herte

Kung Fu Panda 3 (20th Century Fox, 2016) – Directors: Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh. Writers: Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. Voices: Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, J.K. Simmons, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Kate Hudson, James Hong, Randall, Duk Kim, Steele Gagnon, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Willie Geist, Al Roker, Liam Knight, & Wayne Knight. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 95 minutes.

Chi” is defined in Chinese philosophy as the circulating energy inherent in all things. We achieve good chi by a balance of negative and positive forms in the body. This latest sequel to Kung Fu Panda is deeply involved with mastering chi.

The movie starts in the “spirit world,” where Grand Master Oogway (Kim), a great tortoise, makes his abode. Kai (Simmons), a bulky bull, who was Oogway’s brother in arms long ago but who turned against him in his lust for power, appears before Oogway. Kai has been stealing the chi of all the past kung-fu masters, wearing them as jade ornaments on his belt. Though Oogway puts up a good fight, Kai steals his chi as well and makes the transition into the mortal world.


Po (Black), now known as the Dragon Warrior, believes that kicking butt and protecting the village is the sum total of kung-fu (that and eating tons of dumplings and noodles). His fellow warriors: Tigress (Jolie), Monkey (Chan), Mantis (Rogen), Viper (Liu), and Crane (Cross), referred to as “The Five,” are known and celebrated for past victories. Master Shifu (Hoffman), however, wants Po to progress to the next level and he uses chi to make a flower bloom, which gets Po’s attention. But Po is aghast when Shifu turns over the training reins to him for The Five.

Po’s first training session is a disaster and the only thing learned is that Tigress is flammable. Mr. Ping (Hong), a duck who makes a living cooking dumplings and noodles, notices something wrong when Po sprinkles hot peppercorns into his bubble bath instead of bath salts. While Po explains, a villager pig bursts in to announce that Po’s record for eating dumplings is being broken. We see a large character from behind. He turns around and introduces himself as Li Shan (Cranston), a panda who has been looking for his son. Po tells him he’s been looking for his dad. They both wish each other the best of luck and turn away from each other while the villagers look back and forth between the two of them in shock. Suddenly, they both realize that they’re both pandas and their searches are over as they hug.

Mr. Ping is outraged and asks for proof. While Po shows Li Shan the temple where he trained, the Valley of Peace is attacked by “Jade Warriors” sent by Kai, who Po recognizes as Masters Porcupine, Bear, and Croc (Van Damme). After he and his friends defeat the attackers, Shifu runs to his library for an ancient scroll that tells the story of the pandas in the secret valley who can master and control chi. Li Shan tells Po that he’s been sent a message from “the universe.” He is to find his son and bring him back to the secret valley.

Li Shan and Po make the incredibly long journey unaware that Mr. Ping has stowed away in Po’s backpack until they rest for lunch. The last part of their trek is an impossibly high, ice-covered cliff. Knowing that pandas have trouble with stairs (defined as “panda-asthma”) Po wonders how they will climb it, when Li Shan pulls on a rope and they ascend the cliff in an elevator basket.

At the top is a beautiful, peaceful scene where pandas fly kites, eat and play. Among others, Po meets the twins Dim (Geist) and Sum (Roker), and the ribbon-dancing Mei Mei (Hudson). Yes, he learns how to be a panda, including discarding his chopsticks when eating dumplings, but he wonders when his dad will teach him to master chi. Time runs short when Kai attacks the Valley of Peace and absorbs the chi of Monkey, Mantis, Viper, Crane and Shifu and is now on his way to the secret valley. An exhausted Tigress brings this news to Po.

What to do? There is no time to teach kung fu to all these pandas. Instead, Po teaches them to use their natural abilities with kung fu weapons and his “army” meets Kai’s jade warriors to hopefully distract Kai long enough for Po to use his “finger pinch” and best move. He learns to his dismay that this move will only work on mortals, not Kai. Thinking quickly, Po gets Kai in a headlock and performs the move, taking them both to the spirit world and saving the mortal world.

The battle continues in the fantastic, golden realm until it looks as if Po will lose. Li Shan rallies Mr. Ping and Tigress into channeling chi to infuse Po with power and the tide is turned. Po literally becomes the Dragon Warrior.

Kung Fu Panda 3 is easily the best of the trilogy, combining fast action, detailed computer generated animation, excellent script writing and talented actors cast perfectly. Po even looks a bit like Jack Black, and mimicking his mannerisms. I could see Angelina Jolie in Tigress and Dustin Hoffman in Shifu. The superb directing team of Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh makes the story and characters believable. I think it was Daffy Duck who said, “Anything can happen in a cartoon.” It was difficult to remember this while Po is getting a severe trouncing by Kai. That’s how real it felt.

Sadly, I think this is the last in the series. There were two words at the finish of this movie that I don’t remember seeing after the first two: The End.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Norm of the North

By Steve Herte

Norm of the North (Lionsgate, 2016) – Director: Trevor Wall. Writers: Daniel Altiere, Steven Altiere, & Malcolm T. Goldman. Voices: Rob Schneider, Heather Gragham, Ken Jeong, Bill Nighy, Colm Meaney, Loretta Devine, Michael McElhatton, Maya Kay, Gabrial Iglesdias, Salome Jens, Charles Adler, G.K. Bowes, Eric Price, Debi Derryberry, Kate Higgins, Ben Diskin, & Keith Ferguson. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 90 minutes.

Norm (Schneider) is a polar bear living in the Arctic with his father and mother, his grandfather (Meaney), his girlfriend Elizabeth (Higgins), his best friend Stan (Iglesdias) his mentor Socrates (Nighy), an intellectual seagull, and a card-playing caribou (Price). Norm is different. He’s one of two polar bears who can speak to and be understood by humans (the other is his grandfather). He’s next in line to be “King of the North” after his father but he can’t even hunt. When he catches a potential seal dinner, instead of eating it, he makes friends with it. Frankly, it’s a wonder how he got so big and fat.

Vera (Graham) is a promotional advertiser for the evil Mr. Greene (Jeong). She’s desperately trying to organize a film crew making a commercial to sell futuristic condos in the Arctic. Her success in this campaign could mean funding for her daughter Olympia (Kay) to attend the right school for her advanced learning capabilities. She’s not sure she believes in Mr. Greene’s wacky scheme but she needs the money. When Norm and his troop of “indestructible” lemmings (one challenges him to stomp on it and pops back up after a “Wait for it” cue from Socrates) sabotage the film crew's set-up, she’s left to do the filming herself.

Norm sees Vera as the ice sheet beneath her feet is cracking and he charges to help her. Vera thinks it’s just a polar bear charging her and films it. When she’s safe due to Norm’s efforts she sends the footage to Mr. Greene, who is delighted. He needs a polar bear to promote his scheme. As the condo is being lifted off the ice and onto the boat going back to New York, Norm and three lemmings leap aboard, following Socrates’ advice that he’s the only one who can stop this project.


New York is a terrifying place for the bear and his lemmings but he soon realizes that a talking bear is not out of place. He meets Laurence, the actor (McElhatton), who is on his way to Mr. Greene’s building to audition for the polar bear part. Mr. Greene’s secretary is unimpressed with both characters and directs them to sit with the other bear wannabes. She’s only mildly shocked when the lemmings use the fish tank as a toilet. But, obviously, Norm gets the part, especially when he roars and then dances his way into Mr. Greene’s greedy heart.

Norm makes friends with Olympia and she agrees to help him win his home back. Using her advice, he ingratiates himself with the New York populace and raises Greene Homes’ approval rating from 5 percent to 85 percent. At this point he plans to make a public announcement about Mr. Greene’s true motives, but Greene uses voiceprint matching to turn his words into an approval for condos in the Arctic. At this point, Greene no longer needs Norm and has figured out that he’s a real polar bear by his smell (Grandfather bear has already tried to stop the condo scheme and is locked up in a cage down in Greene’s sub-basement). He’s convinced Councilwoman Klubeck (Jens) that his plan is feasible and Pablo (also Iglesdias), a rich investor, to fund the building of four condos.

It’s up to Norm and a hilarious trio of rodents to free Grandfather and stop the condos from reaching the Arctic while exposing Greene’s plot to the public through the media.

Lionsgate Productions has proved that Pixar is not the only studio that can create great animation with this entertaining film. It only fails at one point when Grandfather’s mouth shapes do not match what he’s saying. Other than that, the animation is excellent. The plot is silly while trying to be relevant. When the huge piece of glacier calves off from under Vera’s feet and causes her to exclaim “waterfront property” the audience may get a hint of a climate change message. But that’s the extent of it.

Rob Schneider’s voice is a natural for Norm’s character but Bill Nighy’s talents are underused for the lines given to Socrates. It was good to hear Colm Meany for the first time since Star Trek: Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. But all the major characters pale when compared to the comic lemmings that move the film. They’re cute, ferocious, funny, crude, and sing like angels. They even play musical instruments a la Titanic when the barge holding the four condos is swamped by an enormous wave.

Norm of the North, though close in plot to The Lion King and other disinherited themes, is clean fun for all ages if you don’t pay attention to its inaccuracies. The six other people in the theater might have enjoyed it if they understood the funny parts. One father and child left before the film was three-quarters finished. It lacks the element of pathos and doesn’t try to endear any of the characters to the audience. I don’t seriously think there will be a sequel.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.



The Good Dinosaur

By Steve Herte

The Good Dinosaur (Pixar/Disney, 2015) – Director: Peter Sohn. Writers: Bob Peterson (orig. concept & development), Peter Sohn, Erik Benson, Meg LeFauve, Kelsey Mann, & Bob Peterson (story), Meg LeFauve (s/p). Voices: Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Maleah Nipay-Padilla, Ryan Tepple, Jack McGraw, Marcus Scribner, Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Peter Sohn, Steve Zahn, Mandy Freund, Steven Clay Hunter, A.J. Buckley, Anna Paquin, & Sam Elliott. Color, PG, 93 minutes.

When I first saw the trailers for this film, I was horrified at the goofy way dinosaurs were depicted and drawn, even the Tyrannosaurus Rex family. The exceedingly big eyes on the star character, Arlo (voiced by McGraw when young and later by Ochoa) reminded me of those early Japanese cartoons now called animé, another style I’m not too fond of. Owned by Disney (not a name to draw me in), the movie’s primary producer is Pixar, and that was the hook.


Not too many animated features have what I’ve called the “Wow!” factor, but this one does. The reason is Pixar’s superior team of talented animators. One forgets the unbelievably ludicrous characters when one realizes that the scenes, backgrounds and everything they interact with are eye-poppingly real, right down to the water effects. In 3D, this remarkable juxtaposition is downright breathtaking.

The movie starts out in space, in the asteroid belt 65 million years ago, as one rock bumps into another and the second sends a bigger one hurtling toward Earth. The music increases in urgency as it nears our planet. Herbivorous dinosaurs are calmly eating. The asteroid rockets by overhead and misses its target as the beasts raise their heads to watch it go by and continue eating.

The “what if” continues in the next scene, “millions of year later…” We see an expectant couple of brachiosaurs (not apatosaurs, as I’ve heard they should be) named Henry and Ida (Wright and McDormand) plowing a field with muzzles, planting corn, and watering it by gulping river water and acting as fire hoses. Dinosaurs have the ability of speech and these two are farmers.

Ida’s three eggs are hatching. The two smallest produce Libby (Nipay-Padilla) and Buck (Tepple, later Scribner). The largest egg unfortunately reveals the runt of the litter, Arlo. Arlo is terrified of everything and doesn’t take too well to farming chores. He’s clumsy and shy.

Henry has built a silo out of stones to store the corn for the winter and he and Ida place their mark on it by leaving muddy footprints on focal stones. As Libby and Buck perform well at their tasks, they too place their marks on the silo. But not Arlo, he has trouble feeding the chickens.

To bolster Arlo’s courage, Henry sets up a trap to catch whatever has been stealing their corn and puts Arlo in charge of dispatching any creature they catch. It’s a cave boy who acts more like a dog than anything else and Arlo lets it get away. Henry leads Arlo in chasing it down, but a storm brews up while they’re on a narrow riverbank and it sends a flash flood roaring toward them. Henry tosses Arlo out of harm’s way, and is swept away by the raging waters and drowns.

Arlo associates the lightening and rain with that moment through the rest of the movie. It’s not too long after that he finds the boy in the silo again. But in the process of subduing him, they both wind up in the river.

Now far from home and hungry, Arlo is forced to learn survival skills. But how? The cave boy finds him, somehow knows he’s hungry, and brings him an iguana (which he refuses), a giant beetle (he even tears the head off, but Arlo turns his nose up at it), and some berries. These he likes and asks for more. The boy leads him along a narrow cliff ledge to the tree, but there’s a large red snake defending it. More like a wolf than a human, the boy fights off the snake, much to Arlo’s wonder.

A voice seeming to come from nowhere reveals Forrest Woodbush (Sohn), a styracosaurus who not only blends in with the trees but also has various forest creatures perched on the horns of his collar. He sees the value in having the boy around and says, “If you name him, you can have him.” Several horrible names are tried until Arlo chooses “Spot,” and the boy reacts. Ever after, Spot (Bright) is his companion on his journey home.

Along the way, they become separated when another storm catches them and Arlo runs from it. He meets three Pterodactyls, Thunderclap (Zahn), Downpour (Freund) and Coldfront (Hunter), who pretend that they’re saving creatures from the ravages of the storm but are in fact carnivorous scavengers. They only see Spot as food.

Arlo and Spot are on the run from the ferocious flyers when they encounter the Tyrannosaurus Rex family of Butch (Elliott), his son Nash (Buckley), and daughter Ramsey (Paquin). The three of them overpower the pterodactyls and they fly away. Butch agrees to help Arlo get home if he can help them find their herd of “longhorns” (actually a mix of bison and auroch). Spot sniffs the herd out effectively, but the “rustlers” are still with the beasts. Butch convinces Arlo to mount a rock in the middle of the herd to attract the attention of the rustlers with a loud scream. Arlo is too terrified to scream until Spot bites his leg.

Soon, they are surrounded by velociraptors talking like cowpokes in a Hopalong Cassidy episode. Bubbha (Boat), Lurleane (Paff), Pervis (Grant) and Earl (Ratzenberger) take the bait and are ambushed by the T-Rex family. Butch holds up his end of the deal and after a short while Arlo sees the triple peaks of “Saw-Tooth Mountain” (actually, the Tetons) that mean home to him and he and Spot leave the company of the herders.

A howl in the distance makes Spot turn around and we see an adult cave person in the distance, but Arlo ignores it and heads home. Another lightning storm develops, the pterodactyls return and carry off Spot, leaving Arlo tangled up in vines and unconscious from hitting his head on a rock. The dream he has of his father makes him realize he loves Spot and he wakes up, untangles himself and chases after the pterodactyls.

The concept behind The Good Dinosaur is as valid as it is strange – the extremely big “what if?” The lessons it teaches about family and friendship are pretty clear. The parallels to The Lion King are pure Disney – the father being killed and the son in exile who learns to be an adult. I enjoyed it in spite of the trailers. But the scenery blew me away. When Spot teaches Arlo to swim, I was convinced that this cartoony character was actually in the water. Even when he’s standing awkwardly on a rock and craning his neck to reach a clump of berries, and falls when the rock rolls out from under his feet. It looked real. I was advised to see this one in 3D and I’m glad I took that advice. It was stunning. The best deal Disney ever made was to buy Pixar. Bring the whole family to this one.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Peanuts Movie

By Steve Herte

The Peanuts Movie (20th Century Fox, 2015) – Director: Steve Martino. Writers: Brian Schulz, Craig Schulz, & Cornelius Uliano (s/p). Charles M. Schulz (comic strip). Voices: Rebecca Bloom, Anastasia  Bredikhina, Francesca Capaldi, Kristin Chenoweth, Alexander Garfin, Noah Johnston, Bill Melendez, Hadley Belle Miller, Micah Revelli, Noah Schapp, Venus Schultheis, Mariel Sheets, Madisyn Shipman, A.J. Tecce, Trombone Shorty, Marleik Mar Mar Walker, & William Wunsch. Animated, Color and 3D, Rated G, 93 minutes.

At night, when Charlie Brown’s alone, he looks out the window at the stars. He’s heard that everyone has a star that is exclusively their own and he’s happy that his star will always be there for him. And then a star drops out of view. “Good Grief!”


The advantage that 3D animation has in this new movie is that the familiar Charles Schulz characters are not flat anymore. They have depth beyond their rather shallow, but lovable natures. The plot is simple. The Little Red-Haired Girl has moved into the neighborhood and Charlie Brown (Schnapp) sees it as an opportunity to start fresh with someone who doesn’t consider him to be a blockhead and a loser. The sub-plot is a twist on the familiar Snoopy (Melendez) versus the Red Baron. Snoopy meets Fifi (Chenoweth), the poodle of his dreams (who also happens to be a biplane flyer) and has to rescue her from the Baron’s zeppelin.

To conquer his painful shyness, Charlie Brown enters the school talent show with a magician’s act. But he never gets to perform it because his better nature tells him to save his little sister Sally’s (Sheets) dying rodeo act by posing as a steer. He has Snoopy teach him dance steps so that he will get to dance with the Little Red-Haired Girl (Capaldi) at the school dance. But he gets his shirt caught in the door while he’s holding the punch bowl and the punch spills right where he’s dancing and that idea fails. Lastly, he draws her name out of a bowl in school to collaborate on a book report. She has to travel to New York and he decides to do the book report alone and surprise her. Peppermint Patty (Schultheis) advises him to look up “Leo’s Toy Store” in the library as the greatest book of all time. Fortunately, he meets Marcie (Bloom) in the adult section and she points him to War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

Just getting the huge tome home is hilarious enough, but Charlie Brown manages it and works all weekend to read it and write the book report, only to see it shredded by the propeller on the Red Baron’s triplane. This plane makes its appearance at the beginning of the movie as Linus (Garfin) intended to use it as a “show-and-tell” item. But Charlie Brown wonders if it works and flicks the propeller. It flies out the window, making salient appearances in Snoopy’s fantasy.

Charlie Brown has an unexpected moment of fame when time is running out on a test in class and he and Peppermint Patty race to the teacher’s desk to submit their answers. But when they are told they forgot to sign the tests, the two get switched in the shuffle and Charlie Brown is posted the next day with the first “perfect score, a 100%” in the school history. This ends on stage in front of the entire student body when he sees the test answers are not his own and must admit it. During this happy period he teaches a Little Kid (Revelli) to fly a kite and the kite actually becomes airborne – until the kid hands the string to Charlie Brown.

Most of the movie, however, is the same-old, same-old. While everyone else is playing hockey on a snow day, Charlie Brown is trying to fly his kite, and failing. Lucy (Miller) is forever after Schroeder (Johnston) who could care less. Pig-Pen (Tecce) is making clouds of dust, even in winter. Linus is always the philosopher. Violet (Shipman) and Patty (Bredikhina) are the rest of Lucy’s clique. All adult voices are provided by Trombone Shorty, and Franklin (Walker) and Shermy (Wunsch) are there only for the crowd scenes.

The scenes where Charlie Brown is trying desperately to overcome his feelings of inadequacy and where Snoopy is soaring over Paris and the German countryside are wonderful in 3D. But the stock footage that is “Peanuts” is always there to bring us out of the fantasyland and into dull reality. I would have liked to see more new and less familiar. The kids in the audience seemed to like the movie even though they didn’t get many of the jokes.

The Peanuts Movie is definitely a “kids” movie trying to appeal to adults. It succeeds in places but like Charlie Brown, fails in others.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.



Hotel Transylvania 2

By Steve Herte

Hotel Transylvania 2 (Columbia, 2015) – Director: Genndy Tartakovsky. Writers: Robert Smigel & Adam Sadler. Voices: Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, Keegan Michael-Key, Asher Blinkoff, Fran Drescher, Molly Shannon, Jon Lovitz, Megan Mullally, Jonny Solomon, Nick Offerman, Dana Carvey, Sadie Sandler, Rob Riggle, & Mel Brooks. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 89 minutes.

