Tag Archives: The Lion King

Failed Critics Podcast: Mr Peregrine’s Podcast for Peculiar People

miss-peregrine

Wahey look how quirky and gothic we are as hosts Steve Norman and Owen Hughes stumble around for far longer than they should on this week’s podcast discussing Tim Burton’s latest zany fantasy film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Ooooh we’re so weird. Steve’s got a face full of wasps and Owen constantly props himself up with sticks else he sinks into the ground. It’s fine though because of the randomness and wacky way we present ourselves so you’ll have to love it.

Oh, by the way, I was being sarcastic.

In less annoying Burton-esque tropes, the pair struggle to get a handle on why Disney are bothering to remake The Lion King and end the show rather unusually by trying to figure out exactly what’s wrong with the BBC’s sitcoms lately.

In What We’ve Been Watching, Steve also finally gets to see Don’t Breathe after its glowing review on the podcast a few weeks back, whilst Owen revisits the remake of one of his favourite ever movies in 2008’s Day of the Dead.

Join us again next week for a slightly more on track podcast (presumably).

LISTEN VIA ACAST FOR THE MOST INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCE

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Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


madagascar 2 escape to africa17] Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (7th November 2008)

Budget: $150 million

Gross: $602,308,178

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 64%

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa wastes absolutely no time establishing itself as superior to the first movie.  Madagascar flung viewers headfirst into comedy, its opening scene with Marty dreaming of running free in the wild not really getting time to breathe or properly instil the heart and sincerity required to make the film much more than a rapid-fire joke machine.  Escape 2 Africa – which, before we go any further, is an incredibly awful name that just gets worse the more it ruminates in my brain – opens with a lengthy prologue detailing how Alex got to New York in the first place.

Once more, just to make the difference clear: Madagascar opens with a scene in which Marty the zebra dreams about wanting to run free in the wild, before Alex startles him out of it.  It lasts about 45 seconds and it is absolutely not meant to be taken seriously, as evidenced by the fact that it starts with Marty swinging through the air on a vine like George In The Jungle.  Madagascar 2 opens with a four-and-a-half minute (6 minutes and 45 seconds if you want to include the entirety of the prologue) sequence where Alex as a child is poached by some hunters but ends up accidentally drifting out to sea and is rescued by the Central Park Zoo.  The scene does have some jokes, but the general tone is being played for actual heart, real resonance instead of just gut-reflex laughs.  The gags don’t undercut the sequence, they stay away during its heavier moments.

Madagascar wasn’t a bad movie, far from it, but it was disposable.  Its lack of a real emotional centre meant that the film didn’t really register far beyond its jokes, so proceedings fell flat whenever the jokes didn’t land or when it tried to force genuine emotional resonance from a cast who spend much of those 80 minutes ripping into and insulting one another.  Again, this wasn’t a major problem – because a good majority of those jokes did land and there’s only really one prolonged stretch where the film tries to force an emotional centre it doesn’t really have – but it is something that kept it from being a great movie instead of a pretty darn good one.

Escape 2 Africa is all about that heart.  The film is still very funny and very silly – we will get to that – but this time there’s a real underpinning of heart to proceedings.  Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria spend far more of their relatively brief interactions with one another being friends with each other instead of sniping with barely concealed hatred.  Each of their respective plots hones in on an insecurity of theirs and plays that for laughs and drama instead of all laughs all the time.  There’s a genuinely kind-hearted and good-natured vibe to proceedings, this time, instead of feeling like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia but with talking animals.

In fact, a lot of Escape 2 Africa revolves around retconning and adding actual fully-formed characters for our cast.  Again, although it wasn’t bad, Madagascar didn’t really have any characters.  Alex and Marty were defined purely by how accustomed to The Wild they both are, whilst Melman gets the one trait of being a hypochondriac and Gloria kinda just existed every now and again.  Therefore, much of their characterisation in this one can come out of nowhere with only Alex, just now with father issues, and Marty, whose insecurities about not feeling like a true individual come about organically, remaining consistent between films.

Melman turns out to have a crush on Gloria despite literally no such hints of that coming up in the first film, especially ‘out-of-nowhere’ as he becomes a stammering blithering tool around Gloria once this becomes knowledge to the viewer – otherwise known as Hugh Granting.  Gloria suddenly expresses a desire to procreate because she has “reached that time in her life” and, not coincidentally, around the time we learn about Melman’s feelings for her.  The dynamic between King Julian and his assistant Maurice, meanwhile, has completely changed – whereas in Madagascar Maurice was openly contemptuous of having to serve Julian, here he is a devoted follower who holds Julian in high esteem with nothing but respect.

One could get the feeling that everybody involved was hoping that the three year gap between the two films would cause the viewers of the original to forget the specifics of each character, and therefore find these new traits either totally in character or fitting with what came before.  Oftentimes, they aren’t.  However, I’m willing to let that all slide because I will always a little bit of character inconsistency if the trade-off is more heart.  That kid-focussed prologue demonstrates more genuine love and respect between the lead cast than the entirety of Madagascar did, Melman’s crush gives him and Gloria something to do, and the new-found bestest-buddies-for-life nature of King Julian and Maurice adds genuine heart and depth to a pair who felt absolutely superfluous to the first film.

Of course, one cannot talk about the heart in Madagascar 2 without bringing up the Disney-shaped elephant in the room: the fact that Alex’s plot – which is the main plot by virtue of it taking up the most screen-time – very frequently resembles that of The Lion KingMany film critics at the time derided the film for ripping off The Lion King and it’s not hard to see how they could have come to that conclusion.  Alex as a young lion cub was very much uninterested in leading the pack, there’s a scheming second lion who wishes to take over leadership for himself (Makunga, voiced by Alec Baldwin), there’s… err, there’s that one scene in the pilot of Father Of The Pride where the show dared to suggest that film is anything less than a masterpiece… … …um…

See why I held off for a good while on bringing that up?  Other than the absolute barest of strokes, The Lion King doesn’t really factor into Madagascar 2.  In fairness, that’s more down to the fact that Madagascar 2 instead cribs and rips the generic bones from pretty much Every Animated Film Evver instead.  Yes, original plotting is not the film’s strong suit.  Alex’s return to his pride goes pretty much exactly how you’re expecting it to, right down to Makunga tricking him into banishment, Gloria falls for a smooth-talking hippo who can only compliment her on her appearance instead of her personality, there’s a climactic setpiece revolving around a volcano which was a genuine trend in animated kids’ films in the mid/late-00s – I am not making this up.

