Tuesday, July 25, 2023

The Hobbit (Rankin-Bass)

Hot Furry Feet! Sort Of!

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "The Hobbit" (Rankin/Bass Productions, 1977). Bilbo Baggins (Orson Bean) is just an ordinary Hobbit, a miniature humanoid with exceptionally hairy feet that lives in the lands of The Shire.

"Oh bother! I seem to have eaten all of my hunny!"

He's proud that he never has adventures of any kind… That is, until the wandering wizard Gandalf the Grey (John Huston) railroads the diminutive Bilbo into his adventuring party consisting of himself and twelve dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Hans Conried).
A decidedly more sinister Gandalf, but awesome nonetheless.

Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the dwarves.

Their mission: To take back their homeland, The Lonely Mountain, from the clutches of the evil dragon Smaug!
"Actually, it's Smog. I'm from the west coast."

Along the way, the intrepid Bilbo finds treasure, powerful magical artifacts, and the scariest thing of all: Adventure!
Adventure = Trolls (not the internet kind)

Some background

This is the first finished feature-length adaptation of the renowned J.R.R. Tolkien novel, "The Hobbit." This cartoon production was developed for television by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr., who are well-known for their stop motion holiday cartoons, most notably "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1964) and "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" (1970).

Less popular: Goblin Claws is Comin' to Town (1979)

It originally aired in America on the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), but is best known from its syndicated appearances since. The film's unique anime-like style is due to the film being directed by a Japanese man named Toru Hara and animated by his studio, Topcraft.
Because of the art style, the scenes look very painterly.

While Topcraft worked with Rankin-Bass Productions throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, they eventually dissolved, only to later reform under the moniker Studio Ghibli, a name anime and movie fans will certainly remember.

Not perfect, but what is perfection?

Naturally, in this hour-and-a-half production there had to be some truncated story elements, as well as certain scenes and characters being omitted completely (there is no Beorn the werebear, for example). Most of the dwarves don't have speaking roles outside of Thorin, although the rotund Bombur (Paul Frees) and Balin (Don Messick, the original voice of Scooby Doo) do occasionally speak.

When Thorin speaks, it's... usually an insult or snide remark.

There's no Arkenstone (one of the key points of the novel) and barely any time spent on the Battle of the Five Armies, though it is presented as a definite anti-war message.
The show really leans into the horror and pointlessness of war.

Some viewers will be put off by the amount of singing in this movie (it's a lot), but adapted songs sung by folk singer Glenn Yarbrough as well as others featuring Thurl "Tony The Tiger" Ravenscroft are as memorable as they are hokey.

A personal favorite

I love this movie. I never saw it when it aired originally (I was but a mere two years old at the time), but I had the Disney book & record growing up and it always intrigued me. A few years later when I finally saw the film I fell in love with it. It's still a good time in my opinion: It's definitely a unique take on the material, with a gorgeous illustrative style that highlights the weird world of Tolkien. My personal favorite thing in this movie is the character of Gollum (Theodore Gottlieb), who is much more monstrous and frog-like in this interpretation than in later revisions, and I feel that it works better.

He's scarier, funnier, and more twisted to his environment than Andy Serkis's interpretation.

Better than... "other attempts."

Now, just for contrast, I revile the Peter Jackson "Hobbit" movies. I feel that their additions to the story are needless and take what is a very humorous and straightforward adventure story into an utterly humorless mini-Lord of the Rings, and because of this they lose the soul of the book. The Rankin-Bass animated version, on the other hand, still delights me.

Burt... er, BARD the bowman.

Is it safe for kids?

There's no bad language, no nudity or sexuality, but there is a lot of implied death towards the end (there are no bloody action scenes, every time a sword strikes someone the screen switches to a kaleidoscope style effect and some scary moments with monsters that might frighten young children, but otherwise this is a soft PG at most.

Oh yeah, and this is what wood elves look like in the movie. Have fun, kids!

Where can you find it?

