Sunday, September 15, 2013
Directed by Steve Cosson. Written by Anne Washburn. Music by Michael Friedman. At Playwrights Horizons at 416 West 42nd Street, New York. For tickets and more information, visit playwrightshorizons.org. Reviewed September 5, 2013 (preview performance).
As long as there have been people, there have been stories, and stories retold time and time again are retold in different ways by different people. Stories are modified in different ways for different reasons when they are retold; be it a fairy tale that had its more violent elements removed and then was later made into a Disney musical, or a simple anecdote about a funny thing that happened that may not exactly be remembered the way it originally happened - or even the way it was last told. For the thing that seems to affect stories and the way they are told most is not just where and when they are being told, but by who. The human memory is a faulty and often incorrect beast, and if the game of "telephone" has taught us anything, stories told to others aloud often end up mangled in the retelling purple monkey dishwasher. (I once had a friend retell the events of an episode of The Simpsons that sounded absolutely foreign to me until I realized he was actually remembering an episode of Dexter's Laboratory.)
But what are the stories of our times that will endure for future civilizations to tell, retell, and often mistell? What is our modern-day equivalent of the Bible or Shakespeare? For better or for worse, what has permeated the mindset of the modern American the most due to its omnipresence and inescapability is what is generally considered one of our relatively lower forms of culture, the television sitcom - perhaps most inescabably of all, The Simpsons. As author Chris Turner put it in his 2005 discussion of how The Simpsons affected modern pop culture and vice versa, Planet Simpson, "If there is a common cultural currency, it's got Homer Simpson's picture on it." Most likely, the longest-running sitcom in television history has had more written about it than any other series in history, from scholarly essays to an entire Internet's worth of websites devoted to it. (Remember the days before broadband and YouTube when Simpsons .wavs were the highest-quality Internet entertainment available?) Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, which opens tonight for a limited Off-Broadway run, combines and definitely proves the longevity of both the storytelling process (imperfect as it may be) and The Simpsons as a modern cultural touchstone - and brings up a number of interesting talking points on the ties that bind humankind for better or worse in the process.
The play opens on a group of people, seated around a campfire, some with guns at the ready to fire at some unseen threat. A man named Matt (Matthew Maher - all of the characters are named after the actors who play them) passes the time by regaling the group with the story of a Simpsons episode as best as he can remember it. To be specific, "Cape Feare", the now-classic episode (directed by Rich Moore long before Wreck-It Ralph) in which the family joins the Witness Protection Program after recurring villain Sideshow Bob is released from prison and makes clear his desire to murder Bart as revenge for his capture in two previous episodes. Not surprisingly, the retelling is rife with forgotten lines, skipping back and forth in the actual series of events, and a lot of derailments into discussions of other pop culture targets being satirized in the original episode - including, of course, Cape Fear (both the original and the remake). Eventually, another man named Gibson (Gibson Frazier) wanders onto the campsite. After the group realize that Gibson is not a threat, the conversation turns to where the members of the group came from and who they left behind, which eventually reveals why the group is here and why they were ready to shoot at whoever came by: in this unspecified portion of the (presumably Northeastern given the geography mentioned) United States at this unspecified time (stated in the program simply as "Near. Soon."), an explosion at a nuclear power plant has caused a nationwide blackout, leaving those who survived the disasters that ensued to fend for themselves.
The second act takes place seven years afterward, as this group has become a repertory theater company who performs Simpsons episodes alongside "commercials" which are not so much trying to sell things as they are helping the audience to remember the simple luxuries they no longer have, such as houses, showers, and Diet Coke. The final act takes place 75 years after the second; the real history of the apocalypse has conflagrated with the fiction of The Simpsons. "Cape Feare" is no longer the story of the Simpson family moving to a houseboat to avoid the murderous Sideshow Bob but is now a comically melodramatic musical about the Simpson family, the only known survivors of the power plant explosion that destroyed Springfield, who set out on a houseboat to find a new life - unaware that the villainous Mr. Burns, who was mutated by the explosion, is still alive and has set out with his henchmen Itchy and Scratchy to murder the Simpson family for some unspecified reason.
