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What I Watched In… March 2015

Favorite of the Month: Birdman (2014)

Favorite of the Month: Birdman (2014)

I’m a few days late with this list, but I’m gonna go ahead and play my “Sorry, I was hospitalized” card. I’m home now, and trying to get myself back to normal. So…

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. Nick Offerman: American Ham (2014), B-
2. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009), B+
3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), B-
4. Parallels (2014), B
5. 42 (2013), A-
6. 88 (2015), D
7. The Last Days (2013), B+
8. The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), D
9. Big Hero Six (2014), A
10. Love Hotel (2014), C
11. Harmontown (2014), B
12. Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014), B
13. Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (2015), B+
14. Mud (2012), B
15. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012), A-
16. Back Issues (2014), C
17. Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks (1974), D; Cinematic Titanic Riff, B
18. Open Windows (2014), B+
19. Birdman (2014), A
20. The Usual Suspects (1995), B
21. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), A-
22. Last Action Hero (1993), B-
23. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), B
24. 300: Rise of an Empire (2014), C
25. The ABCs of Death 2 (2014), B-
26. V/H/S: Viral (2014), C
27. To Be or Not to Be (1983), B+
28. European Vacation (1985), B
29. Deep Impact (1998), B+

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What I Watched In… June 2014

Favorite of the Month: Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

Favorite of the Month: Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

First off, allow me to apologize for the lack of activity here lately. I know I promised to start hitting you guys with more regular reviews, but June didn’t allow me a lot of time for writing of any kind because — and this is the part I make no apologizes for — I got married. It’s been a great month, but a busy one. The odd thing is, I did manage to squeeze in a healthy number of movies, while simultaneously having virtually no time to DO anything with them.

Anyway, back to the usual stuff. In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. Jaws (1975), A
2. Pulp Fiction (1994), B+
3.  The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), B
4. Cool as Ice (1991), F; Rifftrax Riff, B+
5. G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013), C+
6. The Institute (2013), B-
7. Timecrimes (2007), A-
8. Curious George (2006), B
9. Knights of Badassdom (2013), B+
10. Identity Thief (2013), C
11. American Psycho (2000), B-
12. The Adventures of the American Rabbit (1986), B-
13. Hercules (1958), D+; MST3K Riff, B
14. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), B
15. From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999), C
16. From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter (1999), B-
17. Full Tilt Boogie (1997), B-
18. Killers From Space (1954), D; Film Crew Riff, B
19. Much Ado About Nothing (2012), A-
20. High Anxiety (1977), B
21. The Aristocats (1970), C+
22. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), B+
23. The Matrix (1999), A
24. Armageddon (1998), B-
25. Frozen (2013), A
26. How to Train Your Dragon (2010), B+
27. You’re Next (2013), C+
28. Maleficent (2014), B-
29. Planet of Dinosaurs (1977), F; RiffTrax Riff, B
30. The Wolverine (2013), B-
31. The LEGO Movie (2014), A
32. The Conjuring (2013), C-
33. Monsters University (2013), B+
34. The Blue Umbrella (2013), A

Scrooge Month Day 19: Jim Carrey in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009)

Christmas Carol 2009Director: Robert Zemeckis

Writer: Robert Zemeckis, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Daryl Sabara, Bob Hoskins, Molly Quinn, Fay Masterson, Fionnula Flanagan

Notes: This was the third film from director Robert Zemeckis in which he used his motion capture process to animate in 3D, following The Polar Express and Beowulf and preceding Mars Needs Moms, which flopped so painfully that his animation study was shut down. Although a fairly straightforward retelling of the story, he employs a lot of the motion capture tricks he’d used in previous films, such as using the same actor to play different characters opposite himself or at various ages. Jim Carrey, for example, plays Scrooge at every stage of his life, as well as all three of the Ghosts, using the logic that the ghosts are extensions of Scrooge’s own soul. Okay, I can buy that. Gary Oldman, meanwhile, plays both Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim and – for some reason – Marley, while Robin Wright plays both Scrooge’s sister Fan and the love of his life, Belle, which has some disturbingly Freudian implications.

Thoughts: Once there was a little boy named Robert Zemeckis. Robert made great movies in a far-off land called the 1980s, but as the 21st century began, he fell in love with a pretty girl named “Motion Capture CGI.” They had four children together before they broke up, and of the four, this is probably the best.

Part of it, let’s be honest, is the source material. A Christmas Carol is by far more classic than Zemeickis’s first or last motion capture films, and while Beowulf is a classic in its own right, he took too many liberties with that one (Grendel’s mom is hot? That’s sick.) for it to really rank. Here, though, he takes a legendary tale and gives it a pretty decent polish that makes it worth revisiting at this time of year.

One of the interesting things that Zemeickis pulls off is creating characters recognizable as the actors that play them while still giving them enough of a twist to work as animated figures. Carrey is clearly visible inside Scrooge, but his elongated nose and chin would look silly in real life. Gary Oldman can be squished down to play a short little Bob Cratchit, Colin Firth can be puffed up a bit so Fred looks comfortably plump. Carrey can also be seen in each of the three ghosts. It’s an odd choice, to have him portray the three of them, and I’m not entirely convinced of the point Zemeckis was trying to make, but Carrey’s performances as the ghosts are just fine. Christmas Past is light and airy, Christmas Present is enormous and bombastic. Christmas Yet to Come… well, he’s barely there, and that’s a good thing.

This version is also a good bit scarier than many of them, and at the same time, more in keeping with the original Dickens. Marley’s head wrapping – which was actually a tradition at the time to keep a corpse’s mouth from hanging open – comes loose, and his jaw opens up to a horrific degree. As he howls at Scrooge his mouth rattles around like something out of a zombie movie. Christmas Present doesn’t just age, as he often does, he withers away until there’s nothing left but a skeleton, its teeth chattering with maniacal laughter. Then there’s Christmas Yet to Come, who shows up initially just as a shadow – Scrooge’s shadow, in fact, in a warped and twisted form. We don’t really see much of a physical form for him at all, in fact, which is terribly effective. This is about as scary a version of A Christmas Carol as I’ve ever seen.

The scenes with the three ghosts are pretty by-the-book, but done well. In fact, one of the few times where Zemeckis’s love affair with his computer (more on that later) really works is when Scrooge is facing Christmas Present. Rather than teleporting him to the other locations, as he usually does, he turns the floor in Scrooge’s house transparent and we watch as they “fly” from one place to another. The visuals here – throughout the Christmas Present sequence, really – are absolutely top-notch, and are an example of what Zemeckis can do with his CGI at its best.

