From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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The Great Mouse Detective vs The Secret Of NIMH

Recently, I fell under the spell of nostalgia and wound up with an overwhelming urge to watch anthropomorphic rodent movies. And while I’ve yet to watch Watership Down, I did take in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective and Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH.

Here’s what I saw.

The Great Mouse Detective opens with a crime

Kindly toy maker Hiram Faversham gets kidnapped by snarling peg-legged bat Fidget, leaving a daughter, Olivia, abandoned and forced to fend for herself. She meets up with David Q. Dawson, a mouse recently returned to London from Afghanistan, and the two go forth in search of Basil of Baker Street, the Great Mouse Detective. Basil takes the case when it turns out that Fidget is the henchman of Basil’s arch-nemesis, the evil Ratigan.

Ratigan is a criminal mastermind who kills anyone who brings up his rat heritage. He’s somewhat scary, but there’s something a touch unpleasant about having a self-hating “ethnic” villain in anything set remotely near the Victorian era. The Great Mouse Detective not only gives us this, but writes a song around it:

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Saturday Morning Cartoon: 9

Recently a trailer was released for a strange CGI film simply called 9, directed by Shane Acker and co-produced by an up-and-comer named Tim Burton. Appropriately scheduled for release on 9-9-09, the film has an impressive cast that includes Elijah Wood as the title character, as well as stars Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, and more as a host of other numbers.

The film centers on a ragtag group of rag dolls (characters reminiscent of the creatures in the game Little Big Planet on the Playstation 3) living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland populated with mechanical monstrosities that threaten their survival. Some may not be aware that this feature film is an expansion/adaptation of an 11-minute short film of the same name, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005. It’s unknown how closely the longer film ties into the original short, but it presents an excellent glimpse of the eerie world of 9 and his people, and stands as a satisfying and haunting film on its own.

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An Anime Gem

I imagine that most people have heard of Hayao Miyazaki by now, if not by name than by familiarity with his work. This brilliant director and animator has brought us some of the finest animated films ever made, such as Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle, which have both seen widespread theatrical release in the United States along with the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away.

While Studio Ghibli may not have the popularity and recognition of Disney or Pixar, the US is lucky enough to finally have most of its catalog available on DVD, with a few minor exceptions–most notably Isao Takahata’s quiet Only Yesterday. Astonishingly, many American kids now wish that Totoro was their neighbor, people’s hearts break every time they see Grave of the Fireflies, and we can even watch films about raccoon-like creatures with magical testicles. The Museum of Modern Art and the New York International Children’s Film Festival have prominently featured Ghibli’s work in the past, elevating their profile in the public.

And yet, there are some rare gems that may never make it to our Western shores, without the aid of bootleg DVDs and, of course, online video. One of these is a music video titled On Your Mark, scripted and animated by Miyazaki and set to music by Japanese pop stars Chage & Aska. It’s both touching and confusing, following two men (modeled after the singers) who try to rescue a winged girl from the military in a dystopian future. The narrative is non-linear and branching, open to some interpretation. And while the lyrics are as nonsensical as most Japanese songs, the melody and animation are beautiful. I can never watch this thing enough, and now I hope you can enjoy it too.

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Star Wars Holiday Special: The Good Parts Version

Since The Star Wars Holiday Special recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary (holy crap, it’s almost as old as me!), it might be worth revisiting it. I’d like to say that it isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests, but it really is. The one time I screened this as a “special treat” at my university’s science fiction club, I was nearly lynched. I have never lived that down, and I’m certainly not going to risk a repeat by recommending that anyone force themselves to sit through the ninety minutes of torture. Look, it’s so bad that George Lucas barely admits that it exists. If it had any merit at all, he would have put out a special edition by now that might, just might, have been an improvement on the original. Adding Jar Jar Binks to it couldn’t make it any worse.

But okay, now you’re tempted, right? If you dare to track down a bootleg copy, which isn’t all that hard to find on the cheap, you might want to try watching it with some MST3K-style commentary, via the folks at Rifftracks. $3.99 is a small price to pay for your sanity. You should also keep a sizeable supply of alcohol handy. No drinking games for this one–just keep pouring. At the end of the night, you might be as blitzed as Carrie Fisher was during her appearance on the show. No promises.

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Life Is Not That Wonderful

Another Christmastime movie that is often parodied or looted from for television episodes is Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Though not always limited to Christmas episodes, this movie has provided many a writing team with an easy script and many actors the chance to either tug our heartstrings or make us wet ourselves laughing.

Visit Fantasy magazine for clips and full episodes from Doctor Who, Smallville, Married with Children, Moonlighting and more.

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Christmas Carols

We’ve gathered together episodes, trailers and clips of television shows that rip-off adapt Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  We were able to find episodes of The Real Ghostbusters, Back to the Future: The Animated Series, Smallville, Rosanne and more, plus clips and trailers from A Muppet Christmas Carol, A Diva’s Christmas Carol, and Barbie in a Christmas Carol.  Oh yes.