In both the first and second acts, Maher does a fantastic job as at first the storyteller and later the actor portraying Homer. His imitations of the characters are amusing as his delivery - the way he describes various visual gags from the original show are just as funny as the genuine article. (The fact that he both resembles Homer and shares a first name both in reality and fiction with Simpsons creator Matt Groening is a pleasant coincidence.) However, I was surprised that what I loved most about Mr. Burns was not the Simpsons references but the small talk that helps flesh out this unusual universe. Playwright Anne Washburn did a wonderful job with the dialogue, which both sounded genuine and was in itself an interesting gateway to this dystopia, especially in the second act. A lot of the dialogue in the second act seemed as if it was self-satirizing the difficulties of putting a play together, as the repertory company discusses the unusual circumstances of their time such as having to deal with other similar traveling companies each of which has the exclusive rights to perform their own set of Simpsons episodes, punching up episodes they have the rights to they feel are weak with new dialogue and jokes, and taking suggestions from the audience for new lines which leads to even stranger circumstances like an audience member demanding compensation for a line about magic space crystals he didn't actually write and members of the company believing they were responsible for coming up with lines that were actually in the show to begin with.
One of the most interesting things about the show to me was how things referenced in each of the various acts kept popping up in the succeeding acts. A story of a person who was at the nuclear power plant during the actual explosion - a story which itself may not have actually happened - eventually becomes the prologue to the third act's play-within-a-play. In its own Chekhovian way, a joke the entire group racks their brains to remember the exact wording of becomes the witty rejoinder in the clichéd battle scene that serves as the climax to that very same play. And some much larger recurring themes weave their way through all three acts and add to the general idea of the transformation through retelling by faulty memories: The character for whom the play is named comes up in each act; in the first he is confused with Sideshow Bob, in the second Gibson suggests replacing Sideshow Bob with Mr. Burns because he prefers playing Mr. Burns and their company has very few Mr. Burns episodes in their reprotire, in the third, Mr. Burns has indeed supplanted Sideshow Bob as the villain of the story - whether by Gibson's doing, human memory again taking its toll on Bob, or a combination of the two is left to the imagination of the audience. (In a similar vein, the collective conciousness has given Troy McClure the characteristics of anchorman Kent Brockman; McClure's catchphrase "You may remember me" becomes the dying plea of a victim unable to escape the destruction who literally wants to be remembered instead of a D-list actor's constant attempt to remind viewers he once had a career.)
The other recurring theme of endurance and remembrance (or misremembrance) of disposable culture is pop music. The second act features an incredibly funny montage of pop songs mashed together as part of the reperatory company's nostalgic repertoire; the musical that comprises the third act quotes liberally from the pieces that have apparently seeped into the mindset of the near-future - The Simpsons theme song transforms into that of The Flintstones, the lyrics to Britney Spears's Toxic are taken literally as Mr. Burns describes his deadly touch resulting from his nuclear run-in. Appropriately given its importance in "Cape Feare" itself, Gilbert and Sullivan also plays a recurring role. (One of my favorite touches was that the music played before the show began were various covers of pop songs - many of which appeared in the show itself - done in styles or genres different from those in which they were actually recorded [Beyoncé as country, Lady Gaga as a classical string number, Eye of the Tiger as a lounge act], which was an interesting example of the sort of cultural transformation, intentional or not, that is a theme of the play).
Mr. Burns is a play that, much like Professor Frink, both makes you laugh and makes you think. The themes brought up about human nature are interesting ones (at least they seem to be to me - I very well could just be using buzzwords like "omnipresence" and "Chekhovian" that dumb people use to sound important, but I hope I'm not). Something Matt says during the first act seems to sum up a theme of the play as a whole: "People are not competent." It was human incompetence that led to the nuclear apocalypse, and it was a different kind of human incompetence that causes The Simpsons to mutate into the only surviving record of what happened in said apocalypse. Much like The Simpsons itself, Mr. Burns is both pessimistic and optimistic, if that's somehow possible: even though it may take more than 22 minutes for us to do so, humankind will eventually find a solution to all its problems, even if it's not a perfect one, and succeed despite incompetence. "Pull a Homer", if you will.