There are a lot of good things about this movie, but Robert Zemeckis brings the same problems to this as he did with all of his motion-capture films. First, and most problematic, the characters are largely expressionless. He can make a character move like a human, but he hasn’t mastered the skill of putting feeling into their eyes, which makes them seem somewhat stiff and lifeless. It’s the classic Uncanny Valley problem writ large.

What’s more, Zemeckis was so in love with the technology that he often did things just because it was possible that didn’t really add anything to the story. There’s an extended sequence where Scrooge – for absolutely no reason – is shrunk to the size of a mouse and whips around London. It reminds me of the scene from The Polar Express in which a train ticket is taken by the wind and blown around. It looks good, but ultimately, it’s a meaningless scene that doesn’t go anywhere or do anything. In both instances, I felt like I was watching the film of one of those motion simulator amusement park rides, which is pretty dull when you’re in a stationary seat. Zemeckis does similar things several times throughout the film, to the point where it starts to get actually obnoxious when you sense the first few seconds of the next such sequence.

It’s actually a shame that he never quite got a handle on how best to use this sort of technology, because when it works it works well. But like George Lucas dropping in added effects to the Star Wars special editions, Zemeckis got so excited that he could do certain things that he never stopped to think about whether they should be done. The result is like going to an industrial sawmill to cut a single two-by-four in half. It’ll work, but it’s overkill, and there are much better ways to do the same thing.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Month Day 17: Daffy Duck in BAH HUMDUCK! A LOONEY TUNES CHRISTMAS (2006)

Bah Humduck 2006Director: Charles Visser

Writer: Ray DeLaurentis, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Joe Alaskey, Bob Bergen, Billy West, June Foray, Maurice LaMarche, Jim Cummings, Tara Strong

Notes: This is actually the second time the Looney Tunes characters have tackled Dickens, the first being in the 1979 short, Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol. I would have included that in this little experiment, because at only eight minutes it would have been the easiest article ever, but it doesn’t appear to be available on DVD at the moment. Warner Bros should get on that. Anyway, in this version we see Daffy Duck (voice of Joe Alaskey) cast as the owner of the Lucky Duck Superstore in the Scrooge role. Although the Looney Tunes characters basically play themselves, they fill in the assorted Christmas Carol roles appropriately. Porky Pig (Bob Bergen) is Daffy’s assistant manager and the stand-in for Bob Cratchit. Bugs Bunny (Billy West) kind of takes nephew Fred’s place, although the role is somewhat expanded. Sylvester “the Investor” (Alaskey)  is our Jacob Marley substitute, Porky’s daughter Priscilla (Tara Strong) fills in for Tiny Tim, and the ghosts are filled up by a tag-team of Granny (the legendary June Foray) and Tweety (Begen) for the past, Yosemite Sam (Maurice LaMarche) for the present, and the Tasmanian Devil (Jim Cummings) for Christmas Future.

Thoughts: The Looney Tunes characters, traditionally, have not proven to be quite as versatile as the Disney crew. While Mickey and Company can star in more traditional versions of Dickens, The Prince and the Pauper, The Three Musketeers and the like, it’s much harder for the Looney Tunes to do so. They shouldn’t be embarrassed by this – it’s because they’re just plain funnier, and therefore it’s harder to wedge them into a drama. That said, Ray LeLaurentis managed to match them to the Dickensian roles in this film pretty neatly.

Daffy, as the head of a superstore, hates Christmas and families, mostly because he never had either of his own. Early on we see him being terrible to assorted Looney Tunes characters in assorted ways, most cleanly when he dismisses Assistant Manager Porky’s wish to spend Christmas with his family. Daffy may not be the most Scrooge-like of the Looney Tunes characters, being more of a grump than a skinflint, but he’s their biggest star that could fit the role. As such, the film doesn’t paint him as a spendthrift the way Scrooge usually is, but just somebody with a nasty disposition who decides to target Christmas with his ire.

“Sylvester the Investor” is a former CEO and idol of Daffy’s, not specifically his old partner, and he’s the character that really made the continuity geek that lives in my brain full-time struggle. There are two ways the Looney Tunes are usually portrayed: either as “themselves,” living an ostensibly normal life while going through wacky adventures; or as actors in crazy cartoons playing crazy roles. This movie seems to exist in some sort of weird in-between place. Daffy is himself, Porky, Elmer Fudd, Marvin the Martian and many of the others are his employees. But Sylvester and the ghosts come across more like the “actor” versions of the characters. There is, of course, the possibility that I’m simply expending way too much energy trying to rationalize the structure of a Looney Tunes movie.

After Marley’s visit, Daffy continues to torment his employees, even announcing that the store will be open from 5 a.m. to midnight on Christmas Day, making this 2006 movie seem sadly prophetic. He and Bugs wind up trapped in the store overnight, though, giving us the biggest Looney Tunes star at vital points of the tale. Granny and Tweety pop in as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and take Daffy back to the Lucky Duck Orphanage where he grew up. Lucky Duck, as it seems, didn’t live up to its name for Daffy. We’re shown a Christmas where he is literally the only child at the orphanage who does not get adopted. The scene is so pathetic that even the ghosts cry for him, until they snap out of it and Tweety lays a verbal smack-down on him and Granny tells him his own lousy childhood doesn’t give him the right to ruin everybody else’s Christmas.

Yosemite Sam, who played Scrooge in Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol, here dons the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present. He whips Daffy around to show him how sad his various employees are, ending it with Porky telling adorable little Priscilla he can’t be with her on Christmas. When she asks him why Daffy’s so mean, Porky tells her it’s probably because he doesn’t have a family to spend it with. She wishes on a star that Porky could spend Christmas with her instead of going to work, and Sam smacks Daffy upside the head. Seriously, Daff, when Yosemite Sam is calling you out for being a jerk, you know you’ve gone too far.

Daffy finds Bugs decorating the store for Christmas and begs him to hide him from the final ghost, giving Bugs the chance to reenact a classic sequence of brutally bad hiding places from one of his old cartoons. None of it will protect him from the Tasmanian Devil as Christmas Future, though. Although Priscilla isn’t sick like Tiny Tim, Daffy sees a future where he’s dead and the store is closed thanks to his stupid effort to leave it to himself in his will. Now all of the employees are out of work just in time for Christmas. Just to drive the nail in, Priscilla promises to visit Daffy’s grave every Christmas. Taz weeps openly and Daffy asks for a second chance.

Well c’mon, it wouldn’t be much of a story if he didn’t get one, would it?

