Friday, December 30, 2022

Not Strange Enough, Sadly

Strange World? More Like Ordinary World.

Like many people, I wasn't aware that "Strange World" (Disney, 2022) even existed: I saw one brief commercial for it on the television at work and nothing else. I began to see reviews of it trickling in that all seemed to bemoan Disney's lack of promotion for this film over any real criticism of it, and I have to say... I didn't like it.

What's it about?

This is the story of an expedition to an underground world cut off from the surface, where mankind must save its most precious natural resource from disaster. Along the way they discover that what they seek to preserve may not be what they first intended.

I will just say it: This is a pretty bad movie.

Not all is lost 

First, its good points: The animation is spectacular. It's got a really colorful palette, characters squash and stretch like they should and solidifies that the stiff computer animation of years gone by is a thing of the past. The design aesthetic is solid, with a steampunk-inspired flavor, and living, breathing textures for the environments and creatures. I cannot fault the visuals.

I personally don't care that same-sex relationships are depicted in the movie (I know that some people do care; we call them "bigots"). It's not a central focus of the story but it's still nice to see diversity in any studio film.

So much for the good points...

I really wanted to like it, I really did

The story is awful. It is cliche to a fault on every single level; the father and son legacy conflict is some of the most hamfisted I have ever seen, the twist of the expedition was telegraphed from the beginning moments, the pointless conflict at the end is almost as half-baked as its resolution. Main characters are given rushed backstories while ancillary characters fade almost completely into the background, meanwhile the same two story beats are endlessly repeated.

Even a bad story could be salvaged with a good enough cast, but the actors they hired are not known for voicework and it shows in their performances. Jake Gyllenhaal's subdued delivery alone was disappointing, but add Dennis Quaid trying to sound like the cartooniest of cartoon characters and the contrast just doesn't mesh. Add some of the blandest dialog and misfired jokes I have heard in the last twenty years of major studio animation and you have nothing remotely quotable to remember it by.

The score was written by the same composer as "Big Hero 6," but while serviceable there's no standout music here to get your blood pumping, probably because there is no "first flight" moment in this entire movie.

In short, this is a beautifully visualized film with a mediocre plot, an annoyingly obvious twist, and an underutilized cast. If you missed it, don't feel bad: You didn't miss much.

Where can you see it?

"Strange World" is currently streaming on Disney+ if you're somehow still interested.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Babes in Bondage -- er, Toyland

Babes in Toyland is a movie

One last dive into the holiday season this year. Okay… Here we go…

Time for another classy children's classic from Disney!

Uh oh.

What's it all about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "Babes in Toyland" (Disney, 1961). Mother Goose and her (TOTALLY BELIEVABLE) goose, Sil (short for "Silly") announce to the audience the wedding of Tom Piper (Tommy Sands) and Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary (Annette Funicello), whereupon we are brought into a storybook village for musical introductions to all of the colorful characters who live there, almost none of whom we will see again.

Possibly the least interesting protagonists in any movie I have ever seen.

One pan from the bright colorful village to the ominous dilapidated house on the hill later we meet Barnaby Barnicle (Ray Bolger), the town's conniving sinister miser, who informs us that Mary is set to unknowingly inherit a fortune upon wedlock, and that he intends to be her betrothed in order to secure it.
Pictured: Happy villain.

To these nefarious ends he employs two mercenaries, Gonzorgo (Henry Calvin) and Roderigo (Gene Sheldon) to eliminate Tom and to kidnap Mary's family's sheep, stealing her income.
"Hey Guys: Go back to helping and/or hindering El Zorro!"

After kidnapping Tom, Gonzorgo and Roderigo decide to sell him to a tribe of Gypsies instead of throwing him into the ocean as agreed, thereby earning a little extra money aside from what Barnaby was going to pay. The two then pose as sailors to convince Mary that they saw Tom sink on an ocean-going ship to his doom. After Barnaby entices the depressed and now destitute Mary to marry him for financial security, he hires a troupe of Gypsies to perform at the wedding announcement.

