Tron

28 05 2010

In the late-’70/early-’80s, Disney was attempting to reposition itself in a niche away from the traditional family product that they were known for, moving instead towards darker-tinged science fiction and fantasy. This was partly in response to the success of Star Wars in 1977, as is apparent with the generally goofy (but at times surprisingly sinister) Disney live-action feature The Black Hole, released only two years later.

So when a young, independent animator called Steven Lisberger approached the company, looking for someone to finance an experimental science fiction film about video games, it seemed like the perfect fit. This was the era of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Frogger, when home computing was beginning to make inroads and the potential of all things digital seemed limitless: the so-called “silicon revolution” had just arrived. What better way for Disney to remain relevant than to release a film that capitalised on such a current trend?

That film, of course, was Tron (1982). Combining back-lit animation, traditional animation and computer-generated imagery with live-action footage, this was Star Wars for the impending Information Age. Its setting was stark yet elegant and often beautiful; its themes struck at the heart of the increasing commercialisation of a market hitherto dominated by hobbyists and academics. In short, it was the mythology for a new age.
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Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!

21 05 2010

Ted Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) was not afraid of including social commentary in his children’s books. Besides being a children’s author, he was also a political cartoonist and writer for the military during World War II, with his Private Snafu shorts being particularly illuminating.

So it’s refreshing to (finally) see a modern Seuss adaptation that at least tries to adhere to the spirit of his work. Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! (2008) is the fourth feature from Blue Sky Studios, who also produced Robots (2005) and the three Ice Age movies (2002, 2006 and 2009). Blue Sky are like the Chuck Jones to Pixar’s Walt Disney, and so while they don’t produce serious, studied entertainment in the Pixar vein, they also don’t resort to the mindless hipster grab-bag approach of DreamWorks Animation; instead, Blue Sky offer a manic charm all their own.

It’s only fitting, then, that Blue Sky Studios adapt one of Seuss’ more memorable children’s books, following in the footsteps of Chuck Jones’ own successful adaptations. This is not a nightmare-fuelled acid trip a la Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000) (and the less said about Mike Myers as The Cat in the Hat (2003) the better); rather, Blue Sky’s Horton is colourful and whimsical, giving spectators an amazing 3D realisation of Seuss’ illustrations that is as faithful as can be. And while pop-culture elements are a little overdone at times, this is still miles ahead of the horrors that DreamWorks might have visited upon the source.
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Up

12 05 2010

Pixar stand as the spiritual torchbearers of the Walt Disney’s philosophy: just as Disney pushed the limits of traditional 2D hand-drawn animation in the 1930s and 1940s, Pixar has done the same for 3D computer animation in the 1990s and early 2000s. But both Disney and Pixar were also determined to demonstrate that animation could be used to tell dramatic stories with genuine pathos and emotions. In this way, Pixar are the polar opposite of the 3D animation wing of Dreamworks, who seem more interested in letting story serve the gags than having it be the other way around.

2008’s WALL-E was an artistic triumph, playing more as a return to silent-era comedy-drama than as a tentpole family film, and while its follow-up, 2009’s Up, doesn’t attempt anything so daring stylistically, it does test the limits of what sort of stories are commercially viable in the modern family film market.

The premise of the story concerns Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), an elderly widower determined to fulfil his late wife’s childhood dream of having a house on Paradise Falls, an exotic locale in South America. His solution? Fly the house there using helium-filled balloons.
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Raiders of the Lost Ark

17 01 2008

Raiders of the Lost ArkIn 1981, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were two of the hottest names in town: Lucas had made American Graffiti, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back; Spielberg, meanwhile, had directed the blockbusters Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A film produced by Lucas and directed by Spielberg would almost certainly be money in the bank.

Enter Harrison Ford as the globetrotting archaeologist Indiana Jones in the Lucas/Spielberg collaboration Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Set in 1936, Raiders follows Jones as he attempts to retrieve the lost Ark of the Covenant (on behalf of the U.S. government) before the Nazis get a hold of it — it seems the Ark may contain the power to make any army who possesses it invincible. Along the way, he teams up with former love interest Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who owns a medallion which could uncover the location of the Ark, and Egyptian digger and friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies).

The plot, however, serves more as a framework for a series of cliffhangers in the style of Saturday matinee adventure serials, and in that sense it’s cut from the same cloth as Lucas’ own Star Wars. For example, the film opens in the jungles of South America, and by the end of the sequence, Jones has faced tarantulas, snakes, dart-blowing natives, rivals, traitors and cunningly constructed booby traps (including the famous rolling boulder — an iconic image that encapsulates the film in only a handful of shots). As he continues to face increasing dangers in Nepal and later Cairo, each sequence seems deliberately designed to end with the audience wondering, “How will he get out of this one?!”
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Star Wars

27 11 2007

Star WarsIt’s hard to overemphasise the impact that Star Wars has had on modern cinema. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws laid the groundwork, but Star Wars became the prototype for the effects-laden blockbuster. That countless imitators (and the imitators of the imitators) often missed the point when it came to the success of Star Wars was a sad but inevitable outcome.

Director George Lucas, who had great success with American Graffiti just prior, filled his screenplay with everything swimming around in his subconscious from childhood entertainment: westerns, adventure serials, comic books, fairytales, samurai films, war films, pulp science fiction and anything else that sprang to mind. Yet everything in Star Wars seemed to exist in a coherent universe, where princesses could exist alongside bounty hunters and fighter pilots. In short, he concocted the most delicious blend of fantastic imagary that bounces around a ten-year-old boy’s head and then splashed it on cinema screens everywhere.

The plot, furthermore, followed closely the monomyth as detailed by Joseph Campbell but never felt written-by-the-numbers. Instead, the audience seems to be partaking in a ritualised retelling of an ancient story dressed in the tropes of 20th century pop culture, and it’s this dual nature of the film — contemporary, yet timeless — that no doubt lead to its massive popularity and longevity. We all knew the sources of inspiration and so it was immediately familiar without being strictly derivative. This was the Hero’s Journey for pop culture junkies.
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