Back home, Daffy finds a frozen Fudd who informs him it’s still Christmas, and Daffy declares there’s work to do. When the employees return to the store in the morning, Daffy starts handing out gifts: a rocket for Marvin so he can go home for the holidays, a chef for the perpetually starving Wile E. Coyote, and raises and vacations all around. His 20-second interaction with Speedy Gonzales makes the whole film worthwhile.

As Daffy looks around he almost relapses, realizing how much the raises and vacations are going to cost him, but Priscilla’s grateful words to “Uncle Daffy” cut him off. She also gets the last word – not “God bless us, everyone,” but swiping her Dad’s usual proclamation of “That’s all, folks!”

The cartoon – at a brisk 45 minutes – doesn’t spend a lot of time on the details of Dickens. Instead, it uses the classic framework to tell a story with more original characters and a lot of old-school Looney Tunes slapstick. These are timeless characters that still make me laugh when they’re done right, and for the most part, this special pulls it off. I’ve actually enjoyed the new Looney Tunes Show the Cartoon Network airs, but this slightly more traditional version of the characters is always going to be where my heart lies.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Month Day 15: ??? in A CHRISTMAS CAROL: SCROOGE’S GHOSTLY TALE (2006)

Christmas Carol-Scrooges Ghostly Tale 2006Director: Ric Machin

Writer: Sean Catherine Derek, Charles Dickens

Cast: Tim Bentink, Brian Bowles, Theresa Gallagher, Adam Rhys Dee, Keith Wickham, Jo Wyatt  

Notes: I’m trying to figure out where, exactly, I got this version of A Christmas Carol. I’m pretty sure it was on sale at Half-Price Books for a few dollars, and I got it because I’ve got a weird obsession with such things. Also, the DVD case has a liquid pouch with glittery “snow” in it, and I’m a sucker for such things. Anyway, this animated version of the story recasts the Dickens characters: the Scrooge family are skunks, the Cratchits are rabbits, and Marley is a Cricket. Past, Present and Future are a stork, a kangaroo, and a walrus, respectively. There are no voice actors credited for this movie either on IMDB or Wikipedia, which I’ve never seen before, and makes me wonder how exactly this short (48 minute) adaptation happened other than spontaneous combustion.  There are credits at the end (which is where the above cast list came from), but the film doesn’t bother to tell you who provided each voice, so I can’t even help you there. One of the above people played Scrooge. I’m betting on Theresa Gallagher.

Thoughts: Another animated version of Dickens, this one with weak computer animation rather than weak traditional animation, it’s hard to qualify the film. This is a post-Pixar world, friends. This came out the same year as Cars and Monster House, but the quality of the animation isn’t even as sharp as that of Pixar’s earliest efforts. The animation is in computerized 3d, but the coloring is flat, like it’s trying to mimic a hand-drawn effect.  I almost want to believe this was somebody’s student animation class project (made because you don’t have to pay for the rights to Dickens) that somehow got a DVD release.

We have a narrator and the characters are familiar, but the Dickens dialogue is thrown out the window immediately. Instead we’ve got super-greedy Scrooge berating Bob Cratchit over a missing farthing he’s too blind to realize is sitting on his own forehead until Fred arrives and points it out to him. The plot – for now at least – follows Dickens fairly closely. Scrooge is grouchy to Cratchit and grouchy to Fred and even blames his food for upsetting his stomach when Marley shows up. Speaking of Marley, the flaming cricket that plays the part shows even less animation than the rest of the cast. When he flails about on his chain, it looks like a toy on the end of a stick being waved around both willy and nilly.

When Christmas Past shows up, it appears first as Scrooge’s pillow, which scares the crap out of him. Cute enough. When she turns into a stork, though, she drops a joke about “pillow talk” that almost made me choke to death on the gingerbread M&M I was eating – not because it was funny, but because the filmmakers included such a (relatively) adult joke in the middle of a cartoon that, until now, seemed to be crafted to cater specifically to the 3-to-3 ½ year old demographic. Christmas Past whisks Scrooge to the past, where he sees himself and Sister Fan making the world’s ugliest snowman.

This time, for the first time in any version of the film, we see baby Fred. He’s not the cause of Fan’s death, but he is the cause of Scrooge’s isolation. Fan had promised Scrooge he could leave school and live with her, but with the baby there’s just no room for him. Young Scrooge storms out, not hearing Fan tell her baby how much she loves and misses her brother. Old Scrooge hears it, of course, but the whole thing rings pretty hollow, seeing as how these computer animated figures move at about the speed of a radio controlled car with a missing wheel. She could have caught up with him pretty easily.

Christmas Present hops onto the scene, a kangaroo, with an Australian accent because duh. At the Cratchit house we meet Tiny Tim, who isn’t even sick in this version. He still makes Scrooge feel like kind of a jerk, though, as he expresses a child’s love for the old miser.

Christmas Future, the walrus, is surprisingly funny. He sparks with red lightning and he has a broken tusk that looks like it’s been lashed together with a leather strap. And as he talks (yep, this one talks), his big jowls flap around over the tusks. His is actually the best animation in the entire film.

This is when the film goes off the Dickensian rails. Instead of dying, we see that Tiny Tim has grown up into an old, bitter codger just like Scrooge. This doesn’t seem to make any sense at all; there’s no motivation that seems in place to push Tim down that particular path. Then the movie actually makes a funny point when it gets to Scrooge’s death. In this version, Scrooge learns that he’s been crushed to death under the weight of his own gold. It’s goofy and ridiculous, and it actually entertains me for about five seconds before the character pushes it too far and changes the subtext into text by announcing Scrooge was killed by his own greed. You know. In case anybody didn’t get that.

So at the end, the Walrus of Christmas Future tells Scrooge to open his heart and he wakes up back in his own bed, and I realize with utter shock that there are still 15 minutes left in this movie. Considering how quickly everything has been rushed through, what could they possibly have to fill up that gargantuan amount of time?

Oh god. A musical number.

Scrooge starts to dance and sing about dancing and singing, informing everybody he meets that he won’t need another chance, which is swell, but the movie seems to have forgotten one of the primary rules of musicals. Namely, you need to have a musical number before the final reel of the film, or else it feels like it comes out of nowhere. Because it does.

Then there’s the last scene, which again departs from Dickens in a big way, as Marley reappears and tells Scrooge that he’s been set free from his eternal torment. Somehow, his concern for Scrooge has redeemed Marley as well. I have to admit, as deviancies from the classic go, I’m… I’m kind of okay with this one. I mean, it does somewhat undercut the notion that Scrooge had to change before it was too late, because evidently it’s never too late in this universe, but that’s not necessarily the worst message to take away from a story like this.