I don’t say, ‘Blah, blah, blah!” scowls Count Dracula (Sandler) when his grandson proudly speaks his first words. It’s a running gag left over from Hotel Transylvania (2012) that continually gets his goat.

As the camera zooms in on the iron gates of foreboding Castle Dracula at the beginning of the film, it takes the audience through them, across a courtyard and up to a modern glass revolving door and into the main hall of the Hotel Transylvania. We’re at the wedding of Jonathan and Mavis and their two families, one of monsters and the other of humans, take their places on either side of the main aisle. The Phantom of the Opera (voiced by Lovitz, of course) is at the organ and the procession starts. The flower girl (human) is prettily dressed and adorable – that is until several werewolf pups hijack her in a whirlwind and muss up her hair and outfit – and the bride appears at the entrance, in a black Morticia Addams-style dress and a glittering veil of spider webs.

Six months later, Mavis asks her father to go for a “fly” with her (as bats) and, after a game of hide and seek in the clouds, reveals her pregnancy to him. Dracula is overjoyed to have a new vampire added to the family even though she cautions that it might be a purely human child.

Dennis (Blinkoff) is born with a thick head of curly red hair (from his father) and Grandpa Drac (he calls himself “Vampa Drac”) can’t wait to see his fangs grow in. “Maybe he’s a late-fanger. I was.” He explains, eagerly awaiting the child’s fifth birthday, when they will know for sure. As the time draws close for that ominous birthday, Mavis wants to go to California and see the place where Johnny grew up, possibly to move there should the child be human.

Fearful that Johnny and Mavis will like living among humans and that they will take his new grandson away, Dracula charges Johnny with not making the trip too enjoyable and to keep Mavis distracted enough to not phone home.


With Mavis and Johnny out of the way, Dracula enlists his friends Frankenstein (James), Wayne the werewolf (Buscemi), Griffin the Invisible Man (Spade), and Murray the mummy Imhotep (Michael-Kaye) and they all pile into a hearse with baby Dennis. Blobby the blob (Solomon) insists on coming along but doesn’t fit comfortably inside, so they hook up a sidecar for him. Their goal is to bring out the vampiric side of Dennis before his parents return.

Not all goes as planned however. The scary forest where Drac honed his terror techniques is now populated by selfie-taking yuppies who think monsters are cool. The “Vamp Camp” where he learned to fly is now anything but scary and more Kumbaya than Creepy under the slightly effeminate camp counselor, Dana (Carvey). The rickety tower he was tossed off as a baby is now off-limits, but he and his crew climb it and toss Dennis off. Of course, Drac has to rescue the kid when he doesn’t fly on his own. But Frankenstein manages to topple the tower and set himself afire and goes running through the campgrounds lighting all the buildings in the process. It’s at this moment that Mavis calls, hears the sirens and tells Drac she’s coming home. It a wacky race back to Castle Dracula, one that Drac loses. Mavis has made up her mind. She can’t even trust her Dad. After the fifth birthday party, she, Johnny and Dennis are leaving for California.

The night before the party it’s revealed that Mavis invited Grandpa Vlad (Brooks). Dracula hastily decides to make it a monster costume party to keep Vlad from learning that the hotel has been open to humans (Vlad is “Old School” on this topic). But Vlad brings his gargoyle pal Bela (Riggle) who can smell a human at 50 paces, and he and his fellow gargoyles turn the last scene into a funny, frantic fight, one that Dennis wins when his vampire side bursts forth as Winnie the werewolf pup (Sandler) is injured by a gargoyle.

As funny as Hotel Transylvania 2 is (I laughed several times) it doesn’t quite come up to being as good as the original, though it tries hard. I wanted to see more of Fran Drescher as the Bride of Frankenstein than just a cameo. Molly Shannon had a bigger part as Wanda the werewolf, wife of Wayne and mother of a huge litter of pups. Still Robert Smigel and Adam Sandler did some great writing for this movie. When Mavis destroys a piñata at the party, Wanda warns her about candy and her pups but, too late. The pups devour all the candy and become supercharged with energy, trash the bounce house and anything else they run into. “There’s a reason they call it a litter,” says Wayne.

The 3D effects were put to good use in the several flying scenes and the concept of Frankenstein, the mummy, and the werewolf all getting out of practice at being scary as they aged was hilarious. The comedy is just sophisticated enough for adults and there are many scenes with visual comedy for kids. It’s the second best performance by Sandler. The first was the original.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Shaun the Sheep Movie

By Steve Herte

Shaun the Sheep Movie (Lionsgate, 2015) – Directors: Mark Burton & Richard Starzak. Writers: Mark Burton & Richard Starzak. Based on characters created by Nick Park. Voices: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili, Richard Webber, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate, Jack Paulson, Sean Connolly, Henry Burton, Dhimat Vyas, Sophie Laughton, & Nia Medi James. Color, PG, 85 minutes.

The laborious process known as stop-action animation goes all the way back to 1898, to a short entitled The Humpty Dumpty Circus when Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton brought a toy carnival to life by shooting the film frame by frame and physically re-arranging the characters in small increments each time. When Willis O’Brien presented his version of The Lost World in 1925 the live action scenes were combined with 49 stop-action dinosaurs fighting and interacting with film’s stars. The style developed further when Ray Harryhausen worked his magic with Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young (1949), The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

Continuing to evolve with better technology and finer camera equipment through the years, the art form brought us Wallace and Gromit – The Case of the Were-Rabbit (2005), ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014)and now, Shaun the Sheep Movie. How painstakingly difficult is this process? Very. This movie was four years from concept to release. If you stayed through the credits at the end of The Boxtrolls, you saw the blur of movements made by the animator in a visual demonstration, while the characters moved naturally.

Shaun the Sheep (a great play on words) has been a successful TV series since 2007 in England. Made by the producers of Wallace and Gromit (Aardman Animation) we see similarities in character design. In fact, the character Bitzer the farm dog looks remarkably like Gromit, only a different color (Gromit is brown, Bitzer is yellow).

I admit my fascination with this film stemmed from my past experiences viewing stop-action animation and marveling at how clay figurines can be made to appear alive, right down to blinking eyes and waving hair. The animators have gone great lengths to make silly-looking models move, react and entertain like live actors. And…as in the Pink Panther cartoons, this presentation is made without a single word. Granted, each character has someone doing their voice, but no one has anything more than a grunt, bark or baa to say. When I did my research, I was surprised to learn the casts’ names and their associated voices. None are mentioned in the film except Shaun.

The story? When Shaun was a little sheep (you couldn’t call him a lamb – he’s just a smaller version of the other sheep) the Farmer (Sparkes) loved his flock and they loved him. But as time goes on and Shaun grows up, life on the sheep farm has become humdrum and boring. The Farmer is losing his eyesight but still wakes up, knocks the alarms clock on the floor, uses deodorant, shaves, open the front door – slamming it in Bitzer’s (also Sparkes) face, opens the barn, feeds and shears the sheep, and suddenly the day is over and they go to sleep.


One day, Shaun (Fletcher) sees a city bus stop by the farm with a poster touting, “Take a Day Off!” and he formulates a plan. He gathers Shirley (Webber), Timmy (also Fletcher), Meryl, Timmy’s Mom (Harbour), the Twins (Greenall), Hazel (Tate) and Nuts (Nyman) and they lead the farmer to a field gate where, one by one, they leap the gate (as in counting sheep) and thus put the farmer to sleep in a wheelbarrow. They dress him in his pajamas and roll him to his Caravan trailer and put him to bed. Shaun, being accomplished with chalk, draws a night scene on the window of the trailer so that, should the farmer awaken, he’ll go back to sleep thinking it’s still nighttime. They even put a fake alarm clock on the nightstand near the bed. To keep Bitzer from finding out what they’ve done, they pay the duck six slices of bread to tie a bone to a string and keep it just out of Bitzer’s reach.

Then they take over the house, make sheep-style cocktails, watch television, eat snacks and relax. But Blitzer is not fooled long and he walks in on them with the duck under his arm. There’s a scramble and in the confusion, the log blocking the Caravan comes loose and the trailer rolls downhill toward the big city. Torn over his loyalty to his master and his job, Bitzer chases after the Caravan.

The sheep couldn’t be happier. They head back to the house, but it’s locked. The pigs (who laughed when Shaun was shorn, making him look more like a poodle) have now taken over and are making a sty out of the house. What to do? Shaun finds a photo and cuts the farmer out of the picture, prints the word “Missing” on it (I told you he was clever) as a wanted flyer and decides to take the next bus into the city. After eluding the bus driver and all the passengers he gets to the bus depot, only to see Trumper, the Animal Containment Specialist (fancy name for a dog catcher, but this guy’s obsessed with catching anything not human) – voiced by Djalili – snatch Slip (Hands) a poor orphaned, snaggle-toothed dog and pop him into his wagon.

Shaun is trying to keep out of sight when the next bus pulls in and Timmy waves to him from the window, followed by the rest of the flock! He’s horrified. But they elude Trumper by raiding a second-hand store and dressing up as people. The disguises fool Trumper. He even hands Hazel her purse when she drops it (though it’s obvious her flip-style hairdo is a mop).

Bitzer has followed the Caravan to where it became airborne and stopped suddenly, giving the farmer a hard knock on the head and from there, he follows the ambulance to the hospital. But the hospital will not allow pets and he must sit on the bench outside. But, as soon as a laundry bin rolls by, Bitzer stows away in it, and, once in the hospital, he dons scrubs and a facemask and starts searching for the farmer. He finds him, but to escape security, he backs into the operating room and is mistaken for the chief surgeon. It almost gets scary when he’s handed a scalpel; he sees a teaching skeleton and can’t resist the femur bone (well, he’s a dog, right?)

Meanwhile, the flock is getting hungry. One stops at a green market and downs a few red hot peppers until steam comes out his ears and mouth, and he runs for a fountain (with Hazel on his shoulders) and starts sloppily lapping up water. The effect is hilarious. They eventually find a restaurant and, after a difficult time making themselves appear seated, are given menus. What does a sheep do with a menu? One starts eating it, another starts cutting it with a knife and a fork, until Shaun notices the Celebrity (Paulson) at his table. He copies everything the celebrity does, and so do the other sheep – until the Celebrity burps. Despite Shaun’s flailing motions we hear a prolonged burp from the flock, getting the attention of all the other diners. Still, this doesn’t blow their cover. But Timmy, who up to this moment has been disguised as a backpack, and who is under the table, sees the dessert cart and plunges his head into a layer cake. When Shaun manages to extricate him, the yarn of his sweater gets caught on a hook and unravels as he walks back to the table. Cover blown. Trumper is called in, and Shaun is captured and put in the same cell as Slip.

The Farmer gets tired of being in the hospital and reads his chart, which says “Memory Loss.” He crumples the page and tosses it and leaves the hospital. He wanders around and finds himself at a hairstyling salon and is mistaken for a hairdresser. The Celebrity had just come in and imperiously sat in one of the chairs because his hairdo was seriously askew from the melée at the restaurant. The farmer sees the electric clippers and remembers using a pair to shear sheep. Taking him in a headlock, he gives the Celebrity a poodle cut and, instead of being shocked by it, the Celebrity is delighted. The style becomes an overnight sensation and “Mr. X” is in demand, even to getting his picture on a poster.

The flock tries to break Shaun out of jail (essentially) but choose the wrong window. Shaun uses his skill with chalk to convince Trumper they got the right one by drawing a hole in the wall of his cell. Once Trumper is in the cell, Slip and Shaun are out and they lock Trumper in. Using Slip’s city smarts he leads the flock to a safe place. Bitzer joins up with them and they find the poster, complete with directions and a map. Slip leads them to the location of the salon. But the farmer, now Mr. X, doesn’t remember them. The crumpled paper from the hospital eventually makes it to the safe place and now the flock knows what’s wrong. Shaun devises a plan to get the farmer back to Mossy Bottom. And the real hilarity begins.

Shaun the Sheep is not only a tour de force of stop-action animation; it’s a non-stop fun machine and the height of the art form. It’s difficult enough to make a comedy with dialogue but when you depend on gestures, non-syllabic vocalizations and subtleties (without using pantomime), it’s Herculean. There are laughs in every scene, not just for kids but adults was well, action galore, and beautifully orchestrated pathos. Bring the whole family, except that guy who thinks beaning a cheerleader with basketball is funny. Him you can leave home. Anyone else will love it.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Minions 

By Steve Herte

Minions (Universal, 2015) – Directors: Kyle Balda & Pierre Coffin. Writer: Brian Lynch. Voices: Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, Geoffrey Rush, Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Katy Mixon, Michael Beattie, Hiroyuki Sanada, Dave Rosenbaum, Alex Dowding, & Paul Thornley. Color, 91 minutes, Rated PG.

As the movie opens, we see the enormous word “Universal” familiarly orbiting the Earth, but instead of French horns blaring the fanfare music, we hear the voices of Minions singing it. The audience gets a chuckle right from the start. Through the opening credits we see the evolution of Minions from single-celled sycophants following ever bigger, badder creatures, until one crawls out on the land and they emerge from the sea as well. Throughout, the narrator (Rush) explains the whole purpose of their existence. All the Minions are wearing seaweed on their lower half except the last one, who is naked. He hastily picks up two starfish and wears them like the top half of a bikini. The narrator comments, “All the Minions know what they are here for…except Norbert. He’s an idiot.”

We progress through the ages as a T-Rex gets accidentally tossed into a volcano, a caveman gets eaten by a bear when a Minion replaces his club with a fly swatter (“La Piñata!”), an Egyptian Pharaoh and his people are flattened by a pyramid built upside-down, Napoleon is shot by one of his own cannons, and Dracula is turned into dust by the sunlight streaming in from a drawn curtain.

It seems that every villain the Minions turn to is exterminated one way or other and they take refuge in an icy arctic cave. But they become bored. That’s when Kevin (voiced by Coffin, as are all the Minions) decides he must leave the cave and find a new master. He recruits Stewart and Bob and they make a long journey that, just on the verge of starvation, leads them to New York City. After chasing the ever-fascinated Bob around a department store until after closing time they discover news of “Villain-Com” being held in Orlando, Florida.

Another trek begins and soon they are tired out. They see a hitchhiker displaying a cardboard sign reading “New York,” get a ride and eventually figure out how it’s done and write “Orlando” on the reverse side. Kevin’s attempts fail much to Stewart’s hilarity. Bob nearly is run over but succeeds. A “woodie” station wagon stops and the three meet Walter and Madge Nelson (Keaton and Janney), their fat son, and villain-avid daughter, who are also going to Villain-Com.

It turns out that the Nelsons are a family of villains as they rob a bank and a gas station on the way. Kevin endears himself and his brothers to them when he misfires a rocket launcher, toppling a water tower and effectively stopping the police pursuit.

Villain-Com has a secret entrance, which Walter negotiates smoothly and they’re in – so many villains to choose from. One, Professor Flux (Coogan), has built a time machine and is committing trans-temporal crimes and bringing back multiple versions of himself. That is until he accidentally kills his original self and they all disappear. But one exhibit stands out above all the others and that one belongs to Scarlett Overkill (Bullock).


Scarlett makes a spectacular entrance onstage and announces that she’s looking for henchmen. All they have to do is steal a large ruby from her outstretched hand. Several baddies attack from all sides but she fights them all off efficiently and easily – even a Sumo Villain (Sanada). Kevin and his boys also take the stage, but Bob loses the teddy bear he’s carrying and in the scuffle, Kevin swallows the ruby. When he spits it out Scarlett declares him the winner.

Back at Scarlett’s lair, the Minions meet her husband Herb (Hamm) and are led to a painting of Queen Elizabeth II. “Do you know who this is?” Scarlett asks. “La Cucaracha?” Kevin ventures. And Scarlett reveals her plot: Steal Queen Elizabeth’s crown, make Scarlett Queen of England, and they will be her henchmen for life.

On the way to London, Kevin telephones the rest of the Minions who, by the way, have already found a “Big Boss” in the Abominable Snowman. It’s short lived though, for during the celebration, a Minion blows a blast on a tuba. The sound loosens a huge ice stalactite and it comes crashing down on the snowman’s head. Fleeing the snowman’s angry henchmen, the rest of the Minions head for London.

Stealing the crown is not as easy as it seems. Herb gives them weapons he created; a hyno-hat for Stewart, a lava gun for Kevin and a super stretch suit for Bob. The three successfully get inside the Tower of London, but in the chase scene that follows, Bob pulls Excalibur out of the stone and becomes King of England.

Scarlett is furious. The Minions still want to serve her, and so Kevin changes the laws of England to enable him to turn the throne over to Scarlett. In gratitude, she locks them in the dungeon to be tortured by Herb, masquerading as an executioner. Needless to say, none of his tortures work.

Left on their own, Kevin, Stewart and Bob escape the dungeon through the sewers of London, where Bob befriends a rat he calls “Kitty.” They first surface at a funeral service where one swipes a wreath with a banner reading “Sorry.” They amend it to say “Sorry Scarlett,” thinking this will help get them back into her good graces. They arrive at Westminster Abbey, but have to scale the walls to get in. A bee has followed Bob, who is wearing the floral wreath on his head, and he leaps onto an immense iron chandelier (just happening to be directly above Scarlett as she awaits her coronation). Stewart chases Bob swatting at the bee and their motions are causing the chandelier to unscrew from the ceiling.

The titan lighting fixture eventually falls on Scarlett. Herb is devastated. But Scarlett is not gone. The firepower loaded into her hoop skirt enables her to blast out from under the chandelier. And she comes out fuming, capturing Bob and Stewart, but Kevin makes it into Herb’s secret lab where he enters a chamber bearing signs saying, “Do not push this button,” “Do not pull this lever,” and “Do not blow into this hole” – all of which Kevin accidentally does.

Outside the tower of Scarlett’s lair, we see the walls cracking and toppling to reveal a Godzilla-sized Kevin who goes to battle against Scarlett. It’s a hilarious scene because Kevin has trouble negotiating the narrow streets of London in his new monstrous size while Scarlett is zooming around above him firing at him. The remaining Minions arrive shortly before the interchange leading Scarlett to exclaim, “Are you kidding me?”

After many crazy volleys, Scarlett is defeated (kind of) and Queen Elizabeth (Saunders) is very grateful – even to the point of knighting Kevin. But her crown is gone again. Who has it? Scarlett – but not for long. She and Herb are caught in an ice ray that freezes them in place. Who takes the crown? A little boy named Gru (Carell). The prequel is now complete.

Minions is a wonderfully funny film and remarkably so because the heroes only occasionally speak intelligible English. Most of it is either Spanish or random words that sound something like comprehensible speech. Through it all, the audience knows what they are saying by their tone and body language. Sandra Bullock is great as a wicked villainess and Jennifer Saunders makes a very funny Elizabeth. The animation was fabulous and, most amazing, were the voices of the minions, all done by one man. Be sure to stay through the ending credits (which, by the way, are the only things that come directly at the audience in 3D) because there are extra scenes with the Minions interacting with the young Gru. Parents, this is another safe film for all.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.



Inside Out

By Steve Herte

Inside Out (Pixar/Walt Disney, 2015) - Directors: Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen. Writers: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen (story). Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley & Pete Docter (s/p). Cast/Voices: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Bobby Moynihan, Paula Pell, Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, Sherry Lynn, Lariane Newman, Lori Alan, John Ratzenburger, & Josh Cooley. Color, 94 minutes, PG.

Riley Anderson (Dias) is born and opens her eyes on her delighted Mom (Lane) and Dad (MacLachlan). The scene changes to the control headquarters inside Riley’s head. As a baby, the first emotion to appear inside Riley is Joy (Poehler) and she has to learn how to work the control panel. She pushes a button and Riley smiles at Mom and Dad. Then Sadness (Smith), who cries when hungry or wet, joins Joy. That's followed by Fear (Hader), caution crossing a wire with her wagon; Anger (Black), when she doesn’t get what she wants; and Disgust (Kaling), while she’s being fed broccoli for the first time – which Joy counteracts with encouragement on the “airplane into the hanger” motion initiated by Daddy. Joy’s control builds “core memories” (golden globes stored in Headquarters central) and they in turn create causeways to “islands” leading from the tower and floating above the Pit of Forgetfulness.