These happen to be the same Gypsies that purchased Tom, who infiltrates the engagement party disguised as an elderly fortune teller to later reveal himself to the town.
Okay, I'm not going to lie: This performance was pretty good.

While this is going on, Mary's younger siblings, Bo Peep (a young Ann Jillian), Wee Willie Winkie (Brian Corcoran), Little Boy Blue (Kevin Corcoran), and the twins (Marilee and Melanie Arnold) have gone into "the Forest of No Return" to find the sheep. Once Tom and Mary learn of the siblings' departure they head into the forest to find them captured by a group of sentient trees.
Creepy puppet trees.

Did I mention that they were creepy?

The trees take the group to "Toyland," a giant toy factory manned entirely by the Toymaker (Ed Wynn, the "Mad Hatter" himself) and his assistant Grumio (Tommy Kirk), who are falling behind on their order to make enough toys for the children for Christmas.
His own worst enemy.

The Toymaker is also Grumio's worst enemy.

Tom, Mary, and the kids decide to help with the workload and real progress is made until Grumio invents a shrink gun to turn ordinary objects into toys.
Seems like a good use of resources.

Once everyone realizes that it would be too hard to make full-sized objects to turn into toys, the shrink gun is discarded carelessly into the waiting hands of Barnaby, who uses it on Tom.
The effects are great, at least.

With the power of the device, Barnaby forces Mary to marry him a second time, but the miniaturized Tom uses the war toys they made to launch an offensive against Barnaby, leading to Barnaby's own shrinking.
This ends violently. I was honestly a bit shocked.

Tom bests Barnaby in a swordfight just in time for Grumio to make a restoration gun, fixing the mistakes made by his previous invention. Tom and Mary are wed in a winter wedding, and the film ends.
Thankfully, it ends.

Less than meets the eye

Wow, writing that down it seems like a lot of plot, but really there isn't much. It's also noteworthy that most of the actual film is taken up with singing and dancing that drags out the hour and forty-five minute runtime to an almost unbearable slog if you're not into that sort of thing, which I am not.

Annette has a song about how she's a girl and math is hard. I'M NOT JOKING.

This was hard for me to sit through, though by no stretch is it the worst musical that I have ever seen (that award still goes to Disney's own, "The Happiest Millionaire"). Almost everyone involved seems disinterested in being there, except for Ray Bolger, who looks to be having tremendous fun portraying Barnaby Barnicle.
Man, he's actually enjoyable to watch.

The size-changing effects and sets towards the end of the film are actually quite impressive, but that's no surprise given that one of Disney's previous efforts was "Darby O'Gill and the Little People," which has some of the most stunning size effects ever put to film.

What Christmas?

I have a question for anyone who might know the answer: Why is this considered a Christmas film? According to the movie itself, it takes place in mid-October. There are exactly two references to Christmas during the film, both as a deadline for the toy factory's orders. There's almost no snow, absolutely no "Santa Claus" references, no redemption for Barnaby… Who is run through with a sword and falls to his death. I mean, it's not graphic, but still… The "hero" in the movie, Tom Piper, has a higher body count in this film than the villain. Think about that.

Babes in Thailand?

Also, there's a scene where children voluntarily agree to be sweatshop labor on an assembly line, so… "Yay capitalism" and all that. I was honestly expecting a follow-up song about the benefits of lead-based paint.

Hurry kids! These iPhones need to be in the stores before launch!

My thoughts

I hated this movie. It's set in a genre that is really difficult for me to enjoy, and the slow pace, abundance of (mostly forgettable) music, and period-normalized racism makes it an experience that I don't want to have again, but also one that I regret having the first time. I think that it would be boring for kids of today, insulting for adults of reasonable intelligence, and trying to the patience of anyone. As always, your mileage may vary.

Where can you find it?

"Babes in Toyland" is currently streaming on Disney+.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

A (Long Forgotten) Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.

Hot potatoes!