This, basically, is why Madagascar 2’s heart connects but not in any particularly lasting way.  It’s not just that it cribs from tonnes of other films or standard stories, but it’s the fact that it doesn’t really execute them in any fancy or deep way.  The heart is genuine, but it’s like the film’s writers (Etan Cohen, and returning writer-directors Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell) were so scared of repeating the mistake of the first film – undercutting any attempt at drama with a big joke – that they decided to withhold their imagination and creativity for those sequences.  Again, they still hit, because the execution is great, but they don’t stick for long after viewing.

Instead, what does stick are the jokes, and more specifically the moments where the film indulges in crazy.  The first film was very much all crazy all the time.  There was no real baseline to proceedings, again because of that lack of heart, so everything was pitched at 11 with the sole intention of making the viewer laugh.  With heart now underpinning the main plots, and therefore bringing a lot of the material there back down to earth somewhat, it allows the cuts back to the penguins or King Julian or the stranded tourists to really hit hard.  Or, to put it otherwise, a gag like this…

…wouldn’t have slayed me in the same way if it had appeared in Madagascar.  After all, that was a film in which Marty made his arrival onto the island by riding a group of dolphins like jet-skis.  Everybody was crazy, everybody was broad, which meant that there was no real switch-up in terms of joke register.  Here, there’s a hierarchy.  Each of the cast operates on their own level of the joke chart – most of our main cast representing character comedy; The Penguins, Chimps, Nana and Mort (the few times the film actually deploys him) representing absurdist cartoon comedy; Julian and Alex slotting somewhere in between – which not only adds variety in terms of jokes, but allows the jokes themselves to gain an added twist or zest by dropping characters from one category into another.

For example, The Penguins.  On their own, they are incredibly funny creations whose dynamic could sustain a full film if the opportunity were given (as it has been, you can guarantee a review from me as soon as I see it).  Mixed in with the main cast, they provide a livewire spark of chaos where their dynamic – sort of a cross between a 60s spy thriller, a hardboiled noir tale, and The Three Stooges – comes off as insulated and insane through the eyes of our more sane characters.  Mixing in crazy with crazy, as is what happens when they team up with Phil and Mason the Chimps in order to fix the plane, and you get delightfully ridiculous mayhem.  Season that combination with the main cast and you get, well, this…

The Penguins are still my favourite part of this series so far, but Madagascar 2 makes it harder to clearly separate their hilarious individual scenes from the rest of the film as something to point to and go, “Yeah, I like that.  More of that, please!”  I think I count a single short scene where it is just them being them with nobody else involved in any way – the short bit involving the fuel warning light.  Everything else in this film with them involves another aspect of the cast.  Mason and Phil, Alex, Nana in the film’s most hysterical dark gag.  Whereas the first film very much sequestered the Penguins away from the rest of the action after having kick-started it, 2 integrates them into the overall ensemble which elevates proceedings as a result.

Yes, see, Madagascar 2 takes the “BIGGER, BIGGER, MORE OF EVERYTHING” approach to sequel making, much like Shrek 2 did earlier in this series and very much like Rio 2 did earlier this year.  Everyone is back from Madagascar, pretty much, and everybody gets something to do, yet nothing feels skimped out on.  Alex only gets the most screen-time because his is the story that needs the most amount of screen-time to tell – although a more cynical person than myself could argue that it’s because Ben Stiller is the one member of the cast whose box office star hadn’t totally faded by the time of the film’s release.  Everything is well-balanced, everything is told economically, everything is balanced so’s we know which plots we’re supposed to properly invest in and which we are supposed to take as merely joke fodder.

On that note, Nana.  Nana, as you may recall, is the (possibly Russian) old lady from the first film who manhandles Alex during the bit in Grand Central Station.  She returns in this one, seemingly just for a rematch that’s admittedly funny but strongly gives off the vibe that Madagascar 2 has no new ideas of its own – it also reminded me of the Peter/Chicken fights from Family Guy but, thankfully, knows to cut itself off early before it runs the risk of stopping being funny.  Except the film keeps going back to her, playing up her Terminator-style endurance, survival instincts and near-total hatred for nature as character traits instead of just jokes, before finally making her an outright villain.

This, to me, is the perfect encapsulation of what a sequel like Madagascar 2 should do – note: not all sequels should strive to be like Madagascar 2, but this is not a bad level to aim for if that’s the case – taking seemingly throwaway things from the first film and then developing them into fully fledged entities of their own that don’t just redo the gag from the first film.  Madagascar 2 is guilty of reusing gags, but its best moments, like Nana, evolve them into either a full-on part of the film or at least change the set-up and delivery enough to alter the gag in some way and keep it fresh.  And when it’s not doing that, it’s injecting a tonne of heart into proceedings, or coming up with fresh gags of its own.  It’s not lazy, something that’s farted out because the brand recognition alone guarantees a $60 mil+ opening weekend, it’s actively trying to improve.

If there is a major flaw in Madagascar 2 – the unoriginality of much of the plotting excepted – it’s that its main villain (Nana’s true villain status is withheld until the finale) is kinda really boring.  Makunga doesn’t really do anything or serve any real purpose other than being the catalyst for getting Alex thrown out of the watering hole; plot that could have been accomplished by far more interesting means.  He is voiced by Alec Baldwin, who tries to bring some Jack Donaghy-style scheming to the character, but he’s also modelled to look like him so his face is… distracting, and the ridiculous quiff that he sports really doesn’t fit into the art of the film’s world.  The rest of the film looks outstanding – colours are more vibrant, everything is more detailed, camerawork is more dynamic, storyboarding has had some more effort put into it – but Makunga never seems to belong with the rest of the film, both visually and narratively.