Everything is peachy while Joy rules in Riley’s mind, until the family has to move to San Francisco. The new house is a real fixer-upper and the movers are delayed for nearly a week (Riley has to use a sleeping bag on the floor) but Joy keeps Riley upbeat. Sadness keeps trying to touch the “golden” memories Joy has stored up, making them blue and melancholy, and in one scuffle, both are accidentally sucked up the tube leading to the endless maze of Long Term Memory. Fortunately, Joy had convinced Sadness of the fun it is to be read the manuals and she now knows the way through the maze. Unfortunately, Sadness has gone into despair mode and has to be dragged by Joy.


It’s Riley’s first day of school and starts off fine, until Sadness touches a core memory and Riley turns melancholy. The tussle between Joy and Sadness happens before Riley goes home, and Fear, Anger and Disgust are left in charge. This makes her moody and her attitude cues Mom’s version of Joy (Lynn), Fear (Newman) and Sadness (Alan) to try involving Dad in the non-conversation. Dad is clueless and the result is an argument, ending in Riley being sent to her room.

On their way back to the Headquarters, Joy and Sadness meet the Forgetters, Bobby and Paula (Moynihan and Poundstone), who are busy vacuuming gray memories from the shelves, sending them down into the Pit of Forgetfulness. Also on their way they meet Bing Bong (Kind). He was Riley’s childhood invisible friend. His head is a pink elephant, his body is cotton candy, and he has a cat’s ringed tail, and can make dolphin sounds. She and he traveled in his “rocket” – actually a red wagon with two brooms attached to the sides.

Bing Bong seems to know the way but whoops, he cannot read. “This is a short-cut. I take it all the time. See? (he spells) D.A.N.G.E.R., Short-cut!” This takes the trio into Abstract Thought and the maintainers arrive shortly after they enter and shut the door, intending to clear out the contents. This transforms Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong into Picasso-esque versions of themselves. “That’s the first stage of three!” cries Sadness. Then, they become two-dimensional abstract figures and lastly single lines before they figure out how to climb through the door on the other side of the enormous building. But they miss the Train of Thought. They have to travel through Imagination Land and Childhood Memories to get to the next stop.

Meanwhile, under the manipulations of Fear, Anger and Disgust, Riley is becoming more distant from her parents and friends; the islands of Goofball and Friendship crumble, and she eventually steals her mother’s credit card to buy a ticket back to Minnesota and the Island of Honesty crumbles. The journey’s getting harder and harder for Joy and Sadness because the causeways are disappearing along with the islands. Not only that, but when Riley falls asleep, the train stops and they have to awaken her with a scary dream to get it started again.

Bing Bong gets arrested when he’s blamed for stealing a piece of a cloud house owned by Fritz (Ratzenberger) and is imprisoned with all of Riley’s fears in her Subconscious. Sneaking down the long stairway, Joy and Sadness get the two Subconscious Guards (Goetz and Oz) to lock them up as well. Inside, there’s a huge stalk of broccoli, grandma’s vacuum cleaner, and the solution to their problem, the scary and huge Jangles the Clown (Cooley) asleep with Bing Bong imprisoned in a cage made of balloons. They escape with the unwitting help of Jangles and achieve the scary dream, waking Riley – much to the dismay of the Dream Director (Pell). But things are getting worse. The last island, the Island of Family, is beginning to crumble, the train runs out of track and crashes, Joy and Bing Bong are hurled into the Pit of Forgetfulness and Sadness is crying her eyes out while floating on a rain cloud.

Inside Out is easily the best creation to come out of the minds at Pixar. It’s the perfect entertainment vehicle: no violence, no sex, no vulgarity. It’s tremendously funny, ingenious, exciting and clever, colorful to the extreme, and engaging. Even the baby in the theater stopped crying to watch. Finally: a new concept for a plot in a desert of remakes and unoriginality, which includes a maximum “Wow” factor. I laughed a lot, got teary-eyed and was on the edge of my seat. I’ll admit, it surpasses Ratatouille as my favorite Pixar film so far. One of my favorite scenes is when Joy and Sadness finally splat on the window of the Headquarters Tower, Disgust insults Anger until he blows his top and she uses him as a blowtorch to break the window and let Joy and Sadness in.

A big lesson learned by Joy is being taught to the audience. Sometimes Sadness is the emotion to take the controls. Make sure to stay for the credits. The camera takes us into the minds of other characters, a dog, and (funniest) a cat, to see what’s going on in their heads. For this marvelous film not to affect you, you would have to be either comatose or deceased. This film is a definite must-see.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.



Home 

By Steve Herte

Home (DreamWorks, 20th Century Fox, 2015) – Director: Tim Johnson. Writers: Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember (s/p); Adam Rex (book The True Meaning of Smekday). Voices: Jim Parsons, Rihanna, Steve Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Matt Jones, & Brian Stepanek. Animated and Color, 94 minutes.

Aboard their mother ship (which resembles the planet Earth with an after-burner), the purple creatures who call themselves The Boov assemble to hear their leader, Captain Smek (Martin), announce that he’s found the perfect planet for them to live on: Earth. He and the “brainier” Boov have determined that the inhabitants of Earth are slow, helpless and baby-like, and will not resist being displaced. All of the Boov are excited to finally have a planet of their own after their home world was destroyed by their enemy, the Gorg – fearsome spiky creatures with flames for eyes. But no one is more excited than Oh (Parsons). He, like everyone else, totes his belongings in a bubble attached balloon-like to his hand, except his is three times the size of any other Boov possessions, and it gets in the way constantly – much like Oh himself.


Upon arrival on Earth, Captain Smek makes a grand pronouncement that the Boov are here and they’re canceling the usual gravitational force to make the people easier to suck up and transport – to Australia. With all the people gone, the Boov populate the other continents, except Antarctica, adapting them to their needs and modes of transportation. What the Boov do not know is that one human is still left. Gratuity ‘Tip’ Tucci (Rihanna) was missed because her calico cat “Pig” was resting on her head at the time of extraction and the scanners dismissed her as “non-human.” Her mother, Lucy Tucci (Lopez), however was taken to Australia.

Oh is so thrilled to have his own apartment and neighbors near enough to invite to a party that he decides to throw a housewarming of his own. But no one shows up because they do not associate with Boov who are “different,” as Oh definitely is. He looks out onto the Boov-covered streets below and sees Kyle (Jones) – his ‘best-friend’ (only in his mind) – directing traffic. He goes down to invite Kyle to his party but Kyle wants nothing to do with him. Oh decides to send out invitations on his circular hand-held device to all the Boov, but when he goes to ‘send’ the invitation, he hits ‘Send All’ by mistake and the invitation goes to the entire galaxy, including the Gorg. Oh is now vilified by his people and hunted for “erasure.” He escapes the angry crowd in a Bubble Car, but not for long. Captain Smek has sent out an all-points bulletin on him, which automatically disables any vehicle he touches. He crashes in a desolate part of town and hides by entering the back door of a mini-mart called “Mopo.”

Meanwhile, trying to escape the encroaching Boov, Tip and her cat have driven off in her mom’s car and inadvertently crashed it in front of the same mini-mart that Oh has entered and they come in through the front door. They eventually bump into each other and both are terrified, but Tip locks Oh in the freezer cabinet. After much mistrust, begging (“Can I come into the out now?”), and cajoling, Oh promises to fix Tip’s car and take her to her mother. Using three flavors of “slushees” and various edibles from the mini-mart Oh converts the car into a hovercraft and they elude the Boov. Oh really wants to go to Antarctica to escape his people but must take Tip to Paris to use “the antenna” (The Eiffel Tower) to find where her mother was displaced. Paris is the last place Oh wants to go because that’s where Captain Smek has set up his capital of “Smekland.”

Oh explains to Tip that the Boov are known for “running away from” and not confronting danger, and that he’s wanted for his mistake. “With Boov, it’s nine mistakes and you’re out.” “How many have you made?” “Sixty-two.” He also explains how Captain Smek became the leader of the Boov when he confronted the Gorg Commander (Stepanek) and took the “Shusher” from him. The Shusher is like an egg-shaped rock and now is the head of Captain Smek’s scepter. He bops Boov on the head with it while shouting, “Shush!” On the journey, Tip learns that the Boov cannot resist dancing to modern music when Oh uncontrollably starts gyrating (and changing colors) and is horrified. “Boov do not dance.” He even twerks on his four stubby legs.

A strange friendship blossoms between Oh and Tip. Together they use the Eiffel Tower to cancel Oh’s invitation – just as it’s about to be received by the Gorg mothership – and locate Lucy in Australia. But they’re not out of trouble yet. The Boov still want him for making the mistake and the Gorg are still coming to destroy Earth.

Home is an excellent movie for both children and adults. There is enough visual humor to keep kids entertained and sophisticated jokes to keep adults laughing. I know as there were several children in the audience with me and I heard them giggling. Just the thought of Oh waiting expectantly in his apartment door holding a tray with a bowl of shiny nuts and bolts and three rolls of toilet paper makes me laugh still. The voices are beautifully done and the characters – though alien and disproportionate – are believable.

The animation is smooth and the 3-D effects non-intrusive. There is one instance where Tip’s car is firing popcorn at the audience, but it didn’t even make me blink. The writing is superb and the life lessons taught in this film, though not new, are valid: you can’t keep running away from your problems, family is paramount, and, just because someone took something valuable from your enemy, it doesn’t necessarily qualify him as your leader. There is even pathos in this animated marvel. Wait until you see what the Shusher really is. Trekkies will love it. I did.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water

By Steve Herte

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (Paramount Animation/Nickelodeon Films, 2015)  Director: Paul Tibbitt. Writers: Glenn Berger, Jonathan Aibel (s/p); Stephen Hillenburg, Paul Tibbitt (story); Stephen Hillenburg (series “SpongeBob SquarePants). Voices: Antonio Banderas, Tom Kenny, Bill Fagerbaake, Rodger Bumpass, Clancy Brown, Mr. Lawrence, Carolyn Lawrence, Jill Talley, Matt Berry, Mary Jo Catlett, Eric Bauza, Tim Conway, Eddie Deezen, Rob Paulsen, Kevin Michael Richardson, April Stewart, Cree Summer, Billy West, & Paul Tibbitt. Color & 3D, 93 minutes.

Even failure doesn’t feel so bad if you do it as a team.”  SpongeBob

I admit it. I’m a SpongeBob Squarepants fan. Been that way since I saw the first cartoon. I can even tolerate his annoying laugh, which is much more than I can say for any of his fellow characters, especially Plankton. The only exception to this is his best friend, Patrick Starfish, who also has an annoying laugh. Why then do I love the absorbent yellow creature? Three reasons: the animation is well done, the writing is clever (even the puns), and the situations are so wacky they’re funny.

No exception here. From the first camera shots there’s no doubt about this movie being a comedy. “Nickelodeon Films” rises dramatically from the ocean draped in seaweed and the audience is flown over the waves until…where are we? We look right, we look left, and suddenly we see Bikini Atoll and we’re thrust into the dense foliage (where before we only saw a lone palm tree) and spy a pirate following a treasure map.

The pirate, who will later be known as Burger Beard (Banderas), seeks a magic book and dodges Indiana Jones-style obstacles and fights a skeleton to obtain it. Once safely back on his one-man pirate ship he reads the story of Bikini Bottom (down below the waves) to a group of talking (and singing) seagulls (one of which is voiced by Conway). As he reads, the scene changes to the Krusty Krab diner on the ocean bottom where SpongeBob (voiced by Kenny) and Patrick (Fagerbakke) are under orders from the proprietor, Mr. Eugene Krabs (Brown), to defend the secret formula for their only product, the Crabby Patty, against the constant onslaught of Plankton (Mr. Lawrence), owner of the failed Chum Bucket diner across the street.


Plankton uses a bomber plane to drop a jar of tartar sauce on them and they reply with a barrage of potatoes, which are sliced by the plane’s propellers and rain down as fries on a fish citizen of Bikini Bottom. He uses a tank to fire pickles at them and SpongeBob replies with a machine gun shooting catsup and mustard while Patrick literally “holds the mayo.” He hoists a large jar of mayonnaise until he gets tired and hefts it at the tank, entrapping it.

The food-fight battle goes back and forth until it seems that Plankton has lost. He leaves in tears after giving his last penny to the avaricious Mr. Krabs, who promptly puts it into his safe. Bad idea. The Plankton weeping outside the diner is a robot and the real Plankton is inside the last penny. He gets the formula (tucked inside a bottle resting on a weight-sensitive platform) by switching it, Indiana Jones-style, with another similar bottle with a note inside. But SpongeBob catches him and the two are locked in a tug of war with the bottle between them – when it vanishes. Of course Plankton gets the blame, but SpongeBob sticks up for him because he knows Plankton is innocent.

Without the secret formula all social order in Bikini Bottom is destroyed, the citizens go rogue and start looting and fire breaks out all over town (this takes place entirely under water, mind you). SpongeBob blows a huge bubble around Plankton, steps inside and they float off to find what happened to the secret formula, much to the chagrin of the angry mob.

Meanwhile, on the pirate ship, Burger Beard repeatedly ends the story to the dissatisfaction of the seagulls. It turns out that the book is magic and whatever you write in it will happen. In this way Burger Beard magically gets the secret formula and transforms his pirate ship (it has wheels) into the most successful burger stand on the beach. If not for a tussle with one of the seagulls, a page would not have been torn out and sunk to the bottom, where it comes to rest on Sandy Cheek’s (Lawrence) airtight dome (she’s a squirrel living at the ocean bottom). This page is instrumental in retrieving the formula.

SpongeBob and Plankton form a team (although Plankton has a tough time even pronouncing the word) and decide to build a time machine to return to the moment before the formula vanished thus saving Bikini Bottom. They rescue Plankton’s computer, Karen (Talley), and she becomes the brain in a photo booth time machine with a cuckoo clock timer. For a quarter, they can travel through time. There are several crazy kaleidoscopic wrong turns. In one of them they meet Bubbles the Dolphin (Berry) who rides in a spaceship, stands on his tail and wears a cape.

Eventually, they figure out that the formula is at “the surface” and Bubbles provides SpongeBob, Patrick, Plankton, Mr. Krabs, and Squidward (Bumpass) with the ability to breathe air by forcing them through his blowhole, while Sandy just takes off her helmet. They use a seagull feather, Squidward’s ink and the page from the magic book to re-write themselves as super-heroes and together do battle with Burger Beard.

Yes, I know it’s totally ridiculous, but that’s the charm of a SpongeBob adventure. The story is just there to be a story. It can take any turn imaginable. As Bugs Bunny says, “Anything can happen in a cartoon.” The jokes and puns are sprinkled throughout and, in case the audience doesn’t understand one, Mrs. Puffs (Catlett), the schoolteacher, is ready with a drum set to play a rim-shot. “Somebody had to do it.” She says.

This movie can be a little confusing if you don’t pay attention to the first scenes. The book is central to the whole plot. The animation is excellent as usual, especially when the main characters go from their undersea shapes to more 3D shapes out of water. There are several good laughs and a lot of clever jokes. The scene where Patrick complains that his feet hurt and SpongeBob points out that a starfish doesn’t have feet sparks a hilarious argument. Yes, of course there’s a song about teamwork. There’s always a song. “You’re not going to sing again?” says Plankton, when SpongeBob pulls out his pitch pipe. The kids in the audience loved it and I heard the adults laugh as well. Don’t try to explain it. Just get on board and have a good time.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Strange Magic

By Steve Herte

Strange Magic (Touchstone, 2015)  Director: Gary Rydstrom. Writers: David Berenbaum (s/p), George Lucas (story). Voices: Alan Cumming, Alfred Molina, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Kristin Chenoweth, Meredith Anne Bull, Sam Palladio, Maya Rudolkph, Peter Stormare, Llou Johnson, Nicole Vigil, & Bob Einstein. Animated, Color, 99 minutes.

What fools these mortals be!” – Puck

I can’t dance to that music you’re playin’, you better get yourself together, you'd better do it soon.” – Martha Reeves and the Vandellas

Back in the ‘60s when A Hard Day’s NightHelp!, and Wild Weekend came out in the theaters, I thought it might be fun to create a musical incorporating several of the current pop songs of the day. The result was a corny, cobbled together mish-mash of songs with meaningless dialogue and it never saw the light of day.

Today they call it a “Jukebox Musical” and Broadway has seen its share. Of Dance of the Vampires, Movin’ Out, California Dreamin', and Mamma Mia! only the last survived the test of time. Jersey Boys doesn’t fit the category because it’s more of a drama with songs (and pieces of songs) inserted.

Thus we have George Lucas’ attempt at forcing pop numbers into a cohesive whole and calling it an inspiration from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We have a Fairy King (Molina) who is never named (we assume Oberon) but we have no Queen Titania. He’s a single parent (how au courant) of the flirtatious Dawn (Bull), sporting Monarch butterfly wings and her sister Marianne (Wood), who is adorned in blue Morpho butterfly wings.


Marianne (obviously named so that the song “C’mon Marianne” by Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons could be included) is betrothed to Roland (Palladio), a vain, self-centered, power hungry fairy in green armor and Hawk moth wings. She’s in love with him and sings Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” until she sees Roland seriously kissing a green-winged beauty. Then the marriage is off and she angrily croons Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (Do you see where this is going?) while Sunny the elf (Kelley) tries to console her with Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” with the lyrics: “Ev’ry Little Thing Gonna Be Alright.”

The land of the fairies and elves is separated from the “Dark Forest,” where goblins and ghoulies live by a border of primroses. Both sides know that the Sugar Plum Fairy (Chenoweth) can convert the petals of these flowers into a powerful love potion. Unfortunately, the Bog King (Cumming), who looks like an overgrown mosquito, is currently holding her captive in a spider-web globe. He’s also having his minions Thang (Stormare) and Stuff (Einstein) cut down all the primroses so that no one will ever fall in love again (least of all himself, after a failed past affair).

Roland knows that the only way to become king is by marrying Marianne. Towards that end, he cons Sunny into finding a primrose petal, taking it to the Sugar Plum Fairy and bringing back the potion. For his troubles Sunny will get the hand of Dawn, with whom he’s in love. Luckily, Sunny finds the last petal and enters the Dark Forest to the tune of the Doors’ “People Are Strange.” He manages somehow to get to the Sugar Plum Fairy and she does her magic with strains of Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange,” instructing him to be the first person to be seen by the one he uses the potion on, and to not let a certain mischievous little long-eared rodent-like creature get ahold of it. (This is probably as close to a Puck-like character, though he never speaks. He squeaks.) Her payment for the potion is her freedom. All is accomplished, but not for long. The Bog King recaptures Sugar, and Sunny meets the unnamed Puck creature, who steals the potion, causing Sunny to chase him through the forest to get it back. But as the creature runs, he causes all sorts of weird love-matches throughout the forest.

Back in Fairyland, it’s time for the Spring Ball and Dawn sings Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Sunny is performing “Hey Yeah” onstage and having trouble opening the potion when Marianne arrives and Roland frantically signals him. The Bog King and his minions explode on the scene and kidnap (or rather, fairy-nap?) Dawn as the Puck creature takes off with the potion in the confusion.

Sunny, Marianne and Roland chase the goblins separately to rescue Dawn. Roland has a small army and rides a squirrel, entering the forest to a riff from Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Sunny winds up riding a large iguana that fell in love with him (you got it – the potion). Meanwhile, at the Bog King’s palace some of the potion is spilled on Dawn and she sees him first. Then it’s endless choruses of “Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” by The Four Tops and it’s driving him and his cronies mad.

The Bog King’s mother, Griselda (Rudolph) is delighted, because she sees her son in a love relationship at last. At this point I should warn my readers that none of the songs we hear are the original versions. All are re-orchestrated and re-sung to new beats and tempos. Whitney, Elvis and Jim Morrison are by now all spinning in their graves with William Shakespeare.