This isn’t a good version of A Christmas Carol, don’t get me wrong. The animation is terrible, the dialogue is weak and the song at the end is guaranteed to make you want to plunge a stake of holly through each eardrum. That said, it’s not the worst version I’ve watched either.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Month Day 13: Simon Callow in CHRISTMAS CAROL: THE MOVIE (2001)

Christmas Carol The Movie 2001Director: Jimmy T. Murakami

Writer: Piet Kroon, Robert Llewellyn, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Simon Callow, Kate Winslet, Nicolas Cage, Jane Horrocks, Michael Gambon, Rhys Ifans, Juliet Stevenson, Robert Llewellyn, Iain Jones, Colin McFarlane, Beth Winslet, Arthur Cox, Keith Wickham

Notes: This film, produced by the British Pathé Films and released on DVD by MGM in the United States, is among one of the more critically-reviled versions of the story. Despite an all-star voice cast, including Nicolas Cage, Jane Horrocks, Michael Gambon and Kate Winslet (who also sang the film’s theme “What If?”), it got lousy reviews in its theatrical release overseas and was largely ignored in America. But you know, you’ve gotta give the filmmakers credit for having the audacity to give this production the title Christmas Carol: The Movie, as if all the dozens of other versions that came beforehand weren’t actually movies at all, but rather live performances, interpretive dances, brands of licensed underwear or dried fruit snacks… anything but “a movie.” Really.

Thoughts: Although some releases of this movie feature a live-action bookend with Simon Callow as Dickens reading his book to a group of children, the DVD release I have cuts straight to the animation, which looks like it was done by a better-than-average Flash artist. (Which is to say: it’s still pretty bad.) But rather than starting with Scrooge or Marley or… y’know… anything recognizable, things kick off with Dr. Lambert (Arthur Cox) being arrested for his debts and leaving his wards – an entire hospital of what I have to assume are orphans – without any hope, as Lambert’s debt has been transferred to the offices of Scrooge & Marley.

As it turns out, the woman left in charge of the orphans (Kate Winslet) is Belle, an old acquaintance of Ebenezer Scrooge (Simon Callow again). She writes a personal letter pleading for mercy, which she delivers to an uncharacteristically unsympathetic Bob Cratchit (Rhys Ifans). It takes almost 15 minutes (in a movie that lasts 77) before we get to something that resembles the Dickens novel, as Fred (Iain Jones) shows up to beg his uncle to come to Christmas Dinner. The Fred design here is awful – ragged and wearing a thin cap, looking more like a waif out of Oliver Twist than Scrooge’s fairly well-off nephew.

Then we watch mice play in a bucket. Why are we watching mice play in a bucket?

I have no flippin’ clue what Kroon and Llewellyn were trying to do with this script. If I didn’t know this was a British production, I would think this was the result of Hollywood filmmaking-by-committee. Some yutz in a boardroom says he doesn’t get the story or he thinks it needs more of a hook so the audience can relate to the characters or some other stupid comment that makes you think he knows better than Charles Dickens how to tell this story, and the next thing we know we’ve got an entire hospital full of kids about to freeze to death and a couple of mice sidekicks. Then, just to make Scrooge a little more evil and to make the stakes in the story a little more personal, Scrooge dumps the bucket of water out the window right on Tiny Tim’s head, in the freezing cold. You can probably guess where this is going.

Nicolas Cage plays Marley’s Ghost, which is a bizarre choice. You cast Nicolas Cage in a movie for one reason and one reason only: so that everybody knows you cast Nicolas Cage. But the reading he gives Marley’s lines doesn’t even sound like Nicolas Cage, and by that I don’t mean that it’s not wild or crazy like many of his roles are, I mean it literally sounds like somebody else performed the voice. If I wasn’t staring at the IMDB page I wouldn’t have thought it was –

–why in the hell are the charity workers showing up after Marley’s ghost? Scrooge’s redemption was supposed to have already begun, having him denying Marley at this point is just stupid. Before everything could be chalked up to Scrooge’s greed, but once he’s already been told he has to change and he keeps rambling on about decreasing the surplus population, he just starts to sounds like an idiot.

And why are the mice riding in his pocket? Dear God, they’re going to subject us to those things for the entire movie, aren’t they?

Anyway, off to the Cratchit house, where Tim (who doesn’t appear to be crippled in this version) is exhibiting the Cough of Death, no doubt because Scrooge himself doused the kid with water, because it wasn’t enough that he was just neglectful. Nope, he had to actively murder the child. We’re 26 minutes in and I hate everyone involved with this movie.

Back in his room, the same Ebenezer Scrooge that just fatally soaked a little boy and callously refused to give money to the poor finds the mice in his pocket and cheerfully agrees to share his gruel with them, because the writers of this movie tore the page of their dictionary with “characterization” on it out when they ran out of toilet paper one day. Just as he’s nodding off, Jane Horrocks shows up as a Candle-like Christmas Past that fluctuates inexplicably between a child and a ghoulish old woman. We go from there to Schoolhouse Scrooge on the day his sister picked him up from school and introduces him to her best friend: Belle! Because nobody would believe it if he met her at Fezziwig’s like in every other version of the story.

I feel like I need to say something here: I’m not opposed to minor changes in the story in principle. If there were no changes from one version to another it would be sheer lunacy to even make another one. But I do insist that those changes make sense or bring something to the story that other versions do not. Having Scrooge meet Belle as a child doesn’t change anything. Having her present to watch his father dress him down doesn’t improve the story. The subplot with the hospital is utterly superfluous to the point Dickens was making about a man’s redemption – if anything it weakens it, because instead of doing good for the sake of goodness, now we have to wonder if Scrooge’s later good deeds all come as a result of him feeling guilty over how he treated Belle or, even worse, holding hopes of some sort of reconciliation with her.

And the damn mice. Add. Nothing.

And before we leave the past we see the reading of Scrooge’s father’s will, where he gives everything to Scrooge and leaves a pregnant Fan out in the cold and about to die, which Scrooge is perfectly happy to allow to happen. Then, in a move that would make Sheldon Cooper proud, he presents Belle with a “marriage contract” before she walks out on him. This movie strives to make Scrooge and everyone in his world as miserable and heartless as possible, except for when it comes to giving mice food. But by the time Christmas Present shows up we don’t even want Scrooge to be redeemed anymore, we want him to die of typhoid and get buried at the bottom of the river.