So, with Madagascar 2 being that rare example of a comedy sequel that’s funnier and better than the original, one would expect it to have been a 22 Jump Street sort of success, majorly improving on the box office receipts of the first film.  Well, kinda.  Domestically, it’s the lowest-grossing entry in the series so far (although Penguins Of Madagascar may end up taking that title shortly if this weekend’s box office results are any indicator).  There, of course, was the $60 million opening weekend, a combination of the first Madagascar, the strength of the DreamWorks brand and a weak set of opposing movies.  But then November 2008 got pretty crowded, and Madagascar 2 was booted from the chart after 6 weeks.  Compared to its predecessor’s 8 week run in the Top 10, and the very big success of Kung Fu Panda earlier in the year, this looks rather weak.

Yet the film closed with more money in box office receipts than its predecessor.  How?  Three words: foreign box office.  Overseas, Madagascar 2 grossed an outstanding $423 million, which is what ultimately pushed the thing over-the-top and way past the first film.  Going down that list of markets, a pattern begins to emerge as to where the most successful performances are.  United Kingdom, Spain, Russia, France, Italy, Germany…  Europe really couldn’t get enough of Madagascar 2.  Suddenly it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Madagascar 3 is predominately set in Europe, does it?  I mean, I’ve yet to see the thing so I can’t comment on whether the thing really is as financially calculated as it now looks on paper, but I can pretty much guarantee that somebody at DreamWorks looked at those numbers and had a “Eureka!” moment.

I mentioned at the beginning of last week’s entry that I hold up 2008 as the peak year of DreamWorks Animation.  The year where everything came together and they put out high quality material to well-deserved critical praise and very well-deserved financial success.  Now, I made that observation before having seen Madagascar 2 – going purely by soft critical success instead of personal first-hand experience – but it’s one that has been cemented after watching the thing.  It’s not an outstanding film, but it is a damn good one that represents a giant leap forward in quality for the Madagascar series, and the financial success of that, along with Kung Fu Panda and the launch of their first successful TV series The Penguins Of Madagascar, put the company at a peak they’ve really yet to reach.

2008, you see, is the first year since 2004 where the company was clearly trying as a whole – instead of that effort being located in a few isolated pockets – and treating their films as art instead of disposable products (again, it may not be completely successful at it, but Madagascar 2 was clearly trying to be more than disposable).  The public responded in kind with a veritable money shower and very healthy-looking television ratings.  Nowadays, the second half of that equation is mostly gone, for whatever reason, and it’s never really going to come back.  DreamWorks Animation is too big now to get this kind of concentrated success any more: three films a year, multiple TV shows on the go at any one time, new online platforms that you didn’t even know existed until now (admit it).  There are too many variables, too many spinning plates, and some of them are going to fall at some point during the year; it’s inevitable.  Hell, as 2014 may be proving to you, those falling plates show no sign of stopping any time soon.

But, for 12 glorious months in the year dated 2008, DreamWorks Animation were pretty much untouchable.  They were the kings of the animation world, and they really rather deserved it.


Next week, we close out the decade known as the 2000s by looking at their sole feature film release for 2009: Monsters vs. Aliens.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch can’t realise why he’s living alone.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

A Decade in Film: The Nineties – 1994

In the latest entry to our Decade in Film series, Kate takes a look back at her favourite films released 20 years ago. A year so good that none of Jim Carrey’s 3 classic comedies, Tom Hanks’ most celebrated role nor the most expensive movie ever made (at the time) could squeeze into the top five. That’s how good a year it was. Want to know what was better? Read on…

by Kate Diamond (@katediamond)

5. The Lion King

LION KING SCAR

“Meticulous planning tenacity spanning
Decades of denial is simply why I’ll
Be king undisputed respected, saluted
And seen for the wonder I am”

The current widespread hysterical hype over Ice Princess romp Frozen? That was the UK in the autumn of 1994 with The Lion King. OK, that was me in the autumn of 1994 with The Lion King. I’m a Pride Rock obsessive. Though even casual observers would have to admit that this was the last great Disney film for a while. Possibly even until Elsa & Anna came along some twenty years later. (Full disclosure? I prefer Tangled.)

A Hamlet-esque tale of elephant graveyards, laughing in the face of danger, and grub; in which Jeremy Irons steals the show entirely as the delightfully brutal Scar. From the sublime (the wonderful Circle of Life opening sequence) to the ridiculous (I Just Can’t Wait To Be King: worst animation ever), it’s a true musical feast – picking up the Academy awards for both original score and original song. Although I think we can all agree that the harrowing stampede scene should never have been granted a U rating.

4. Speed

SPEED

“Cans! There was no baby, it was full of cans!”

While the imdb ‘turned down the part of Annie’ list features almost every actress in Hollywood, the relatively unknown Sandra Bullock cracked on and actually passed her bus driving licence for this role. Who’s laughing now, Sarah Jessica Parker? Keanu Reeves is our, let’s not beat around the bush here, protagonist DREAMBOAT. The white t-shirt, the cropped hair, the monotonous emotionless line delivery – I was 14, and I’d never known love like it. Support comes from Jeff Daniels as the loveably loyal partner, and Dennis Hopper as the wronged ex-cop with a detonator, and a penchant for pop quizzes.

The somewhat ill-advised tagline for Speed was ‘get ready for rush hour’. Which, on a bus set to explode if it drops below 50mph, would have made for a pretty short movie. Instead this is 116 minutes of high octane elevator shaft, subway and bus jumping drama. And there’s even time for a little bit of romance at the end. My brother met his missus on a bus, and it wasn’t nearly as exciting as this.

3. Clerks

CLERKS

“You, you’re so obsessed with making it seem so much more epic, so much more important than it really is. Christ, you work in a convenience store, Dante, and badly I might add.”