When Marianne confronts the Bog King in swordplay there HAS to be a song for that and it’s Heart’s “Straight On” (a stretch, I know). She’s horrified that her sister could fall in love with such an ugly evil creature as the Bog King, but learns from the Sugar Plum Fairy that true love can undo the potion’s effects.

Of course there has to be a finale to all this nonsense and it’s the improbable duet of “Tell Him” by the Exciters and “Wild Thing” by the Troggs. I know, I would never have combined the two songs.

The only thing this animated feature has going for it is the brilliant works of Industrial Light and Magic. The characters move fluidly, the mouths match the dialogue and song lyrics perfectly and, for a fantasy, everything appears real. The only drawback are the hair effects and large eyes on the female leads, which are too Anime. The only song I anticipated being in this silly film was indeed there, in part, not wholly sung or played, Electric Light Orchestra’s “Strange Magic.” Parents, your kids won’t get this one. They’ll enjoy it, but they won’t “get” it.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Penguins of Madagascar

By Steve Herte

Penguins of Madagascar (Dreamworks, 2014) - Directors: Eric Darnell & Simon J. Smith. Writers: John Aboud, Michael Colton & Brandon Sawyer (s/p); Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath (characters). Voices: Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovitch, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare, Andy Richter, Danny Jacobs, Sean Charmatz, Werner Herzog, Stephen Kearin, & Kelly Cooney. Color and 3-D, 92 minutes.

The camera pans over the frozen wastelands of Antarctica at the beginning of this Madagascar spin-off (and, technically, sequel) as the voice of Werner Herzog drones on about how desolate and lifeless it seems except for penguins. An egg goes rolling down the hills of snow and ice and passes by a line of penguins marching who-knows-where and we find out that they don’t care. “We lose eggs all the time,” says one, “it’s part of nature.” When he hears this, baby penguin Skipper (McGrath) declares, “Then I reject nature!” to the shock of all on line and he and his nest-mates Kowalski (Miller) and Rico (Vernon) chase the egg in hopes of saving it. It falls off a cliff and lands on the deck of an abandoned ship. As the three are watching, a leopard seal emerges from a hatch, devours a roosting seagull and, with two others proceeds towards the egg.


The three stare while, behind them the Documentary Filmmaker (Herzog) appears Cousteau-like with a mike citing how terrified the baby penguins are of the cliff and the certain death beyond. Then he gives his soundman a cue to give the trio a push, and off they go on the adventure of their lives. They acquire the egg (Rico swallows it) and make their getaway on the business end of a harpoon gun. Dubiously safe on a drifting iceberg, the egg hatches, producing the fourth member of the team, Private (Knights). “Hello, are you my family?” To which Kowalski replies, “You have no family and we’re all going to die.” Skipper gives him his first warning about inappropriately negative truths.

The scene changes to a circus motif and we see the shadows of Alex the lion, Marty the zebra, Melman the giraffe, and Gloria the hippo all still dancing to “I Like To Move It,” which moves us to the present. The four penguins are now the size we remember from the last Madagascar movie and Skipper expresses his dislike of the song by proposing a plan to leave using the clowns’ cannon and a part of the tent as a para-sail. They glide into the wall (literally) of Fort Knox and successfully break into the vault where all the gold is kept. But they’re not after the gold. It’s Private’s birthday and they’re headed for the vending machine at the far end of the corridor, which is stocked with their favorite snack, Cheese Dibbles (exactly like Cheese Doodles).

When Private is reaching unsuccessfully for his bag of Dibbles, a tentacle reaches out of the machine and grabs him. Other tentacles grab the others when they try to get Private back. Eight tentacles sprout from the bottom of the vending machine as it runs to the exit, where a passing helicopter hooks it. Dave the Octopus – also known as Doctor Octavius Brine (Malokovich) has captured the penguins. He has been snatching penguins anywhere he finds them in a vengeful mission to turn them into monsters using a secret potion he’s concocted.

The penguins make their escape in Venice, Italy where there is a hilarious gondola chase scene until they hit a dead end alley. Cue the arrival of The North Wind, a polar vigilante group led by a Husky whose “name is Classified” (and hence he is called “Classified” for the remainder of the film). The group consists of a seal named Short Fuse (Jeong), a sexy snowy owl named Eva (Mahendru), and a Russian polar bear named Corporal (Stomare). Onboard their jet-powered flying machine, Classified (Cumberbatch) touts the virtues of The North Wind’s fighting for poor defenseless animals such as penguins while the egotistical and sarcastic Skipper only half-listens and crunches loudly on Cheese Dibbles. As Classified ends his sermon with, “No one breaks The Wind!” Skipper has had enough and he leads the team in an escape, but they are drugged by a dart gun, sealed in a box marked “Madagascar,” and put aboard a mail plane. Knowing that Rico swallows everything, they escape the box with a cutting tool he coughs up and, opening the bottom hatch of the plane, plummet down to two other planes in the hope of catching one going where Dave is going, but unsuccessfully.

Fortunately, one of the boxes that fell out of the first plane contains a life raft and they inflate it (Skipper rejected the parachutes that Private found). All seems lost, Kowalski is seasick, Rico keeps trying to eat him, and Dave has captured Private (dressed as a mermaid). Skipper has no other choice but to work with The North Wind.

If you’re looking for an animated feature that has everything: adventure, action, incredibly clever writing, realistic camera angles, excellent photography, great 3-D effects, believable characters, and both sophisticated and slap-stick humor, this is it. Kids will not get bored and will laugh as much as the adults (although to different aspects of the movie).

My favorites were when the penguins are in Shanghai, China and Skipper thinks they’re in Dublin, Ireland. Hence they blend in doing their version of a “River Dance” and Dave’s great lines: “Nicholas, cage them,” “Drew, Barry, more power,” and Hugh, Jack, man the weapons!” I don’t remember when I’ve come back from a movie remembering so many lines. The simple storyline of taking revenge on all penguins because they stole the limelight from an octopus at the Central Park Zoo is even funnier when you realize there never was an octopus at that zoo and penguins didn’t arrive until about ten years ago. Also, Kowalski’s assessments are hilarious (just the concept of a penguin named “Kowalski” is crazily funny). After they try using their flippers to fly, he concludes, “There’s no use. We’re flightless.” But then he gets seasick when we all know penguins can swim. It’s just great.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Big Hero 6

By Steve Herte

Feast (Disney, 2014)  Director: Patrick Osborne. Writers: Nicole Mitchell, Raymond S. Persi (story); Patrick Osborne (written by). Voices: Ben Bledsoe, Stewart Levine, Katie Lowes, Brandon Scott, Adam Shapiro, & Tommy Snider. Color, 6 minutes.

This adorable animated short tells the story of boy-meets-girl from the point of view of a French bulldog. We begin with a hungry puppy lured from the street by French fries and into a man’s house. All views are from the dog’s level and people are only visible from the knees down. In his wonderful life in a bachelor pad, the dog (now named Winston) learns how great it is to eat fried eggs, bacon, and pizza, and he eagerly scarfs up anything his master tosses at him with his dog food.

Then one day at a restaurant, the man meets a girl and Winston discovers cuisine that involves vegetables and garnishes, which he decides he doesn’t like. At home, if his master places a sprig of parsley on his regular food, he refuses to eat it. But one day he finds a green garnish and associates it with the girl and his master’s happiness and leads the man on a merry chase until laying the sprig down at the girl’s feet. The couple reconnect, marry and have a baby; all of which the little dog exults in and gets to taste all of the resulting new foods.

It’s a clever tale from Nicole Mitchell and Raymond S. Persi for Disney Studios, viewed from a novel angle that minimizes dialogue for visual storytelling. And, as so many other Disney cartoons, this one is light on content and heavy on cute.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Big Hero 6 (Disney, 2014)  Directors: Don Hall & Chris Williamson. Writers: Jordan Roberts (s/p and story), Daniel Gerson (s/p), Robert L. Baird (s/p), Don Hall (story), Duncan Rouleau and Steven T. Seagle (concept and characters). Voices: Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Jamie Chung, Daniel Henney, Damon Wayans, Jr, Genesis Rodriguez, T.J. Miller, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Maya Rudolph, & Daniel Gerson. Animated, color, and 3D, 108 minutes.


It’s an unspecified time in the bustling and extremely colorful town of San Fransokyo (an amalgam of Francisco and Tokyo). The way for a street kid to earn big money is to build a battle-bot and win against the reigning underworld champ. Hiro (Potter) does this with a seemingly harmless little black robot and finds himself pursued by the outraged thug. Fortunately, his older brother Tadashi (Henney) rescues him on his motorcycle and he escapes.

Tadashi would prefer that his brilliant little brother would make something of his life and talks him into accompanying him to the “Nerd School” he attends. Once there he meets Go Go (Chung), who is working on a faster bicycle using near frictionless mag-lev wheels; Wasabi (Wayans), whose project involves laser slicers; Honey Lemon (Rodriguez) and her strange candy-like glue; and Fred (Miller), who gave them all their nicknames and dreams of being a fire-breathing dragon. Hiro is amazed at all their projects and their enthusiasm and decides he would like to attend this school. Tadashi shows Hiro his project, a medical robot named Baymax (Adsit), who balloons out of his storage case at the sound of the word “Ouch” or “Ow.” Tadashi advises Hiro to come up with an idea that will impress Dean Robert Callaghan (Cromwell) and he will be accepted easily.

After much brainstorming and encouragement from Tadashi, Hiro invents the micro-bot – tiny robots capable of combining to form anything the mind can conceive by responding directly to the thoughts of the person wearing the command headband. He wows everyone at the science fair, gets an offer to work at a big corporation from Alistair Krei (Tudyk) and acceptance to the school.

While reveling in Hiro’s success, the two brothers witness a huge fire at the school and Tadashi runs to save Professor Callaghan who is still inside. There is an enormous explosion and Hiro is now brother-less.

At home, the boys’ mother Cass (Rudolph) tries her best to console Hiro, but he’s lost interest in the school and wants to be alone. That’s until he drops his battle robot on his foot and says the magic word, “Ow!” Baymax rises up and, whether Hiro likes it or not, he has a new friend. When Baymax discovers one of his micro-bots not destroyed in the explosion and determines that it seems to want to join its mates, they follow it to an abandoned warehouse. Once there, a man in a Kabuki mask attacks them, and they later learn he is manufacturing micro-bots and using them for his own ends.

Thanks to Baymax’s summoning the other nerds, they escape after a hilarious chase scene. After reporting this to the rather bored and unbelieving Desk Sergeant (Gerson) at the police station and getting no satisfaction, Hiro uses his computer and design skills to transform himself, Baymax and the four nerds into a super-hero team (hence the title, Big Hero 6), using their projects as their super powers and together they go after the strange villain. But they are in for some surprises along the way.

When I first saw the trailers for this movie I noted the unusual way the characters were drawn, almost as if the film was created in the anime studios of Japan. Most of the names are Japanese and the eyes are strangely rounded. Baymax is a lovable, funny character who remarkably expresses a range of emotions with only two dots connected by a line for a face. His humor is the innocent humor of the Robot in Lost in Space or Data in Star Trek – Next Generation. There were a great many small children in the audience with me and they all enjoyed it. The biggest laughs were when Baymax’s battery power was getting low and he acted as if drunk – at one point cradling the family cat and saying, “Hairy BABY!”

Despite its anime look, Big Hero 6 is an excellent movie for the whole family with lots of action, laughs and even some philosophy. The 3-D effects were great and didn’t interfere, the cinematography was very convincing (especially the street scenes) and the soundtrack added to the excitement or sentiment of the moment. In short, I loved it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Book of Life

By Steve Herte

The Book of Life (20th Century Fox, 2014) – Director: Jorge R. Gutierrez. Writers: Jorge R. Gutierrez, Douglas Langdale. Voices: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Christina Applegate, Ice Cube, Kate del Castillo, Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Carlos Alazraqui, Ana de la Reguera, Emil-Bastien Bouffard, Elias Garza, Dan Navarro, Genesis Ochoa, & Placido Domingo. Animated, Color, 95 minutes.

All Souls’ Day is celebrated in Mexico as Dia de los Muertes, the Day of the Dead, and it is on this day that this movie takes place, November 2. A bus of bored, spitball-flinging school children pulls up to a museum and nearly terrorizes the aging tour guide. But deftly using her “Follow Me” sign as a shield, a beautiful red-haired tour guide takes over and leads them through an invisible door and into a spacious hall to witness “the glory of Mexico.”

The children are dazzled and follow her to the far end of the hall, where the Book of Life resides. She opens the book and, using wooden toys to help illustrate it, reads a tale. She starts, “As we all know, Mexico is the center of the universe…”

The story begins in the town of San Angel (the ‘g’ is pronounced like an ‘h’) on November 2, where we meet little Maria (Saldana) and her two friends, Manolo (Luna) and Joaquin (Tatum), who are constantly vying for her attention. Maria is General Posada’s (Alazraqui) daughter. Manolo Sanchez, is from a long line of bullfighters and Joaquin is descended from mighty warriors. Joaquin’s father was the last to repel the fearsome bandito, Chakal (Navarro), and his men.

One day, Maria sees pigs in a pen and decides to free them from bondage with help from Manolo and Joaquin. The pigs stampede into town and cause a bit of havoc, but are followed by a large tusked boar. Joaquin fends off the boar with the skills he’s learned and Manolo demonstrates his keen aptitude for bullfighting to send the boar careening into a wall, where it’s knocked out.

Meanwhile, in the ethereal reaches we see La Muerte (del Castillo) and Xibalba (Perlman), the rulers of the Lands of Remembrance and the Forgotten, arguing over why they rule the places they do. Xibalba sees the two boys competing for Maria and makes a wager with La Muerte over which one will win her hand. He chooses Joaquin and she chooses Manolo. If Joaquin marries Maria, they will switch kingdoms. If not, they will remain in their lands forever.

After the dust clears in the town square the general makes a judgment that Maria is to be sent to a convent to learn how to be a lady, hoping this kind of behavior will be stopped. The two boys are heartbroken. Manolo presents her with the little pig she saved from bondage and she names him “Chewy.” She boards the train with the pig and the boys will not see her again until they are all adults.

While Joaquin learns swordsmanship and battle techniques, Manolo reluctantly learns bullfighting. He really wants to be a singer and play guitar, a talent he clearly possesses.

On the day of Maria’s return there is a spectacle planned in the arena, starting with Joaquin demonstrating his prowess in horsemanship and followed by a bullfight featuring Manolo. They are both amazed by how beautiful Maria has become and both show off for her. But though his techniques are flawless in the ring, Manolo’s refusal to kill the bull embarrasses his father Carlos (Elizondo), and he’s left alone in the arena with his guitar. (Even the bull shakes his head at him.) Maria is clearly attracted to Manolo’s singing and playing, but her father insists she be with Joaquin because, “he is the only one who can help us fight Chakal.”

That night, Manolo arranges a tryst with Maria on the bridge to the town, and it looks like he’s going to win her when Xibalba intervenes. He sends his staff, transformed into a poisonous snake, to bite Maria. Manolo is blamed for her death and becomes an outcast. He vows to bring her back from the Land of Remembrance, and Xibalba is only too glad to accommodate him. The snake now has two heads, and bites Manolo twice. When he wakes up, he’s a skeleton version of himself in the Land of Remembrance.

Soon Manolo learns that Xibalba tricked him as well as cheated on the wager with La Muerte. The single bite Maria received was easily cured by a kiss from Joaquin and she accepts his proposal thinking that Manolo is dead forever. Manolo now has a different quest, to find La Muerte and return to the land of the living.

He meets his entire family who died before him including his mother Carmen (de la Reguera), Grandfather Luis (Trejo), and the opera singing Jorge Sanchez (Domingo). In the land of the living, Chakal attacks San Angel, and Carlos is the first to defend the town and the first to pop up in the Land of Remembrance. Manolo, Carmen, Carlos and Luis travel to the Land of The Forgotten to find La Muerte, but it’s not easy. Only with the help of the Candlemaker (Ice Cube) do they achieve their goal.

La Muerte is outraged that Xibalba has cheated her, and Manolo makes him a wager -- any task he chooses -- to return him to the land of the living. Xibalba chooses fighting every bull his ancestors ever fought at the same time. Eventually Manolo is faced with a coalesced giant bull with flaming red eyes and the choice of his sword or his guitar.

The Book of Life is a glorious animated production on a par with Rio for sheer scope of theatricality and with Madagascar in clever scripting and character development. Even though all the characters are obviously wooden toys, their movements convince the audience they are real. The music and soundtrack are wonderfully chosen songs from pop favorites such as “Creep” by Radiohead, and “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” by Elvis Presley, to original tunes written for the film. The colors are dazzling and the 3D special effects help pull one into the story. It’s a movie for all generations and all ages. It’s squeaky clean in language and the only violence is more slapstick than serious. Even the credits are fun.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.






The Boxtrolls 

By Steve Herte

The Boxtrolls (Focus Features, 2014)  DirectorsGraham AnnableAnthony StacchiWriters: Irena Brignull, Adam Pava (s/p). Alan Snow (novel Here Be Monsters). Voices: Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Dee Bradley Baker, Steve Blum, Nika Futterman, Pat Fraley, Fred Tatasciore, Max Mitchell, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Maurice LaMarche, & James Urbaniak. Animated, Color, 97 minutes.

White Hats do not make you, cheese does not make you, you make you.”

The town of Cheesebridge is a fantasy town somewhere in the 19th Century in a parallel universe England. The mountain that the town is built on is so steep it puts Mont Saint Michel to shame. At the top is where white-hatted Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Harris) lives and administrates town policy with his two equally white-hatted advisers. However, they never seem to accomplish anything beyond tasting cheeses.


Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley) is the red-hatted town exterminator with a dream – to wear a white hat and spend all his time in the tasting room. The fact that he is deathly allergic to cheese does not deter him one whit. He deliberately spreads the rumor warning the town about the nocturnal Boxtrolls who prowl the night looking for children to snatch and eat and thus, the curfew is established and observed by all. He bases this rumor on the missing “Trowbridge Baby,” who was taken by a boxtroll and never seen again. He hatches a scheme to make a deal with Lord Portley-Rind to rid the town of boxtrolls in exchange for a white hat and a seat in the tasting room. The Lord agrees to this.

Meanwhile, the Trowbridge baby is being lovingly raised to boyhood by a boxtroll named Fish (Baker – also the voices of Wheels and Bucket) who teaches him their tinkering ways. In this back-story we learn that the boxtrolls are very like The Borrowers (1997): they go out at night taking things thrown in the garbage, pieces of other things, things lying around and sometimes, things that are nailed in place. But unlike the Borrowers, boxtrolls are master builders, and they create new machines with the various items they find. They live peacefully underground and sleep in a neat pile of boxes (the only clothing they know). Whatever is written on the outside of the box becomes the troll’s name.

In my research I learned that cardboard boxes were invented in the mid-1800s, which makes them appropriate to this story.

One night, Winnie (Fanning) in a fit of pique at her father’s (Lord Portley-Rind) inattention to her needs, tosses his white hat out the window where it lands in the middle of the deserted street. She thinks better about it, goes to retrieve it and witnesses a group of boxtrolls along with a boy wearing a box with the word “Eggs” on it. Archibald Snatcher discovers her in the street and takes her in to confront her father (who, of course, doesn’t believe her).

When Fish is taken by Snatcher and his three henchmen – Mr. Trout (Frost), Mr. Pickles (Ayoade) and the nasty Mr. Gristle (Morgan) – Eggs (Wright) decides to dress up as a real boy and go “into the light” (daytime) to look for him. He bumps into Winnie who eventually befriends him and tells her the truth about the boxtrolls. She in turn proves to him – to his amazement – that he is not a boxtroll, but he is indeed the Trowbridge baby.

Eggs tries to rally the remaining boxtrolls but his group is captured by Snatcher and his crew, and taken out of town the Exterminator headquarters. He meets a longhaired bearded man hanging upside-down and gibbering crazily about “if I’m good, they give me jelly!” We learn later on that this man is Eggs’ real father, who was allegedly murdered (by Snatcher) when he was a baby but was actually kidnapped. Being a master inventor he was being used by Snatcher to direct the boxtrolls (the master builders) to create a machine that could be used to forcibly obtain the white hat and the seat at the tasting room table.

