Friday, January 28, 2011

Disney’s The Black Cauldron (1985) (Movie Review)

       Disney … it’s a name kids know all too well. Animated movies in particular don’t get more classic then the ones under the Disney banner. Yet, with that said, even Disney has its share of forgotten movie titles ... some of which, I think, are better than their dismissive reputation may suggest. Case in point of today, the one animated movie that seems to get snubbed by the studio more than any of their features is Disney’s 1985 animated picture “The Black Cauldron”. 
Released as the studio’s 25
th animated feature, "The Black Cauldron" is loosely based on the dark series of books called "The Chronicles of Prydain" by Lloyd Alexander. There are six Chronicles that began in 1964, which I haven’t read yet, but the source must have been interesting enough for Disney studios to make an animated movie based off the series. This movie has a distinct reputation as the studios biggest mis-step, as it bombed hard at the box office, received mixed review, as well as backlash from up-set parents, and it’s the movie that nearly ended all animated productions from the Disney studio. Over the years, it’s reached the status of an underground cult-classic … and call me a fan who wants to give it some attention. While I wouldn’t exactly call "The Black Cauldron" an underrated masterpiece, I do still feel it deserves a little more attention, and I absolutely have a good deal of fondness reserved for the picture.    

      The story is in the same vain as “Lord of the Rings”, as its a journey through a dark and hostel fantasy setting, and the focus is on a young boy who’s burdened with a mission to destroy a weapon of terrible power. In the case of this story, it comes in the form of the dreaded Black Caldron, which is also being sought out by an evil overlord, who aims to use it in a war to concur all the lands. While obviously less deep and multi-layered then the aforementioned “Lord of the Rings”, it’s still the same winning formula that I’ve always been a sucker for when it come to the fantasy genera, and when this formula is passably executed … I’m always left feeling satisfied. 

Things admittedly get a little mixed when it comes to the films chosen hero named Taren … who joins the archetype of lonely farm boy seeking action, and the status of “Great Warrior”. In general, I’ve always loved the arc of a naive, yet innocent youth who goes on a quest, faces the dangers of the world, and emerges a different person then he was at the start. In the plus column, it’s very satisfying to see how much this character changes and matures at the end, and I especially love that he mostly grows on his own, by observing the selflessness of others, and he doesn’t even need an overly dramatic lecture. The down side … this movie dose it’s job too well in making him an unlikable, ego driven annoyance at the start. I get that the movie is trying to make his self-realization at the end more effective, but his early boasting about being a great hero can get supper annoying … to the point where it’s challenging to make a connection. Having a protagonist with faults is commendable, but he’s got to be likable too, and less annoying then this kid.    

      Like any classic fantasy adventure, Taren makes some good friends along the journey, and they all become allies in his quest to destroy the Cauldron. It’s again very formulaic, but there’s a fine assortment of characters who are each out of their element, yet the situation keeps forcing them to be the ones carrying out the mission. 

I love that set-up, and I find these supporting players just likable enough to sustain the journey. The comedic relief of the film is a fun-loving creature named Gurgi … I’m not sure what he is, but he looks like an albino Ewok or something from a “Star Wars” cartoon. While he can be a little annoying, he's more driven by an overdose of uncontrollable energy, and isn't quite as stupid as some other comedic reliefs I've seen. While I can see how some viewers would find him irritating … particularly his voice … I’ve always found him a harmlessly enjoyable presence. The one saving grace about Gurgi is that he'll do something at the end of the film that is surprisingly touching, selfless, and one of the big highlights of the movie. There’s also a cute little animal side-kick named Henwen, who's a pig with a unique power to create visions. The animation on these vision scenes are really impressive ... and make great use of stock-footage from “Fantasia”. There’s even an old man named Fflewddur, who is a broken-down minstrel. Typically, I hate when old people go on the adventure, as they just seem to get in the way, but I found this character had his own welcome charm. He’s got charisma, and is voices by the late great Nigel Hawthorne, who would latter provide the voice for Professor Porter from Disney's 1999 animated classic “Tarzan”.

     At last, we have our Disney Princess named Eilonwy, who’s obviously not a very popular Disney Princess, but much like the movie, I find her to be kind of special in her own unique way. 