The second act closes with an implication that indeed not all the problems are solved by the show's halfway point which might be jarring to some - a few people at the performance I attended actually laughed because of how out of left field it was. Also, the relatively goofier third act is entertaining in its own right but somewhat pales to the world-building moments of the first two, which seems to show the difficulty of making a realistic, down-to-earth play that's also completely off-the-wall and teeming with giant robots (Note: there are no giant robots in this play). Mr. Burns may not be perfect, but it's perfectly cromulent. Even with its few flaws, Mr. Burns is an incredibly fun, interesting, and thought-provoking play. I've been trying my hardest not to make any Simpsons references in this review (despite that, a ton of them still somehow snuck their way in. Damn TV, you've ruined my imagination!), but hopefully you'll forgive me making the most obvious one of all: Mr. Burns is exxxxcellent. I heartily endorse this event or product with a review of SCREW FLANDERS...I mean HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Thursday, August 15, 2013
BEWARE THE SPOILERINATOR! This post contains SPOILERS. Read this post at your own risk (you may want to skip the paragraph which begins "Perhaps one of the most surprising...") or don't read it at all until you watch yourself if you want to enjoy Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel without knowing what happens in advance!
During the last days of Michael Eisner's reign at Disney, as recounted in James B. Stewart's Disneywar, the questionable track record of the ABC network (an Eisner acquisition) and a hostile takeover attempt by Comcast at the company's lowest point led many to believe that Disney had lost its way; from the beginning, Disney's strength has always been original content and creating memorable stories and characters, not controlling the means of distributing them. There has been one exception to this rule in the past decade, however: Disney Channel, which evolved from a premium network into a basic cable mainstay and for the most part now both defines and cross-promotes the Disney brand to a young audience daily. Eisner's successor Bob Iger seems aware that content - and cross-promotion - has always been king at Disney, adding to the vast library of characters to plaster everywhere for better or worse with the acquisition of character houses that are just as large, most notably Marvel Comics in 2008. Unlike rival DC, whose parent company Time Warner often seems to act as if characters other than Superman or Batman don't exist, Marvel has made quite a name for themselves under the white gloves of the Mouse. The "first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe", which spotlighted well-known characters from the Marvel catalog (save for Spider-Man and the X-Men, whose film rights belong to other studios) and made previously second-tier heroes such as Iron Man into household names, began before the Disney acquisition but culminated with both Marvel and Disney reaping the benefits of 2012's The Avengers, teaming up the heroes introduced in the previous Marvel films and becoming the only movie in history not directed by James Cameron to gross over $1 billion worldwide.
Contrary to the fears of those who only-half-jokingly expected the likes of Spider-Mouse or Iron Goof, Disney has thankfully ruled Marvel as a separate fiefdom for the most part. That changes tomorrow, as the Marvel characters are brought to a Disney-owned universe for the first time in perhaps the biggest sort of cross-promotion the FCC will legally allow in an hour-long special episode of one of Disney Channel's most successful animated series (and a frequent subject of this blog), Phineas and Ferb. Perhaps not surprisingly, there have been some naysayers fearing that this represents the worst of what the Marvel characters are able to do now that Disney has their grubby mouseprints on them, but those fears seem to be unfounded for two reasons. The first being that series creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh and their team (which for this episode included four writers, eight writer/storyboard artists, and four directors) were given strict supervision by Marvel, who inspected the episode and made sure the characters were being used in a manner that wasn't out-of-character and in a way that doesn't violate any pre-existing legal agreements the company has (it took a week for Marvel to figure out whether or not it was legally allowed for a character to say "Howard the Duck" in a throwaway gag, simply because no one had ever done it before). The second is because Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel is a ton of fun, which is to be expected from the franchise. Phineas and Ferb always seems to be at its best with its half-hour or hour-long special episodes, and this is up there among the most memorable.
An ordinary day in Danville is usually anything but, and this one is no different. Phineas, Ferb, and their friends are spending it in outer space, as children often do (at least if you're Phineas and Ferb). Dr. Doofenshmirtz is once again trying to take over the tri-state area in the most convoluted way possible, while Perry the Platypus is once again trying to stop him. Doof's failed invention bounces off of the boys's space headquarters, and the next thing you know, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, and the Incredible Hulk are knocking at the door, powerless as a result of the chain of events and hoping Phineas and Ferb can set things straight from the privacy of their underground Secret Hideout for Emergency Defense, or S.H.E.D. for short. (We probably have storyboard artist Josh Pruett, who goes by zombietardis on Twitter, to thank for the S.H.E.D., for whose logic-defying contruction Ferb seems to have borrowed from another well-known fictional Brit. The inspiration is right there in Pruett's username.) Meanwhile, some of the Marvel Universe's villains are envious of Doofenshmirtz being able to defeat the superheroes before they did. However, they soon realize that the inventor of such "evil" gadgets as the oatmeal-to-porridgeinator probably isn't the diabolical mastermind they originally thought him to be, and soon enough even Dr. Doofenshmirtz is part of the unlikely alliance that will hopefully ensure this team of actually competent supervillains doesn't take over the tri-state area before he does. And why is there a familiar-looking platypus flying around?
