REVIEW: The Lion King (1994)

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Directed by Roger Allers and Bob Minkoff
Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton
Starring the Voices of Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Robert Guillaume, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jim Cummings, Madge Sinclair

Made in the heydey of the ’90s Disney renaissance, The Lion King represents one of the finer moments of the studio’s creative vision and occupies a high stature in the eyes of the fans, who consistently keep coming back to it, whether in the form of this original film and its sequels, the Lion Guard television series, or the acclaimed Broadway musical.

A young lion prince is born in Africa, thus making his uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) the second in line to the throne. Envious and devious, Scar plots with the hyenas of the shadowy outlands to kill King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Prince Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), thus making himself King. Soon enough, Mufasa is killed and Simba is led to believe by Scar that it was his fault, and so flees the kingdom in shame. After years of exile with a carefree pair (Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella), the now-grown Simba (Matthew Broderick) is persuaded to return home to overthrow the usurper and claim the kingdom as his own, thus completing the “Circle of Life”.

Despite being mired in the controversy of whether it lifted its storyline and main character from the Kimba the White Lion anime, The Lion King is much more indebted to the classic play of William Shakespeare, Hamlet. The major beats are all there: the King is murdered by his jealous brother, who usurps the throne; the King’s son is forced to choose between avenging his father or allowing that crime to go unpunished, thereby sparing his own life of the responsibility. Simba’s arc through the second half of the film is a precise mirror of Prince Hamlet’s, insomuch that The Lion King becomes, in my mind, the only adaptation of a Shakespeare tragedy to successfully end happily.

But before that arc can begin, The Lion King first treats us to two similar perspectives on the mighty throne of Mufasa: young Simba, and Scar. The youthful cub is anxious to be King, believing that simply because he was born into the line, he will get a free pass to use the power any way he wants. Just like every kid out there who wants to rule the world. As Simba endures his growing pains under the fair and loving guidance of his father, his uncle Scar broods. Played in cunning manner by Jeremy Irons, Scar’s desires aren’t too far from Simba’s–his are just hidden under the lies of adulthood, as he believes his rule will automatically bring about a golden age. Like every dictator that has ever come to power, Scar’s delusions bring about misery and sorrow, like every good villain’s plan should.

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Throughout the first half, we get some wild song sequences, like the tribal-influenced “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and Scar’s dark “Be Prepared,” and of course, the ever popular and beautiful “Circle of Life.” Each song, some with input from the great Elton John, is bolstered by terrific visual sights of the plains and jungles of Africa, as is the story by each amazing voice actor, led by such talents as James Earl Jones as Mufasa, Jonathan Taylor Thomas as young Simba, and Robert Guillaume as my personal favorite, the wise and wacky witch doctor of a baboon, Rafiki. There is also the incredible attention to detail displayed by the animators, who slip in subtleties of performance into the characters that correspond to their actual animal inspirations.

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The pivotal moment separating both halves is the death of Mufasa, a moment which I’m sure traumatized a lot of kids back in the day (and probably still does). By showing this moment which was only referred to in Hamlet, The Lion King eschews intrigue for sheer pathos, and propels Simba into a life of hedonism with the film’s best comic relief, Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumba (Ernie Sabella). Out in the jungle, the now-grown Simba (Matthew Broderick) gets to live out most of our most wonderful and illogical fantasies away from the responsibility of life, before reality comes crashing back.

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I could go on and on about the thematic and narrative depth of The Lion King, but since this is a review, I’ll just end on my most basic, unfiltered thoughts on it: I still love it. Far and away, the only film that comes close to it from the Disney renaissance is Aladdin, and that’s mainly due to Robin Williams. This film, while still boasting big names, doesn’t really have one major player that carries the film effortlessly; instead, the strength of the plot and the visual majesty of its setting is what makes The Lion King stand apart from its colleagues.

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REVIEW: An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991)

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Directed by Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells
Written by Flint Dille, Story by Charles Swenson, Characters Created by David Kirschner
Starring the Voices of Phillip Glasser, James Stewart, Dom DeLuise, Amy Irving, John Cleese, Jon Lovitz, Erica Yohn, Cathy Cavadini, Nehemiah Persoff

One of the many VHS tapes I wore out as a child. An American Tail: Fievel Goes West may have been the animated cinema equivalent of blasphemy–a sequel to a Don Bluth film made without his presence–but it still holds a special place in my heart for sentimental reasons. It’s actual merits are a little harder to defend, but not impossible.

Some time after the Mousekewitz’s have settled in America, they find that they are still having problems with the threat of cats. That makes them eager to try another home out in the west, where they are promised that mice and cats live in peace. Unfortunately, the one making this claim is an oily con artist named Cat R. Waul (John Cleese) who is intent on his own sinister plan. Followed by their true cat friend, Tiger (Dom DeLuise), the Mousekewitz’s travel west, where Fievel must team up with his Old West sheriff hero, Wylie Burp (James Stewart), to stop Waul.