Truthfully, I think she has the cutest voice of any animated Disney Princes, and she has a spirited personality to boot. Thankfully, her sweet nature is also balanced out by some noteworthy moments in which she takes initiative. Her design is also very simple, as her dress isn’t as elegant as any of the classic Disney Princesses, which I find somewhat refreshing. I will admit that from a narrative perspective, there's really no point to have this character in the film, as she contributes very little to the overall plot, but with that said … I think she adds some much-needed charm and appeal to the film. Without question, she provides the most likable presence of any character, which for me counters the annoying traits of our main lead. Of course, she and Taren make a romantic connection, which is nothing too special, but they at least share some genuinely cute moments together. The one thing that would have made her character more interesting is if she were someone like a chamber maid posing as a Princess, that way when captured, the real Princess could escape. Then when our hero refers to her as “Princess”, it’s more out of affection as opposed to a branded title.   

     Yet, my favorite character of the whole movie by far is our main villain, who’s only referred to as The Horned King. He’s arguably one of the darkest and most imposing of all Disney rouges, and criminally underrated. While other villains in the vain of Maleficent and Jafar are monstrous, they also have a colorful personality to balance out. 

The Horned King by contrast is very different, as there's nothing light or simplistic to balance out is sinister presence. He's just evil right to the core, and the stuff of nightmares for children. He isn’t loud or bombastic, and instead is calm, quiet, moves slowly, and is shrouded in mystery. He just conveys this dooming presence that creeps under my skin, which few other animated villains manage to convey. Also, his overall design as a zombie sorcerer is just plain awesome, and very unique. When our hero sees him for the first time, it leads to one of the coolest villain entrances I’ve ever seen in a Disney picture. The icing to put on top of everything is vocal talent John Hurt, who’s always great, and brings The Horned King to life with chilling menace, and a very sinister voice. Honestly, I think this guy belongs on the same pedestal as the other great iconic Disney villains.

    Unfortunately, like most Disney villains, he has an annoying little henchman called The Creeper. To his credit, he’s not as annoying as some of the other evil Disney henchmen, and he doesn’t even come close to ruining the exciting presence of The Horned King. 

It should also be noted that this was the very first animated Disney movie that feature zero songs. The only other animated Disney classic to have no songs was the 1990 Disney film “The Rescuers Down Under”. For as much as it would have been out of tone with the film, I do think some songs cold have worked in select moments. For example, there’s a scene with three witches, and their introduction is a drawn-out sequence with lots of visual flash, but very annoying comedy. This scene could have been stronger if their goofy antics were replaced with a song number, and I could picture these three having an awesome musical number. There’s also a scene with some colorful fairies in a cave, which could have been an upbeat song sequence. Heck, this movie has a Princess, why not give her a song. In the plus column, the musical score composed by the great Elmer Bernstein is fantastic, as it adds a lot of wonder and atmosphere to the experience. Bernstein was just coming off the success of his Oscar-nominated score for the 1983 film "Trading Places", as well as his terrific score for the 1984 film "Ghostbusters", which has similar instrumentation. Still, I think some carefully placed song numbers could have added to the experience, as well as balance out it’s darker tone.

    Actually, while on the subject of the films dark tone, this was admittedly the one Disney movie that my parents weren’t comfortable with me watching. Of cores, the demonic looking villain disturbed my mother, but beyond that, there’s more of a wicked nature to this film then most other Disney offerings. 

Right from the opening, we learn the origin of the cauldron, how it holds the soul of the most evil ruler who ever existed, that anyone who obtains it will be able to harness its evil and awaken vast armies of dead worriers … not at all the bright and uplifting nature of most children’s films. There's also a number of harsh and perilous moments that feature our characters getting beaten, bruised, and there’s even blood in some shots. Most Disney movies submerse us in really magical, and colorful worlds, but this has to be the most consistently dark and haunted looking of their films, with images of corpses, skulls and all kinds of dark detailed designs. 