There's a lot to like about Mission Marvel, especially the interactions between the Phineas and Ferb characters and the Marvel menagerie. The heroes get their powers switched around (leading to an amusing discussion between Thor and Iron Man based on an actual discussion the staff had about what Thor's powers actually entail), one of the gang briefly gets the powers of one of the heroes (and they fit him surprisingly well), the professional-yet-goofy Major Monogram attempts to upstage the much more professional and less goofy Nick Fury, and familiar Ferb running gags end up discovering they have perfect counterparts in the Marvel Universe (M.O.D.O.K., meet Giant Floating Baby Head). I'm not familiar enough with the Marvel mythos to get all of the various references to superhero origins made in the special, but most viewers will probably get at least one of the references to the various previous media incarnations of these heroes, which run the gamut from the recent Avengers movie to the '70s Incredible Hulk TV show. Even the series's mainstay of musical interludes is integrated nicely; neither the heroes or villains sing (which depending on your point of view of the matter is either a good or a bad thing), but we get a goofy pop musical number about Doofenshmirtz's new evil entourage as he commands them to do a bunch of amusingly less-than-evil deeds and a number of rock songs for the various battle sequences. Both the fights and their musical accompaniment are played straight, which seems to be a testament to how the show's writers and head composer Danny Jacob are able to compose in so many genres as well as write action sequences as well as they do comic ones.
Perhaps one of the most surprising - and entertaining - elements of the special is a subplot that creates tension between two characters who are normally played for laughs. Phineas's older sister Candace, who is usually making herself (and everyone else around her) crazy in an attempt to get her brothers in trouble, is revealed to be a Marvel fangirl and thus takes it upon herself to eagerly assist the gang in their mission to recover the superheroes's powers. Unfortunately, as she is in all things, she is a little too eager, and Phineas gets frustrated with her causing more harm than good. Phineas is usually an eternally optimistic character, and it's shocking to see him displaying anger, especially towards his own sister. It's an interesting element to the plot which made me feel sorry for Candace, and leads to a musical number that showcases the voices of Ashley Tisdale and Alyson Stoner, who perform well together (especially given the fact they recorded their parts separately). The reason Stoner's Isabella laments alongside Candace - the fact that none of the female superheroes didn't show up - isn't really touched upon outside of the song; perhaps one of the few weaknesses of the special, but an incentive for the two of them to band together and prove that they can be just as much a part of the team as the boys are - even if it is by the same dumb luck that got Candace in trouble with Phineas in the first place. But then again, that's what she does best.
Mission Marvel may not hit all the marks that the feature-length Across the 2nd Dimension did, but that's a pretty hard accomplishment to top. However, what it does do it does well, and like most of Phineas and Ferb's extra-special romps, has fun with the characters while bringing good comedy, action, and emotion - all while managing to prove that incorporating an ancillary Disney universe is among the impossible accomplishments the boys are able to pull off. Didn't Disney make another big-name purchase last year? Yes, yes they did - and there's already a Phineas and Ferb special in the works to showcase it. Given its premise (a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead-style take on the original Star Wars where Phineas and Ferb's antics happen just off-screen during Episode IV) and their Marvel-ous Mission, it seems like it will be worth the wait.
Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel airs tomorrow night at 8pm Eastern on Disney Channel and Sunday, August 25 at 10am Eastern on Disney XD.
PHINEAS AND FERB ©Disney. Marvel characters and elements ©2013 Marvel. SUPER HEROES and SUPER VILLAINS are jointly-owned registered trademarks of Marvel Entertainment LLC and DC Comics, a Time Warner company. No ownership of these properties is intended or should be inferred.