The Boxtrolls is based on Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow (the first volume of “The Ratbridge Chronicles” – 2005) and is a hilarious romp through a superstitious town of gullible people. How gullible are they? Well, none of them realize that their favorite performer, Madame Frou Frou, who performs for them from time to time on the village square, is actually Archibald Snatcher in drag reinforcing his negative campaign against the boxtrolls. Lord Portley-Rind is even sweet on her.

The art of “claymation” and stop action photography is taken to new heights in this film. Created by the makers of Paranorman, the characters move so smoothly you forget that they are only clay models being re-posed again and again and laboriously filmed. Make sure to stay through the credits for a very clever and funny demonstration of this technique. Even though obviously not real people, they are convincingly real. The 3D effects add to this dimension of reality.

I recommend this movie for the whole family. Several small youngsters were in the audience with me and, though they didn’t get all the jokes and sight gags, there was enough to make them laugh and keep them entertained for the entire hour and 36 minutes. Several kept repeating the word “jelly” after leaving the theater. Why did I leave off one half of a perfect rating? Two reasons: 1. If you were never a fan of the Monty Python group you may have a difficult time understanding the English spoken in the movie (by the way Eric Idle wrote one of the songs used in it). 2. If a troll, speaking gibberish, raised a baby, where did Eggs learn English and how did they communicate successfully? Eggs never used the gibberish when talking to Fish and Fish never spoke English back but both understood each other. I know. It’s only a movie.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 martini glasses.


Planes 2: Fire and Rescue

By Steve Herte

Planes 2: Fire and Rescue (Disney, 2014) - Director: Roberts Gannaway. Writer: Jeffrey M. Howard. Cast/Voices: Dane Cook, Ed Harris, Julie Bowen, Curtis Armstrong, John Michael Higgins, Hal Holbrook, Wes Studi, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Stacy Keach, Cedric the Entertainer, Dale Dye, Danny Mann, Barry Corbin, Regina King, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Curtis Armstrong, Corrie English, Matt Jones, Fred Willard, Bryan Callen, Danny Pardo, Erik Estrada, John Ratzenberger, Rene Auberjonois, & Kevin Michael Richardson. Color, 83 minutes.


It’s always amazing when a sequel out-entertains the original because of the extreme rarity of the occurrence. Planes 2 succeeds where others fail through the professionalism of the film artists and animators at Disneytoons. Although both Planes movies are spin-offs of Pixar’s Cars, the production rights go to Disney Corporation under the directorship of Roberts Gannaway. When I was anticipating seeing this film it was for the spectacular camera angles that were so realistic they swept me into the action of the moment and made me forget that the characters were talking vehicles (there’s not a person nor animal in the entire flick). My expectations were met and exceeded. I was glad I didn’t see it in IMAX or in just 3D, when I joined the audience in following (or preceding) Dusty Crophopper (Cook) as he soared in daredevil maneuvers between pylons, under bridges and in loop-the-loop flying. It was breathtaking and a little dizzying.

Dusty’s days as a racer plane are over when he tries a stall climb and strips a gear in his gear-box and learns from his able mechanic, the forklift named Sparky (Mann) that the replacement part isn’t being made anymore. Though his friends Dottie (Hatcher), Skipper (Keach) and Chug (Garrett) try to console him, he leaves their company and goes flying after dark, trying to push his engine “into the red zone,” which he was warned never to do again, stalls out, and careens into the local gathering place for his friends, setting it on fire. Mayday, the fire truck (Holbrook) can’t put the fire out by himself and enlists the help of both planes and cars to topple the water tower and extinguish it that way. This sparks an investigation by Ryker (Richardson) of TMST (“This Means Serious Trouble” suggests one character) Transportation Management Safety Team, with the result being that Mayday needs an overhaul because of his age and the “town” needs a second firefighter. Feeling guilty for being the cause of this, Dusty flies off to Piston Peak National Park to become trained and certified as such.

There he meets Blade Ranger (Harris) a serious helicopter, Maru (Armstrong) a whiz of a mechanic forklift, Windlifter (Studi) an enigmatic and stolid Cherokee helicopter, and Lil’ Dipper (Bowen), a star-struck tanker plane who has followed Dusty’s career avidly. Also in this group are Cabbie (Dye) a huge transport plane, and the Smoke Jumpers, Dynamite (King), Pinecone (English), Avalanche (Callen), Blackout (Pardo) and Drip (Jones). After Maru trades his landing gear for refillable pontoons Dusty starts his training with the reluctant Blade Ranger.

Meanwhile, Park Superintendent Cad Spinner (Higgins), a fast-talking luxury SUV, is holding a huge gala at his lodge and is expecting attendees and celebrities from all over (including Boat Reynolds and the Secretary of the Interior – voiced by Willard) and he doesn’t want to hear anything about a forest fire heading straight toward his lodge. This becomes the major challenge for the fire-fighting planes and the still uncertified Dusty, who has to prove himself in a real emergency.

I loved Planes 2 for the sheer scope of the film and the cast of excellent characters and their famous voices. In addition to those I’ve already discussed, Stiller and Meara voice two elderly recreational vehicles, revisiting the place where they first met. Estrada revisits his television role as a Police helicopter side-kick Nick ‘Loopin’ Lopez in CHoPS with Blade Ranger. Ratzenberger revives his part as Brodi and Auberjonois joins the cast as Concierge, a French-accented forklift at the lodge.

Bring the children to this movie and have a great time, though I would not suggest bringing babies. There are several scenes with loud noises and the babies in my audience did not react well to them. The film is squeaky clean with regard to language and any sexual content and the violence is played down. The worst expletives I heard were “Chevy!” and “Stick Shifts!”

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


How to Train Your Dragon 2

By Steve Herte

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (20th Century Fox/Dreamworks, 2014)  Director: Dean DeBlois. Writers: Dean DeBlois (s/p), Cressida Cowell (book). Voices: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Kit Harrington, Djimon Housou, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Chrstopher Mintz-Plasse, & T.J. Miller. Color and 3D, 102 minutes.

The exception proves the rule, right? The rule is that sequels rarely are as good as the original movie. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is every bit as amazing and joyous as the first installment. It even weaves in a bit of ecology (if fantastic creatures count as a part of the ecosystem).

Once again we are taken to the rocky land called Berk where Vikings ride dragons and the two species live in harmony with each other. Stoick the Viking Chief (Butler) is preparing for the day that his son Hiccup (Baruchel) takes over the business (they’re dragon-saddlers) and become Chief of the Vikings. Hiccup has other plans. He wants to go flying on Toothless, his Night Fury and discover and map new lands.

One day he and his friends stumble across the lair of a band of dragon-hunters led by Eret (Harrington) and almost have their dragons given over to the infamous Drago (Housou) who is determined to control all dragons and rule the world (sound familiar anyone?)


On another of his flights he finds a spikey land of ice and while exploring is attacked by a mysterious figure riding a four-winged dragon. The struggle is unnecessary because when the mask is removed, the figure is none other than his own mother, Valka (Blanchett) who left him as a child, located an “Alpha” Dragon (If you think dragons are fantastic creatures, wait ‘til you see this one! I would bet on the Alpha in a battle against Godzilla.), and with its help (It breathes ice rather than fire) created a haven for hundreds of dragons. She had no idea that the Vikings of Berk would ever get along with dragons, much less ride them. When Stoick arrives to “rescue” his son he and Valka renew their love and she agrees to come home.

Bad plan. Drago has amassed an army and a fleet of ships to take over the ice land and the battle begins. That is until he reveals his secret weapon, a second Alpha which battles and kills the first one. Alphas have the power to “will” all other dragons to do their bidding and, one by one the familiar dragons’ pupils turn from ovals to slits and they follow the Alpha, even Toothless. In the fray we lose Stoick and go through a Viking funeral.

In their short time together prior to the battle Valka teaches Hiccup many things she has learned about dragons in their time apart and he teaches her as well. “Every dragon has a secret” she says, as she presses a scale on the back of Toothless’ neck and a double row of ridge plates pops up on his back (much to his surprise), “now he’ll be able to make those sharp turns.” We also learn why his name is “toothless” – he has retractable teeth.

It all looks hopeless until Hiccup uses his special bond with Toothless to “will” him back. At which point the Alpha buries both of them in solid ice. Valka is horrified. But if you’ve ever heard the phrase “never make a dragon angry” you’ll understand the transformation that comes over Toothless.

The two films are based on Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon book series, and I’m seriously considering looking those books up. If they’re half as entertaining as these films I will enjoy them as much as I did Anne McCaffery’s Dragon-Riders of Pern series. The animation is smooth and credible, in particular the eyes and facial expressions. It’s not as digitally detailed as Monsters Inc. but it still caught me up in the story. The musical soundtrack is almost classical in the choral works set against heroic orchestration. If your children have wild imaginations, this movie is for them. If they have no imaginations, it may give them one. I laughed, I shed a tear and I enjoyed the entire hour and 42 minutes.

And, since I bought my ticket online, I received a bonus from iTunes – three additional short features downloaded to my computer: The Gift of the Night Fury (a kind of Christmas story on Berk); The Book of Dragons which tells the tale of Bork, the Highly Misfortunate and how he became Bork the Bold; and The Legend of the Bone Napper, a dragon even considered a myth by the Vikings. Together they made a delightful source of background for the two feature films.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses


Legends of Oz - Dorothy's Return

By Steve Herte

Legends of Oz – Dorothy’s Return (Clarius Entertinment, 2014) - Directors: Will Finn, Dan St. Pierre. Writers: Adam Balsam & Randi Barnes (s/p), Roger S. Baum (novel). Voices: Dan Aykroyd, James Belushi, Kelsey Grammer, Lea Michele, Tacey Adams, Michael Krawic, Martin Short, Bernadette Peters, Randi Soyland, Oliver Platt, Patrick Stewart, Hugh Dancy, Brian Blessed, Megan Hilty, Douglas Hodge, Debi Derryberry, & Randy Crenshaw. Animated, Color, 92 minutes.

When the trailers did not give away the whole story and made the film look silly to me, I initially had no intention of seeing this one. But it’s a good thing I did see it, as it was very well done. The tale, from a novel written by Roger S. Baum (great-grandson of L. Frank Baum), picks up where the Wizard of Oz leaves off. Dorothy (voiced by Michele) wakes up in her tornado-wrecked house and sees the damage the funnel cloud inflicted on her neighbors. She, Aunty Em, Uncle Henry and Toto are OK, as are the rest of the people living in her area, but the houses and barns all around are broken in various ways. There is also a sleazy, fast-talking “real estate” appraiser (Short) handing out condemnation notices to everyone and telling them to move out. Of course, Dorothy is outraged.

Meanwhile in Oz, the Jester (also Short), brother of the Wicked Witch of the West, has stolen her broomstick from the Emerald City and topped it with a crystal ball, making it into a magic scepter and giving him power to imprison all major characters in Oz as his marionettes, including Glinda (Peters). The Scarecrow (Aykroyd) fires up a “Rainbow Portal Generator” to call Dorothy back to Oz to help battle the Jester but as it sweeps up Dorothy and Toto a troop of winged monkeys attack. He, the Tin Man (Grammer), and the Lion (Belushi) are captured and flown to the Jester’s castle. The rainbow drops Dorothy and Toto off in the middle of a spiral garden somewhere in Oz she’s never been and she’s lost. The Yellow Brick Road is nowhere in sight.

The only character in view is an enormously fat owl named Wiser (Platt) whose chest feathers look like an argyle vest and who talks incessantly (and admits it). He knows approximately where the Yellow Brick Road is and joins her on her quest. Their journey takes them through Candyland and Wiser warns Dorothy to obey the signs. However, the Jester has already changed them from “Do Not Eat the Candy” to “Please Eat the Candy,” and the two go on a binge (along with Toto). They are arrested by chocolate soldiers under the leadership of Marshall Mallow (Dancy) a man made up completely of (can you guess?). They are led into town and taken to the court to be tried by Judge Jawbreaker (Blessed). Just when it seems they are sentenced to death it is revealed that she is Dorothy Gale, the witch-slayer, and their sentence is commuted.


Marshal Mallow cannot leave their side because he’s under orders from General Candyapple (he doesn’t know the Jester’s already captured the General), and he accompanies them on their journey. This takes them to an extensive wall of delicate teacups and towers of fine dinnerware, which causes Wiser to exclaim, “What a Great Wall of China!” (There are several moments like this.) The gate, however, is locked and the gatekeeper will not allow them to have an audience with the China Princess (Hilty) because she’s interviewing suitors. After Dorothy convinces the guard that Marshall Mallow is a suitor, they gain access. In the throne room the princess is turning down one suitor after another until Mallow steps up. At first he stammers nervously and she mocks him. Then he starts singing his proposal in an incredibly rich-toned voice and she’s stunned into silence and admiration.

The Princess won’t let the travelers go through her kingdom unless she joins them and they are forced to agree. They come to a huge gap in the Yellow Brick Road where a bridge once spanned the river that flows to the Emerald City and decide they must build a boat. But the trees won’t let them have the wood (especially remembering the apples Dorothy stole from their relative the last time she was in Oz). One old, gnarled tree however agrees to supply his wood and, after a marvelous production number becomes the Tugg (Stewart), the boat that takes them to the Emerald City.

From there it’s a battle to get the scepter from the Jester and bring things back to normal and send Dorothy home again. Legends of Oz – Dorothy’s Return is a beautifully animated movie. The characters are three-dimensional (even when not in 3D) and their movements smooth and natural. Particular attention was paid to the China Princess, who in close-ups reflected light off of her china skin, a very nice special effect. The only character to suffer from the designer’s pen was Glinda: Her comical hair-do and ridiculous gown detracted from her believability and actually “flattened” her. In general, the eyes of all the characters were a little too large for my tastes. I would imagine to make them endearing.

Frozen must have set a standard however, because for the third time in a row of three animated films, the music blew me away in its grandeur, back-tempos, harmony and orchestration. The music department includes Bryan Adams as one of the songwriters and it shows. My personal favorite song, “Even Then” written by Tift Merritt is poignant, haunting and lavishly arranged and sung with great feeling by Hugh Dancy, Lea Michele and Megan Hilty.

Bring the kids to this one! The jokes they don’t understand you will, and the visuals are bright enough and comically varied enough to keep their attention.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.



Rio 2

By Steve Herte

Almost Home (Dreamworks, 2014) – Director: Todd Wilderman. Writer: Adam Rex (novel). Voices: Steve Martin, Tom McGrath, & David Soren. Animated, Color, 4 minutes.

This is actually the second time I’ve seen this hilarious animated short about a spaceship full of aliens trying to find a new world to live on. The first planet we see is a beautifully colored peaceful place until these giant worms surface and try to eat the new arrivals. On the second planet only one alien is forced out of the spaceship and as soon as he gives the OK, a giant claw snatches him up. The next one has carnivorous fish, the next is volcanic (and this is in winter) and the next has brain-sucking cephalopods. The leader, Captain Smek (Martin) seesaws back and forth from triumph at “his” discovery to singing the alien death song. After almost visiting a Saturn-like planet, which gets destroyed by an incoming planetoid right before their eyes, they head to a planet called “Errrrrth” whose name sounds, “like you’re trying to cough up a hairball.” It’s a beautiful job of animation and great comedy. Too bad it’s only 4 minutes long.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Rio 2 (20th Century Fox/Blue Sky, 2014) – Director: Carlos Saldanha. Writers: Yoni Brenner (s/p), Carlos Saldanha (story and characters), Don Rhymer (story). Voices: Jake T. Austin, Carlinhos Brown, Kristin Chenoweth, Jermaine Clement, Jim Conroy, Rachel Crow, Bernando De Paula, Nola Donkin, Jesse Eisenberg, Miguel Ferrer, Jamie Foxx, Pierce Gagnon, Andy Garcia, Anne Hathaway, Philip Lawrence, George Lopez, Leslie Mann, Bruno Mars, Rita Moreno, Tracy Morgan, Rodrigo Santoro, Amandla Stenberg, & Will I. Am. Animated, Color, 101 minutes.

Welcome to Rio! Once again, 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky blow us away with a large-scale musical opening to Rio 2 in a surging samba, crowds dancing on the beaches and the rainbow of colorful birds dancing in their own venue. Blu (Eisenberg) and Jewel (Hathaway) are now the proud parents of three young blue macaws, Carla (Crow), Bia (Stenberg) and Tiago (Gagnon). Blu is still a city macaw making pancakes for the kids and Jewel is trying to give their brood a taste of the wild. Their happy home life in Rio de Janeiro is suddenly set on end when their former owner, Linda Gunderson (Mann), along with her husband, Tulio Monteiro (Santoro), appear on television announcing the discovery of a flock of blue macaws deep in the Amazon jungle.


Jewel immediately wants to go but Blu takes some convincing. He visits his friends Nico (Foxx), Pedro (Will I. Am) and Rafael the Toucan (Lopez) who are busy auditioning talent for this year’s Carnival show but are having very little luck. In fact the only act that shows any promise is the light bulb-shattering notes of Rafael’s wife. When Rafael gives Blu the maxim, “A happy wife – a happy life,” Blu is convinced, but he takes a fanny pack full of modern implements (including a GPS device) much to Jewel’s chagrin. Nico, Pedro and Rafael join them on their journey and convince Carla to go (at first she thinks it will be lame) on a talent hunt for the show. Luiz (Morgan) also wants to go, but being a bulldog, is left behind by the little flock.

Meanwhile the villain from Rio, Nigel the cockatoo (Clement) is performing dockside in Rio as a fortune-telling bird when he sees the flashes of blue overhead and recognizes the bird that made him flightless in the first episode. Vengeance boils up inside him once more. He escapes his keeper on the back of Charlie, a tap-dancing anteater and accompanied by Gabi (Chenoweth), a poison-dart frog desperately in love with him.

We meet a secondary villain in this episode in the person of a ruthless Headman for a logging concern (voiced by Ferrer) who will do anything to get the trees, including eliminating Linda and Tulio.

When Blu’s GPS announces, “You have arrived at your destination,” there’s no flock in sight. Instead, the whole group are bird-napped and taken to a secluded but beautiful glade in the jungle where the other Spix’s macaws live under the leadership of Eduardo (Garcia) and his older sister Mimi (Moreno). Jewel is delighted and Blu shocked when she recognizes Eduardo as her father. Then, to Blu’s dismay, the dashing Roberto (Mars) shows up and rekindles the childhood friendship he shared with Jewel.

Try as he might, Blu’s efforts to “fit in” with the wild flock go awry each time. He’s clumsy at the aerial ballet they perform in welcome (another Busby Berkeley showpiece), his initiation flight with Eduardo leaves him covered in mud, and when he tries to fetch a Brazil nut for Jewel he incites a “war” with a rival tribe of Scarlet macaws under the leadership of Felipe (Lawrence). The “war” is really an aerial soccer match between the two tribes using a Brazil nut as the ball. When Blu finally enters the score-tied game he succeeds in making a goal, but for the wrong side.

The only way to pull his tail feathers out of the fire is for Blu to use his friendship with Linda and Tulio to stop the loggers and convince Eduardo that people are not all bad.

I loved Rio 2 and was rather sad to learn that a noted reviewer dubbed it an “unnecessary sequel.” It is just as colorful as the first one, just as outrageously staged as the first one, and just as funny. Nigel does a hilarious spoof of the song “I Will Survive” as his audition for Nico’s and Pedro’s show. Gabi sings a beautifully arranged love song to the sleeping Nigel that will be nominated for Best Song in the next Oscars (mark my words). And who can listen to the throbbing beat of the samba without moving in your seat? Not Lou Costello. The animation and digital effects are pure genius. Note the close-ups where every little feather is visible and moving in the breeze. There’s even a Shakespearean death scene between Nigel and Gabi. Bring the family, bring the kids (but not babies – one was there crying) and don’t forget the old folks.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Mr. Peabody & Sherman

By Steve Herte
  
Mr. Peabody & Sherman (DreamWorks, Bullwinkle Studios, 2014) – Director: Rob Minkoff. Writers: Jay Ward (based on the series produced by), Craig Wright (s/p), Robert Ben Garant, and Thomas Lennon (additional dialogue). Voices: Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Lauri Fraser, Guillaume Aretos, Patrice A. Musick, Ariel Winter, Karan Brar, Stephen Tobolowsky, Allison Janney, Dennis Haysbert, Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Zach Callison, Stanley Tucci, Patrick Warburton, Mel Brooks, & Jess Harnell. Rated PG. Color, 92 minutes

Where are we going today Mr. Peabody?” “The more correct question, Sherman, is when?”