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Sofa Sunday: Young Hercules

Many years ago, TV producers Robert Tapert and Sam Raimi looked at each other and said, “You know what would make an awesome TV series? Hercules! Mythology and adventure and the love of a cousin for his shorter, tow-headed cousin. It’ll be awesome!”

Okay, so maybe it didn’t go quite like that. There were some made-for-TV movies, first. Then, in 1995, we got to see Kevin Sorbo prancing around New Zealand Greece with his shirt off. Yes, that got old fast, but nevermind! That’s only the first part of the story.

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was actually a pretty popular show and rekindled people’s interest in that old story about one of the more famous semi-divine sons of Zeus. A few years later Disney released their animated Hercules — perhaps not solely because of the show, but the timing always struck me as synchronicitous.

Then, in September 1998, a show premiered during the after-school viewing block aimed at tweens and young teens chronicling the life and times of Hercules when he was in school with his chums. What was this show called? Young Hercules? Hercules: The Animated Series?

The answer: both. because it was actually two shows. One based on the Disney movie, the other based on the Raimi/Tapert incarnation.

Premise Fight!!

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Saturday Morning Cartoon: Wallace & Gromit

While most people are anxiously looking forward to this year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special, I am much more excited at another British holiday gift, a new Wallace & Gromit special titled A Matter of Loaf and Death.

Are you done groaning at the pun? Okay, then. I expect more Americans are at least aware of this comedy duo thanks to their modestly performing feature film, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, but a summary for the uninitiated: Wallace is a hapless inventor who often finds himself in trouble because of his bizarre inventions and wide-eyed obliviousness, and Gromit is his clever dog who usually saves the day. There, you’re all caught up.

W&G are creations of Aardman Animations and Nick Park, who might be known to those of a certain age for his short film Creature Comforts, which ran frequently on Nickelodeon. He also directed the feature film Chicken Run, which like the W&G films was done entirely using the dying art of stop-motion animation (aka Claymation). It’s a tedious and meticulous process shooting a film one frame at a time (just think—there are 24 frames in a single second of footage!), and carefully manipulating tiny plasticine figures and props. But I think the effort shows in the final product; I was amazed when I saw Were-Rabbit in theaters and realized I could see the fingerprints of the animators in the clay. This might seem rough and distracting to some, but it’s a charming human touch that is lacking from CGI productions such as Flushed Away, also from Aardman. Though that film shares a singular style with W&G, it seems cleaner and somehow more cartoony, as bland as your average Dreamworks animated film (which in fact co-produced and released the film). Though it’s probably telling that Flushed Away was more successful than Were-Rabbit, perhaps because of the star power of Hugh Jackman’s voice.

W&G also occupy an SF-nal world, populated by rockets, robots, and mechanical trousers. The first special, A Grand Day Out (1989), takes the pair to the moon in search of cheese–not hard SF by a longshot, but it’s fun and imaginative. This was followed by two Academy-Award winning specials, The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995); ten vignettes collected as Cracking Contraptions (2002); and of course, the theatrical film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005). All of the short films have been collected in a single DVD set which is well worth the small price you’ll pay for it. While you wait for your order to arrive, and for the new special to premiere on December 25th and find its way to the US, check out the show that started it all, A Grand Day Out

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Saturday Morning Cartoon: Astro Boy

A little while ago a teaser trailer was released for Astro Boy, a 3D CG-animated theatrical film from Imagi Animation Studios (who also created the latest TMNT movie). The film has a star-studded cast, including Freddie Highmore as Astro, Nicholas Cage as his creator, Dr. Tenma, and Kristin Bell, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane, and others. The film is scheduled for release next year, when presumably, you’ll believe a boy can fly (and shoot rockets from his shiny metal ass).

This isn’t the first theatrical outing for Astro Boy, nor is it the first time he’s been animated. To back up for a moment, Astro Boy was a Japanese comic, or manga, created by Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989), who many consider the father of anime, essentially the Japanese equivalent of Walt Disney. The original manga serial of Tetsuwan Atom (“The Mighty Atom”) ran from 1952 to 1968, and spawned a highly popular anime series in 1963. This is most notable because it was not only the first anime, but it was the first anime to hit the US shores, as Astro Boy; NBC ran 104 of the 193-produced black-and-white episodes, which have been released by The Right Stuf on DVD. Take a look at the opening of this historic and influential animation

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Don’t Feed the Plants

The version of Little Shop of Horrors that most people are probably familiar with is the 1986 film directed by Frank Oz, starring Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene. But unless you’re one of the lucky few who snagged the DVD release of the movie in 1998 before Warner Bros recalled it, you may never have seen the original filmed ending, which is closer to the plot of the Menken and Ashman stage musical.