Michael Gambon is our Christmas Present, and he at least feels true to the character, showing Scrooge his feast and talking about giving it out in the spirit of love. Unfortunately, the filmmakers choose to waste our time showing us the mice eating a pie instead of focusing on the ghost. He flies around, showing off people making merry in a sequence that looks hand-drawn in a way that would actually be kind of charming if the rest of the animation was adequate and therefore serving as a real contrast.

Christmas Yet to Come is a similarly poorly-animated apparition, waving his arms around at a rate of four seconds per frame to show Scrooge the aftermath of Tim’s death (which, in case we forgot, Mrs. Cratchit directly attributes to him). Marley shows up to tell Scrooge he’s dead, then he wakes up alive. Ebenezer Scrooge has been redeemed, but as someone forced to watch Christmas Carol: The Movie, I have officially lost all hope.

Anyway, because the screenwriters added a completely useless subplot, as the redeemed Scrooge walks around town, Belle weeps over her empty hospital. Scrooge takes the blood money he got for foreclosing on the place and gives it to a homeless guy, because lord knows Belle couldn’t use it at this point, and then starts wandering the city aimlessly. When he gets home, Belle shows up and chews him out for closing the place down. He begs forgiveness from her and she tells him it’s not too late, which of course begs the question of why she was just dressing him down instead of asking him for help. Dr. Lambert is let out of prison and sent to treat Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit gets his raise, the damn mice ride around on Scrooge’s shoulder and I resist the urge to club a puppy over the head. The end.

The good news is that, thanks to this film, An All Dogs Christmas Carol only had to keep the title of “worst adaptation” for a mere three years. The bad news is that this version even exists. I used to think the worst thing a version of A Christmas Carol could be was forgettable. Now I’m afraid I’m going to remember this one because of how stupidly bad it actually is.

Also, buy mouse traps.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Month Day 11: Carface Carruthers in AN ALL DOGS CHRISTMAS CAROL (1998)

All Dogs Christmas Carol 1998Director: Paul Sabella, Gary Selvaggio

Writer: Jymn Magon, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Ernest Borgnine, Dom DeLuise, Sheena Easton, Taylor Emerson, Bebe Neuwirth, Charles Nelson Reilly, Steven Weber, Dee Bradley Baker, Ashley Tisdale

Notes: This TV movie was the third and (so far) final film in the All Dogs Go to Heaven series, and also followed the popular TV show based on the films. In this version the evil dog Carface (Ernest Borgnine) harasses other dogs for bones and money and the like just before Christmas, prompting Charlie (Steven Weber) to re-enact A Christmas Carol in an attempt to set him straight: Itchy (Dom DeLuise) becomes Christmas Past, Sasha (Sheena Easton) Christmas Present, and Charlie Himself becomes Christmas Yet to Come. I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen an All Dogs Go to Heaven movie or TV show before, so other than the fact that it’s about dead dogs, I really don’t know what to expect. The only reason I even own this film is because it was included in a pack of animated Christmas movies on DVD I got a while back, so reviewing it will be an experience.

Thoughts: The film has a cute enough framing sequence – puppy angels (try not to let the obvious implications of that be depressing) ask the angel Annabella (Bebe Neuwirth) for a story, and she tells about how her favorite dogs once stopped her evil cousin Belladonna (Neuwirth again) from ruining Christmas. As the film shifts from Heaven down to a San Francisco decorated for the holidays, it’s clear from the production values that this was created on a TV budget. I try not to hold that against the movie – after all, so was the Flintstones special four years earlier – but the animation is really stiff compared to many of the other animated versions of A Christmas Carol we’ve watched. I also have to deduct points for an obvious “Santa Paws” joke in the first five minutes.

Despite the notes at the beginning, the film takes a long time to get to the actual Christmas Carol content, going through this long opening slog in which Belladonna plans to hypnotize every dog in the city with a giant dog whistle or… or something like that. I’ve got to admit, my attention started to wander, because this most definitely is not a movie for me. Eventually, Annabella gives Charlie a magic amulet that allows him to pull the Dickens bit on Carface, with Charlie sort of taking on the Marley role to introduce the segment. It’s here that the Carface character finally gets some (and by some I mean “any”) depth. The trip to Christmas Past shows Carface as a puppy, loved by a child but put out into the cold and rain one Christmas. It’s about as sad a sight as I’ve ever seen in animation, actually, a pit bull with a beanie propeller walking away from a kid who used to love him.

Christmas Present grinds the movie to a halt with a lame villains song about how the big bad and the minion have differing feelings about Christmas. The whole time I listened to it, I kept thinking that Bebe Neuwirth deserved better. Anyway, eventually Sasha gets around to showing Carface little Timmy, a puppy with a lame leg who was among the dogs he robbed earlier in the movie. (I suspect Timmy was NOT a regular on the TV show.) As it turns out, the money Carface stole was earmarked for a life-saving operation for Timmy, and although the puppy shows heart, he doesn’t have any sort of physical prowess. This is the first version of the story where we get an actual direct link between “Scrooge” and Tim’s death – most of the time it’s just implied that the Cratchits couldn’t afford decent medical care because of Bob’s low wages. Here there’s no denying it’s entirely Carface’s fault.

Then a boring reprise of the boring song that started Christmas Present. Ernest Borgnine – you were great, but if Bebe Neuwirth can’t make the song fly, you don’t really have a chance.

In Christmas Future, we skip the usual preliminaries where Scrooge doesn’t know who they’re talking about and go straight to Carface’s cronies talking about how glad they are to be rid of him. It’s a surprisingly edgy way to approach the subject. Then Charlie kicks off a musical number that parodies – of all things – The Mask to show Carface he’s going down to Hell if he doesn’t change his ways. Which, now that I think about it completely contradicts the title of the franchise. Actually, if all dogs go to Heaven, what incentive do dogs have to behave? They’re going to Heaven anyway, right? Either the title is lying or there’s a huge cosmic loophole here. I’m really giving it far more thought that it deserves, but it’s that or give my complete attention to this lousy musical number, so I’m going to stick with the pontificating for a bit. Christmas Future ends with Carface realizing he was a heel for helping her in her evil scheme and setting out to stop her. Which he does, of course, because kids’ movie. And at the end he gives back everything he stole and Timmy lives and I check my blood sugar levels because I’m afraid they’ve gotten dangerously high.

I like good all-ages movies, ask anybody, but I think the mistake a lot of people make is that by assuming you’re making something for a children’s market means that it’s okay to make something that fails as entertainment for everybody else. To put it another way: when a Christmas-loving musical theatre nerd like myself wants to start fast-forwarding through every song in your movie, you have done something wrong.

