This movie is extremely different from what I was expecting, which is odd since my expectations were neither rigid nor conventional, so I should have been a tough audience to surprise. Ralph Bakshi, however, is full of surprises, and his creativity knows no bounds. Unfortunately, creativity sometimes needs some constraints in order to be understandable to those who are not the thinker, and Wizards lacks the lucidity it requires. The best example of this is how the film suggests an army in a fantasy world improves its performance simply by watching a projected film reel of Nazis to get pumped up, without any understanding of the Nazi party’s tenants. It’s a strange idea, but the way it is expressed visually makes it stranger: the reel isn’t projected onto any particular space, instead appearing behind the army as though the Nazi film filled the air and/or the soldiers in the fantasy world were becoming part of the film. This isn’t simply a matter of openness of interpretation – this is cinematically illegible, and it is typical of the rest of the movie, which seems to follow dream logic more than narrative logic and expects the audience to buy into many unexplained, confusing plot points. When this is combined with the bizarre characters, unsettling sexual imagery, and poorly executed climax, the result is a film that, in spite of its inspired artistry, has little substance and no coherence, making it regrettably difficult to tolerate.
Action & Adventure
It’s time once again for another UFC, in which I return to a movie I haven’t seen in years and find out just how much (or how little) my thoughts on it have changed over time.
It’s very difficult for me to be critical of a movie that I grew up watching regularly – I probably first watched it before I could talk. It’s one of those movies that I think I still have on VHS somewhere, but I don’t know where, and I don’t know if it’s still playable because I wore it out so thoroughly. The 1991 Beauty and the Beast film is in that category too, and I’ve watched it twice within the past few months, so I can’t help but compare the two. After all, they came out a year apart from one another, and it’s Beauty that is usually considered the masterpiece (even though Aladdin has the more revered directors). So which is the best? Well, both.
Aladdin is the best spectacle. It’s technically and visually better. The animation, colors, and backgrounds in Aladdin are absolutely gorgeous and leave me salivating. I was surprised by just how much the technology changed between the two films, as Aladdin has computer animation that looks surprisingly better than the traditional animation of previous films, even to eyes like mine that usually have a strong preference of hand-drawn animation over computer animation. Now, I’m not just talking about the CGI in the film – although it is shocking just how beautifully that’s integrated into the flatter animation – but I actually mean how the characters are drawn, outlined, and colored in a way more visually pleasing than Belle and Ariel are. The characters move with more fluidity, too, so the Chuck Jones-like visual comedy works better here than it could have in any of Disney’s previous films, and the musical numbers all have an especially glossy flare.
The problem is that the story is weaker. Remember, Aladdin himself is voiced by the boyfriend from Full House, so when he’s in a scene with someone with the charisma of Robin Williams, he doesn’t stand a chance. The romance between Aladdin and Jasmine is entirely different from the romance between Belle and the Beast because … well, Belle and Beast actually develop a real romance, whereas Al and Jasmine are simple character types (and that may be giving them too much credit) who happen to find each other extremely attractive in an instant without reason. It’s honestly quite strange that the movie that manages to make a great, distinct character with a big personality out of something as literally flat as a carpet somehow ended up with a far flatter protagonist. The problem isn’t just the casting though – I think the story depends on Aladdin being a fairly likable character, but he spends most of the movie as a selfish jerk who’s unwilling to free his magical slave until he’s gotten as much out of the magic as possible. The film is filled with similar problems that we just have to overlook in order to buy the story, and the mechanics of the narrative aren’t always as smooth as I would expect from Rossio and Elliott (or from Clements and Musker for that matter). We may hear a lot of talk these days about problems with the narrative of the original Beauty and the Beast, if only so Disney can justify the remake’s existence, but that story manages to make a lot more sense, and have a lot more emotional depth and gripping drama, than Aladdin’s.
I think what’s most surprising about the movie is how adult it is. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised seeing as how the screenwriters behind Shrek and Road to El Dorado worked on this, but this is a bit edgy for a little kiddie film from the ‘90s. I always understood that Jasmine was sexualized to an extent in the film, but I never noticed just how far this movie went with it. Good heavens! This is one reason why I’m so amazed that my parents let me watch it a million times growing up, but the bigger reason is that it addresses a few very real things about the Middle East that I wouldn’t have expected to see in a Disney film. Sure, most of the film’s content is based on stereotypes rather than reality, so it can be kind of uncomfortable to watch 25 years later, but the sultan mentions Allah a heck of a lot. Tell me, if the Bible tells us not to worship other gods, why aren’t Christian parents boycotting this movie instead of the Beauty and the Beast remake?