The picture that launched Kevin Smith’s career, and possibly still his finest work, was filmed in black & white on a tiny budget. Essential viewing for anyone who’s ever worked in the service industry, or indeed uttered the words ‘I’m not even supposed to be here today’, Clerks introduces us to a host of characters who would return in some of Smith’s later work, including Jay & Silent Bob, one of cinema’s most enduring double acts.

Set in a fully functioning convenience store, shooting could only take place at night outside of its opening hours. This resulted in a plot centred on a brilliant hand written sign, and recurrent references to the smell of shoe polish. Watch it for the dialogue, for a reminiscence of the days of actually going to a shop to rent a film; or as a stark reminder of the dangers of using public toilets. I once paid £16.99 for a copy of this on VHS, to impress a guy. Worth it.

2. Pulp Fiction

PULP FICTION

“God damn that’s a pretty fucking good milkshake”

Reservoir Dogs, with all that ear business, was a bit gory for me, truth be told. Accidentally shoot a man in the face, however, and I’ll laugh for hours. You’d have to reside under a pretty huge rock not to be aware of this film. The delicious ensemble cast, the out of sequence storyline, and a pop soundtrack in lieu of a score that is pretty much the greatest mix tape ever.

The movie that resurrected John Travolta’s career, it would have made my top five purely for getting him to dance on the big screen again. But add to that Bruce Willis brandishing a machete, Samuel L Jackson brandishing a cheeseburger, and the aforementioned Bonnie Situation, and I’m there every single time you want to watch it. Pulp Fiction is what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity. As cool as a million Fonzies.

1. The Shawshank Redemption

SHAWSHANK

“I guess I just miss my friend.”

If someone asks me to name my favourite film (Why the hell would you ask me that? Are we on a speed date?) I’ll more than likely name this. And I hate that, because it does seem like the kind of safe, middle of the road choice a boring brother in law might offer. But this film genuinely does push/punch/beat into submission so many of my buttons that I can cry just thinking about the final 20 minutes. (An A level film studies class once hosted a screening of it at our local independent cinema, and my post credits bumbling snotty thanks to them for the opportunity to see it on the big screen probably ruined their experience entirely. Sorry to them.)

An epic tale of Mozart, hope and money laundering in a jail in Maine. While it’s easy to like Morgan Freeman’s affable prison stalwart Red, critics described Tim Robbin’s Andy Dufresne as lacking in warmth and ability to connect with the audience. However his quiet contemplative performance as a man wrongly convicted of killing his wife makes for a pretty damn emotional conclusion. A film with an (albeit slightly ridiculous) final reveal that if, like me, you were blissfully unaware of the first time you saw it, leaves you immediately wanting to watch it again to relive the details. Shawshank did little at the box office on its original release, however later gained deserved success, plaudits and praise thanks to those already discussed video stores. Good on you, the nineties.

You can find more of our revitalised Decade In Film articles so far here, from 1963-2004.

The Road To El Dorado

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation turns 20.  In celebration, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment.


The Road to El Dorado Poster03] The Road To El Dorado (31st March 2000)

Budget: $95 million

Gross: $76,432,727

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 49%

1999 was a bad time to be anyone in animation not working for Disney.  Not in terms of quality, sweet merciful Maker no!  1999 gave us Tarzan, Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant, Fantasia 2000, Doug’s 1st Movie, Wacko’s Wish (the direct-to-video Animaniacs movie that not enough people give due credit to), the Dexter’s Laboratory TV movie Ego Trip, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.  That is the kind of embarrassment of riches that proves that today’s animated landscape can do much, much better.  Quality-wise, it was a near-untouchable year.  Financially… ever been stuck with a group of people in a factory as the place burns to the ground around you but you’re all still working as hard as you can because you just know the boss is going to fire you if you’re not pumping out quality products, even whilst your livelihood is going up in smoke before your eyes?  I’d imagine that being somebody who worked in feature-length animation in 1999 was kind of like that.

1999 was the year of bombs.  Tarzan made money, Toy Story 2 made money and South Park rode a nice wave of “AN ANIMATED FILM THAT SAYS THE F WORD?! WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!” to relatively decent financial success.  Everything else severely underwhelmed and most bombed hardFantasia 2000, primarily hobbled by Disney’s… interesting release strategy, only made a $10 million profit.  Doug’s 1st Movie opened in a landscape free and clear of any animated fare and still only made $5 million opening weekend before proceeding, like everything else released in April of 1999 regardless of whether they shared the same target audience, to be crushed by the enormous popularity of The Matrix (although I should point out that its planned direct-to-video nature meant that it actually closed after nearly quadrupling its budget).  The excretable The King & I (because even 1999 had to have one outright puke-stain) failed to make back even half of its miniscule $25 million budget.  And The Iron Giant, primarily thanks to incredible mismanagement by Warner Bros.’ distribution arm (rushed late Summer release with next to no advertising), crashed and burned at the box office so spectacularly that it all but shut down Warner Bros. Feature Animation (the only reason it didn’t is because the live-action/animation hybrids Osmosis Jones and Looney Tunes: Back In Action did even worse).

2000 would end up just as bad and, in addition to a pair of very notable Disney bombs in 2001 and 2002, spelt doom for traditional animation in feature-length films, but we shall address that situation fully in a month’s time when we reach it.  For now, let’s return to DreamWorks.  1998 was a very good year for the company with both of their debut films releasing to large box office success, critical adoration and, in one instance, an Academy Award.  Unfortunately, the previously-mentioned competitive desires of its CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg had left the company without a release for 1999.  The plan was for Antz to open in March of 1999 and for The Road To El Dorado to release in late ‘99.  Neither scenario came to pass, Antz due to the A Bug’s Life feud which I am officially done referencing in this series as of now, El Dorado because… well… production on this film was “troubled,” let’s put it that way.  Reports of changes of directors, changes of tone, changes in intended audience (this started off planned at a PG-13 level) changes of story (which is absolutely killer mid-production in animation as anybody with a brain can tell you) and that many of the people who were working on The Prince Of Egypt were also working on this at the same time paint the picture of a film that had sealed its own fate long before release.