There are numerous shows and movie throughout history that prove this simply doesn’t have to be the case: the Looney Tunes, the Flintstones, the Muppets, Animaniacs, Phineas and Ferb and the entire Pixar library come to mind. That makes me considerably less forgiving of a film like this one, where the jokes are stale, the songs are weak, and the animation stodgy, because the creators just assumed nobody over the age of 8 was going to watch it. The thing is, it’s the franchises that do have that crossover appeal that turn out to be long-lasting and classic. I still look forward to the Muppet and Disney specials every year. I don’t remember the last time I heard anyone mention All Dogs Go to Heaven.

I do give the film credit in one instance – although we’ve thrice seen films about characters performing A Christmas Carol, this is the first one we’ve gotten where the characters deliberately invoke Dickens in order to effect change in someone who needs to learn a lesson. I’ve read a few stories based around that trope in books and comics (my personal favorite is Teen Titans #13 from 1967, “TT’s Swingin’ Christmas Carol” for you cool cats in the know), but for such an obvious idea, precious few movie adaptations have activated it.

My unfamiliarity with the property kind of kills my enjoyment of it. This movie builds on character relationships established in two prior movies and a whole TV series, and as I haven’t seen any of them, I feel like I’m left out of the joke. I get why this was the finale, though – it essentially ends with the redemption of (I assume) the primary villain of the TV show, which isn’t exactly something you can do during the run of the series without altering the dynamic dramatically, and an after-school kids’ show circa 1998 wasn’t about to take that sort of chance while it was still on the air. As it is, all I can really say is that the film is at best serviceable and inoffensive, but unless you’re already a fan of the franchise, it’s just not going to do it for you.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Month Day 10: Fred Flintstone in A FLINTSTONES CHRISTMAS CAROL (1994)

Flintstones Christmas Carol (1994)Director: Joanna Romersa

Writer: Glenn Leopold, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Henry Corden, Jean Vander Pyl, Frank Welker, B.J. Ward, Russi Taylor, Don Messick, John Stephenson, Marsha Clark, Will Ryan, Brian Cummings, John Rhys-Davies, Joan Gerber, Maurice LaMarche, Rene Levant

Notes: This TV movie has become a staple of the Cartoon Network family of TV channels in recent years. Like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, this film also uses the conceit of the familiar characters putting on a theatrical production of the classic novel by “Charles Brickens”(voiced by John Rhys-Davies). The Flintstones do much more with that concept than Magoo did, though. There are a few Flintstones-centric subplots that run through the story – Fred (Henry Corden) is so caught up with playing Scrooge that he’s ignoring his friends and family at Christmas and allowing his ego to overwhelm him. Wilma (Jean Vander Pyl) is the stage manager of the play, which leaves her hands full to begin with, but things get even worse as different members of the cast come down the with 24-hour “Bedrock Bug” and are unable to perform. Adaptations of A Christmas Carol featuring classic characters seem to be cursed – like Clarence Nash saying goodbye to Donald Duck in Mickey’s Christmas Carol, this was the final time Vander Pyl, Wilma’s original voice, played the character before her passing. Besides Fred as Ebonezer Scrooge (get it?), the Christmas Carol cast includes Barney Rubble (Frank Welker) as Bob Cragit, Betty (B.J. Ward) as Mrs. Cragit, Bamm-Bamm (Don Messick) as Tiny Tim, and Fred’s boss Mr. Slate (John Stephenson) as Jacob Marbley. Wilma gets called upon to play several parts as the actors drop out, including Belle and Christmas Past. The other Ghosts and the rest of the significant roles are filled by obscure or new Flintstones characters.

Thoughts: This film came out at a weird time in Flintstones history. It was the same year as the weak live-action Flintstones movie, and a year after two made-for-TV Flintstones movies which featured Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm as adults getting married, then having babies (twins). For them to step back to the classic era of the cartoon the next year was an interesting choice, but seeing as how they’ve done very little (by which I mean nothing) with the older versions of the characters in the two decades since, I imagine this film was their quiet concession that the characters work best frozen in the eternal forms they enjoyed in the classic TV series.

This is all to say: it’s a pretty good movie.

The Christmas Carol segments are relatively faithful to the book. The characters are true to themselves and they each fill the expected, suitable niche in the story. After watching nine different Christmas Carols though – eight of which are more or less straight-up retellings of the novel – it’s a nice change of pace to see this rendition. With the wraparound story, we don’t actually start the retelling of A Christmas Carol until a full 16 minutes into this 69-minute film. Once we actually get there, it’s nice to see some real “acting,” such as it is. Fred as Scrooge, for example. While it’s true he’s often a loud, obnoxious blowhard in the classic cartoons, he’s almost never pictured as being particularly stingy or cruel. In fact, the character’s biggest fault is that he goes to outrageous extremes in an attempt to provide a life far beyond his reach for his wife and daughter, hardly the actions of a traditional Scrooge. To compensate for the fact that Fred-as-Scrooge isn’t as obvious a comparison as, say, Scrooge McDuck, the movie takes its time to show you how being the star of the play has inflated his ego. Now they’re playing off an established character trait to turn his friends and family against him, making him a better fit for the part. The Fred-centric subplot runs throughout the film, whenever a scene of the “play” ends. He comes offstage bragging about the applause he’s gotten, frustrating Barney and Wilma to no end. It gets even worse when intermission hits and he realizes he left the presents he bought for Wilma and Pebbles at the store, then races out of the theatre to try to fetch them. He winds up having to break into the store, only to get busted by the police. Lucky for him, it’s his buddy Philo Quartz (Rene Lavert), who’s playing Christmas Future and needs to get him back to the theatre in time.

During Christmas Past, the actresses playing both the Ghost and Belle get sick and have to drop out, leaving Wilma to play the roles. Although we get the usual scenes of Scrooge in school, partying with Fezziwig (Barney again) and ultimately losing Belle, there’s an added subtext here. Wilma is legitimately pissed, and Fred – still focusing on his starring turn – can’t understand why.

Christmas Present is the only scene where the Bedrock Bug doesn’t cause havoc. Brian Cummings voices “Ernie,” the ghost who shows him the party at nephew Ned’s and the tender scene at the Cragit home. I know I made the same crack about the Flintstones celebrating Christmas in a time before Christ last year, but this time it’s really glaring. Barney delivers the old line about Tiny Tim hoping people remember “who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” It’s a beautiful line, of course, one of Dickens’s best, and a vital reminder of the true reason for the Christmas season. But still, Barney, how can people remember a man who hasn’t been born yet?

Ah well. Sacrifices must be made in the name of great cinema.