The most shocking scene of all is near the end, when the Cauldrons power is unleashed, and we see the army of dead solders come to life. It’s an awesome sequence with chilling visuals and spooky imagery in every frame. Heck, even the settings aren’t that pleasant, as most of it takes place in swamps, darkly lit forests, and very dirty interiors of an old castle. This isn’t a complaint by any means, as I’m the kind of guy who actually enjoys dark animated films in medieval settings. It’s also what makes this film unique from the other entries in Disney’s animated line-up. It’s arguably the closest we’ll ever get to something Disney related that’s in the vain of Martin Rosen’s “Watership Down”, or Ralph Bakshi’s animated “Lord of the Rings” movie. As such, try not to compare this to familiar Disney movies along the lines of “Beauty in the Beast” or “Sleeping Beauty”, as this is something with a different appeal to fans of animated films with a dark edge.                       

    For all the faults with this film, there is still more than enough good material, and enough positivity that I feel balances out all the darkness. There are still some great morals on sacrifice, and how giving up your life or dreams for the greater good is the most heroic act you could ever make. The animation and visual designs are amazing spectacles to look at, ranging from bright and colorful to dark and abstract. The backgrounds are richly textured, detailed, and I just get lost looking all these stunning illustrations. It also has a rich fairy tale atmosphere, with all kinds of magical characters, like a society of spirits that live under a lake, there's also Dragons, the aforementioned witches, and all kinds of great fantasy elements. 

      The Climax of the movie is admittedly something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, we have a surprisingly touching scene involving one of our hero's making a noble sacrifice. However, I feel the tension in this finale gets resolved a little too quickly. After the movie effectively builds-up the resurrection of this army of dead soldiers, they suddenly get defeated very quickly, and it leaves me wishing for more of a payoff, or maybe even a cool battle scene. Even the final fight with the Horned King and our hero is really weak, and should have been cooler. Still, this finale has some strong highlights, including a brutal villain death, as well as an exciting sequence of our hero's destroying the Cauldron, and escaping a crumbling castle. I especially love the end credits, with all these detailed illustrations and pictures in the background, which allow you to reflect on the adventure you experienced with the characters … I wish more animated movies had credits like this.

    Overall, I find "The Black Cauldron" to be a fun, dark ride, one that’s ambitious, has decent morals, and is technically brilliant. Both The Horned King and Princess Eilonwy likewise have secure spots among my personal favorite Disney characters. While certainly not one of Disney’s absolute best animated works, there’s still something to it that leaves me feeling satisfied. It’s no classic like “Cinderella” or “The Lion King”, but a unique entry with its own fascinating qualities and highlights. I'll admit, the film has some announces and it certainly isn't something that will win a huge crowd of fans, but still … "The Black Cauldron" is an underrated gem that deserves more attention then what it has gotten, as I find it an enjoyably different experience to add to the Disney collection.

Thanks for reading my review of Disney’s animated 1985 picture “The Black Cauldron” … and make your day a little more special with a splash of Disney magic.   


Sunday, January 23, 2011

A look at the Bat-mobile and its different appearances on the big screen.

Christopher Nolan has just revealed the title, casting and villains of the upcoming Batman movie, this has gotten fan’s excited and I’ll admit I’m pretty hipped myself, so I thought it would be fun to post something Batman related. A lot of fan’s have been interested to know who the new villains are or if Robin will be in this film, and while all that is interesting, I’m more excited about what the new Bat-Mobile will look like. In my opinion it’s the coolest vehicle in cinema. Why, can’t say, maybe because it’s the most famous superhero vehicle, maybe for its many different appearances on screen, well, it’s just awesome so I thought it would be fun to look at the different versions from all 8 of the theatrical Batman movies.      
Bat-Mobile shown in the 1966 film “Batman The Movie”.

This was the first portrayal of the Bat-mobile on the big screen and yes, it looks like a toy car that wheeled its way out of “Chucky Cheese” but for the time it was really impressive. There’s a bonus feature on the DVD called “The Batmobile Revealed” hosted by the vehicles creator George Barris. It’s pretty cool how he talks about how he came up with the design of the car and how he points out little details in the vehicle that are hard to notice during the film. This batmobile is nostalgic for its time but it’s not as cool as most of the more modern bat-mobiles.   
Bat-Mobile shown in the 1989 movie “Batman” and the 1992 movie “Batman Returns”.  