As of this writing it is streaming on Max (formerly HBO Max) and is available to rent or buy from Amazon Prime Video. I reviewed my DVD copy.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Baby's Day Out

Slap That Baby, Make Him Free!

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "Baby's Day Out" (Twentieth Century Fox, 1994).

Don't Bink or you'll miss it.

Bennington Cotwell II (played alternatively by twins Adam and Jacob Warton), affectionately referred to as "Baby Bink" by his nanny, Gilbertine (Cynthia Nixon), is obsessed with a book called "Baby's Day Out," which depicts the adventures of "Baby Boo" as his nanny takes him on a trip through the city.
And we get to sit along with them. Seriously. This is considered entertainment.

Baby Bink's rich society-obsessed obviously abusively negligent parents, Laraine (Lara Flynn Boyle) and Bennington (Matthew Glave) have arranged for the child to have his picture professionally taken so that he can be featured in the newspaper (I swear that I'm not making this up).
"Honey, have we thought about sending Bink to boarding school yet?"

On the day of the appointment, the photographers are kidnapped and replaced by the criminal trio of Veeko, Norby, and Eddie (Brian Haley, Joe Pantoliano, and Joe Mantegna respectively).
They're really the only characters in the film.

The crooks kidnap Bink in short order and leave a ransom note for the parents, who quickly call the FBI.
Cypher no swiping!

The top G-man for the crisis, Dale Grissom (former Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson -- again, I swear I'm not making this up) quickly sizes up the situation.
"My plan is to cut taxes and raise military spending somehow!"

Meanwhile, the criminals are attempting to get Bink to sleep while they await the ransom drop, but the baby sees pigeons outside of the top floor window, reminding him of the birds in his book. He quickly climbs out onto the roof, and begins to follow things that remind him of illustrations in the storybook, slowly crossing Chicago as the crooks try to reacquire him.
In real life they would have shot this gorilla even though he didn't do anything. That's not meant to be funny.

The injuries and the "laughs" begin to pile up in slapstick fashion as the criminals chase the wily infant.

Some background

This movie was directed by Patrick Read Johnson, who was a known and popular Hollywood writer (and the director of a few B movies). The direction is perfectly competent, or at the very least technically competent. The real surprise here is that this film was both written and produced by John Hughes. Yes, THAT John Hughes.

I guarantee that Hughes crapped this script out in a weekend to pay for a boat or something.

The bad

Now, when I tell you that this film was a box office failure, bringing in a worldwide gross of just over $16,000,000 against its budget of $48,000,000, you might think that it's because it released around the same time as the James Cameron/Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle "True Lies" or Disney's "The Lion King," and you'd be partially right; however, it's currently sitting with around 19% on Rottentomatoes.com, and there's a reason.

Pictured: The returns, looking up at the cost.


I personally hate this movie. This is the THIRD time I've tried to watch this, and the problem is that every time I end up falling asleep. It's not that the Three Stooges-esque gags aren't visually funny, but they don't happen nearly as often as they should and everything in the film seems derivative of old Looney Tunes or Tom & Jerry cartoons…

The crooks spend more time talking about getting injured than actually getting injured.

Which was already parodied quite humorously and succinctly in Roger Rabbit's "Baby Herman" cartoons around the same time. The thing these examples have in common and that "Baby's Day Out" fails to capture is that they're all less than 5 minutes long.
I swear I've seen this somewhere before in a 1940s cartoon.

Couple that with the most unlikable-but-not-actually-evil parental figures ever put on film, and you have a bad movie that just drags itself out while being impenetrably unrelatable. John Hughes has this irritating habit of making all of his characters rich and ALWAYS uncritically so, but this was easily one of his most out-of-touch productions in a catalog that brought us the likes of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "16 Candles," and "Home Alone" (all rich people all the time).

Safe for kids, not for your patience

This movie is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for cartoon violence (especially several nut shots to Joe Mantegna), but there's no swearing or tobacco use… also, apparently Chicago is "straight" as an arrow and lily white, as there are no minorities to be found anywhere in the film -- not downtown, not even at construction sites. It's safe enough for kids, provided they can stay awake through it, and that might be a tall order.