Christmas Yet to Come is traditionally hooded and silent, and shows Scrooge the traditional scenes. The big curve ball here doesn’t come until the play is actually over, when Fred goes to congratulate Philo on his performance only to find that Philo got struck down with the Bedrock Bug, and Christmas Future was played by none other than his old pal Dino, putting in the greatest canine performance since Rin-Tin-Tin.

In the end, Pebbles (voiced by Russi Taylor) steals Bamm-Bamm’s “God bless us, everyone” line when he gets stage fright. The play over, though, everybody quickly turns on Fred. Fred apologizes to Wilma and the others for real, and they eventually, begrudgingly forgive him. This is the only spot where the movie falls flat. Although we see Scrooge going through his traditional redemption cycle, there’s never anything that indicates any sort of redemption for Fred. It’s as if Scrooge’s life lessons somehow apply to Fred as well, and work their magic on him. Even if we’re to assume that’s the case, why is the lesson only hitting him now, on the night of the performance, instead of the weeks of rehearsal leading up to the production? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Speaking of the production, let’s hear it for the Bedrock Community Players, can we? Their stage values are absolutely phenomenal. Somehow they have a full-size reproduction of the city on their stage, along with living dinosaurs and real snow, to say nothing of how they somehow make Fred and the Ghosts turn transparent in full view of the audience. I don’t mind tell you, friends, I’ve done my share of community theatre, and there have been times when we have it rough enough just trying to get the fog machine to work. If we could make our actors intangible, people would be abandoning New Orleans to see our performances in droves.

This is not, by any stretch, one of the all-time great productions of A Christmas Carol, but if you’re a fan of the Flintstones – which I am – it’s a fun little departure from the norm and worth watching each Christmas season.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Month Day 4: Quincy Magoo in MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1962)

Mr Magoos Christmas Carol 1962Director: Abe Levitow

Writer: Barbara Chain, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Jim Backus, Morey Amsterdam, Jack Cassidy, Royal Dano, Paul Frees, Joan Gardener, John Hart, Jane Kean, Marie Matthews, Laura Olsher, Les Tremayne

Plot: Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is credited as being the first ever animated Christmas special, beating Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by two years. The special brought back Quincy Magoo, star of a series of theatrical shorts from the 40s and 50s, and led him into his own television series in 1964. In the framing device we learn that we’re actually watching a musical Broadway production of A Christmas Carol, one that evidently drops all references to Scrooge’s family, switches the order of Christmas Past and Christmas Present for some reason, and makes occasional references to Scrooge’s (Magoo’s) poor eyesight.

Thoughts: After three days of extremely traditional renditions of A Christmas Carol, I’m glad to be able to dip my toes into this less serious version. The opening scene, where Magoo – voiced, as always, by Jim Backus — sings about how happy he is to be returning to Broadway, sets the stage well. It’s silly, the music is catchy, and it lets you know that you’re watching a play-within-a-TV special (a conceit the Flintstones would borrow 30 years later).

Once that opening scene is done away with, though, we go into a version of the Dickens classic that is clearly adapted, but still very recognizable. There aren’t a bunch of side jokes about the theatrical production, just a few “act breaks” where we see the curtain closing. There’s no attempt to explain the translucent Marley (voiced by Royal Dano) or how such a thing would be accomplished on a live stage, to say nothing of the times when the time-travelling Scrooge appears on stage with his younger self, both of them clearly played by Magoo. The gags about Magoo’s lousy vision, a staple of most of his cartoons, are reduced to a minimum. And although much of the book is dismissed in the name of expediency, the stuff that remains is often verbatim Dickens, albeit performed by the cast of the cartoon. Backus isn’t really playing Scrooge here, he’s playing Mr. Magoo as Mr. Magoo, reading the lines of Ebenezer Scrooge, but not making a huge effort to portray a different character than he usually does in the animated series.

The decision to jump straight to Christmas Present (Les Tremayne) is baffling. Why in the world would you do the present before the past? It doesn’t particularly hurt the abbreviated version of the story, but it doesn’t help it either. The design of the character is slightly problematic as well – a red robe and long, white whiskers. No doubt most small children who watch this would confuse the character with Santa Claus. This may be deliberate, I suppose – with his compassion for Tiny Tim and the rest of the downtrodden impacted by Scrooge, Christmas Present is certainly the most Santa-like of the Spirits. Still, he’s not Santa Claus, and it doesn’t serve the special to pretend he is.

Christmas Past looks a bit better, more of the “living candle” depiction of the character that we’ve seen in some of the other renditions of the story. Of the three ghosts, Past is the one that has the most variance in his/her/its different incarnations in the media, with Dickens having a pretty vague description in the first place. That said, I find it interesting that a few versions have become common – the Candle and the Angel in particular.

This is going to sound strange, but the highlight of the special to me is actually the musical number that accompanies the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come segment. In many versions of the story, we see a gathering of people gloating over selling the deceased Scrooge’s possessions (the fact that the deceased in question is Scrooge is usually obvious to the audience, but Scrooge himself refuses to admit it yet). In this version, we get a snappy, creepy little song that feels like it should be in a Halloween special. And yes, I love that. Ghost stories, as you may know, used to be more traditionally associated with Christmas than Halloween; the reversal really only happened in the 20th century. I’m old school in this way. I love the juxtaposition of the frightening ghost story with the joy of Christmas as a way to really hammer home the lesson that Scrooge needs to learn. Dickens did it right, and the makers of this special did him right in this department.

This is a first in many ways – the first animated Christmas special, the first time we saw another fictional character “play” Scrooge, and as such it deserves a proud place in the annals of Christmas TV. And it’s a good special, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not even close to my favorite.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Robin Hood Week Day 2: Brian Bedford in Robin Hood (1973)

Robin Hood 1973Director: Wolfgang Reitherman

Writer: Larry Clemmons & Ken Anderson

Cast: Brian Bedford, Monica Evans, Phil Harris, Roger Miller, Peter Ustinov, Terry-Thomas, Andy Devine, Carole Shelley, Pat Buttram, George Lindsey, Ken Curtis, Billy Whitaker

Plot: When good King Richard (a lion) left for the crusades, he left his brother Prince John as ruler of England, despite the fact that they were both voiced by Peter Ustinov. The rooster minstrel Alan-A-Dale (Roger Miller) tells us the story of the crusader who fought against John – a clever fox named Robin Hood (Brian Bedford), who defended Sherwood Forest with his friend, a bear named Little John (Phil Harris). The two outlaws disguise themselves and rob a coach carrying Prince John and his right-hand snake, Sir Hiss (Terry-Thomas).