Sunday, July 15, 2012
The Ace Attorney series of video games is one of those things that, like The Simpsons or Homestar Runner, is so bizarre that it's difficult to describe and even a mere description does not do its bizareness justice. On its surface, the series is basically an interactive mystery novel which follows a basic pattern of collecting evidence and then being asked to use said evidence to find increasingly more difficult contradictions in the testimony of a character to prove your client innocent. However, it's the setup and the personality of these characters that really set the series apart: courtroom battles are usually literally such, with the lawyers screaming "OBJECTION!" at the top of their lungs and anime-esque triumpant visuals and music when things get really intense; basically every person who isn't allied with the hero Phoenix Wright is either corrupt or possibly evil (with a few exceptions, most prominently the judge, who is an oblivious idiot), every single person always seems to be against Phoenix and the odds are never in his favor (which makes things all the more triumphant when he manages to save the day by turning things around at the last minute- the Japanese title for the series is "Turnabout Trial"), and dialogue is filled with bad puns and running gags such as the apparently important difference between a ladder and a stepladder.
I'm not familiar with the work of famous and prolific Japanese film director Takashi Miike (pronounced "mee-kay"), but his adaptation of Ace Attorney was introduced at New York City's Japan Society as being more of an Ace Attorney film than a Miike film. As an Ace Attorney fan, I can tell you that indeed seemed to be the case.
As the film begins, we see the juxtaposition between the two attorneys who play a role in the story: Phoenix Wright, a rookie defense attorney, fumbles around in a dinky court while the veteran prosecutor Miles Edgeworth is a press sensation. (The subtitles shown during this screening used the usually signifcant and/or punny English-language names of the characters). The audience- including myself- laughed out loud at the action on screen, in part because of the familiar details that are taken from the games during this introduction, including certain characters and actions.
The story of the film is taken from two interconnected cases from the first game in the series: Phoenix must solve the murder of his former boss, which is pinned on her younger sister (who becomes Phoenix's assistant, more or less). Soon afterwards, Edgeworth himself is accused of murder, and Phoenix soon discovers that not only the lives of most of the people he knows or meets in court, but all of the cases he's taken on, find root in an incident that occured 15 years ago. It's up to Phoenix to not only find his new friend and rival/frenemy innocent, but untangle the mystery of this mysterious case that lies at the center of all the recent events.
This is a difficult film for me to review, since I'm not sure how someone who isn't a fan of the series would react to it. I assume, however, they would enjoy it- it's a very goofy film (much as the series it's based on is). The characters are over-the-top both in visual appearance and behavior (one of Phoenix's old classmates in particular serves as comic relief multiple times), and the exaggerated courtroom antics are amusing enough- the audience seemed to be laughing not just in recognition of the familiar characters and events of the game, but how humorous the situations were in themselves. The film runs a little bit over two hours, but it doesn't feel that long. I've seen complaints in some reviews about the running time, and I will admit that the film does lull somewhere in the middle of the storyline in between the two cases. But that's a fault that lies in the source material as well- the evidence searching is nowhere near as fun as the courtroom situations. I was on the fence myself as to whether or not the film was worth recommending until a situation that I believe a number of players have said is the point they "got" the game itself as well: In desperation and with nowhere left to turn, Phoenix decides to interrogate a parrot. And somehow, it actually works. If you've never played the games before and those last two sentences and/or imagining what events led to such a situation and how it might play out brought a smile to your face, you'll probably enjoy this movie.
Despite the few OBJECTIONs I had, the film as a whole is entertaining enough to recommend. After all, you can't go wrong with a universe where a not-guilty verdict results in confetti flying out of nowhere, part of solving a case involves debunking the local equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster, and a policeman is inexplicably followed around by a costumed mascot called the Blue Badger. The film is quite faithful to the game (with the exception of one character being changed from a corrupt business executive to a tabloid reporter, a change which doesn't really hurt the narrative and in some ways may actually help the story that's being told in the film), and there are some intriguing additions that help flesh out some of the oddities of the supporting characters as well as some self-aware jokes regarding the odder parts of the game universe which only add to the overall feeling of cartoonish ludicrousness.
Ace Attorney seems to be the sort of film that cries to be seen with a group- I could easily imagine it becoming some sort of geeky midnight movie staple, a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show or, perhaps more appropriately given the video game theme, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (which this film rivals for my personal "Most Fun I've Had Being In a Film Audience" award). I don't have enough evidence to deliver a verdict as to whether or not Ace Attorney can be enjoyed in a smaller setting and/or without those in the know, but it seems entertaining enough that, despite its flaws, I can declare it not guilty. Review adjourned.