Followers of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show remember these lines from every episode. And then off they would go on an adventure in history via the marvelous “WABAC” machine. We could always expect some famous character to be helped into greatness by them and a grand pun from Mr. Peabody at the end. What we didn’t know was how Mr. Peabody became the most brilliant dog in the world and how and when he met and adopted Sherman. This movie cites the beginnings for both.

Nobody wanted to adopt Mr. Peabody as a puppy because he wouldn’t do all the required, pointless things every dog does when commanded i.e., bark, fetch, beg, shaking hands. When he realized this, he turned to the pursuit of knowledge instead, eventually gaining all possible degrees and finishing several PhDs. He mastered all martial and culinary arts, became proficient in hypnosis, and became truly international in language.


With this background we see Mr. Peabody (Burrell) taking Sherman (Charles) for his first day in school. It doesn’t go well. He corrects Penny Peterson (Winter) about George Washington and the cherry tree and alienates her. She bullies him in the lunchroom and in the struggle he bites her, which brings Mr. Peabody to Principal Purdy’s (Tobolowsky) office and under the scrutiny of Ms. Grunion (Janney), the Child Welfare Agent. Peabody is shocked that Sherman would do such a thing. “She called me a dog!” says Sherman. This sets Mr. Peabody thinking and reminiscing. So, to the tune of John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” we travel back in time with him to the day he found Sherman abandoned in a cardboard box as a baby and see him making his case for adoption before a judge (Haysbert).

Peabody has a brainstorm and organizes a fancy dinner party, inviting Penny and her father Paul (Colbert) and mother Patty (Mann) hoping to smooth over this sibling hostility by bringing everyone together for a pleasant evening. Warning Sherman not to tell Penny about the WABAC machine only lasts until Penny finds out that Sherman actually spoke with George Washington. To prove it they travel to pharaoh-ruled Egypt and Penny decides to stay, becoming King Tut’s (Callison) girlfriend. In the hilarious process of getting her back, Peabody, Sherman and Penny make Mona Lisa smile for Leonardo DaVinci (Tucci), get involved in the Trojan War when Sherman joins with Agamemnon (Warburton) and cause a rift in the space-time continuum when Sherman and Penny return home before they left and Sherman meets himself. Then all craziness breaks loose as various historic people and things drop out of the sky into the present, including Albert Einstein (Brooks).

The puns fly throughout the film and sight gags abound. Many of these are beyond the comprehension of small children. I only heard the children laugh once while I was chuckling several times. And strangely, they only understood one of the scatological jokes. The animation is smooth and beautiful and I would expect no less of Dreamworks. The formerly flat cartoon characters are now three-dimensional and more believable. The story is well written and provides not only a prequel to the cartoon, but follows a critical time in the relationship between a dog trying to be a father and a boy learning what they mean to each other. Yes, there’s even pathos in the movie. The only jarring moment for was towards the end, when past meets present, Washington steps forward and says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men – and some dogs – are created equal.” Meanwhile Abraham Lincoln is among the throng as well (both voiced by Harnell). A word of advice to parents, tell your children your memories of the cartoon before taking them to the movie. They’ll either enjoy it more or not want to go.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Lego Movie

By Steve Herte

The Lego Movie (WB, 2014) – Directors: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Writers: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman (story); Phil Lord, Christopher Miller (story & s/p). Cast: Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Shaquille O’Neal, Nick Offerman, Channing Tatum, Billy Dee Williams, Jadon Sand, Anthony Daniels, Will Forte, & Jonah Hill. Color and 3D, 100 minutes.

Growing up I had various construction toys. I loved Lincoln Logs and my Erector Set with which I built rustic cabins and lodges and (in the case of the latter) a working Ferris wheel. There were also Tinker Toys to make simpler, less life-like structures. I had to use my imagination with them. I didn’t play with Legos until much, much later in life and had no idea these basic bricks could be formed into the complex structures I now see enthusiasts building.

That said, I was totally unprepared (and slightly biased – being an animation junkie) for what story The Lego Movie would present and how it would get around the limited mobility of the mini-figures. The trailers gave nothing away and, frankly, made the film look lame. However, this is one movie that must be seen to be believed and understood.

Emmet Brickowoski (Pratt) is an ordinary construction worker who is thrust into greatness when he accidentally is glued to the “Piece of Resistance,” a simple-looking red oblong tube. He has no idea it’s there until he meets Wyldstyle (Banks), a tough-talking, kung-fu fighting female who calls him “The Special” and takes him on a wild chase to the dwelling place of Vitruvius (Freeman). Vitruvius is a blind sage in a white robe who tries to guide Emmet in the ways of being a master-builder and savior from the villain, Lord Business (Ferrell), who is threatening to use the ultimate weapon, “the Kragle” (basically, a tube of Krazy Glue with the letters “z”, “y”, and “u” unreadable). The Lord’s plan, which he will carry out with the assistance of his henchman Bad Cop/Good Cop (Neeson), is to glue everything in the worlds of Lego so that nothing can move or be rebuilt from the existing pieces. The “Piece of Resistance” turns out to be the cap to the Krazy Glue tube.


When Vitruvius takes Emmet on a journey into his own mind they discover he has a special relationship with “The Man Upstairs” that no other master builder has (otherwise his mind is blank and his constructions silly). They all go to meet with the Master Builders’ Council, which includes many of the Lego mini figures: Batman (Arnett) who turns out to be Wyldstyle’s boyfriend, Superman (Tatum), Green Lantern (Forte), Abraham Lincoln (Hill), Shaquille O’Neal, various others, and a monstrous Metalbeard the Pirate (Offerman), who is an amalgam of spare parts, including a double-barreled shotgun for a left hand and a shark on his right arm. No one believes in Emmet and, after his speech most leave the gathering. Eventually they are all captured by Lord Business and imprisoned in his “think tank,” which uses their creativity to build whatever he wants.

Even though there is a somewhat serious situation to be overcome, The Lego Movie never takes itself seriously. There are funny sight gags throughout, puns galore and some really creative, funny lines. I salute the writers Hageman. At one point Emmet suggests that they need a hyper drive and Batman jokes, “Where are we going to get one of those? Is a spaceship just going to appear out of nowhere?” And zip! The Millenium Falcon (all in Legos) appears in the window with Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO (Daniels’ voice) and Lando Calrissian (Williams). The animation is so well done that one forgets everything in the movie is made of Lego pieces, including the undulating waves of the ocean and water rushing into the submarine (blue and white Lego disks).

But the real surprise comes after Emmet falls into a bottomless hole, leaving him immobile on the floor of a basement. He fell off the enormous table holding the various Lego worlds constructed by the “Man Upstairs” and is picked up off the floor by his son Finn (Sand), who is the one responsible for all his adventures. The camera then pans to the basement stairs, and Ferrell descends, discovering the wild things his son has created with the Lego city he painstakingly built. Their subsequent dialogue makes him realize that “following the rules” (as Emmet can only do) has to coexist with creativity and imagination and he relents in Krazy Gluing everything.

With a nod toward my reader in England, Stuart, this is a film for all ages, especially children. The three sitting behind me were so awestruck I had to remind them to stop kicking my seat. But adults will also laugh at the clever gags and jokes, as did the couple in front of me. I learned that just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t always tell what a movie will be like from the trailers.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Nut Job

By Steve Herte

The Nut Job 3D (Open Road Films, 2014) – Director: Peter Lepeniotis. Writers: Lorne Cameron & Peter Lepeniotis (s/p), Daniel Woo (story). Voices: Will Arnett, Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson, Katherine Heigl, Stephen Lang, Maya Rudolph, & Jeff Dunham. Color and 3D, 83 minutes.

From the first trailer I’ve been attracted to The Nut Job for the beauty and detail of its animation, the excellence of the writing by Lorne Cameron and Daniel Woo in coordination with Director Peter Lepeniotis, and the voice of the main character, Surly Squirrel (Arnett). Not since the Easter Bunny in Rise of the Guardians have I witnessed the creation of such a strong character in an animated film. He’s almost real.


Surly – as his name suggests – is a tough-talking loner whose main concern is “number one.” His only friend is a rat named Buddy who never speaks until the end of the movie, where he says two words, “Best friend,” even after being pushed around and generally ignored by Surly. The rest of the park animals consider Surly an outlaw and keep their distance from him until one day, in the attempt to grab a bag of nuts from a nut cart, he manages to light the gas tank heating the cart. It rockets into the park and torches the oak tree containing what little food the park animals have gathered for the winter.

For this final outrage, Raccoon (Neeson), the self-appointed leader of the park animals, has them vote to exile Surly from the park to live on the city streets. Andie, a female red squirrel (voiced by Heigl), protests that this is not according to the rules they set up in the beginning but she is overruled.

Surly finds the city streets hostile with people nearly stepping on him, vehicles almost crushing him and finally, in a deserted alley a pack of mangy city rats ambush him. Only with the help of Buddy (who follows him everywhere, even when told not to) does he escape them. Hungry and scared, he finally discovers the Nut Shop where the former cart got its supply. He comes up with a plan to purloin as many nuts as he can carry and live in luxury the rest of his days. Thanks to Buddy, they find a way in through a transom, negotiate a maze of rat traps and meet the guard dog, a female pug named Precious (Rudolph). Precious makes it difficult for them until Surly notices one of the humans using a dog whistle to stop Precious’ barking. Once he obtains it, the pug is under his control.

Back at the park, arrangements are being made to find food to replace what was burned in the oak tree and Andie and Grayson (Fraser), a narcissistic local hero-type squirrel with a resplendent gray tail, are chosen to scout out possibilities. It isn’t long before Andie and Grayson run into Surly and Buddy and discover that the nut shop has enough food for the whole park community. Enlisting the services of two flatulent groundhogs they burrow into the nut shop – a very funny scene. Mole (Dunham) is there to help but being blind as a bat, he can’t. Besides, true to his character, he’s a double agent and is conniving with Raccoon to limit the food in order to control the park creatures and reports all to Raccoon.

While the animals are busy digging their way into the Nut Shop, the thugs who own the store are digging their own tunnel under the street to the bank vault on the other side. Their intention is to steal the bags of money and leave bags of nuts in their place. Their leader is a dark character who looks like the antagonist in Stephen King’s Needful Things and who is also affected by anyone blowing the dog whistle, a set-up for humor in the beginning and a saving device at the end. The many interactions between the animals and the humans are the source of craziness and comedy in this film.

The Nut Job distinguishes itself over other animated films by being a novel story told in a lightly moralistic, sensitive and almost allegorical way. One can’t help but notice that the animals are drawn in minute detail right down to the finest hair on a squirrel’s tail while the humans are blocky, minimally defined and decidedly oafish. The audience cannot help but to side with the animals. The use of color is interesting as well. Surly has a dark blue, almost black coat and thick black eyebrows to darken his frowns. He’s slightly unkempt, while Grayson is extremely well groomed. Andie is a bright red, possibly to point out that she’s a female and the love interest. And one need not say why a raccoon was once again a villain; the facial mask gives them a bad rap as well as a hoodlum look.

The 3D effects in The Nut Job were beautifully done and didn’t hinder the forward motion of the movie. The only scene where things are thrown at the audience was the burning oak tree scene, and the projectile was popcorn. The story was wonderfully conceived and the tale is smoothly told without dead spaces or even hiccups. The one-hour, 26-minute timing was perfect, except for the children sitting around me in the theater. The scripted humor is geared more to adults; the children hardly ever laughed when I did and were squirming after an hour. Adults keep confusing animated films with cartoons – they are not the same. Most often cartoons are mindless, silly entertainment while animated films have a serious, educational side – this one in particular – about friendship, sharing, family and community. If your children have limited attention spans, this is not their movie. Otherwise The Nut Job is a cinematic marvel and a joy to watch.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Frozen

By Steve Herte

Get a Horse (Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2013) – Director: Lauren McMullan. Voices: Walt Disney, Marcellite Garner, Russi Taylor, Billy Bletcher, & Will Ryan. 3D, Color, 6 minutes.

It was almost like the “old days” when this six-minute cartoon appeared on the big screen before the feature presentation. An excerpt from a 1951 black and white episode entitled R’coon Dawg becomes an awesome 3D jaw-dropper. It starts innocently enough with a hayride pulled by Horace Horsecollar with various characters in the haystack playing musical instruments. Mickey Mouse (voice archived from Walt Disney) and Minnie (archived voice of Garner and new voice of Taylor) hop on the back to dance and have fun. Even Clarabelle Cow jumps on. Along comes Peg-leg Pete (Bletcher – archived voice, Ryan - new voice) in his car and he has his eye on Minnie. 

Everything seems routine until, in a scuffle Mickey is thrown out of the picture through a hole in the screen and he becomes a 3D color character on a stage before the audience. Pete closes up the hole so Mickey can’t get back and tries to drive off with Minnie. After trying to get behind the curtains on either side Mickey sees Horace wander onto the stage, also 3D and in color. He re-arranges the horse to look like an airplane and the two zoom over the audience and fly back into the screen (turning back to black and white in the process). There is a huge chase scene where the entire cast streams out one hole and into another going from flat B&W to color 3D and back again. Mickey figures out how to flip the entire screen so the image is upside down and how to spin it like a top to wear Pete to a dazed frazzle. The effects are as dazzling as they were unexpected – a great prelude to the movie. 

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Frozen (Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2013) – Directors: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee. Writers: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, & Shane Morris (story), Jennifer Lee (s/p). Voices: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Claran Hinds, Chris Williams, Stephen J. Anderson, Maia Wilson, Edie McClurg, Livvy Stubenrauch & Eva Bella. 3D, Color, 108 minutes.

Not since the days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Alice in Wonderland has Disney Corporation worked so hard on a full-length animated feature. The professionalism demonstrated by Pixar has had a definite effect on productions. Frozen is flawless animation, intricate and beautiful set designs, Broadway caliber songwriting (lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez) and singing, a novel plot and lovable characters.



The story, inspired by “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen, focuses on two sisters, Anna and Elsa who the closest of friends as children (voiced by Stubenrauch and Bella) but who have to be separated at teen age for safety’s sake due to Elsa’s increasingly uncontrollable power to freeze everything (she accidentally sends ice into Anna’s head and their parents, the King and Queen have to take Anna to the Rock Trolls for a cure – which results a memory erasing of Elsa’s power) and who also find themselves orphaned at an early age when the King and Queen are lost at sea.

Locked in the castle until they are old enough to take over the kingdom, Anna is mystified why her sister won’t be with her and Elsa tries desperately to control her fears (which lead to accidental discharges). Then Coronation Day arrives and Elsa is to be Queen, Anna the Princess, dignitaries (both bad and good) arrive by ship for the ceremony and the castle windows and doors are unlocked. Anna (now Bell) falls in love (she thinks) with the handsome Hans (Fontana) but when they ask for Elsa’s (now Menzel – the Wicked Witch of the West in the Broadway production Wicked) blessing, she refuses. This starts an argument between the sisters and results in multiple frightening freezings in front of the guests and Elsa’s rapid departure for the Northern Mountain, where she constructs an elaborate ice palace for herself. As an unknown side effect to her leaving the kingdom, the entire land is plunged into eternal winter, including the freezing of the fjords. Now the guests have no way home.

Anna goes after Elsa on horseback to try to talk her into returning but becomes stranded in the snow when her horse is spooked and hightails it home. Fortunately there’s a chalet where she can get warm clothes and she meets Kristoff (Groff) an ice-cutter and saleman and his goofy reindeer Sven. At the outset of the movie we heard the opening number sung by the ice-cutters when Kristoff and Sven were childhood buddies. Anna talks them into helping her, but on the road wolves beset them and, upon leaping a chasm, they lose Kristoff’s sled. Continuing their journey on foot they encounter Olaf (Gad) a talking snowman and a duplicate of one Elsa and Anna had built as children. After being provided with an outsized carrot for a nose (a running gag in the movie – Sven sees it as food) Olaf joins them and helps find the crystal palace.

Elsa however is intractable, there is a struggle when the Duke’s (Tudyk) henchmen try to dispose of her and Anna winds up with an ice jab to the heart. Kristoff, Sven and Olaf take her to the Rock Trolls for a cure. But Pabbie, the elder troll (Hinds) tells them that only an act of true love has the power to restore Anna. This is after a major musical number, “Fixer Upper” sung by Oaken, Kai, Bulda, and Gerda (Williams, Anderson, Wilson, and McClurg) when the trolls think Kristoff and Anna were to be married.

Frozen is obviously a Broadway show in the making. It even has a plot twist. The music is moving and three of the songs have double melodies. The light comedy gets good laughs, not just chuckles. My favorite lines were: Olaf: “Who’s the funky Donkey?” Anna: “Oh that’s Sven.” Olaf: “And who’s the reindeer?” After one hour and 38 minutes I never shifted in my seat, for I was totally entertained. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Free Birds

By Steve Herte

Free Birds (Relatvity Media, 2013) – Director: Jimmy Hayward. Writers: Jimmy Hayward & Scott Mosier (s/p), David I. Stern & John J. Strauss (story). Voices: Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler, George Takei, Colm Meaney, Keith David, Dan Fogler, Jimmy Hayward, Robert Beltran, & Kaitlyn Maher. Animated, Color, 91 minutes.

The first screen before the movie starts is the disclaimer that “Any historical references in this film are purely fictional. The parts about talking turkeys however, is real.” Later we hear the main character Reggie (Wilson): “Let’s face it…Turkeys are dumb . . . Really dumb” as we watch a turkey obviously entertained by the wiggling of the toes on his own foot. Reggie is the voice of reason in his hopelessly ignorant flock. He tries to make them realize that they’re only being fattened up for the dinner table, but no one listens and he is an outcast. When the farmer comes to choose a turkey, they literally cast him out of the coop. Reggie is sure he’s doomed until he is taken to Washington, D.C., and is chosen as the Officially Pardoned Thanksgiving Turkey – an honor he almost loses because of his small stature, but wins with the help (and whining) of the President’s daughter (Maher).

While living in D.C., Reggie discovers television, a soap opera about a character he identifies with who calls himself “El Solo Lobo,” and the wonders of pizza (which he learns to order in large amounts). One day he is kidnapped (or rather turkey-napped) by the burly Jake (Harrelson) and becomes involved in his mission, given to him as a chick by the “Great Turkey:” to go back in time and take turkeys off the Thanksgiving menu. Together they break into a secret underground facility housing an egg-shaped (appropriately) time machine, acronym S.T.E.V.E. (Space Time Exploration Vehicle Envoy, voiced by Takei), which takes them back to Plymouth Colony 1621, just before the first Thanksgiving.

Reggie and Jake join up with a flock of wild (and surprisingly, not dumb) turkeys led by Chief Broadbeak (David) and Ranger (Hayward – who also voices the President, Leatherbeak and several other characters). It is here that Reggie meets his love interest, Jennie (Poehler), sister of Ranger and daughter (of course) of Chief Broadbeak.

The people of Plymouth Colony are starving – with the exception of Governor Bradford (Fogler) who is obviously well-fed – and they pressure Miles Standish (Meaney) to round up turkeys for their dinner with the Indians, whose help they need to survive. It becomes a battle for survival between the humans and the turkeys. In the process of destroying the colonists’ firearms shed, Jake takes a leaky powder horn back to the secret hiding place of the flock and leads Standish there. A large number of turkeys are captured, the hiding place is burned to the ground, Chief Broadbeak meets his demise, and Jennie becomes the new Chief. She rallies the remainder of the flock and they engage the humans with flaming pumpkin loaded catapults. In the words of Chief Massasoit (Beltran), “Those are some really Angry Birds!”