What's it about?

Tonight's waltz into the obscure is "A Christmas Carol. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas" (British Broadcasting Corporation, 1977). I won't insult your intelligence or cultural knowledge by recounting the events in this, probably the best selling, most dramatized, and most mass-produced story in the history of western culture (besides, I already did that in my review of "The Muppet Christmas Carol" a few weeks previous). So why cover this version out of the literal THOUSANDS of filmed versions of this particular story? Because it is another obscenely nostalgic piece of my childhood that I wanted to share.

If "The Star Wars Holiday Special" was one of my earliest persistent memories, this version of "A Christmas Carol" is one of the very first television programs that I remember in detail.

Every morbid detail.

According to, it was only ever aired twice, once in 1977 (which I was too young to recall) and once in 1979 which is probably when I saw it, rebroadcast on the American Public Broadcasting System. Needless to say, it was VERY hard to track it down, and I am forever grateful that someone had the gumption to upload it to the internet for all to see.

Because it is one of the first versions of the Charles Dickens' classic that I ever recall seeing, it has remained one of my favorite Christmas programs of all time, and even now in my twilight years it is still so.

Utterly flawless, right? Right?

So it must be good, right? Well…

Time for some bitter truth.

Masterless transfer.

There are things we need to discuss. Let's start with the transfer: It's ugly. Boy, is it ever ugly. I'm not faulting the person who made the digital copy: The original was made for PAL regions back in a time before high-definition digital video, and has a very distinct low-resolution look because of this.

We're not budgeted for this.

Second, this is an exceedingly low-budget production. There are very few set locations, and the crew makes up for this by swapping drawings (not even matte paintings) for establishing shots. This doesn't really mesh with the dark and dank aesthetic of the rest of the physical sets, but it does make it look unique.

Seriously BBC, who do you think you're foolin'?

Just get it over with, already!

This version of the story also seems to be very rushed. The dialog zips at a brisk pace while the dramatic beats are streamlined to cram it into an hour (without ads), but this also means that it's an easy watch.

"Jesus Fred, how many cups of coffee did you have before walking in here?"

That being said, it still manages to keep some more obscure aspects of the story intact (such as Scrooge's time in school and the "children of men" bit). Just recognize that you're not getting the full dialog or everyone's best performances, but it's hard to say that it overstays its welcome when it's half the length of a typical feature.

All great actors. Well... mostly great actors. Okay, a few great actors.

Even when truncated, the acting is fantastic; performances are unimpeachable (with the possible exception of Timothy Chasin as "Tiny Tim," who seems to be as mentally deficient as his character is physically.

I don't want to pick on the kid, but... something ain't right.

That seems cruel, but I stand by it; he's terrible in this). Veteran actor Michael Hordern plays Ebeneezer Scrooge as more of an ignorant egotist bordering on stupid rather than the exceedingly and needlessly cruel depiction that we usually get. It's honestly a refreshing take and (I feel) makes him a bit more sympathetic; he's not cruel for cruelty's sake, just socially awkward (I can relate). A cast of established actors ensures that anyone who has seen British movies and television from the era will probably recognize a few familiar faces that they will still struggle to place.
June Brown (as Mrs. Dilber), just died this year (2022). She had been playing old ladies since at least 1977. Think about that.

Put your hand over your broom and say, "UP!"

I say, double-oh seven!

Won't you be my PAL?

If you are someone who has ever watched BBC television programs from the 1970s to the early 1980s you know that all of their programs have exactly two looks: Weird-looking PAL region cool-toned 50 frames-per-second analog video and warm-toned 24 frames-per-second film. BBC's studios typically used the video for interior shots and would shoot exteriors using film, meaning programs often switched framerates, tone, and audio mixing depending on the location of the scene. This production was filmed entirely inside the studio, so it has this bizarre and almost ethereal look to the video quality throughout.

Combined with the stage lighting, ghosts are all the more creepy in PAL video.

The special effects are typical video fare for the time.