Viewed at the Japan Society, New York City, on July 15, 2012 as part of Japan Cuts/New York Asian Film Festival.
ACE ATTORNEY motion picture ©2012 CAPCOM/"Ace Attorney" Film Partners. PHOENIX WRIGHT, ACE ATTORNEY, and related marks are registered trademarks of Capcom Co., Ltd. No ownership intended or implied.
Friday, June 15, 2012
|Everything is not what it seems...oops, wrong Disney show.|
The preview episode, which aired tonight and is available as a free download from iTunes, sets the scene in the fictional burb and introduces our heroes (as it were), Dipper (voice of Jason Ritter) and Mabel (voice of Kristen Schaal)- who are as different as night and day, with Mabel being your average boy-obsessed teenage girl with a optimism level to the point of quirky airheadedness, and Dipper concerned that something may be hiding in the Mystery Shack, the tourist trap run by their great-uncle (or "grunkle") Stan (voice of Alex Hirsch, who also created the series inspired by his own childhood growing up with his sister and his own experiences in Oregon and the curiosities he imagined a town named Boring that struck him funny might hold that its name was meant to disguise).
Dipper stumbles upon a book telling of the secrets of Gravity Falls which seems to prove him right...even more so when Mabel falls for a mysterious newcomer who seems to fit the book's definition of the walking undead. There's more to him than meets the eye, all right- but it's not what you expect. The revelation of Mabel's crush's true identity is both unexpected and hilarious, calls back to what appears to be a throwaway joke Chekov's Gun-style, and is such a highlight of the first episode that I'm not going to give it away.
Besides the bizarre comedy that thankfully never gets in the way of the creation of a mystery storyline that will most likely serve as a common thread between the episodes, the highlights as far as characters go are Mabel, who is a perfect match for Schaal's childlike voice and whose optimism in the defiance of pure insanity is in itself comically insane, and Hirsch's two characters, the enigmatic Soos, who serves as sort of a mentor to Dipper's quest to unravel the town's mysteries and seems to be smarter than his dumb-guy persona would lead you to believe, and Grunkle Stan, who seems a cross between the showmanship of P.T. Barnum and the unabashed greed of SpongeBob's Mr. Krabs, bilking tourists out of their money for a chance to see pointless artifacts. In one of the funniest throwaway gags, Stan shows off Rock That Looks Like A Face Rock, only to be greeted with the questions of confused tourists that wonder whether it also looks like a rock and whether or not it actually is a face. (Hirsch, who is not surprisingly a Cartoon Network vet, is no stranger to voice acting- he also voices Clamantha, by far the funniest character on Disney's other current animated series, the subpar Fish Hooks.)
Gravity Falls feels a lot like the sort of series Cartoon Network would air that the fans would gush over but be cancelled before its time. Yet at the same time it still seems to have the "heart" of Disney, if that's possible. Hopefully their marketing clout and their paring of the series with their breakaway hit Phineas and Ferb (which seems like a good companion for it) will make sure that we get to explore the comical mysteries of Gravity Falls for a while to come. With this and future projects such as the feature Wreck-It Ralph, Disney has somehow been able to create revolutionary projects that somehow still feel like they belong in the Disney family. Perhaps how it really happened it yet another mystery for Dipper- and animation fans- to discover. Or maybe it's just another scam by Grunkle Stan. Hard to tell.
Gravity Falls makes its official debut with a rerun of this preview episode plus a new episode on June 29 starting at 9pm Eastern/Pacific on Disney Channel.
GRAVITY FALLS ©2012 Disney. No ownership intended or implied.
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
So sue me, I liked The Lorax. Well, most of it anyway. It was cute, it was entertaining, it was funny, the songs were catchy, there were some funny jokes (even if a few of them were along the lines of, say, fish singing the Mission Impossible theme- which I'll admit I laughed at- and Ed Helms imitating the Swedish Chef). The bizarre questions that come when you analyze what it took to extend the story to feature-length (If the Lorax was magic, why didn't he just use his magic to stop the Once-ler? I understand him and the animals taking over the Once-ler's house in a sort of "Occupy Thneed" protesty thing, but did they actually like living there more instead of the forest? Did Betty White really need another paycheck?) are overshadowed by the enjoyable story of environmentalism vs. commercialism wrapped within a parallel, very similar story of environmentalism vs. commercialism.