Reggie meanwhile has gone back to S.T.E.V.E. and learns the he is indeed the Great Turkey when he meets three more of himself in what should be the ultimate time paradox. He and S.T.E.V.E. return to 1621 in a spectacular “Deus ex Machina” that ends the battle and replaces turkey dinner with (what else?) pizza! While the colonists and Indians are enjoying their pizza someone spills anchovies on the Chief’s slice. He takes a bite and speaks the best line in the movie, “Tastes like old sock, but still better than anything my wife cooks.”

Free Birds is a crazy story but a fun movie for the children (providing the parents advise them not to take it seriously). If you’re looking for light entertainment without violence or vulgarity (even the kiss scene is off-camera) and a mindless film you don’t have to think about, this is a good choice. It doesn’t even have a moral. But stay through the credits for the last line. 

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.



Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2

By Steve Herte

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 (Columbia/Sony Pictures, 2013) – Directors: Cody Cameron & Kris Pearn. Writers: Judi Barrett & Ron Barrett (characters), John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein (s/p), Erica Rivinoja (story & s/p), Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (story). Voices: Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Will Forte, Andy Samberg, Benjamin Bratt, Neil Partick Harris, & Terry Crews. Color & 3-D, 95 minutes.

This is the exception to the rule that the sequel isn’t every bit as entertaining and clever as the original. It is every bit as clever in the writing, excellent in the animation, clean in the digital effects, and musically beautiful as number one. And, it provided hilarious, non-violent, good clean fun for the whole family while teaching a lesson.

To sum up the first film, Flint Lockwood invents a machine that can make food out of water and in no time has it literally raining meatballs, and later hamburgers. The local politician tries to use the machine for his own gains but it goes out of control, throwing enormous food items all over the globe (the Eiffel Tower becomes the toothpick for a giant club sandwich), and causes a spaghetti tornado that devastates Flint’s home island of Swallow Falls. Flint finally disables the machine (he thinks) and the cleanup begins.

This movie opens with Flint as a young boy idolizing Chester V (Forte), Chief Executive Officer and Chief Scientist at Live Corp Company and creator of the most famous candy/nutrition bar ever. He aspires to work for Chester V in his light bulb-shaped Think-Tank/Laboratory. Now an adult, Flint (Hader) is promising a new laboratory to the friends who stood by him in the first episode; where they can work together on the rehabilitation of Swallow Falls. These include his girl-friend/news reporter Samantha Sparks (Faris), his Dad, Tim Lockwood (Caan), Brent McHale (Samberg), Manny, Samantha’s cameraman (Bratt), the burly policeman Earl Devereaux (Crews) and his monkey companion Steve (Harris).

Chester V however has other plans and lures Flint to his corporation with the job offer of his dreams while taking over the cleanup of Swallow Falls and evacuating the entire town to beautiful San FranJose, California. On his first day, Flint meets Barb (Kristen Schaal) an orangutan who not only can talk, but is a genius, and Chester V’s gal Friday. She gives him the orientation while plying him with ample cups of latté. Try as he might, Flint is incapable of inventing something impressive enough to make the inner circle of Chester V’s organization.

The machine Flint thought was disabled has been busy creating “veganimals,” some of which are quite large and menacing such as the Spiderburgers and Tacodiles.  Thus, Swallow Falls – now a jungle – has thwarted all of Chester V’s efforts to tame it and is rapidly depleting his army of scientists. Chester sends Flint advising him to go alone and tell no one but, once he tells Sam, then Manny, Brent, Earl and Steve are going too, and Dad supplies the boat. After navigating cliffs of cherry pie wedges, the small craft docks at the Swallow Falls pier. Chester V has given Flint the special “BS USB” to use to shut down the machine creating all these “dangerous” creatures that are “trying to learn how to swim and will eventually take over the Statue of Liberty!” This device is eaten by a cute little strawberry Sam names Berry who scampers into the jungle. Despite his protests, Tim is left with the boat and the rest chase Berry. In the process of finding the fleeing fruit they come upon a Jurassic Park scene where Flamangoes, Hippopotatomus, Watermelephants, and Bananostriches roam while creatures that look like Brachiosaurs made of scallions chew long strands of seaweed.

Chester however has eyes everywhere and learns that Flint didn’t go alone so he, Barb and his storm troopers take the private helicopter to Swallow Falls to ensure his plans are completed. From there on the film is a learning experience for Flint. The “veganimals” are not hostile; in fact, they have families. Live Corp backwards spells Evil. He should always listen to his friends and everything Chester V has told him has been a lie.

Usually a 3D film intends to throw something out at the audience. This one doesn’t. The effects are there simply to enhance the cinematography. The characters, though exaggerated, are still far from “cartoon” images, moving like real beings. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 is wisely not a kiddy film. After all, who takes children to the movies? Parents! The writers included humor for adults throughout the movie, i.e., we see a bright yellow frog-like creature sitting on a lily pad croaking “Budder!” but when one of the mosquitoasts bites it, it deflates (or rather melts) and bleats “Parkay!” The children did not get that joke. In another scene, the group needs to get to a door that’s blocked by the cheesy web of a Spiderburger. Earl says, “Stand back! I’m gonna cut the cheese!” He does and we hear the all-too-familiar blat “Brraap!” and responds with, “That was the cheese, not me.” Everyone was laughing.

If this film is out on video before Christmas, I know it’s going to be on my list – along with the first one. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.



Planes

By Steve Herte

Planes (Disneytoon, 2013) – Director: Klay Hall. Writers: Jeffrey M. Howard (story and screenplay), John Lesseter (story), & Klay Hall (story). Voices: Dane Cook, Stacy Keach, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Priyanka Chopra, John Cleese, Cedric the Entertainer, Roger Craig Smith, Carlos Alazraqui, Gabriel Iglesias, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Sinbad, John Ratzenberger, & Brent Musburger. Color and in 3D, 91 minutes.

Having seen the movie Cars in 2006 I mistakenly thought that Planes would follow it into oblivion as another cutesy Disney cartoon. This film is much better than Cars by far. It makes the same use of eyes in the windshield (as opposed to the headlights in other cartoons) to effectively convey the full range of emotions. The story is the same as that of Turbo, a lowly character who dreams of being more than what he is, and does what needs to be done to enter and win a major racing title. However, Disney Corporation must have been studying the better animation houses (especially Pixar) and is finally getting competitive.

The tale starts with a dream sequence where Dusty Crophopper (Cook) is soaring in a race with two fighter jets and winning, when he wakes up next to his fellow crop-duster in the performance of his job. After work he trains with the guidance his friend Chug, a tanker truck (Garrett) to fly ever faster and turn sharper. His mechanic, a forklift named Dottie (Hatcher) tells him he’s not built for racing and that higher speeds will burst a fuel line but he perseveres and eventually enlists the aid of Skipper (Keach), an old World War II fighter plane with a history of glorious missions and a member of the elite flight team the Jolly Wrenches. Under Skipper’s coaching Dusty achieves entry into the Wings Across the World Race. Originally he makes sixth place but one of the top five was discovered using banned substances in his fuel mixture and was disqualified.

The rest of the story is the race against international champions Ripslinger (Smith) and his cohorts Ned and Zed (both Iglesias), Rochelle (Louis-Dreyfus), Ishani (Chopra), Bulldog (Cleese) and another newcomer, El Chupacabra (Alazraqui). One by one he wins over the friendships of the other planes (except for Ripslinger), and not only does he win the race, but he also conquers his fear of heights (crop dusters are generally low-flying).

What makes this movie superior? To start with the writing is 100% better. Lasseter teams up with Howard this time instead of Joe Ranft (who also co-directed Cars), and the cleverness level increased dramatically. There are a lot of gags that children will not get in this movie (i.e. the Aircraft Carrier “Flysenhower” and the fact that the Statue of Liberty is a green female forklift – there are no people in this film) – and forget about bringing toddlers to see it. The camera work is superb, often taking the audience with Dusty to see what he sees as he zips between obstacles and maneuvers over others, and the 3D effects serve to enhance this experience. The original music by Mark Mancina swells and diminishes with the flying sequences to communicate the thrill of flying and the joy of success. There’s even a nostalgic Cinderella scene (Disney’s former glory): all the planes competing against Dusty contribute parts so that he can complete the final leg of the race (he was quite broken up when he had to ditch at sea in the previous leg) – yes, it evoked tears.

Lastly, the cast of incredible voices supplied the believability to these non-human characters. Aside from the ones mentioned, we saw Edwards as Echo, Kilmer as Bravo, Sinbad as Roper, Ratzenberger as Harland, and my favorite, Musburger as the sports announcer car, Brent Mustangburger. Now that’s comedy! 

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Turbo
         
By Steve Herte
  
Turbo (DreamWorks/20th Century Fox, 2013) – Director: David Soren. Voices: Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Peña, Luis Guzmán, Bill Hader, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Ken Jeong, Michelle Rodriguez, Kurtwood Smith, Ben Schwartz, & Mike Bell. Color and 3-D, 96 minutes.

It made me laugh, it brought tears to my eyes, and it made me forget it was an animated film.

As this beautifully-created animated movie from 20th Century Fox and Dreamworks begins, the audience is soaring high over Indianapolis until the famous racing stadium appears below. Then we swoop on down to track level and rocket around the course with the cars. It was some of the best camera work I’ve seen in a while and told me in no uncertain terms that this is no cartoon: They want us to believe this.

Under Soren’s direction, Turbo is a tale of a snail tired of living his life at a literal “snail’s pace.” He dreams of being fast, idolizes racecar driver Guy Gagné (Hader), and is totally unmotivated by his daily “job” at “the plant” (literally a small patch of tomato plants in cages). Theo, soon to be Turbo (Reynolds), has the undignified job of re-routing rotting tomatoes when he hears the cry “Over-ripe!” More often than not, however, he’s splattered with tomato juice. His brother Chet (Giamatti) looks out for him and tries desperately to curb his ambitions, even to the point of saving him from a lawnmower when Turbo attempts to retrieve an errant tomato on the lawn.

When Turbo’s reckless antics get both he and his brother fired from “the plant” he leaves home and while crossing a highway bridge, falls, and eventually gets sucked into the engine of a high-powered car. The last sign he sees is “Nitrous Oxide” (laughing gas to us), which somehow gets into his blood flow and makes his heart pump faster, resulting in super speed, headlight eyes and other strange side effects. By the time Chet catches up to him they are both captured by Tito (Peña), who races snails between working with his brother Angelo (Guzmán) selling tacos at Dos Bros Taco Stand in a down-and-going strip mall. Tito also has a dream (in fact he’s had several wild ideas in the past) to drum up business and become famous. He places Turbo and Chet on a small racetrack with his other snails Smoove Move (Snoop Dogg), Burn (Rudolph), Skidmark (Schwartz), Whiplash (Jackson) and White Shadow (Bell), and soon learns that this little snail is lightning fast.

Although Turbo and his snail compatriots cannot speak to humans they seem to understand what humans are saying to them, and by a flashy circling of a billboard advertising the Indianapolis 500, Turbo gives Tito the idea to enter him. Angelo won’t hear of it and will not put up the entry fee. Neither will Kim Ly (Jeong), the owner of a small grocery in the same mall, nor Paz (Michelle Rodriguez), a nail salon owner, until the other snails manage to hijack a tour bus in the parking lot at the mall. The tourists spend money, the bus driver gets his flats fixed, and all witness a supercharged snail race that amazes them. The storeowners then pool their money and the entry fee is raised.

The next hurdle is to obtain permission for a snail to race against fuel-injected racecars. The Indy 500 chief executive officer (Smith) denies entry even after Turbo demonstrates that he can do the minimum 220 mph. It’s only when Gagné speaks for Turbo that he’s allowed to race. Turbo soon finds out that Guy is not the great sportsman he believed he was and his noble words on camera are just window dressing for an egotistic sore loser.

Turbo is a great example of how far animation has come since the days of Steamboat Willie. The characters are fully three-dimensional, they move smoothly, and their voices are perfectly matched to their motions. Even though the snails have two eye stalks and a mouth, we can still see the full range of emotions depicted by their attitudes. The 3-D special effects enhance the story without cheaply throwing things at the audience, and the musical soundtrack flows with the action, never getting in the way or dominating. The story is novel and the script is clever and funny. Chet to Theo, “Why can’t you just enjoy your life?” Theo, “I have a life?” White Shadow to Turbo, “They call me the White Shadow because I’m fast…like a shadow.” Turbo, “You know, shadows are not inherently fast.”

I thoroughly enjoyed Turbo and I believe it helped me negotiate pedestrian traffic effectively enough to get me from 42nd Street and 8thAvenue to 48th Street and 3rd Avenue in less than 20 minutes. 

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.



Smurfs 2

By Steve Herte

Smurfs 2 (Columbia, 2013) – Director: Raja Gosnell. Cast and Voices: Hank Azaria, Neil Patrick Harris, Brendan Gleeson, Jayma Mays, Jacob Tremblay, Mr. Krinkle, Katy Perry, Christina Ricci, Jonathan Winters, J.B. Smoove, George Lopez, Anton Yelchin, John Oliver, Frank Welker, Tom Kane, Fred Armisen, Gary Basaraba, Jeff Foxworthy, Alan Cumming, Paul Reubens, Shaquille O’Neal, & Jimmy Kimmel. Color, 105 minutes.

Gargamel (Azaria) is now a big performance star in the Paris Opera House doing a magic act using real Smurf essence as magic and amazing audiences. But this doesn’t mean he’s no longer after the Smurfs. He realizes that he needs Smurf essence to continue his act and ultimately take over the world, so he hatches a plot to kidnap Smurfette (whom he previously created to infiltrate the Smurfs, but who was made a good Smurf by Papa Smurf) and force her to reveal the secret recipe for the essence. He opens a portal between Paris and Smurf village too small for himself but not too small for Vexy (Ricci) and Hackus (Smoove), two other of his creations. But they’re not blue – hence naughty – and depend on him for drops of essence.

Smurfette (Perry) is successfully kidnapped when she leaves the safety of the Smurf village believing that everyone forgot her birthday. Papa Smurf (Winters) has a limited supply of magic crystals to form a rescue posse and wants to choose Brainy (Armisen), Gutsy (Cumming), and Hefty (Basaraba), but due to a ruckus winds up with Clumsy (Yelchin), Grouchy (Lopez), and Vanity (Oliver). They go to New York where their friend Patrick (Harris) lives, for they know that he is the only person who can tell them the whereabouts of Gargamel, and therefore rescue Smurfette.

Patrick, his wife Grace (Mays) and their son Blue (Tremblay) are living their life constantly catering to their circle of boring friends, even to the point of making a low-cholesterol, environmentally-friendly, organic, peanut-free birthday cake for their son’s party. Victor (Gleeson), Patrick’s stepfather, appears uninvited with a wagonload of gifts and a basketful of corndogs for all the guests. “Are there any peanuts in those corndogs?” “No, of course not.” And after all the children take bites, “They’re deep-fried in peanut oil.” Needless to say many children have allergic reactions and the party is over.

The Smurfs arrive, explain their plight, and an unwilling Patrick is “voted” into helping them. They go to Paris, where Gargamel turns Victor into a mallard; Smurfette learns the fun of being naughty from Vexy and Hackus; and the rescue team overcomes several obstacles in accomplishing their goal before Gargamel accomplishes his.

This sequel proves the rule that sequels in general are not as good as the original movie. Azaria is still fantastic as Gargamel. Harris reveals that he actually can play a straight, non-annoying role (even though he’s a bit wishy-washy at it), the computer graphic department does an amazing job with the interaction of the Smurfs and live people (and Azrael’s constant antics and laughs), but the dialogue is dull and the jokes more often than not are corny to uninspired. The best part of the movie is when Smurfette uses her new wand (a birthday gift from Gargamel) to speed up the giant Ferris wheel in Paris to the point of its coming off its axle and rolling through the streets. I’ve already seen a similar scene in the trailers for Sharknado so it wasn’t that novel for me.

It’s a good film for families and there was one in front of me in the theater. But I never heard the children laugh at the funny parts. Maybe they didn’t understand them, but they didn’t even laugh at the obvious humor, i.e., when Gargamel reveals a flight-suit to glide from the top of the Eiffel Tower to the portal below and instead goes ricocheting down the side of the tower only to find that the portal is only big enough for his head. I laughed a few times but not as often as I would have liked. Even the heart-wrenching scenes were not enough to evoke tears. Then there was the Hackus, who really became annoying after a while. Oh well, it’s a sequel. 

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Despicable Me 2

By Steve Herte 

Despicable Me 2 (Universal, 2013) – Directors: Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud. Voices: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Russell Brand, Elsie Fisher, Steve Coogan, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Nasim Pedrad, Ken Jeong, & Moises Arias. Color, 98 minutes.

“Good-night Agnes, never grow up,” says Gru (Carell) to Agnes (Fisher), the youngest of three girls he adopted from Despicable Me, as he puts her to bed. In this sequel we find Gru playing the part of a loving single father, no longer a super-villain, worrying about his oldest, Margo (Cosgrove), and her interests in boys, and using his huge underground complex to create a line of jellies rather than weapons of mass destruction. The middle child, Edith (Gaier) is the tomboy/ninja who grosses out when “mushy stuff” happens. All three girls are now plotting to get Gru a girlfriend (and hopefully a mother for them) as is the meddling next-door neighbor Jillian (Pedrad).

His army of minions are assisting Doctor Nefario (Brand) make millions of jars of jelly that taste disgusting to all. Doctor Nefario quits because he longs for the times when they were a team of super villains (and he claims he has a better offer).

Meanwhile, someone steals an entire Russian base at the Arctic Circle with a giant flying magnet and the AVL (Anti Villain League) decide that the only way to find the perpetrator is to enlist Gru as an undercover agent. They send their operative Lucy (Wiig) to bring him in, which she does successfully along with two of his minions, Bob and Stuart (both voiced by Coffin). But Gru will have no part of Silas Ramsbottom (Coogan) – the minions have a field day over his name – because he has accepted his new role in life. He calls Silas “Sheep’s Butt” and storms out. But when his minions start disappearing by the dozens he agrees to the job.

His cover is as the owner/operator of “Bake My Day,” a mall bakery in the same mall as the suspected villain, who by the way has invented a serum (purple, of course) that can change a sweet cuddly white rabbit into a voracious purple killer (sounds like Monty Python, right?) – there were killer rabbits in The Lone Ranger as well. Unknown to Gru, Lucy is assigned to be his partner (because she was the newest employee, and nobody else wanted the job) and the two learn to work together. Suddenly the extremely rotund Eduardo (Bratt), owner of the Mexican restaurant Salsa Y Salsa, bursts into the bakery to order dozens of cupcakes with the Mexican flag on them for his Cinco de Mayo party. Gru has a flashback: He remembers a super villain called “El Macho” who looked (much better then) and spoke like Eduardo. But he supposedly died after strapping himself to a shark that was then strapped to a rocket that flew into the mouth of an active volcano. They never found the body. He convinces Lucy to break into Eduardo’s shop after closing, and they are attacked by his watch-chicken.

The AVL however are convinced that the true villain is Floyd (Jeong), the Asian version of Truman Capote and owner of a wig shop in the mall. Traces of the serum are found behind a wall in his shop. Case closed, it would seem, but Gru’s not convinced. Especially when Margot develops a crush on Antonio (Arias), who happens to be Eduardo’s son and thus gets Gru and his girls an invitation to the Cinco de Mayo party. Eduardo acts suspiciously at the party and Gru follows him down to a secret underground hideout. (The code to his elevator is a musical dance floor and the tune is “La Cucaracha.”) Gru’s suspicions are confirmed when he meets Doctor Nefario in the sub-basement and discovers “The Plan” – to turn all of Gru’s minions into vicious purple monsters and unleash them on the world and take it over.