Returning to the issue of stereotypes, it’s true that the film is basically taking all of The West’s ideas and fantasies about the essence of the Eastern world, cutting out the parts we don’t like, and mixing the rest together into a poignant stew of orientalism, so that’s something fans of the film (such as myself) have to handle somehow. It doesn’t phase me much though. Maybe that’s a moral failing on my part, but I don’t think so. It seems to me that, if someone from another part of the world was to make a children’s film about a kid from another continent getting lost in New York City, the version of New York that was presented would be highly exaggerated and inaccurate. Criminals in trenchcoats would fill the streets, guns would be firing constantly, buildings would reach to the heavens, paperboys would yell from the street-corners, evil businessmen with Trump-like towers would plot to buy the rights to the moon, and every cab driver would ask you with his big cigar and an over-the-top Brooklyn accent, “Where to, Mac?” As an American, I would have no problem watching this movie, and I would have no shame in showing it to my New Yorker relatives, because the wild fantasizing about this imagined New York would just be too fun to resist, even if the film focused primarily on negative stereotypes. I think it’s okay for a film to play to our fantasies about interesting places if it is, in fact, a fantasy film. Aladdin is clearly designed to be an escapist getaway, and that’s precisely what it delivers, so I’ll happily concede that, in spite of its many problems, I absolutely adore this movie.
From the Traveling Wilburys to Band Aid, the pop music industry has had its share of super groups, but for whatever reason, cinema hasn’t. For whatever reason, while talented directors have worked together before, we very rarely see a group of different directors with different backgrounds coming together to work on a groups of films as a team. I think this begs the question: what would a filmmaking super group look like? Because I’m fond of ’80s cinema, I’d like to imagine something like a family adventure film with a story by Steven Spielberg, with a screenplay by Chris Columbus (the writer of Gremlins, director of Home Alone), with music by Dave Grusin (composer for Tootsie), and someone like Richard Donner (director of Superman, Ladyhawke, Lethal Weapon, and Scrooged) at the helm. Fortunately, this is exactly the team assembled for this movie, and what this team produced is just as great a film as one would hope.
I think part of why Goonies is considered to be such a great classic by so many people is that it is very emblematic of ’80s cinema. Even with a cast of children, the intended age group is entirely unclear because of how dirty some of the humor is, making it a family film in the same category as Ghostbusters in that it’s not really a family film. It’s also a very good example of Spielberg’s conception of fantasy, giving the viewer the sense that something sort of magical might be found at that old Chinese antique shop, or, in this case, up in the attic. The most ’80s part, of course, is the theme song by Cyndi Lauper, and the music video that was made to accompany it. Somehow, even though that video is entirely different from the film, the combination of the two sums up everything that made the ’80s the ’80s, and I think that’s just beautiful.
Once I started watching this movie, it was hard to pause it – and I can say that for very few films – so I think The Goonies, as dated as it may be in some respects, just might be pure entertainment cinema at its very best.
I usually avoid explaining the plots to films in my reviews, but just this once, here’s my summary of the story of Ridley Scott’s Legend:
The beautiful Princess Lily is never seen in her castle, nor do we ever see her royal parents, for some reason. Instead, she prefers to spend her time with the lower class or out in the woods for some reason. Lily is a completely innocent girl, yet she likes to pull cruel tricks on friends of hers for some reason. She’s madly in love with a boy named Jack for some reason, and he’s a wild, beastly jungle boy who likes to be among nature and talk with the animals for some reason. Jack decides to take her to see some unicorns, which are very rare creatures for some reason, but then she decides to touch one for some reason. Unicorns must never be touched by mortals – even innocent mortals like Lily – for some reason. She touches it anyway, and in her pride, she challenges Jack to retrieve her ring from the bottom of a deep pond so that he may earn the right to marry her … for some reason.
Meanwhile, a devilish character named Darkness is forced to live down below in the shadows (with limited power) during a period of goodness and light for some reason. He sends his servants to kill and de-horn the only two living unicorns, which will give Darkness his power back for some reason. Then an elf shows up to yell at Jack for some reason, and in one version of the film, he challenges Jack to solve a riddle for some reason. Then the elf says that Jack specifically, a jungle boy he just met and knows nothing about, has to be the hero who goes to the castle of Darkness to save the unicorn, for some reason – and I really would have liked this reason explained to me. Then a little fairy, whom the elf assumed was just a formless, bodiless ball of light for some reason, reveals herself to be … well, a real fairy with a body and wings and all that, but she makes Jack promise not to tell anyone, for some reason – and I really would have liked to have all this explained to me. Then she wants him to kiss her for some reason? And then Lily dances with her sin for some reason as Darkness walks out of a mirror for some reason and reveals that he’s in love with her for some reason?