Oh, and then there’s the trailer.  Tell me, does this look like the kind of film that you must go and see with your kids opening weekend?

So, unsurprisingly, the film opened soft in the first weekend of April: second place with $12 million.  And though it held rather steady over the following month (rarely dropping over 30% between weekends), it wasn’t a strong performer during the week and soft drops mean little if you opened poorly to begin with.  It closed at nearly $51 million in the US, half of what The Prince Of Egypt was able to accomplish just fifteen months prior, and took only half that in foreign markets.  To date, it is the only DreamWorks Animation film to not make its budget back.  Critics, meanwhile, weren’t kind.  They lambasted its generic looks, its safe and edgeless humour, its formulaic plot, the fact it it’s lightweight and has little going on thematically and, in one bizarre case from Empire magazine, the fact that the two lead heroes seemed more in love with each other than the woman that comes between them (in fact, it’s actually been rumoured that the original plan was for the film’s leads to be lovers with one another, before being dropped because this was the year 2000 and such a move was, and still is unfortunately, considered commercial suicide).  Plans to create a whole franchise out of the film were very quickly scrapped and history would seem to write this one off as complete and total failure.

History would be wrong to do so, though.  See, 90% of the time, films that are both critical and financial duds are duds for a reason.  But, on that rare other 10% of the occasion, they end up unfairly maligned and being bewildering passed over at the box office.  They’re gems that never really got a chance to prove themselves.  And I think I know why such a fate befell El Dorado.  See, critics adored Antz because it tackled weighty themes and they adored The Prince Of Egypt for being an epic realised in animated form with a tone befitting such ambitions.  Past DreamWorks Animations were, in a way, making a purposeful play for critical praise.  El Dorado instead was aiming to be a swashbuckling adventure throwback, a sort-of road trip flick, a buddy comedy and a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, all mashed-up and fed through the lens of a kiddie-fied version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King.  It’s not trying to be deep, it’s not trying to be weighty, it’s just trying to be fun.  Of course, DreamWorks had proven themselves to be more ambitious than this, so critics were going to see this as a step back.  No wonder they were so hard on it.  Marketing, meanwhile, took the lighter tone to mean a license to aim at the youngest kids only, despite the film’s humour hemming closer to buddy comedies that are more enjoyable by older kids and especially parents.  No wonder most people stayed away.

It’s all especially a shame because The Road To El Dorado is a really good movie.  Fun is a rather undervalued commodity by a lot of people, but El Dorado has it in spades.  Real fun, proper fun, not the kind of “fun” that Transformers and its ilk traffic in.  This is a film that moves fast, where barely a minute goes by without something funny happening in some way, where proceedings are kept super lightweight and anything that threatens to bring that mood into something darker is near-immediately distanced and the party is back on.  It’s a film that wants to show you a good time, for you to sit back and let the witticisms, chase scenes, cons and overall silliness just wash over you.  And it owns that totally, which is why it works so well.  Plus, you know, the buddy dynamic is dead-on and excellently pulled off.

If you’re a regular visitor of the site, you’ll be aware that I saw and reviewed The Nut Job this past weekend.  I bring this up because El Dorado’s leads are rather similar to the lead in that film: they’re selfish, jerk-ish criminals who only look out for one-another and have little time for performing good or heroic deeds, but who eventually grow consciences for various reasons (Miguel due to bonding with the people of El Dorado, Tulio due to falling for a young native woman by the name of Chel who wants in on their scam) and end up risking their big scores to do the right thing.  In The Nut Job, this approach fails totally and just ends up creating an unlikeable dill-weed whose late-game change-of-heart rings false.  But it ends up working for El Dorado.  Why?  Well, one of the reasons comes from the fact that the two don’t remain jerks until the 80% mark, the film does a very good job of showing them slowly developing a genuine care for the city they plan on robbing.  If you’re going to do character work, you need to actually keep at it throughout the film, make it a thing whose progress you can actually track, and El Dorado does that very well.

The other reason is because El Dorado’s leads, despite being con artists attempting to swindle a mythical city out of their riches, are extremely likeable and entertaining guys.  You can do less-morally inclined lead protagonists, but if you want us to actually like them you need to make them entertaining (there is a very good reason why Guardians Of The Galaxy just made all of the money, after all).  El Dorado was created with the intention of making the show-stealing wacky, witty, and less clean-cut sidekicks that you normally see in animated films the lead characters and it works gangbusters.  These are two extremely funny guys whose frenzied life-partner dynamic is nailed totally, by both the script and their voice actors.  Tulio is Kevin Kline, so this outcome should surprise no-one who has seen A Fish Called Wanda, Miguel is Sir Kenneth Branagh which, again, should mean that this outcome surprises no-one.  They, in a rare case for animated movies (schedules and all that), recorded their dialogue together at the same time in order to better sell the rhythm, cadence and delivery of the material, improv in places and, overall, just better capture the chemistry the pair are supposed to have.  If you’re wondering as to whether it worked or not, here is the second half of the first scene the duo appear in.

They are a fantastic comic duo whose every bicker-filled interaction is hilarious, so the fact that they don’t start the film as paragons of virtue doesn’t matter.  They’re selfish and terrible, but they’re endearing.  They’re entertaining, and the fact that they’re entertaining is what makes it easy to care about them and to enjoy spending time in their presence long before their character arcs and development kick in.  If a character is entertaining or interesting to watch, the audience won’t mind the fact that they’re not stand-up folks and, thusly, your attempts to get them to care about the character will work superbly.  And so it goes here.  The dynamic the duo share is expertly conveyed, that sense of how much their partnership matters to one another being why its eventual crumbling carries some actual emotional heft and why its eventual rebuilding leads to a finale that can leave viewers with smiles for days on end.

