Tuesday, November 08, 2005

"Chicken Little" vs. films for the child in all of us

Duke Phillips: Why do you have to be so critical?
Jay Sherman: I'm a critic.
Duke: No, your job is to rate movies on a scale from "good" to "excellent".

I feel a lot like poor Jay Sherman, star of the short-lived animated TV series "The Critic," in trying to criticize "Chicken Little." After all, to paraphrase what John Prine said about Elvis, $40 million in box-office receipts in one weekend can't be wrong.

Well, I think it is. To sum it up briefly and move on, I didn't like "Chicken Little" for one very important reason: It wasn't funny. I don't ask for a lot from children's movies, but that's where I draw the line.

It does look great, but if this is Disney's attempt to catch up with the innovators at Pixar, they've got a lot more work to do.

I defy you to give me one original gag from "Chicken Little." I'll save you the effort: there weren't any. In its defense I also can't think of any blatant product placement either. It's just a mindless tale filled with stock characters that, thankfully, was over in about 75 minutes or so.

Lest I seem like a grumpy old man, which in many ways, I am, let me just say that I love children's movies. "Babe," with its timeless tale of the pig who wanted only to be a sheep dog, is as good in my mind as "The Godfather."

What I love about the best children's movies is the power of imagination, the sensation that for those 90 minutes or so you truly are somewhere else. It's a forgotten - and perhaps lost - art.

Though few people saw it when it hit theaters in 1999, Brad Bird's "The Iron Giant" is my favorite animated film. Bird, who worked on "The Simpsons" and would later create Pixar's behemoth "The Incredibles," has a sly wit that is mostly kept in check here.

It's simply the tale of a young boy in the 1950's who befriends the "Iron Giant," a robot who has fallen from the sky voiced by a then-unknown Vin Diesel. Whether as a heart-tugging tale of friendship or an allegory about cold-war paranoia, it works on all levels.

Hiyao Miyazaki has been called "the Disney of Japan," which I'm sure at the time was meant as a compliment. Disney the company, in fact, struck a deal with Miyazaki to dub his films with English-speaking stars. Their first, and still best, collaboration was the magical "Kiki's Delivery Service."

It features a young Kirsten Dunst as the voice of Kiki, a 13-year-old witch forced to make her way in the world in her mandatory year of independence. Kiki, for reasons that go blissfully unexplained, chooses to make her new home in a European seaside village, where she uses her shaky broom-flying skills to operate the titular "Delivery Service."

Though Miyazaki's style is sometimes lumped into the broad category of "anime," it truly is unique, more like a moving impressionist painting. And as Kiki and her wisecracking cat Jiji, voiced by a subdued Phil Hartman, move through it, they meet colorful characters who will stick in your mind a lot longer than annoying pig with a penchant for disco in "Chicken Little."

When Peter Jackson got geeked up enough to take on "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy I was fairly excited. And except for the 18-or-so endings of "Return of the King," they're great movies, but my favorite part still remains the first 30 minutes or so of "The Fellowship of the Ring" that takes place in the Shire, home of the lovable hobbits.

It made me flash back to the made-for-TV animated version of "The Hobbit," reviled by Tolkein enthusiasts everywhere but loved by, well, at least me. Directors Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. stripped Tolkein's tale of much its mythology and made it simply the story of the reluctant adventurer Bilbo Baggins, yanked from his life of comfort by Gandalf (voiced by the late John Huston) to help a band of dwarves recover their treasure from the dragon Smaug.

The best thing I can say about this oddity is that I was 7 years old when it came out, and I love it as much now as I did then. I learned to play the piano to its songs, and on some days still can't get "The Greatest Adventure" out of my head. Though it prompted some hipster at www.imdb.com to say "Tolkein would have cried," I laughed and learned a lot.

I'll close with some words in defense of Disney. It's all so easy to attack the 500-lb. gorilla, but I've loved many Disney films. One of my favorites was "Bedknobs and Broomsticks." Made by the same director, Robert Stephenson, it's essentially "Mary Poppins" retold with Angela Lansbury instead of Julie Andrews as a kind witch instead of a nanny.

With the aid of a magical bed, Lansbury and her three young charges rise to the defense of England during World War II, doing battle with corrupt booksellers, animated-lion royalty and, eventually, invading Germans. It's all tremendously silly, of course, but also a pioneering blend of live-action and animation. It was restored for DVD in 2001 to its original length of a whopping 139 minutes, and I guarantee it will hold the attention of children young and old until the very end.

Sadly, my all-time favorite Disney movie can not be purchased on DVD, because the company quietly retired it after a 40th-anniversary re-release on video in 1986. I'm talking about the much-maligned and very un-PC "Song of the South."

Released in 1946 as the first Disney movie starring professional actors, its Joel Chandler Harris' beloved Uncle Remus stories brought to life and used to help our young hero Johnny deal with the separation of his parents. At least that's what I thought it was as, my mother tells me, I was "dancing in the aisles" to "Zipa-Dee-Do-Dah" and falling in love with B'rers Rabbit and Bear.

To certain adults who lobbied to have Disney pull it from video shelves, it is also, undoubtedly, an unrealistic and atrocious portrait of the reconstruction era in the South, and Uncle Remus can be seen, I suppose, as a fool who simply excepts the Jim Crow status quo with a smile.

I never saw it that way. To my 7-ear-old eyes, Uncle Remus, played by James Baskett, was just a kind old man, who happened to be black, and told great stories. As every children's movie should.


Askinstoo said...
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