Just because you're filming on a budget doesn't mean that you can't have great effects.

Matte layering techniques are crude compared to today's, but here's the thing, and the reason why I recall this version above all others:

Chills on the back of my neck.

The video quality, framerate, simple video effects, and gritty sets combine to make this one of the spookiest versions of the story that I have ever seen. It gave me nightmares as a child, and even today this ghost story looks a bit chilling, and I personally feel that it is worth something.

All these years and hundreds of depictions later, and this is the ONLY version of this scene that I find genuinely scary.

This man was in HUNDREDS of movies and television, and THIS is what I remember him for.

Where can you find it?

"A Christmas Carol. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas" is supposedly streaming on Britbox (via Amazon video), but you can also find it for free here at this link.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Remembering the Star Wars Holiday Special

Happy Life Day, I guess...

This is a long one, and I've already edited it down, so buckle up.

"Chewie, does the cockpit seem... smaller to you?"

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "The Star Wars Holiday Special" (20th Century Fox Television, 1978). Privateer Han Solo of the starship "The Millennium Falcon" and his first mate Chewbacca, a wookiee from the planet Kazoo are being pursued by the Galactic Empire in a white-knuckle chase involving Star Destroyers, Tie Fighters, and a horde of imperial stormtroopers.

Pictured: Totally realistic matte painting.

Meanwhile, Chewbacca's family is awaiting his arrival for their annual celebration of "Life Day." His wife, Malla, is worried that he won't make it back in time. His father, Itchy, assures her that he's on his way.
Malla and Itchy have a heart to heart.

His son, Lumpy, is anxious waiting for his father to return. We follow the trio as they prepare their home for the holiday, stopping occasionally to consume some space-age media or contacting their friends in the Rebel Alliance to check up on Han and Chewie.
This story is progressing too fast. Take a break.

All the while, the Empire tightens its grip on Kazoo as they pursue the crew of the Millennium Falcon across the galaxy. Can the duo make it back in time for Chewbacca to celebrate Life Day with his family?
Spoilers: Yes.

Okay, we're finally getting to it. This is "that" Star Wars show, one of the most infamous television programs ever made. I know that I can't really say much about it that hasn't been written or criticized before, so I will try to add my personal memory of this program.

I probably remember it better than Carrie Fisher did. RIP, you wonderful beatnik. 

What are the issues?

Before we get to that though, some air cleaning:

It stinks.

This is a sort of a variety show style television program with the "Star Wars" brand used to showcase the various segments. Every few minutes there's a music video, an acrobatics show, a cartoon, or a comedy sketch shoehorned into its hour and a half runtime, and virtually none of them are related to the main story.

Also, Mark Hamill's weird face.

The musical segments are sort of funny, as they take existing instrumental music from 1977's "Star Wars" and set lyrics to it. Bad lyrics.
I don't want to keep harping on Carrie, but she really got the short end of the stick.

They're honestly funnier than the comedy segments, which is a shame considering that the comedy bits star the legendary Art Carney, Bea Arthur, and Harvey Korman.
You know, singing sensation Bea Arthur.

The Korman segments are regrettably neither funny, nor interesting, nor brief.

You say Kazoo, and I say Kashyyyk

Calm down, Star Wars nerds: I know that the planet is canonically called "Kashyyyk," but it is only ever referred to by name once in this program and is identified as "Kazoo." It might be subversive Rebel agent Saun Dann (Art Carney) trying to make it seem like he's dismissive of the wookiee culture while talking to the Empire, but honestly I think that would be attributing this program a level of sophistication that simply isn't there.

More like "Han So-old," amiright?

After all, George Lucas once referred to the music being played in the Tatooine cantina as "jizz," and that lack of forethought is a can of worms that we're not going to open right now.

It's hammer time!

George Lucas is on record saying that he would like to track down every copy of this film and "smash it with a hammer." Here's the thing, though: This might be the most "George Lucas" thing I've ever seen.