Since it so effortlessly nails the buddy dynamic of the equation, the rest of El Dorado basically falls into place without much of an issue.  The whole movie, which lasts a brisk 90 minutes with credits, moves at a phenomenal clip, enough to let the fun of the whole adventure easily take one over but not so much that it screws up the pacing of the character arcs or the quieter scenes.  Action scenes are breezy and filled with fun little character cues to keep them from just being spectacle.  The comedy is of a very high standard; most of it, after all, coming from anything our two leads say or do but still finding time for some great pieces of physical comedy or silent eye-rolling snarking from Altivo, the horse that ends up inadvertently tagging along with Tulio and Miguel.  Chel (voiced with maximum sass and snarkiness by Rosie Perez) doesn’t get much to do but is a very fun compliment and foil to the dynamic of the two leads, and El Dorado’s high priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante) is a good villain because the film knows how to pitch him; threatening when necessary but with a pathetic-ness and radical-to-a-fault devotion to human sacrifices that it can mine for comedy.

That being said, there are two little snags with El Dorado that can’t be traced back to its intended “Hey, folks!  We’re here to help you have fun!  Let’s all have all the fun!” nature.  The first is the animation.  It’s not bad, a large quantity of laughs come from a fantastic set of choices in regards to facial expressions, character poses and well-timed movements and framing.  What it is, though, in terms of raw quality, is average.  The colour palette is a bit muted, the scale never seems to be quite as big as the film wants it to be, there’s a lack of detail going about the backgrounds and props, and character designs themselves (with the exception of the lead duo and the “yes, they really did manage to get away with a PG for this” design for Chel) are rather uninspired and flat.  More problematic are the CG enhancements which are frequent and most have not aged well at all; the one decent one is early on with the barrels that the duo hide in.  Almost all of the gold is rendered in CG, with the team apparently writing an entirely new piece of software because they wanted the gold to look gold instead of a shade of yellow, and it just looks phoney.  Again, the film doesn’t look bad, especially where it counts for the comedy, just average and it’s especially bewildering since the film cost $25 million more than The Prince Of Egypt did and that still holds up as, in my opinion, one of the best looking animated films ever released 15 years on.

As for the other snag?  Well, this may get me lynched by some people, but the songs aren’t great.  I know, I know, “How DARE you insult the work of Elton John and Tim Rice!”  Look, their songs for The Lion King are iconic and exceptional, some of the best ever committed to a Disney film (and we all know that is saying a lot), I am not disputing that.  Unfortunately, that means that I have high standards for them, especially so when all of the ads heavily trumpet the fact that El Dorado has six new songs by the duo, and the songs in this film aren’t even in the same country as those standards.  They’re all just really, really forgettable and they really break up the pacing of the film.  Most of the time they back montages, which is understandable, but they end up causing the montages to run for way too long, as they kinda just kill time until the song finally winds itself up.  “Friends Never Say Goodbye” is a particular offender of this and also isn’t helped by being very noticeably on-the-nose lyrically.  They’re not terrible, they’re just highly unnecessary, over-long and not good enough to make up for those facts.

The Road To El Dorado, like many actually great films that go unappreciated by critics and the general public at the time of their release, has managed to attain a sort of cult classic status on the Internet, where the art of animation and cartoons are taken very seriously indeed, and I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t relieved at that development.  It really does deserve a fairer re-evaluation by people, people who realise that a fun rollicking buddy-focussed adventure romp isn’t something to look down on and who haven’t been turned off by poor marketing (it even seems like some people at Disney were paying attention; think of Flynn and Maximus the horse in Tangled).  It doesn’t set any worlds on fire, it’s about as deep as the shallow end of a kiddie pool, and its animation isn’t exactly world-class, but The Road To El Dorado is damn great at what it aims to do: be fun.  It perfectly nails down the core relationship between Tulio and Miguel and, as a result, the rest of the film and the fun effortlessly slot into place to create a silly, breezy and highly entertaining 90 minutes.  It has no pretensions at being anything more than it is and I really appreciate and admire that kind of honesty in my films.  Honesty that I’m going to borrow because, frankly, the reason I really enjoyed this movie, and why it is way better than reputation suggests, is simply the fact that it is a tonne of fun and, sometimes, that’s all that one wants.  It’s a shame that audiences and critics circa 2000 didn’t seem to.


An undeserved failure with critics and the general public, El Dorado may have caused Katzenberg and the staff at DreamWorks Animation to get a little hot under the collar about their possible long-term staying power.  Fortunately, this was not the only film that they were involved in in the year 2000 and their next film, co-produced with a cult British animation studio, would give them the financial and critical praise that El Dorado lacked.  The animation studio: Aardman.  The film: Chicken Run.  Next week, we’ll take a good long look at the first of DreamWorks’ three collaborations with the creators of Wallace & Gromit.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch got a taste of love in a simple way.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Khumba

KhumbaIt tries really hard, which is more than I can say for most kids’ films I’ve seen, but Khumba is still not a good film.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

My continuing quest to absorb all of the animation as it happens is one often fraught with feelings of despair and sadness.  Usually because the medium, which is one filled with possibilities in both the story-telling and artistic senses, is mostly used by film companies to pump out mediocre, by-the-numbers and, saddest of all, soulless products designed to strip money from kids who, presumably, don’t know any better.  And that bums me out.  Just because animated kids’ films almost always seem to make money, doesn’t mean that accountants should be in charge of their production in order to boost the bottom line at the end of the year.

Khumba, the second effort from South African production company Triggerfish Animation (previous of Zambesia), does not have that problem.  Whatever other failings it does have, they’re not caused by a lack of effort or interest in the project.  This wants to be a good film, it is trying to be a good film and that earnestness infects most every facet of the film, which is more than I can say for some other low-budget animated films I’ve had the displeasure of seeing.  Unfortunately, earnestness and enthusiasm can only carry a film so far and Khumba falls down on the whole “being a good film” side quite majorly.