John’s flunky, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Pat Buttram) makes the rounds to collect the exorbitant taxes from the townsfolk, snatching up every cent Robin’s friend Friar Tuck (Andy Devine) has managed to smuggle to them, even snaring a rabbit child’s birthday present of a single coin. As he leaves, Robin arrives in disguise and gives the boy a bow and arrow, along with one of his hats. The boy, Skippy (Billy Whitaker) leads his friends to play, but loses the bow in a palace courtyard. When he goes to retrieve it, he encounters Maid Marian (Monica Evans) and her friend Lady Cluck (Carole Shelley). The kids question Marian about her past relationship with Robin, and Skippy winds up playacting a “rescue” of Marian, culminating with her giving the unsuspecting boy a kiss.

Back in the forest, Robin is busy mooning over Marian himself when Friar Tuck brings him the news of an archery tournament, with the prize to include a kiss from Marian. Robin cannot help himself from entering the tournament, albeit disguised as a stork. He wins easily, but his disguise slips and he’s captured. Before the Sheriff can execute him, Little John forces the Prince to release him, and taking Marian with him, Robin and the others flee into the forest.

When Prince John learns how the people of Sherwood have begun to mock him, he triples the taxes and arrests anyone who can’t pay. The Sheriff tries to empty the church’s poorbox to line John’s coffers, sending Friar Tuck into a rage. He’s arrested and John sentences him to death in order to lure Robin Hood out of hiding. Disguising himself as one of the Sheriff’s Vulture henchmen, Robin sneaks into the palace late that night. Little John frees the Friar and the rest of their friends who have been arrested, while Robin sneaks off to steal the sacks of money in Prince John’s private quarters right under the sleeping prince’s nose. As he makes off with the last of it, Sir Hiss wakes up and alerts John (in a cartoonishly violent way). After a daring escape, Robin dives into the moat, followed by a shower of arrows, and Prince John believes him dead… but he pops up and chimes out “A pox on the phony king of England!” sending Prince John crying for his mommy.

Eventually, King Richard returns to England and pardons Robin and his men, placing John, Sir Hiss, and the Sheriff in irons, just in time for Robin and Marian’s wedding.

Thoughts: As with many people my age, this was the first version of Robin Hood I remember seeing, and in fact was the only version I was aware of for many years. In fact, even though Roger Miller’s Alan-A-Dale starts the movie by pointing out there are many versions of the Robin Hood and that this is, in fact, the version told by the animals, I remember being distinctly surprised when I got a little older and realized that Robin Hood was not, in fact, an original Disney character, and that what’s more, most versions of him were human and did not start anthropomorphic animals. Then I had to stop and look up what “anthropomorphic” meant, because I was like eight years old.

What’s more, this is the first time I watched this movie in years, and I’m catching a number of things I never would have noticed before. For example, the first scene with Robin Hood and Little John, after some cartoon antics escaping Prince John’s men, sees them engaging in a moralistic debate over the ethics of the whole “robbing the rich to give to the poor” angle. It’s a bit more thoughtful than one would expect from an early-70’s Disney movie, but it’s highly appropriate. In fact, there’s a lot of ethical moralizing in this movie. Whereas Errol Flynn (despite his loyalty) blamed Richard for leaving England in the hands of his brother to engage in the Crusades, Disney lightens it up a bit by making Richard the victim of the hypnotic Sir Hiss, who sent him off on what John calls a “silly crusade.”

The 70s were sort of a nebulous time for Disney. Walt was gone and, although it was still many years before the company’s second renaissance would begin with The Little Mermaid, it was also long before they would really hit the skids in the 80s. There’s a roughness to the quality of the films of the period, and while it now marks them indelibly as products of their time, it’s also the time in which I was introduced to Disney animation. I’ve got a soft spot for it. Even this film has a lot going for it in terms of animation and performance – the way Sir Hiss slithers his body underneath himself to simulate the elbows of a petulant teenager is a great image that gives you the perfect amount of character development. Brian Bedford and Phil Harris as Robin Hood and Little John remain the voices I hear when I think of the characters, and folk singer Roger Miller made for a fantastic bard.

Despite the animal players, the movie has lots of tiny moments that humanize the characters, such as Robin’s gift to the rabbit boy. As the kids leave, he gives the mother a sweet speech about keeping faith that Nottingham will return to glory. While Errol Flynn was loud and bombastic with his approach to rousing the townspeople, Brian Bedford’s Robin Hood is a quieter hero, one who sneaks in and out, going unnoticed until he’s discovered. Of course, once a disguise fails and he’s made, he’s just as likely to bring forth a spectacle as any other incarnation of the character. (The disguises, it’s worth pointing out, are only slightly above Bugs Bunny quality in the concealment department, but they usually work exceedingly well.)

The movie also sidesteps the usual beginning of the Robin/Marian relationship. In the Flynn movie, and in most other versions, the two are initially at odds, as he’s an outlaw and she’s a ward of the King and (technically) under the protection of the Prince. In this version, Marian loved Robin as a young girl and still does, eliminating the need for him to win her over and cutting right to the chase. I would imagine this is in deference to the cartoon nature of the film – while the scenes of Robin winning Marian over can work really well from an emotional standpoint, I can imagine in 1973 the animators thought a young audience would lose patience with such a thing.

Compared to the Errol Flynn film, the villains are far less menacing. Prince John is a spoiled mama’s boy with no air of danger about him whatsoever. Sir Hiss – a stand-in for Sir Guy of Ginsbourne – is a pompous, browbeaten serpent. The only thing about him that’s even remotely dangerous is his ability to hypnotize people, which he never even really uses to any serious effect once the story begins. (Dispatching Richard on the Crusades, the most important plot point to his hypnotism, happens before the film opens.) Only the Sheriff is an improvement in the villain department from The Adventures of Robin Hood, and that says more about the latter’s buffoonery than anything in favor of the Disney version. He’s less oafish and more dangerous than the other two, but still not the sort of villain that would give any kid trouble sleeping.

The biggest complaint I’ve got about the film is the ending. The final rescue at Prince John’s palace is fine, but Richard’s return to the throne and the arrest of the villains happens entirely off-camera. It’s not all that satisfying to cut from Robin’s escape, even as the prince pouts, to seeing them in chains with nothing in-between. Sure, these cartoons films are often short (at a crisp 83 minutes there’s little filler in this movie), but it certainly feels as though they could have given us just a bit more closure.

This isn’t the grand adventure of the Errol Flynn Robin Hood nor the attempt at an epic that the character would take later. It is, however, a grand and entertaining family version of the film with some sweet music, excellent voice performances, and mid-era Disney charm. It’s hard to say anything bad about that.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!