Monday, April 05, 2004

So I did nothing I planned to do this weekend. I did a lot of stuff I wasn't really interested in, and took care of some household chores. This is all peachy. The brother comes to town next weekend. That should be a virtual festival of fun.

At any rate, I had planned to go to the Phoenix Comic Convention which was being held in Glendale this weekend. Friday night, I realized teh convention only ran on Sunday, and on Saturday night I found out the convention only ran from 9-3, and it would take at least an hour to get there. That, and the web-site was pretty spotty as to what one could expect. So I just didn't go. I remember the comic conventions Austin had when I was a kid, where they rented a ballroom at the Holiday Inn and Comic Book John gave away comics and the Star Trek geeks showed up in full regalia... which is fine... but I just didn't have the energy for it today. I think one day I'll try the San Diego ComicCon, but until that time...

With little else to do (except for homework, which I am continuing to avoid), and realizing I had only left the house in search of burritos this weekend, I decided I wanted to see a movie. And there's a lot out. I could have seen the movie which has all the film geeks salivating (Spotless Mind), or the new horror/ thriller (Dawn of the Dead), or even a white-trash remake of a white-trash classic (Walking Tall). No, not me. I decided I was going to see Disney's final 2-D animated film "Home on the Range", starring the voices of Rosanne Barr and Judi Dench.

Whatever the trailers would leave you to believe, Disney's final foray into traditionally animated splendor was a formulaic, nigh-unwatchable reminder of why Roy Disney would like to see Eisner's head on a pike. In a scene which just SHOULD NOT happen after a Disney movie, while walking out of the theater, Jamie mentioned that about five to ten minutes into the movie, she had an overwhelming desire to leave. She said she just couldn't take it anymore. And I knew EXACLTY what she was talking about. (Keep in mind, Jamie usually forgives a lot in an animated feature).

I think it does say something for the rest of the movie that follows the initial, horrendous opening sequence, that we stuck it out, and actually laughed a bit in the last half of the movie.

Home on the Range follows the adventure of three cows who might lose their supposedly vegan farm due to unpaid loans, and so the cows go off to catch a cattle rustler for the posted bounty (the sum of which is exactly what is owed to the bank). After many challenges, they catch the rustler and the farm is saved. Hurray.

Now, no one is complaining that the children's cartoon had a happy ending. Being cynical about happy endings in a Disney movie is more than a little redundant, and a little disingenuous. The problems go beyond the typically harmless script, and resonate more from the weird Modern Quirks of Disney films.

Since Aladdin, Disney has tried to do two things: 1) cast voice talent who can be recognized as stars 2) quick cut to match the "wacky" name voice talent. Now, this worked in Aladdin because 1) the star was Robin Williams, and not, say... Roseanne Barr, who was top of the A-List when he recorded Aladdin, and 2) William's rapid-fire delivery REQUIRED the quick cutting in order to match his reportedly unscripted comedic freestyling. Now the quick cutting ALSO worked because it went against the grain of the rest of the movie and was very much a magical genie breaking the fourth wall.

Ever since Aladdin, the Modern Quirks of Disney Films have assailed audiences. We've all suffered through name actor after name actor hamming it up. Which... come on... was never necessary for a successful Disney film. Nobody wondered why Mickey Rooney didn't voice Bambi when that film was released.

The insertion, post-Genie, of non-stop wisecracks voiced by big name talent (the Eddie-Murphy dragon in Mulan, anyone?)has also led to the continuation of the Genie's fourth-wall breaking talent. Today, we are left with cows in 19th century America referring to other barn-yard animals as "the frozen food section." Yeah, nobody laughed in the theater, either.

The animation on this film was good, if not exceptional, and I would even say the music was passable, sung by some big-name country stars. The tunes were very much by Alan Menken. The film's songs were extraneous, and, frankly, didn't move the story too much (except for one cute Yodel, which made me miss Don Walser). Also, the songs didn't quite screech the movie to a halt the way they did when Pocahontas shook the rafters with her Broadway ready voice, or, even the half-assed songs from Mulan (although those movies look to be twice as expensive and certainly were both much more visually impressive).