Until the last act of the film when the Lorax's story is finished and the movie somehow becomes a chase scene involving Ted and Audrey (ha ha, I see what you did there, movie) protecting the last truffula tree from the evil air businessman or something.
I understand you have to pad a story of such short length to get it to a certain longer length. Hell, even Chuck Jones had to put a comic action sequence in the middle of How the Grinch Stole Christmas to get it to 30 minutes minus commercials (and nowadays commercials minus the already-short short to the point where they have to rhyme "hoss" with "stunk"). But he didn't spend an entire reel doing it.
Chase sequence aside, it's a fun film and not as much a travesty to the source material as, say, The Cat in the Hat. Horton Hears A Who! remains the best feature based on a Seuss book, but this is a close second.
On my scale, I give it a Recommended. I think stars are subjective and pointless, but if I had to, I'd give it 2 and 4/5 out of 4 stars- one point has been knocked off the third star for that last-act chase.
(As an aside, one of the most amusing things in the film isn't intentionally amusing- or at least I don't think it is. The song the Once-ler sings about the greed and excess of his growing business at the expense of the forest, including a remark about PR people lying for his gain paired with a visual of the Lorax being thrown a thneed in surprise which becomes a "Lorax approved!" billboard photo op, could just as easily have been sung by the studio heads who approved, say, a "truffula-tree-friendly" Lorax that's "the sort of car the Lorax would drive." Not since WALL-E have I seen such commercialization of a film with an anti-commercial message- and this one is unintentionally aware of it! The irony's so thick you could cut down a truffula tree with it.)
THE LORAX Motion Picture ©2012 Universal Pictures. THE LORAX book and characters ©1971, 2012 Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. No ownership intended or implied. Photography: Universal Pictures - Associated Press.
Friday, March 2, 2012
(The reason the video is blurry is because it's was meant to be viewed at the E3 event itself with those newfangled non-red-and-blue 3D glasses; this could very well be the first stereoscopic 3D series in television history.)
At the same time, this looks like a trailer for a Michael Bayesque big-budget adaptation of a familiar property, a parody of a trailer for a Michael Bayesque big-budget adaptation of a familiar property, and a tad satirical in that it appears to be somewhat self-aware that said premise is ridiculous and at least makes a few jokes along the way, perhaps due to the Animaniacs factor at work (the leader of the ghosts not really caring that his minions are defeated so much as they didn't leave him for good is at least somewhat amusing).
So, what are we dealing with here? Basically, we have an origin story which also tries to create a backstory for Pac-Man. Pac-Man, who is apparently a laid-back, gluttonous high-schooler, becomes an unlikely hero as he is forced to save the Pac-world from the wrath of the ghosts, who are apparently the actual ghosts of an invading army who failed to invade the Pac-world before but are somehow able to now as ghosts are something. He does this, of course, with the help of the power pellets, and this makes it seem even more likely that power pellets are actually drugs of some sort.
For that matter, some of what Arad said about his plans for the show back in 2010, combined with what's shown here, make it seem even more bizarre, like the countless fan fictions I've seen that try to tell a serious story with children's cartoon characters, or that Simpsons line about "a realistic down-to-earth show that's completely off the wall and swarming with magic robots." (Then again, Rugg's most recent writing credits include Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, which is pretty much that Simpsons quote personified.) "We feel we have a unique opportunity to have an action adventure, human interest story. As a filmmaker, it's a unique opportunity to get to know the characters you play...We don't know what happened to Pac-Man's parents. He's the only yellow one in Pac-Land; what does that mean? Is it a social statement? We'll find out."
At this point in time, it's too soon to tell whether or not this thing will work. There's definitely some potential; as I said before, it seems to know how bizarre the premise is and not take itself seriously. The casting of Pac-Man as a reluctant hero is also an interesting one- it's the sort of Peter Parker "with great power" thrust-upon-him-unexpectedly thing that's been done time and again, but given how little story Pac-Man has to begin with, it's at least some sort of plausible story that you can gleam from the source material. At the same time, however, some of that grandiosity- and Arad's suggestions that it may be even more so- make the idea seem even more unusual than it already is. Whatever happens, I'll be keeping an intrigued eye on this project as it gets closer to air date. If there's one thing we can all be assured of, it's that it will at least be better than the Hanna-Barbera Pac-Man cartoon.