Our story follows Khumba (Jake T. Austin), a zebra born with only half of his stripes much to the mockery of the rest of his herd.  He is raised by his father (Laurence Fishburne) in a gated community in the Great Caroo that hasn’t had any rain since he was born which the very superstitious herd blames on his birth, not helping his outcast nature.  One day, he meets a mantis who draws him a map that leads to a supposedly mystical water hole that may give him the rest of his stripes.  Tired of being different and spurred into action by the passing of his sick mother, Khumba ventures out into the wild, gaining two travel companions, a wildebeest named Mama V (Loretta Devine) and an ostrich named Bradley (Richard E. Grant), being pursued by an opportunistic leopard named Phango (Liam Neeson) and leaving the herd to decide on their future when the water runs dry.

It sounds messy and overstuffed (needless to say, Khumba and co. run into a whole bunch of other eccentric characters through the film’s svelte 85 minute run time) but the script does a good job at balancing proceedings.  It only asks the audience to invest in a few characters, the rest basically wander in and out of proceedings as a way to provide action or humour or one of the film’s overall messages of “doesn’t matter what species(race) you are, everyone is still a living thing at heart and we should come together in celebration of that fact”.  Honestly, I’m OK with that.  The film is very clear as to who we need to invest emotionally with and I prefer this approach to the kind of mess Escape From Planet Earth had where it tried to put stories and character arcs and the like to all of its characters in its 80 minutes and came off rushing things as a result.

A mostly interested voice cast also help truck along proceedings, even if some of them aren’t very good.  Chief among those not very good is Jake T. Austin as Khumba, he does seem to be interested in proceedings but his line readings are the definition of stilted.  Sometimes his line deliveries have passion and suit proceedings, other times they’re flat or the wrong direction for the scene.  Fairing much better is Richard E. Grant as the film’s main source of comic relief, he may not get anything funny to say but he nails the pompous theatricality inherent in the lines.  Loretta Devine exudes motherly warmth whilst Laurence Fishburne just about stays on the right side of the line between “gentle paternal authority” and “phoning it in”, ditto Liam Neeson but replace “gentle paternal authority” with “menacing villainy”.  Plus, littering about the film are professional voice actors in several of those supporting roles, like Charlie Adler as the leader of some Rock Rabbits and Dee Bradley Baker as a doting Meerkat father, which pleases me, a staunch supporter of giving professional VAs large-ish roles in animated movies, to no end.

The score backing this thing, by the way, is actually really rather interesting.  It does operate predominately in the same way that American-made animated films soundtrack proceedings, lots of orchestral bombast during action sequences and light bouncy music for most everything else, but it also infuses it with elements of traditional South African and country road-trip music.  It’s definitely unique and helps give Khumba its own feel.  Admittedly, it doesn’t always work, the addition of vocal wailing on the score over the fake-out death at the end of the movie only serves to push the scene into overwrought parody territory, but it is different and it fits the travelling scenes very nicely.

Unfortunately, that’s about it on the list of things that Khumba is good at.  See, enthusiasm and heart can only take you so far and Khumba has three key issues that keep it from being worth your time.  The first of which is the quality of its animation.  At best, it’s sub-par.  Character designs for the different species are nice and distinct, even rather good in some cases (a recurring wild dog voiced by Steve Buscemi in particular has a tiny stature, specific wide eyes, mangy quality to his overall being and yet is still rather cute in his own way), but individual character designs are neither of those things.  Despite how much time we spend with the zebra herd, I could not confidently tell you which one is supposed to be Khumba’s father if you put the lot of them in a line-up.  This is used as the basis for a joke with a gang of Springbok, but that only serves to call attention to the problem, not explain it away.

As for when things start moving, it’s all over the place.  Lighting and shading lack detail as does pretty much everything else in the film (a brief section set on a dusty plain during high winds just looks like an Instagram filter has been overlaid on the action).  Movement switches between unnaturally fluid and noticeably jerky between shots, the one constant being that all actions take a few frames less to perform than they should do which creates a disconcertingly fake and cheap feel.  There’s a frequent tendency, too, to underplay certain gestures.  Bradley gets a sudden musical number (the only instance of one throughout the whole film so it does awkwardly stick out) but his accompanying dancing is too restrained, too hemmed in and so the whole thing feels awkward.  Meanwhile, chroma-keying (the act of animating characters separate from the backgrounds and then digitally adding them in later) is very noticeable and disappointingly frequent.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a budget problem, more an issue of inexperience.  After all, you can do a lot on a little over this film’s $20 million budget (just look at most any feature-length Anime), and the issues mostly stem from problems that could have been avoided.  Don’t have the budget to animate all of the frames necessary to move Character A to Expression B in Position C?  Then work around that, find an exploitative loophole.  It’s animation!  You can use that bending of reality to your advantage if you do it well enough.  I got the constant feeling that a few more years of experience and practice under the animation team’s belt would have managed to make a pretty great looking film considering the budget.  But there are just a surplus of rookie mistakes littering the animation and it exposes the whole enterprise as cheap.

The inexperience similarly shows in a screenplay that liberally borrows from other, often resoundingly better animated films.  There are cribs and shout-outs from and to Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Fantasia, The Black Cauldron, Rio, Madagascar and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (hey, I said “often better” not “always better”) and those are the ones I actively noticed.  It’s not done in the way that more cynical animated kids’ films do it, there is a genuine love for the source material it cribs from and its aim is to use these references to further its own story.  The issue is that the non-cribbed material is not particularly engaging and the execution of the borrowed material never quite works, it hits those points without getting why they work.

It’s all stuff that I’ve seen before and better executed in those other places.  Khumba wants to use its borrowed material to help boost its own story but it only serves to highlight how… middling its own story is.  None of the characters are particularly unlikable but I didn’t feel an attachment to any of them, either.  The story beats are rote and uninspired, failing to put any new twists on them to justify their being trotted out for the hundred-millionth time.  There are some occasional mysticism and superstition elements thrown in to try and make things seem more epic but inadvertently only serve to needlessly clutter the finale and the villain’s motivation.  Again, none of this is to a lack of trying, but it means the film never rises above its pastiche of references to stand up with its own identity besides the enthusiasm.