Bluth’s original film was made towards the beginning of his remarkable directorial career, after he had left Disney and set up shop with Universal studios and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. While that relationship would soon end, An American Tail was the result of that pairing. With Bluth out for the sequel, Spielberg proved to be the guiding influence that saved this sequel from complete ruin, bringing on board two likewise former Disney animators, Phil Nibbelink, and the grandson of the great H.G. Wells, Simon Wells.

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Picking up where the original left off with Fievel’s family having settled on the East Coast of America, the film quickly glosses over any and all continuity hiccups quickly, showing that their “land of opportunity” wasn’t all it was croaked up to be. After an attack by a vicious cat gang drives them underground, they are duped into heading west to start yet another new life by the villain of the picture, Cat R. Waul, played with eloquent viciousness by John Cleese, easily becoming the best voice of the film.

Out west in the town of Green River, the mice are again lured into becoming the workforce for the cats building the town, who plan to then feast on the mice as a celebration. Fievel goes to the town’s canine sheriff, the old and tired Wiley Burp, for help, who then enlists Fievel’s cat friend Tiger for a vigorous training and showdown with Waul’s gang. James Stewart, in his final role, voices Burp with all the Western movie star swagger he has left, becoming an excellent compliment to the wild antics of Dom DeLuise as the cowardly Tiger.

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Despite Bluth’s absence, animation technique and style remain mostly consistent with the first film, even in the face of design changes to several characters. In fact, the only real minus I can give to the animators is that the color palette of this film seems a bit bright compared to the rusty bronze of the first, but then again, this could be a consequence of the change of setting to the sandy western deserts of America. The film’s score is as proficient and moving as the original, with the new song, “Dreams to Dream,” as good as “Somewhere Out There” was.

If there’s a major flaw to Fievel Goes West, it’s the story. Clocking in at 76 minutes, it’s shrimpy compared to An American Tail, seemingly missing an entire act before Fievel goes to Burp for help, and spending much of its early minutes establishing yet another “Fievel gets separated from his family” subplot. Even his father doesn’t seem to worried about him after he is lost, considering that this a movie that steals just a bit too much from its predecessor.

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Opening the same weekend as Beauty and the Beast, Fievel Goes West was destined to be smashed by that superior film, even without its narrative deficiencies. However, this said, it tends to be an overlooked piece in early ’90s animation, worthy of just as much praise and attention as any of Bluth’s films from the same period. I just wish there was more of it.

REVIEW: Blade Runner (1982)

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Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, Based on the Novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick
Starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, Darryl Hannah, M. Emmet Walsh, William Sanderson, Brion James, Joe Turkel, Joanna Cassidy

Ok, I’m actually scared to review this film. And the reason why is that it is my favorite. Of all time. With a special place in my heart that big, I realize how hard it is going to be to stay objective and fair, but I will try my best. But seriously, this is my favorite movie.

In the futuristic year of 2019, Los Angeles has become a dark and depressing metropolis, filled with urban decay. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an ex-cop, is a “Blade Runner,” assigned to assassinate replicants–androids that look like real human beings. When four replicants commit a bloody mutiny on an Off-World colony, Deckard is called out of retirement to track them down. As he eliminates them one by one, he soon comes across another replicant, Rachael (Sean Young), who believes herself to be human. As Deckard closes in on the leader of the replicant group (Rutger Hauer), his misgivings toward artificial intelligence makes him question his own identity in this future world, including what’s human and what’s not.

To follow up Alien, Ridley was always going to have to tackle something big. Something bold. Surprisingly, that project was supposed to be Dune. After Jodorowsky’s failed attempt, the project was held in a state of limbo until Ridley became attached. He went through three drafts on the script before leaving the project, both due to a lack of confidence and the death of his brother. The project he then settled into was the long-gestating adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which even then was considered a classic of science fiction. It was here that he, and indeed, everyone else involved, accomplished something special.

The script to Blade Runner was an ordeal to craft. Hampton Fancher had originated the project, and undeniably, one can say the film is his baby in the same way that Alien is Dan O’Bannon’s. Even in its earliest drafts, taking the form of a claustrophobic, low-budget detective thriller, the main elements of the typical film noir are present: cynical plain-clothes cop, seductive femme fatale, overbearing urban decay. But the subsequent drafts, and ultimately the final shooting script, bring to the fray the first recognizable hallmarks of cyberpunk, and a more cinematic illustration of Dick’s themes regarding dehumanization and the importance of empathy.

The Tyrell Corporation’s gigantic pyramids, stretching over the cluttered, polluted city streets below, are a testament to the absolute power they hold over the world’s citizens. Tyrell builds their own slaves, genetically-engineered replicants, thereby literally controlling the process of creating life. This god-like command over a facet of reality, used for such blatantly capitalistic ends, is the signature of the prototypical cyberpunk company, the evil business that knows and sees all.