Simply put, the movie has an almost jarring uneven-ness to it, exemplified by a patch toward the end which almost seemed to indicate that we had lost some vital character development points on the cutting room floor (you know, those little quirks and lessons we learn about characters which seem so extraneous at the time...). One cannot shake the feeling the executives at Disney were in this movie up their eyeballs. Further examples of Modern Quirks for a Disney Movie:

1) When Roseanne Barr cow makes an entrance... the wailing metal guitar to show she not only will not fit in, she's BRASSY

2) Baby animals that say "awesome" in a stretched out way kids never really do... like "awwwwesome!"

3) Lots of Kung-Fu. I'm not sure why the farm animal movie had so much Kung-Fu, but it did. The horse was constantly (and some might say, annoyingly) breaking out into karate stances intended to be cute. Ultimately and incongruously, one of the cows pulls a sort of Matrix at the end.

4) Farm animals saying things like "this town rocks!" while sort of shoving their fist in the air.

Kids, it's the effect we call Poochie-ization. And I think you know what I'm talking about. Just imagine Cinderella with EXTREME mice skateboarding all over the castle, or Snow White with the EXTREME dwarf. Something is up at Disney, and I think it's called Lowest-Common Denominator.

That said, one of the great things about modern Disney movies is that writers, artists and sound technicians get bored. I spoke with one Disney artist who spent 6 months on a 12 second sequence in Mulan that I had to admit to him I didn't remember. 6 months of looking at the same 12 seconds of footage will drive you insane, and this has led to some great moments, from a panti-less Jessica Rabbit, to the Little Mermaid's Priest getting excited to see her, to Aladdin suggesting Jasmine take off her clothes (I can confirm having seen and/ or heard all of these).

This movie had at least two key moments, and a few more I wish I could now remember, in which inspired genius was allowed to shine ever so briefly. 1) in a barnyard scene where the animals are kind of dancing, the duck is reportedly doing "the Elaine dance". I will admit, the duck's dance only pinged on my radar as "what is the duck doing?" Jamie was the one who was able to identify the actual dance. 2) One of the characters, Rico, is able to spout the line "Is this how Rico ends?" just before getting his comeuppance. I was rolling. Nobody else even chuckled. (I just remembered one more... there's a new age cow, see... and, anyway, the pig mentions how she is going to make all of them "winners". I thought it was really funny in a Tony Robbins sort of way).

All in all, "Home on the Range" is an indication of the strife going on within the studio gates at Disney. It is not often a company abandons that which made them great to begin with, and this movie leaves little mystery as to why Roy Disney is heartbroken to see his family legacy being gutted. I can only imagine what it must be like to know Uncle Walt left you with the company, and then seeing the company turning to countless hours of "The Bachelor" and neglecting the animated tradition, while whoring the past in dozens of straight-to-video knock-offs of the movies which the company once held dear. When Disney decided a new feature would be released each summer, and cheap video sequels were acceptable, one could tell that it had gone beyond a profit model and had moved into plundering (Disney once had strict rules and regulations protecting each film as a property, which the video market and "sequel" franchise has fairly much followed the letter of the law while stomping on the spirit.).

All the more painful for Roy, after suffering through the doldrums of the post-60's animation era, Disney re-conquered family entertainment with The Little Mermaid and set a new mark for what was possible in an animated feature, going well beyond just the technical (do not forget Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture). As a last gasp of the traditional animation department, Home on the Range feels less like a movie, and more like a series of safe business decisions strung together in order to pick up rentals and video sales.

At some point Eisner will either retire, be let go, or drop dead in the Disney offices. At this point, new leadership will take over. And one has a hard time imagining new leadership who can't remember why Disney was special to them as a child. Not because they grossed the most, or were fastest at turning out straight-to-video sequels... but because Disney films used to be an event. Since November alone we've witnessed the release of two Disney animated features. I bet dollars to doughnuts, you're hard-pressed to name the non-cow related film.

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