I know it sounds like this must all make sense in the film. It sounds like most of this would just seem perfectly natural and unquestioned in context, but there isn’t much context. In fact, the theatrical cut – the version of the film the studio made to keep people from getting too confused – is more confusing because it has less context. I understand more about these characters in the director’s cut just because it adds little scenes that give them more dialogue, even when their dialogue isn’t particularly important to the plot. The director’s cut is unfortunately lacking in some scenes that strengthen the film, including a better ending, but overall, it makes a little more sense. It’s still pretty darn weird, and I often have no idea what the director’s trying to do, but it makes a little more sense – unless I just felt like it did because it was my second time watching the movie within a few days. (The director’s cut also has a score that’s surprisingly a bit better – the theatrical version has a cool ‘80s synthesizer score by an electronic band, which I thought I would love, but the director’s cut’s orchestral score by Jerry Goldsmith uses an unusual amount of synth as well.)
With this said, I should clarify that this movie is, somehow, really cool. That’s the best adjective to describe it – “cool.” It feels like I’m seeing something fascinating, captivating, hypnotic, artistic, impressive, innovative, and a little bit naughty in nearly every scene. The problem is that these scenes don’t connect well together. If watched with the American version of the soundtrack, filled with synth music, the movie might as well be a compilation of ‘80s music videos, because it has that same kind of aesthetic and that same amount of narrative. It’s safe to say that, if my introduction to the film had been a video clip from any individual scene on YouTube, I would immediately be very eager to watch the whole film because of how awesome it looks, sounds, and feels, not realizing that the context of each scene does not enhance its power in the slightest.
This film has no psychological or emotional logic to it, and it hardly makes sense according to surrealist “dream logic.” While it remains a cult classic because of how it sticks with the people who watched it as kids, and its imagery is indeed difficult to forget even for adult viewers, it has never been hailed for its story – it hardly has one. It lacks drama, tension, or any sort of emotion because its pieces feel so arbitrary no matter how they’re put together. Obviously, I don’t ask to have everything explained to me in detail like in Dark City, nor do I ask for everything in a story to be logical, but it is almost impossible for an audience to become invested in a story if it has bland, lifeless characters that act without clear motivations, scenes that take place without clear purposes, events that unfold without clear causes, and rules that must be followed without clear logic to them. Other films can get away with a sense of arbitrary anarchy because of a fast pace and/or a sense of intense urgency, such as Big Trouble in Little China, but even with a vague “ticking clock” scenario, Legend never instills the right kind of empathic anxiety in the viewer. Because of its immensely pleasing artistry and its successful transportation and immersion of the viewers into its distinct, yet familiar, fantasy world, it works very well as a film – just not as a movie.
This film’s strengths and weaknesses both pertain to the issue of “heart” in film.
If not for the fact that this is a spin-off of The LEGO Movie, the writers would have been free to simply fill the entire film with fun Batman jokes and absurd mix-ups and lunacy that only make sense in an animated comedy. The LEGO Movie, however, has a lot of heart to it that tied the film together nicely and offered a solid foundation for its comedy. I argue that LEGO Movie is probably one of the better examples of heart done well because, by that point in the movie, it feels needed and welcomed, as opposed to being forced down our throats at the very beginning like in other family films. I often think back on an argument between Siskel and Ebert (which I explained in my Scrooged review) in which Gene Siskel said Back to the Future II should have stopped to take the time to add more heart. I think this is a fairly stupid position to hold seeing as how a movie should really bring in heart at times when it is necessitated by (and it necessitates) the story, but unfortunately, The LEGO Batman Movie makes its heart-warming scenes feel almost out of place, even though they inform much of the story and supply the main character motivation. Somewhere in the crazy, convoluted mess that was the writing process for this film – consisting of a grand total of five people getting screenwriting credits – the story kept getting reworked until the final result felt like certain scenes were in the script simply to satisfy a “kids movie checklist” of some sort, and most of the bullets on the list pertained to grabbing the heartstrings. Since I watched this film in a theater filled with children, it was very easy to tell that these scenes simply did not succeed at grabbing the audience.