Fun for babies, not for Batman!

Where can you find it?

"Baby's Day Out" is currently streaming on Disney+, but can also be rented or purchased on Amazon Prime Video.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

The Red House Mystery

A. A. Milne's only real mystery novel

Today I took a few hours to read a book that has been sweltering on my bookshelf for a few months, "The Red House Mystery" (Alan Alexander Milne, E.P. Dutton and Company, 1922; Dover Publications edition reviewed, 1998).

What's it about?

There's trouble at the Red House estate in the English countryside: Murder! The manor's owner ,Mark Ablett, announces that his ne'er-do-well brother, Robert Ablett, is coming to visit him from Australia. Moments after Robert enters his brother's house, there are sounds of an argument coming from the office, then a gunshot! Bystander Anthony Gillingham is coming to the Red House to visit his friend, guest Bill Beverly, when he hears the commotion, and enters to find Mr. Ablett's cousin and personal secretary, Matthew "Cay" Cayley desperately trying to force open the office doors. With Anthony's help, the two find another way in to discover Robert's body lying on the floor, with Mark apparently on the run. Sensing something about the crime is amiss, and being an unwitting witness for the coming inquest, Anthony decides to act as a detective, bringing in Bill as his "Watson." Can the two friends solve the mystery?

The bad

This book hails from the so-called "Golden Age of Detective Fiction," and easily deserves to be on the shelf next to the best Agatha Christie novels. I'm not going to sugarcoat everything, though: Looking at this book through a modern lens does ruin the effect somewhat. I found the "mystery" part of the book sort of predictable, as I figured out the twist very early on (and chances are, you will too). While some sections of text seem to be a bit wordier and redundant than they have to be, it does lend to the author's voice and the dialogue of the characters. The language itself is perfectly modern, if you ignore the weird spelling of "connexion" and the word "kedgeree" which pops up once (it's a type of food consisting of fish, hard-boiled eggs and rice).

The good

What does carry the book through this though is the writing: It's full of humor, wit, and two would-be detectives who are treating the whole affair like their own game of "let's pretend to be Sherlock Holmes." This lack of deadly seriousness makes this reasonably short read a page-turner and a fun time throughout. It's a shame that this didn't become a series, but there's a reason…

The odd

The author of this tome is Alan Alexander Milne, better known as A. A. Milne, who sharp-eyed readers may recognize as the writer of "Winnie the Pooh." This was (technically) his first published novel, and predates "Pooh" by a couple of years. While this mystery novel was quite popular and successful in its day, "Winnie the Pooh" and its sequel "The House at Pooh Corner" were cultural milestones that were his greatest successes (and also - allegedly - his greatest personal annoyance). Authors can write different books and genres, and most like to do so. Milne himself wrote poetry, fiction, and nonfiction books before, during, and after "Pooh," but apparently could never seem to escape its shadow, even costing him his relationship with his son.

Is it worth reading?

This is absolutely worth a read if you have any interest in mystery and detective novels, and is a great way to observe the writing style of Milne beyond his better known works. Check it out if you can!

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Emil and the Detectives

A Mill and the Defectives

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "Emil and the Detectives" (Disney, 1964). In the small town of Neustadt, Germany a young boy named Emil Tischbein (Bryan Russell) is boarding a bus to Berlin with a bouquet of flowers in his hand and four hundred marks (the German currency at the time) pinned inside his coat to give his grandmother.

In this universe, checks don't exist.

There's just one problem: A criminal known as Herr Grundeis (AKA "The Mole," played by Heinz Schubert) witnesses Emil's mother pinning the envelope to his jacket and decides to rob the child.
Not going to lie: This man steals more than money -- he steals the show.