This is my favorite version by far and it’s the first one that comes to mind when I think Bat-mobile. It had such a slick and dangerous look, almost like a missile on wheels. Also, it’s not to over the top with bat wings or bat features, it’s just right. I’m not shore why it needs that big circle-fan in the middle but other than that, this bat-mobile will always stand as the classic Batman vehicle.  
Bat-mobile shown in the 1993 movie “Batman Mask of the Phantasm”.      

I probably shouldn’t even count this one because it’s an animated car and it was shown for a full 3 seconds in the film. Never the less, I found it necessary because it’s my second favorite design of the Batmobile. This one’s smooth and slick, it doesn’t have a big circle in front and it bears a resemblance to the original when it had its shields up. Unfortunately, it has less of a bat feature but that doesn’t ruin what is otherwise an awesome looking vehicle. There’s also one note worthy moment when Bruce Wayne goes to a place that’s a carnival /blue print to what a future Gotham City will look like. One of the future cars on display gets his attention and it has the same design of the Bat mobile. It’s always fun to see where the Bat-mobile originated from, a concept that will be built on in another batman movie that will be mentioned latter. 
Bat-mobile shown in the 1995 movie “Batman Forever”

In comparison to the last two batmoblies, this one looks a little silly but to be honest it still feels like a classic bat-vehicle. I had a toy version of this car, this version has also been on display at theme parks and it’s the version shown in comedies like “Lonnie Tunes Back in Action” and the resent "Arthur" remake. This one’s smaller, has more of a bat design and has a little more screen time than most of the bat vehicles. It doesn’t have the same subtle feel of the animated one or the cool, dangerous feel of the Tim Burton one but it’s still a good vehicle all the same.  
Bat-mobile shown in the 1997 movie “Batman and Robin”.     

What can be said about this one, well, it’s definitely one of the weakest of the bat-vehicles and it looks like one of those toy cars that break apart and then are reassembled into robot fighters. To be honest, I think it has too much unnecessary stuff built on it, I mean, come on, dose the bat mobile need that much useless stuff covering it. Well it may not be that great but at least I can call it a batmobile, unlike the next one.   
Bat-mobile (Tumbler) shown in the 2005 movie “Batman Begins” and the 2008 movie “The Dark Knight”.  

At last we get to the newest (and worst) Bat-mobile, well, bat-tank or bat-war van are more appropriate titles. I’ve had my up’s and downs with all the previous cars but the one thing that can be said for all of them is that they are all bat-mobiles. This thing is so over done and so distant from the rest that it’s stupid to label it as a bat-mobile. To be fare, I liked how Bruce Wayne actually bought this car from someone else and just painted it black, as opposed to creating something so technically advanced on his own. Having said that, I don’t think batman needs something this big, loud and destructive. If you hadn’t seen either of these movies (“Batman Begins” or “The Dark Knight”)   and just saw a picture of this vehicle, you probably wouldn’t connect it to Batman at all, you’d just think it’s a battle van. Fortunately, the Tumbler was destroyed in the last film and that’s what leads me to the main reason of this post, what’s the new Bat-mobile going to be like in the next film. Well, here’s what I think, in the first season of the 2004 TV show “The Batman”, he had a bat mobile that was also very big, just with a tint of blue. But in season 3 that vehicle was destroyed and replaced with one that looked more like the classic animated one and that’s what I hope they do in the next film, give us a Bat-mobile that’s slick, subtle and can be labeled as a Bat-mobile. 
                                                                       THE END      

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Tribute to Jerry Gold Smith

     Music! In my opinion it’s one of the most important things you can have in a movie. Musical scores can be entertaining, soothing, hypnotizing and entrancing. Throughout the history of cinema there have been some amazing composers like John Williams and Danny Elfman. But for me, the greatest composer for film, hands down is Jerry Goldsmith. His music always puts me in a spellbinding mood, it can be emotional, frightening or exhilarating. Most of my all time favorite movies have music from Jerry Goldsmith. He began writing scores in the 1950’s. The first, memorable score of his was for the TV show “The Twilight Zone”, he would later do the score for "The Twilight Zone Movie”.