Diahann Carroll guest stars as the spirit of pornography.

I've read some of his original treatment for the movie that would eventually become "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope." I remember when he crammed in a (terrible) musical number into "Return of the Jedi Special Edition."
Thank you, Jefferson Starship, I guess?

I have seen Episodes I, II, and III, Howard the Duck, The Radioland Murders, etc. This is only MARGINALLY worse. Although Lucas is not credited on the special's IMDB page, his stink is all over this thing.

Kind of a letdown

This film's biggest sin is that it's boring. Almost all of the action bits and exterior shots are clips and cuts from the original movie that were repurposed for this film, and I'm estimating that they account for less than five minutes of the entire runtime.

This clip was dubbed over. Also, only one of two very brief Darth Vader appearances in the film.

This thing affected me personally.

Now for my own personal story about this film:

Even children alive during the 90s don't understand what it was like growing up in the 70s and 80s. We didn't have on-demand video or YouTube. DVDs didn't exist yet. Most of us didn't have VHS and those of us who did didn't own a lot of VHS tapes because they were prohibitively expensive. In the 70s many low-income households didn't even have a color television set. I say this, because when we wanted to see a movie we had basically two options: Going to the theater or seeing it on live-broadcast television. As a child, if you wanted to relive a movie your only options were storybooks, comics, and even the occasional radio dramatization. You need to understand this, because it's important to the rest of my story.

This progam is one of my first persistent memories as a child. I was three years old when this first aired in November of 1978. I had first seen "Star Wars" in the summer of that year at the local drive-in theater a year after its release, and I was hooked. I have vague remembrance of watching the Holiday Special in my grandparents' living room and struggling to stay awake before being carried upstairs to sleep. During the night, I had vivid dreams of the Empire tearing apart Lumpy's room, destroying his stuffed bantha, and how sad it was.

Pictured: This is one of my earliest memories.

I had nightmares of Harvey Korman's volcano-headed alien character Krelman.
This terrified 3 year old me.

I slept to Carrie Fisher singing the Star Wars theme. I need to reiterate this: All of these things happen in the film.
And other nightmare-inducing things.

So when I started kindergarten the next year (1979), and began to develop some social skills between that and the first grade (1980), I remember recalling the Holiday Special -- which I thought was a legitimate Star Wars film -- to my schoolmates. I was immediately singled out as a liar. It seems that I was either the only one who had seen the show or was at the very least the only one who remembered it. But it was okay: CBS played "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown" every year, so I would be redeemed when they played the "Star Wars" show again, right?

You ruined my life, trusted title sequence!

Except that it never aired again. Being a child in a rural community with limited access to print media and no interest in books without pictures (I was five, after all), I had no way to prove that it even existed. Between this incident and Inspector Gadget's mustache (yes, that is a thing, look it up), I began to doubt my own memory, my own sanity. I don't think that I ever had the full trust of my grade school classmates after that, and I spent the rest of my life doubting my perception of reality.

Avenge me, Media Play!

Flash forward to 1997: "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope" is back in theaters as a shiny new "Special Edition," and my friends and I were in Millcreek in Erie, PA shopping at a store called "Media Play" (here is a brief lament that this store no longer exists). I passed the magazine rack and saw a magazine (I think that it was "Starlog," but I have no way to confirm this) with the words "Remembering The Star Wars Holiday Special" on the cover.

My eyes were as wide as animated Luke's.

My heart began to palpitate. It was all there: The wookiee family. The volcano-headed alien. Carrie Fisher singing the theme song. My excitement level went through the roof! I had to show my friends and tell them the whole story. I finally felt vindicated; after all, if this was real, then what other "imagined" things from my childhood could be real as well? Turns out, it was a lot (including Inspector Gadget's mustache).

Should you watch it?

Yes, this movie is terrible. Yes, it is entirely skippable. No, there is no official release, but if you're curious you should watch it any way that you can (and may god have mercy on your soul).

The first appearance of Boba Fett notwithstanding.