Grundeis hypnotizes the boy into falling asleep and deftly picks his pocket. Emil awakens shortly afterward just as Grundeis is departing the bus, realizes that he's been robbed and runs after the criminal in pursuit. While shadowing The Mole Emil runs into an enterprising teenager named Gustav Fleischmann (Roger Mobley), who (among the dozens of business cards in his pocket) claims to be a detective.
"Of course I'm a detective! Why else would I wear this porn hat and silk scarf?"

After the two agree on a fee of ten marks, Gustav follows the criminal only to lose him, but not before getting a clue: Most of a torn-up note that details a meeting at a hotel… But the name of the hotel is the piece that is missing. Emil follows Gustav while he assembles a rag-tag team of boys that he calls his "detectives." Briefing his team on the situation, the boys quickly disperse throughout Berlin, casing hotels to find The Mole based on Emil's description, while sending a note to Emil's grandmother so that she doesn't worry. The note is intercepted by Emil's school newspaper reporter cousin, Pony (Cindy Cassell) who begins trailing the detectives to find Emil.
"But I'm grandma, I'm just a plucky America-- er, German girl!"

Eventually, the kids find The Mole and his coconspirators, giant thug Müller (Peter Ehrlich) and his boss, The Baron (Walter Slezak).
"Gentlemen, I've got a plan that hinges on me doing absolutely nothing!"

While trying to get evidence to get the police to intervene, the young troupe uncover a plot that involves a hidden underground tunnel system and a bank robbery. Can Emil and the detectives get back the money and defeat the criminals?
SPOILERS: No, and no.

Some background

This movie is based on a 1929 German novel by writer Erich Kästner that was translated to English in 1931. Aside from being his most popular novel, it's also his only novel that wasn't censored by the Nazi regime that was in control at the time. It was adapted for Disney by writer A.J. Carothers (who mostly wrote television serials and television movies) and directed by Peter Tewksbury (who frequently directed several popular TV shows of the time). This isn't even the first time it's been adapted, having a German film in 1931, a 1935 British remake, a post-war West German remake in 1954, as well as several television serials based on the story.

Good things

At its core, this is a typical "boy detective" style tale, where the kids are basically ignored or discounted by the adult characters and are forced to rely on their wits and resourcefulness in order to outwit seasoned criminals.

"You stupid kids with your stupid credible story!"

The introduction of the film aggrandizes the criminals, referred to as "The Three Skrinks." For clarification, the film uses the term "skrink" as slang for "crook" or "jerk," possibly in the hopes that it would catch on (it didn't). It has adventure, intrigue, interesting villains (well, for a kids movie anyway), while being relatively family friendly.

Not quite as good things

The problem with the film is the setting. Or the characters. Take your pick: The problem is that the characters don’t fit the setting. Let me explain: This version of the story takes place in post-World War II Berlin, during the Cold War before the fall of Communism. That means that Berlin is still split into West Berlin and East Berlin. The wall that separated these communities and threatened war for so long is referenced in the film, but otherwise every opportunity is taken to make Berlin seem sunny, bright and carefree… Except for the burned out building (obviously a holdover from the war) that much of the end of the film takes place in. This on its own would be fine, except that all the adults are played by German actors and actresses, while all the children seemed like they were bussed in from America.

"I must be German. I mean, I'm white, aren't I?"

So you get shifty Gustav Fleischmann, dressed for all the world like a cross between Pinocchio and Lampwick speaking with an American accent.
"Hey, youse guys wanna see the Reichstag? Fuggetaboutit!"

All of the kids seem like American imports, and while this was obviously done to make the kids more palatable to American audiences, it doesn't mesh well with the distinctly European locales.

Pretty safe for kids

On the whole, it's not exactly the most interesting story, but it is entirely watchable. Kids today might be a little bored by the pacing while being confused by the black and white televisions and rotary dial telephones. It predates the MPAA film rating system, but it's easily a soft PG. There's no strong language and no nudity or sex. There is tobacco use as well as the threat of gun violence and death by dynamite (which adds to much of the drama in the second half of the film), if that's a concern.

The villains don't seem that threatening until they are.

Where can you find it?

"Emil and the Detectives" is currently streaming on Disney+.