One last issue is down to pacing.  Now, normally when I talk about pacing, I mean it in the sense of “this film is way too long/short” because that’s the most noticeable kind of bad pacing.  Khumba is the perfect length, it never drags and it never charges through things at 200MPH.  The issue is that the action on screen never seems to get out of first gear.  Action scenes are too gentle, too slovenly, there are no stakes and no danger because nothing feels deadly or intimidating because nothing particularly seems to happen in them.  There’s an early section where Khumba, Mama V and Bradley are surrounded and pounced on by a group of wild dogs but the whole sequence plays out with all the urgency of being harassed by a couple of rogue fleas.  The animation too stiff, the camerawork too static, the music remains sedentary.  Almost every action scene is like this and it kills a lot of investment because these characters are clearly not in any danger so why should I worry about what happens to them?

It bums me out to have to type this review, it truly does.  See, ripping apart a soulless bad movie is easy: it’s clear that nobody involved cared about the product other than the bottom line it generates so there’s precisely no reason to feel bad about treating it like a leopard treats its prey.  Having to dismantle a bad film that is trying really, desperately hard to be a good film is akin to kicking out Tiny Tim’s crutches as you walk past him, or deliberately performing an elaborate tap dance routine in front of people paralysed from the waist down, or going around to the houses of those who made the film and taking a dump on their front lawns whilst they watch.  You’re going to feel bad, unless you’re a monster, because the victim is so earnest and desperately trying to avoid being deserving of the sentence you’re flinging down on them.

And that’s Khumba.  It’s earnest, it’s got heart and it thinks that is all it needs to win because heart and good intentions can overcome poor execution, right?  It’s the scrappy underdog in the sports movie that’s not the best at the game but still triumphs in the end because believing in yourself despite your sub-par abilities conquers all, right?  Sadly, though, reality ensues in this metaphor and Khumba’s noble intentions and excitement to be here is negated by poor animation, stake-less action and an inability to rise above the influences it has a good deal of respect for.  Hopefully, Triggerfish Animation use this as a learning experience and come back with something better next time because there is clearly potential and love coming from that studio and it saddens me to see inexperience sink that.

Callum Petch wants you to know he’s a rainbow too.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Star Wars (1977)

The weekend of Speed’s home release (on VHS and Laserdisc concurrently, nostalgia fans!) my best friend and I watched it 12 times. We alternated that and lying on her bottom bunk, gazing up at the life sized Keanu Reeves poster she’d blu-tacked to the slats of her sister’s top bunk. I guess you could call it a sexual awakening. We’ve all had them. It’s just that, for some, puberty coincided with the release of a more critically acclaimed blockbuster. That said, even if you’re not invested in marrying the protagonist, Speed is a superb film. We didn’t just watch it to stare at Keanu’s face. We used to rewind and watch the bit where Dennis Hopper’s head gets knocked off by the subway sign on slow motion, cheering all the way.

I stand by Speed’s merits as a film, but it’s no doubt the circumstances through which I discovered it that will lead me to defend it to the end. We were on holiday in Florida around the time of The Lion King’s theatrical release. We didn’t get a chance to see it out there, being somewhat preoccupied by the International House of Pancakes, and a mild case of sun stroke. However my brother and I, obsessed with Aladdin and massively anticipating the next Disney animation, came home with a suitcase full of merchandise. Including a cassette tape of the soundtrack. When the film finally hit Leicester Odeon several months later, we queued around the block to attend the first showing, and proceeded to be the weird kids on the back row who somehow already knew all the words to every song in the film.

Circumstances and surroundings surely have some influence on your opinion of a film. It’s not everything, granted. The first time I saw Amelie was at Glastonbury 2002 in the ill-fated Cinema Field. After three failed attempts to start the film, the inflatable screen collapsed and they gave up. But the five minutes I saw (three times) were enough to send me home from the festival with the overwhelming urge to see the entire film. (That and a commitment to make it through the rest of my life without ever having to watch The Charlatans perform live again.) Nonetheless, it must have some bearing. The Natalie Portman stripathon Closer was bad, no doubt. But the fact that my friend and I & drifted into the cinema lobby afterwards half asleep and thoroughly depressed, only to find our husbands clutching each other and crying with joy having just seen Team America: World Police for the first time didn’t help its cause. Best Picture Oscars have probably been won and lost over less.

Here’s the thing: as I sat down to watch Star Wars for the first time, aged 31, after a long day and a couple of beers, I was expecting to be blown away. In reality I found the beginning kind of slow. I didn’t immediately warm to the R2-D2 / C-3PO double act the way I knew I was supposed to. (Frankly he just annoyed me, wheeling around making his indecipherable beeps, dragging his big plate hands along behind him.) Yes, Alec Guinness kicked ass. And Harrison Ford was suitably dreamy. But I wanted an action movie and I didn’t feel I was getting one. My biggest disappointment was Darth Vader. I thought he was supposed to be scary? Stood in the Situation Room doing his heavy breathing routine? Come on! He wouldn’t last five minutes under Jed Bartlet. And don’t even get me started on the fact that he’s voiced by Mufasa from The Lion King. The kindest, noblest lion that ever lived. If you want menacing, try getting Jeremy Irons to voice Vader. Perhaps I should have watched it that summer we went to Florida. The Star Wars ride was far and away the highlight of Universal Studios. If I’d watched it then, off the back of that excitement, aged 13, less cynical, my Star Wars story would probably be different.

I understand the cultural significance of Star Wars. The fact that, if it wasn’t for this film, I wouldn’t know and love the likes of Clerks, Se7en, or even Toy Story. I get that, and I’m grateful. I love the fact that it’s created a generation of passionate, geeky, often obsessive film fans. That my husband has to deliver a 20 minute diatribe on the original theatrical versus newer versions before he can even open the dvd case. But, just as you don’t get butterflies in your stomach as the title hits the screen on the last note of ‘Circle of Life’, or a ridiculous grin on your face when Jack Traven shouts ‘It’s cans! It’s ok, it’s cans!’, I don’t love Star Wars. Sorry.