     Over the years he’s won several Emmie awards and academy awards, including best score for “The Omen”. He doesn’t stick to one genera of film. He did a lot of western scores for a lot of John Wayne’s movies like “Stagecoach” and “Rio Lobo”. He did music for war movies like “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and “The Wind and the Lion”, he did compose a score for “Gladiator” but unfortunately it was turned down and replaced by someone else’s score. He’s also done music for classic Sci-Fi’s like “Alien” and “Planet of the Apes”. He did music for classic action and crime movies like the “Rambo” movies and “Basic Instinct”. Goldsmith has even don music for kid’s movies like Disney’s “Mulan” and “Looney Tunes Back in action” (This was his very last score). Finally, he’s gotten a lot of success with the music he’s done for horror movies like “Poltergeist” and “The Ghost and the Darkness”.

       The music Goldsmith composes fits with his films so well that it’s impossible to think of these films without first thinking of his music. Now it wouldn’t surprise me if someone would prefer John Williams because he has done so many more of the classic movie score’s like the music for Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and of cores Star Wars. Don’t get me wrong, I love his music too but his scores doen’t touch me the way Goldsmiths music dose. When I close my eyes and listen to his music, I feel transported to a place of joy or the settings of his films. Take for example, his score from “Patton”, it’s such a simple melody but it fits the film so well and without even seeing the movie it makes you think of the Marines. As far as kids movies go, one of the all time best is his score from the movie “The Secret of N.I.M.H.”. Whenever I hear this score I’m transported back to a time that was wonderful and care free. It sends chills down my spine every time I hear it and it fills me up with all kinds of strong emotions. That’s a strength that applies to a lot of his music.

       But emotional and soothing aren’t the only strengths of his music. His scores for action movies get me really hipped up and excited. The perfect example is the score he composed for “Total Recall”, how could you not get excited after hearing that score. Another great example is the score he composed for “Small Soldiers”, now that was an awesome score to get me excited at a young age. I think the catchiest of his scores was the one he composed for the “Gremlins” movies. That score had a fun techno beat and was the easiest of his scores to hum. The movie that really introduced me to Jerry Gold Smith was “The Mummy”. In my opinion, its one of the all time greatest collections of instrumental music, it has every great form of music that he’s talented with composing. It has his exciting and exhilarating music from his action movies, his dark and foreboding music from his horror movies and his strong, soothing and emotional music that puts me in such a relaxed state of joy.

     Now, at last we come to the highlight of Jerry Goldsmiths Career and the big reason I’m a fan of his work. I absolutely love all the music he’s done for “Star Trek”. The score for the TV show “Star Trek The Next Generation” is without a doubt my favorite score I’ve ever heard for a TV show and I feel it deserves to be alongside John Williams score for Star Wars as one of the most memorable scores to fit with a series. He composed this score and other music to some of the Star Trek movies like “Star Trek The Motion Picture” and “Star Trek 5 The Final Frontier”, he also composed the score for the show “Star Trek Voyager”. But the three big ones I want to talk about are his scores for the movies “Star Trek First Contact”, “Star Trek Insurrection”, and “Star Trek Nemesis”. The theme of “Star Trek Insurrection” was about youth and feeling young again and his score reflects that theme perfectly. It’s so soothing almost like a lullaby a mother would play for her child. The music he composed for “Star Trek Nemesis” is hands down the last great score he ever composed before his unfortunate death. Again like “The Mummy”, this film contains every one of his great forms of music. The exciting, soothing and atmospheric music are all present and do a terrific job enhancing the mood of each scene. A perfect example is the diner scene between Picard and Shinzon. This scene features strong performances and terrific character structure that is emotional on its own but listen to how the music just enhances that emotion. My favorite score for any movie in the history of cinema is the one he composed for “Star Trek First Contact”. This is where my love for his music was set in stone. This movie features the classic score from the TV show and a new score that is absolutely amazing. Everything soothing, emotional or relaxing from his music is incorporated in this score and it’s absolutely beautiful, check it out.

     This concludes my tribute to Jerry Goldsmith but there are several of his scores that I didn’t even mention, I barely scratched the surface, let’s not forget he’s been composing music science the 1950’s. On July 21 2004, (after battling cancer for years), he quietly passed away in his sleep. He may be gone but I’ll always remember his work and maybe his music will be an inspiration to people wanting to compose music. If you never heard of him, I hope this got your interest. May he rest in peace, be remembered and may his music continue to entertain and inspire people who love music as much as I do.  

                                                          Jerry Gold Smith (February 10, 1929 – July 21, 2004)