Several friends of mine have recommended “comedies” which left me cold and shocked (Hot Tub Time Machine comes springing to mind), but this movie had me burst out in laughter many times. Not since the remake of The Three Stooges have I laughed so much. Even though the minions speak no English, they’re extremely funny and the dialogue between Gru and any of the other characters is clever as well as funny. The story and the animation were so good I believed in all of them, even if they were improbable in real life. Thank you, Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul for the excellent screenplay, and Universal Studios for a wonderful animated film.

At one hour and 38 minutes it neither gets tedious nor leaves any salient detail out. It just leaves the audience wanting more – although (Spoiler Alert) with the marriage of Gru and Lucy at the end I can’t see where another sequel will be created. I’m also slightly in awe that this is the second film in a row that was good clean fun and a delight for the whole family (the other was The Lone Ranger). I may even see it in 3D, now that I know where all the effects would be. Oh, and make sure to stay for the credits. The fun continues when the movie ends. 

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses.



Monsters University

By Steve Herte

The Blue Umbrella (Pixar, 2013) – Director: Saschka Unseld. Color, 7 minutes.

This adorable short from Pixar is a mix of animation and imagination. The scene is a city street as it starts to rain. Normally inanimate things such as a downspout, a traffic signal, the window of a café, and a manhole cover develop facial features (but within the limits of what they really are) and begin to smile. A sea of black umbrellas open up as the rain becomes heavier but the one blue umbrella is the only one with a face and he’s happy to be open in the rain. As the crowd passes, a red umbrella catches his eye and she sees him. They both act coy as love blossoms between them. 

But then her handler goes one way and his handler tries to enter the subway. Fortunately, the wind from the oncoming trains blows him high into the air and he soars over the crowd. Eventually, he sees her. He gets tossed back and forth by the wind and the other formerly inanimate objects repeatedly save him from destruction until he’s lying upside down by the curb. We see the boots belonging to his handler and a gloved woman’s hand holding the red umbrella. The camera pans back and the couple, with their umbrellas, sit at the window of the café and all is happy. It’s a very clever story: there’s no dialogue, and only a simple tune ties this little adventure/love story together. Directed by Unseld, this petit gem deserves some recognition, maybe an award at Cannes?

Monsters University (Pixar/Disney, 2013) – Director: Dan Scanlon. Voices: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Alfred Molina, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Julia Sweeney, Nathan Fillion, John Ratzenberger, & Noah Johnston. Color & 3-D, 104 minutes.

The Disney Corporation is very fortunate to own Pixar because their animation far exceeds that of Disney proper. The prequel to Monsters Inc. is every bit as entertaining and fun to watch as its predecessor. Scanlon’s direction and his story and screenplay (in conjunction with Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird) give us a beautiful back-story that flawlessly flows into the hiring of Sully and Mike at Monsters Inc.

The story starts with Mike as a little monster (Johnston), on a field trip with his class to Monsters Inc. Because he’s smaller than everyone else in the class, his classmates ignore him. However, his ambition to be a “Scarer” towers over his physical proportions. A group of professional Scarers pass the children and one recommends Monsters University to him. In an effort to see them in action, Mike steps over the line into the “danger” zone and follows the same Scarer into one of the doors to the “real” world. Everyone is horrified except the Scarer, who is impressed that he “didn’t know Mike was in the room with him,” and hands him a Monsters University cap. Mike is hooked.

Then the timeline switches to older Mike (Crystal) getting off the bus to attend Monsters University. In the dormitory he’s paired up with Randy (Buscemi) a slithery lizard-like creature who can disappear at will. They go to their first Scarer class taught by Professor Knight (Molina), and just as Mike is answering a question Sully (Goodman) appears with a roar – right on cue – and takes a seat. Professor Knight is impressed by both Sully’s entrance and his heritage (he’s a Sullivan), and Mike is ignored again. Dean Hardscrabble (Mirren) makes a dramatic and frightening entrance and Professor Knight yields to her commentary. She’s extremely unctuous in speech for a dragon-winged centipede but she makes her point. Those who are not scary do not belong in this class. Mike and Sully are by now competitors and in the process destroy a canister containing her famous scream. She boots both of them out of the class.

To prove themselves worthy of re-entering the class Mike decides to enter the Scare Games. In order to qualify he has to be a part of a fraternity but none of the cool fraternities want him. He’s relegated to Oozma Kappa (we’re OK!) where he meets Squishy (Sohn) a multiple-eyed pale, plump (not scary) kid, Don (Murray) a Dutch Uncle type with a bat-wing mustache and octopus arms (also not scary), Terri (Hayes) and Terry (Foley) a two-headed creature with four arms and tentacle feet (too silly to be scary), Art (Day) a purple furred monster consisting of two big legs and a face in between and two tiny arms dangling down (maybe scary) and the house-mother, Ms. Squibbles (Sweeney), who is also Squishy’s Mom. None of these frat brothers could possibly win the competition if they tried. But Mike is determined and they need six contestants to compete (and a two-headed monster only counts as one) so Sully becomes the sixth in their group, much to Mike’s protests.

The competition is in six stages with one team being eliminated in each. Oozma Kappa makes it to the final stage under Mike’s coaching and with a little luck. They only have to beat Roar Omega Roar (the really cool guys – by the way, they accepted Randy right away when they saw him disappear) and two by two they compete in the final round, with the score tied before the last heat. Now Mike has to break a record scream to win against Johnny Worthington (Fillion) – a huge, purple, horned creature. No one is more amazed than Mike when he wins.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Sully recalibrated the final test so Mike would win and thereby cheated. In his outrage Mike sneaks into the room of doors to the real world and enters one but gets trapped when he fails to scare any of the bunkhouse full of children. Sully barrels in to save him and between the two of them they manage to totally frighten a group of adults, thus exploding the door and lighting up all the scare canisters in the room of doors, and escape.

This surprises Dean Hardscrabble and she tells them so but nevertheless they both are expelled – Sully for cheating, Mike for not being scary. They’re buddies now and both apply for job in the mailroom of Monsters Inc. where their first boss is a Yeti (Ratzenberger) and they work their way up the corporate scale.

Monsters University goes beyond great animation. The writing is clever, the background scenery is amazing, the 3D effects are only used to enhance the action on screen (not just to throw things at the audience), and it’s just plain good clean fun. In writing this article I noticed that even Frank Oz had a part, the character Fungus, a fair-weather friend to Mike who deserts him in the beginning of the film. The time flew by without my getting saddle sore. It fully deserves my four and a half rating and I love Dean Hardscrabble (my kind of character). 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Epic

By Steve Herte

Epic (20th Century Fox/Blue Skies Studios, 2013) Director: Chris Wedge. Starring the Voices Of: Colin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Beyoncé Knowles, Christoph Waltz, Amanda Seyfried, Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd, Judah Friedlander, & Steven Tyler. Color and 3D, 102 minutes.

If Blue Skies Studios want to receive a better reaction from reviewers, they should do one of two things:

1. Get better writers.

2. Do not allow trailers of superior films to precede the debut of a new movie like this one.

I must admit that when I saw the trailers for Rio 2 and Despicable Me 2, my expectations for Epic were affected. In fact, upon viewing Epic I was surprised to learn that its creators were the same as those for Ice Age and Rio.

This reaction has nothing to do with the situation of my viewing the film. The rainy, dismal day, the missed bus, the location of the multiplex in one of the worst parts of Queens, the inability to order my ticket through Fandango and thus avoid the quadri-folded “snake-dance” line of humanity awaiting purchase of tickets at the inept, two-person staffed box-office which left me with five minutes to find my theater and get a seat - none of this affected my opinion.

It was delightful to leave the mob scene headed for Fast and Furious 6 and Hangover 3 and join a more civilized audience of 15 (mainly children, but behaved) and locate a good, comfortable seat.

The movie starts with a narration about a forest being the scene of a constant war between “Life and Rot” (Whoa! They almost lost my attention right there!), and that it was fought unseen by human eyes. The scene magnifies until we can see little soldiers in bright green armor, the “Leaf Men,” riding hummingbirds at high speed and dodging the arrows of the gray army of Mandrake (Waltz). Everything an arrow hits turns into an oak gall (even if on a maple tree) giving the impression of rot and decay. The leaf men fend off the enemy and return to the secluded glen that is their home. The leader, Ronin (Farrell) enters the dwelling place of Queen Tara (Knowles) and even though the entire audience knows by her innuendoes that these two are an “item” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), he‘s all business. He’s more concerned about her being the “Life” of the forest and how the battle went, and the fact that his ward, Nod (Hutcherson), under his care since Nod’s father died, doesn’t follow orders, preferring reckless deeds instead. Queen Tara tells Ronin that the time has come for her to choose an “heir,” which means she has to go to the lily pond supervised by Mub – a snail (Ansari), and Grub – a slug (O‘Dowd), and select a “pod” (basically an unopened lily bud) to bloom under the full moon during the summer solstice. Stop me if you’ve heard this plot before.

Cut to the bad guys’ encampment. Mandrake’s son is very proud to have found a rat’s skin to wear so he will look more like Dad, and it has the desired effect. The plot is hatched to snatch the pod, kill Queen Tara and force the pod to bloom in darkness, thereby dooming the entire forest to eternal rot. Happy happy joy joy! They ready for the ambush and battle.

The scene changes to a taxi wherein a redheaded teenage girl named Mary Katherine (Seyfried) – she calls herself MK – is going to see her father and hopefully talk him out of his crazy, antisocial ways. The cab pulls up to a rickety two-story Victorian in the middle of nowhere and the cab driver (Friedlander) has the best line in the movie, “That’s a house? That’s termites holding hands!” He gives her his card suggesting she call him if she needs a quick retreat. MK’s dad is your typical Absent-Minded Professor, totally involved in his research and wearing a ridiculous helmet bearing several magnifying devices (which, by the way make it impossible for him to run in the forest without tripping over something). He whisks past MK blindly three or four times before realizing she’s there, and is followed by Ozzie, an aging but quick, three-legged, one-eyed pug.

Dad thinks she’s come to join him in his work and she’s trying to make him see the error of his ways and become a father to her once more. It doesn’t work either way. She decides to go home but as she leaves, Ozzie scoots out the door and she tries to retrieve him. This leads her right into the thick of the ambush and battle for the pod. The dying queen tosses her the pod and it shrinks her down to leaf-man size and gives her a new destiny (I guess you could say Beyoncé made her Destiny’s Child). She now has to protect the pod and bring it to Nim Galuu (Tyler), a zany caterpillar/seer who acts like the Wizard of Oz (I see the plots of two other movies here) for protection. Nim Galuu is the only member of the cast who gets to sing. By now, you get the idea.

Epic is a pretty, colorful movie with a superb soundtrack by Danny Elfman (which is how I will remember it best), good animation, some really great camera angles during the chase scenes, an interesting (but done-before) concept (hey, it’s a fantasy!) and the occasional funny quip thrown in my Mub or Grub. The rest of the dialogue is tired and hackneyed; the sunlight glare effect is good but used too often, and the whole movie seems to be a Fantasia wannabe without achieving the magic that was Disney at the time. It is based on the book “The Leaf Men and The Brave Good Bugs” by William Joyce. The film is an unbelievably squeaky-clean (no sex, no vulgarity, no blood, and definitely no gratuitous violence) fairy tale for the children (and they will love it) but there’s virtually nothing there for adults. 

Rating: 2½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Croods

By Steve Herte 

The Croods 3D (DreamWorks 2013) Director: Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders. Cast: Voices of Nicholas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman, Clark Duke, Randy Thom, and Chris Sanders. Color, 3-D, 98 minutes.

DreamWorks has truly outdone itself with a movie that lives up to every hyper advertisement! The Croods is as visually beautiful (especially in 3D) as its plot and writing is imaginative and funny. The characters are drawn to be unusual and different but they are so well created and animated that the mind accepts them as real, right down to the last hair blowing in the breeze. There were no empty spaces or dead time in the entire one hour and thirty-eight minutes and there was always something new to see and wonder at.

The Croods are a cave family consisting of Grug (voiced by Cage) the father, Ugga (Keener) the mother, Eep (Stone) the daughter, Thunk (Duke) the half-witted son, Gran (Leachman), Uggas mother, and Sandy (Thom) the baby daughter. They’ve lived in the same cave for as long as Eep remembers and she’s had enough. She wants to explore other lands, see where all the light is coming from, and discover new things. But Grug, being the over-protective father, warns that everything new or exists beyond the cave is dangerous and even the story he tells (he only has one) describes what happens to the disobedient child who strays from the cave and “Dies!” (as he slaps a handful of red clay on the wall).

Eep cannot restrain herself. She sees a strange flickering light one night and leaves the cave to find its source and meets Guy (Reynolds), the only surviving member of his family – who met their untimely demise in a tar pit, we later learn – and she is both fascinated and attracted to him at once. Guy has discovered fire, something the Croods have never seen. When Eep first encounters him the 3D effect sends embers floating around the theater audience. Guy’s wearing a warthog skin complete with head and she thinks he’s a beast and attacks – until he removes the head. Later on she tells Gran that she thought he was a warthog but then he turned into a man and Gran tells her, “Usually it’s the other way around with men.”


Guy has a hard time making friends with the rest of the Croods, especially Grug who views him as a double threat. He’s taking his authority away as well as his teenage daughter. But gradually he wins over the whole family – and by the end of the movie, Grug too – and convinces them to follow him to the sun and the land of “tomorrow.” He tries to explain that the land is changing and they must make it to the twin peaks before all they are familiar with is destroyed (as an intro to the movie, the explanation is given that this is the time of continental drift on Earth and Pangaea is literally breaking up). Still, it’s not until they actually see their home cave destroyed that they agree to follow. This is also where actual science stops and we have to suspend our belief.

They travel through a myriad of topographies from jungles of carnivorous plants, through mazes of arroyos, to dry desert, to bayous, to extinct ocean floors (where Guy makes shoes for all of them because the coral is too sharp for their bare feet). They encounter flocks of carnivorous red birds, herds of tiny elephants, whales that walk on stumpy legs and a giant saber-toothed cat (for want of a better word – the fangs are protruding from the wrong jaw and he’s mostly robin’s egg blue and pink fur). There are bird-like creatures with two sets of wings like a dragonfly and leafy swimming beasts with long necks topped by elephant-like heads. Along the way he tells the Croods stories and teaches them what a joke is. Gradually they become more and more civilized.

The Croods is an extremely fanciful tale with completely believable characters and – dare I say it? – excellent acting jobs by an all-animated cast. I’ve always said that I’ve loved Cage more when I can’t see him and he does a remarkable job as Grug. Stone is the perfect rebellious teenager ready to take on all the adventure life can give. Even Guy’s clinging, long-armed simian sidekick Belt (Sanders) – you know him from the trailers saying “Dun, dun, DUN!” – is a wonderful endearing character. I heard the children in the audience laughing at the funny gags. The adults got the references to other films like AvatarJourney 2 Mysterious Island, and several Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner parallels. It deserves the highest recommendation and is a must-see for the whole family. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Escape From Planet Earth in 3D

By Steve Herte
  
Escape From Planet Earth in 3D (Weinstein, 2013) - Director: Cal Brunker. The voices of: Brendan Fraser, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jessica Alba, Rob Corddry, Sofia Vergara, Jonathan Morgan Heit, William Shatner, George Lopez, Craig Robinson, and Jane Lynch. Color, Dolby Digital, 3-D, 89 minutes.

Since animation is one of my passions and knowing the work that goes into creating characters that can perform believably on screen, I was anticipating this reverse space adventure. Scorch Supernova (Fraser), the planetary hero of planet Baab (pronounced Bob), is slated to go on a rescue mission to “the dark planet” (Earth) to save the most recent visitors, even though he’s been warned that all who go to the dark planet are never heard from again.

The movie opens with Scorch on a mission to save six baby Baabians from the baby-eating creatures of another planet. His older brother Gary (Corddry) is at Mission Control trying to guide his actions and keep him and the babies safe. However, Scorch is full of bravado and egotism, and ignores his brother’s advice to keep quiet and awakens the enemy. Now he has to run for his life and avoid their snapping jaws to get back to his space ship. Thanks to Gary’s sense of timing he leaps a ravine and deploys his grappling hook just in time to swing across and taunt his chasers before blasting off. He lands on Baab to tumultuous applause and media attention - newscaster Gabby Babblebrock (Vergara) swoons in his presence but regains her composure in time for her live coverage.

Scorch is tall, broad-shouldered, square-jawed and attractive. Gary is short, skinny and bookish, the brains of the family. Gary’s son Kip (Heit) wants to be just like Uncle Scorch. His wife Kira (Parker) is supportive and the good housewife and mother. When the Earth mission is announced by Gary and Scorch’s boss, Lena Thackleman (Alba), Gary is reluctant because of all he’s heard but Scorch can’t wait to get going. In fact he has his ship all readied way before Mission Control can get up to speed. Gary argues with his brother and quits. Scorch takes off for Earth and is captured by Area 51 troopers at a 7-11.

When he learns about Scorch being captured/maybe killed, Kip tries to go to the rescue leading his Mom and Dad on a chase to the spaceport where they successfully stop him. At this point it dawns on Gary that he must go rescue his brother. He takes an escape pod, travels to Earth, crash lands, escapes the pod just as the self-destruct engages, and is captured by the same Area 51 troopers.

It is then we learn that General Shanker (Shatner) has been funneling all alien life into Area 51 to steal their technology and force them to build a doomsday machine meant to exterminate the home planets of ALL aliens. The machine only needs a sufficient power source and the General is wooing Lena (literally, he dresses up like Elvis whenever he’s on the video-com) to get it. Gary meets Thurman (Lopez), a slug-like creature with four arms and three eyes in his cell, Doc (Robinson), a bat-like alien in the next cell and Io (Lynch) a huge, one-eyed lobster-like alien in the last cell and they tell him what they’ve been doing for the General thinking they will be allowed to go home once it’s complete. The story goes back and forth between their plight and Lena’s fake love affair with Shanker until everyone realizes what’s really going on. Gary destroys the power source for the machine and when forced to reconstruct it programs a glitch into it that causes the machine to self-destruct.

Meanwhile Kira, having been inspired by the devotion of her son, has secretly boarded the ship Lena is using to bring the power sources to Shanker. They scuffle and Kira overpowers Lena and they turn back to Baab. The fleeing group of aliens on Earth makes it to Scorch’s disguised ship and nearly escape when Shanker appears wearing Scorch’s power suit and he puts a tractor beam on them. Gary and Scorch leap from the ship and disable the beam sending Shanker (and themselves) plummeting to Earth. At the last minute before impact all three are suspended inches from the ground by three “greys” (the aliens pictured on X-Files and animated on Stargate SG1 with the big heads, skinny bodies and almond-shaped black eyes). They explain that they were also being used by Shanker and are now free to rebel against him. Up to this point they never spoke and now they sound like the Beatles – that unmistakable Liverpuddlian accent. One even says Ringo-esque, “Guys, let’s not break up the group.”

All the aliens re-board the ship and head back to Baab, but shortly before leaving Earth the ship develops a problem with the steering controls. They call Mission Control and the only one there is Kip, who using techniques learned from flying a toy version of the spaceship, helps them escape the Earth fighter planes and land safely back on Baab. This success makes Kip now want to be just like his Dad at Mission Control and Gary is proud. Scorch embarks on his next and most dangerous mission, marrying Gabby, the music swells and everybody parties.

Escape From Planet Earth is a very colorful movie. The spaceport on Baab looks more like a candy circus carnival. The animation is nicely done and seamless and the computer graphics are convincing – even though the only character with fur is Doc. The story is as old as the hills and the comedy made me laugh one or two times (not exactly a laugh riot) but was clever. It doesn’t rank up there with other animated features I’ve seen where meticulous attention is paid to details. The science fiction angle is obvious and is made even more obvious when the physics goes astray in one scene. Gary is taking off in the escape pod and is totally enclosed in a transparent shield, but still his mouth flaps about as if the wind from his acceleration was affecting it (there shouldn’t be any wind). It’s a good film, not a great one, and probably will not make it to my collection. 

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

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