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Translating this disturbing vision of our future from the page was a selection of the greatest filmic minds in production and visual effects. Douglas Trumbull’s miniature work is still breathtaking, and even stands the test of time against CGI. The opening shot of the ‘Hades’ landscape is just one incredible example among many of just how convincing Blade Runner still looks. Everything feels big and heavy, the exact words you want to describe a piece of plastic and wood only a few feet tall on set. The production design under Laurence Paull and David Snyder is just as beautiful, capturing perfectly the detailed artwork of Syd Mead and really pushing the idea that this is not a backlot set, but a full world, retrofitted and built over several times as the waste of decades piled over top of it. Ridley Scott has a reputation for getting the maximum amount of detail possible out of a single shot, but he has people like Paull, Snyder, and Trumbull to thank for that.

I would be remiss not to mention the equally-vital contribution made by cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who was already revered in the industry as a cinematic savant, a true artist with light and photography. One just needs to look at Deckard’s apartment at night, awash with the xenon spotlights of a passing ad blimp, or the surreal photography of Tyrell’s office, to truly get a sense of the mastery Cronenweth brought to the project.

But it’s not just the sights, it’s the sounds. I recently was able to catch a viewing of Blade Runner on a big screen in Cleveland, and what struck me the most was how incredible the mix still is. City scenes are a cacophony of chaos, with multiple overlapping street signs, car engines, wall advertisements, and the choking masses of humanity assaulting your ears in the best way possible. All that was missing was an ozone and sewer smell, and I would have been totally convinced I was actually there. And then you add Vangelis’ unique and penetrating score, and you have a sonic experience that I don’t think will ever be satisfactorily matched.

Image result for roy battyAs much as the visual and aural aspect of Blade Runner is praised, one has to acknowledge what many critics and viewers have seen as shortcomings, mainly the characters themselves. While Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty and Sean Young’s Rachael are praised, Ford’s performance is usually singled out. He manages to inject his rugged charm as best as he can into the role, but one could get the sense that he is emotionally closed-off, that he is but an observer to a string of terrific luck in his mission to ‘retire’ the replicants. This is a legitimate argument, but I find myself coming to his defense. Deckard was never meant to be the dashing rogue like Han Solo or Indiana Jones, and any creepy overtones to his relationship with Rachael are there for a reason. I’m afraid I can’t say too much if you haven’t seen the film, but I will just say that Deckard isn’t all
that he seems either…

And this usually leads to detractors of Ridley Scott himself, and the direction he took the film with regards to the nature of the replicants and Deckard himself. Without giving away too much, I will say that Ridley’s treatment and view of the replicants is diametrically opposed to Dick’s. While Dick portrays the androids of his novel as being undeniably less-than-human creatures whose own survival instinct trumps all other concerns, to the point that there is no empathy or care shown for any other beings, Ridley Scott quipped to Dick’s face that they were “supermen who couldn’t fly.” The replicants are stronger, faster, and most importantly in Batty’s case, smarter than even Image result for rick deckardthe humans who designed them. It isn’t their fault that they are murderous once sentient; after all, they only had four years to live and grow mentally. What 4-year-old wouldn’t end up using an adult body and genius knowledge-base to commit acts we would find as heinous? This allows the film to engender sympathy for the replicants as well as the human players, and it opens the door for the surprising climax, and Rutger Hauer’s finest moment as an actor: the famous “tears in rain” soliloquy.

When it comes to alternative versions of films, Blade Runner probably takes the award in sheer numbers. No less than 6 versions were theatrically released, five of which are readily available on video disc. The American and International theatrical versions are almost identical, save for a few more seconds of extreme violence in the International
cut. Both contain a heavily-reviled voice-over narration by Ford and a tacked-on “happy
Image result for blade runner 5 discending,” depicting a lush, forested region outside of Los Angeles that flies in the face of the entire setting of the film. The narration, while adding to the noir-ish tone of the story, has little real value, merely stating in words what is shown onscreen, done in a lazy drone by Ford. Some, including filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, have defended this version, but I wouldn’t recommend it as the first viewing.

I would give that honor to either the Director’s Cut or the Final Cut, both similar in their own right in removing the narration and the happy ending. The Final Cut is a more polished and popping transfer, however, and has a few more little editorial changes that are for the better. The Final Cut, I would say, is the way to go. The fifth version is a workprint of the film, and while a fascinating watch, it is incomplete, missing the final third of Vangelis’ score and a sense of good pacing. View this version only as an interesting “what-if.”

I honestly could go on and on about Blade Runner; hell, I actually plan to delve deeper into the film with multiple posts closer to the release of Blade Runner 2049. It is the film that first turned me on to the filmmaking process, it expanded my idea of sci-fi past Star Wars and Star Trek, and really was the first piece of art that made me question existence, both outside and my own. Consciously, one could say I came into this world watching Roy Batty yearn to achieve a more human life, and for that I am forever grateful to everyone involved in this remarkable picture. Does it have flaws? Sure, I could find a few, some could find more, but that’s the point of your favorite thing: it isn’t perfect, but you love it because of that. It’s like marriage, and so far, I’m happily married to Blade Runner.