I just wonder what Billy Mitchell thinks about all this.
PAC-MAN ™&©1980-2012 NAMCO BANDAI Games Inc. No ownership intended or implied.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
©2011 Constance Marks Productions. Elmo character ©2011 Sesame Workshop.
Kevin Clash's rags-to-riches story seems like something out of fantasy or fiction: a young black man from Baltimore starts to create puppets for fun as a kid, and as a teenager, his talent finds himself rubbing elbows with Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan and Jim Henson, among others. You probably don't know Kevin Clash, but you do probably know his long-time companion, a little red guy with a high-pitched voice by the name of Elmo. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey is a sweet documentary that shows Clash and those he has worked alongside and know him closest telling his story first-hand.
For the most part, it seems like a good portion of Clash's success is based on "being at the right place at the right time"- Elmo literally fell into his hands, after Richard Hunt got fed up with performing the character and threw Clash the Elmo puppet to see if he could do anything with it. (Footage of Hunt's Elmo is seen in the film- it almost seems like a Bizarro Elmo compared to the character we know now, speaking in a similar fashion to the modern if not a bit more Cro-Magnon but acting a bit more mischievous. A funny outtake of Clash as Elmo attacking a Muppet piece of cheese shows the difference between the two- even when Clash's Elmo is clowning around, he still seems like the Elmo we know and love). But it's also very clear that Clash would not have gotten as far as he has if it were not for his natural talent. Seeing him help train Muppeteers for the French version of Sesame Street, you can clearly see this as he gives little bits of advice to them: keep the puppet's mouth open a little to make it look like they're smiling. When someone is talking to them, have them look inquisitively and nod. If the puppet has to scratch its head, have its head move down a bit so the rod on the arm can't be seen on-camera. It's seems so complicated, but Clash is somehow able to make it second nature.
You can't help but end up with a smile on your face when this film ends. The life of Kevin Clash (and Elmo) is (thankfully) not one filled with controversy or scandal*, but it does have his complications: Elmo's rise to fame was so sudden and made Clash so busy that he for the most part was literally not able to see his daughter grow up. But he does manage to give her a very sweet send-off when she turns 16 before she heads off to college- not surprisingly, with a little help from Elmo. Seeing this, and the way children react to Elmo, seems to show the natural talent that Clash has. Clash states that he feels Elmo represents love, and it's clear to see this.
Some people think that Elmo ruined Sesame Street, but Being Elmo seems to show both the amazing life story of Kevin Clash and the "Elmo" of Elmo. Both are hard to describe in words. Elmo clearly seems to be both the opposite of Kevin Clash's personality but also an extension of him- given his high-pitched voice and enthusiasm, it's possible he can represent the child in Clash and allows him to let it out. Kevin Clash himself was self-taught, but then was lucky enough to become a part of Jim Henson's inner circle. No one will be able to replace or overshadow the genius that was Jim Henson, but as far as puppeteers go, it's possible that Clash is the closest thing to a second-generation Henson: he was literally raised on Jim's creations and, like Henson himself, decided to experiment with puppets and ended up giving a voice and a personality to a character who, much like Henson's legendary Kermit the Frog, serves today as one of Sesame Street and Muppet characters's most famous faces, entertaining adults and (especially) children just by being himself. For Kevin Clash, the answer to "Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?" was "just be yourself." Both of them seem to have clearly benefited from it. Being Elmo is a wonderful feel-good film, and is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for fans of Sesame Street, Muppets, Jim Henson, or anyone who just wants to see an amazingly sweet true story. Elmo loves you (as he loves to remind us), and we love him for it.
*UPDATE (February 28, 2013) - When I originally wrote this review nearly a year ago, I wrote that "[t]he life of Kevin Clash (and Elmo) is (thankfully) not one filled with controversy or scandal". Sadly, as the events that led to Clash's resignation from Sesame Street revealed, this is no longer the case. Being Elmo remains an incredibly sweet documentary about how one man made his dreams come true, but rewatching it in the wake of how those dreams sadly came to an end is bittersweet, as it shows what a great loss to the worlds of Sesame Street, puppeteering, and entertainment in general the departure of Kevin Clash is.