The rest of the movie, however, is filled with the best kind of heart: passion. LEGO Batman is one of those films with the rare quality of feeling like a great fan project was given a Hollywood budget and free range. The film may be loaded with fan-service and a little too dependent on the laughability of previous incarnations of Batman, but it just loves its world and its characters so much that the passion is infectious. The beauty of the thing, of course, comes from the fact that this is a LEGO-based film, so it can do things with Batman that couldn’t work with the real Batman, and that couldn’t work with a parody, but work perfectly in the space in between. After all, who doesn’t want to see the Dynamic Duo fight off the gremlins, the Joker recruit Godzilla, or freaking Voldemort casting spells in the Bat Cave? In a Batman movie that audiences took somewhat seriously, this would enrage people, and in a YouTube parody, it wouldn’t have much power or meaning, but in this movie, it is both official and non-canon at once. Consequently, the writers were able to put Batman against all of his greatest enemies at once at the start of the movie, making the audience wonder where on earth they could possibly go from there, and then live up to that question by raising the stakes to a level that we never knew could be part of the game. The movie somehow managed to bring back so much classic Batman material dating back to the 1940s (including an obscure villain played by Vincent Price on the 1960s series) and bring in great new material (Batman vs. King Kong, a touching Batman/Joker bromance, etc.) without feeling overcrowded.
My one regret is that the theater didn’t have more excited, happy Batman fans in it to laugh with me. Please see it with friends and have a good time.
In my experience, if a story and its characters are good enough, I can forgive many aspects of a film that seem lacking. I can forgive the forgettable music scores and relentlessly bland visuals of most contemporary films so long as I’m invested in what the characters are trying to do. For this reason, I’ve held the position for many years now that a film’s cinematography, choreography, mise en scène, color scheme, lighting, score, attention to detail, use of the camera for visual storytelling, and even (to some extent) acting are not sufficient reasons to consider a film great – it is the content that matters. As an intellectual who looks at cinema as a communication medium, this makes sense – great presentation of a bad idea is still a bad idea – so I usually have had no problem appreciating the impressive aspects of a visually pleasing film (see Carousel) or even a film with excellent performances (see American Hustle) while still hating the movie. However, as I have long feared it would, Dick Tracy has challenged this perspective: the main character, the plot, and seemingly the directing (at least in some respects) are all sub-par at best, but with its stylistic excellence, I cannot help but love this movie with all my heart.
In my attempts to find a way to justify my arguments with my feelings as I’ve thought about what to write for this review, one thought that keeps recurring is how similar this film seems to The Dark Crystal. Here we have a creative producer who has taken on the task of directing a passion project of his with a visual style that no one has ever seen before, even going so far as to play the lead himself to ensure that everything is done right, and yet something is still very wrong here. Dick Tracy is just not a likable character, Madonna doesn’t work all that well for the particular kind of sexy that’s required of her, and somehow the very simple plot seems too complex to follow. Even stylistically there are problems, especially because of the pacing. It’s incredibly jarring to see the big scene in which Tracy goes and catches a bunch of bad guys, knocking people out all the while, as a very slow jazz song plays over it. Weirdly though, the fact that it is terrible almost makes it better – I think this belongs in the category of “génial–nanar blends” These are films that are sometimes so bad that they’re good, and other times so good that they’re great (and occasionally they’re all of these at once).
I think this is a fair case because of just how many strong elements this film has. I cannot emphasize enough that most of the cast is excellent. The cameos kept surprising me, although they sometimes seemed awkward – consider Colm Meaney (Miles O’Brien of the Star Trek franchise) as one example, who appears in the background as a police officer in one scene and is easy to miss if the viewer isn’t paying attention. Dick van Dyke is as delightful as always, Al Pacino is perfect for his part, and Dustin Hoffman had me in hysterics with his unique performance. For the most part, however, what makes the characters work so well is the way they look. The make-up and costumes are very much deserving of the awards they’ve won, and the kinds of faces that appear in this movie simply aren’t in any other films at all – this look distinctly belongs to Tracy’s world. While I could easily put together an image gallery that showcases the make-up, I’ve decided not to do that because I don’t want to give that away for any readers who may not have seen the film. I do, however, want to show off some of the shots that are cool simply because of the lighting, colors, sets, backgrounds, and camerawork, just to back up my case that this is the best-looking film ever made. For a taste of what this film’s visual style has to offer – and I’ve only pulled from a particular section in the middle so the rest of the movie’s visuals aren’t spoiled – enjoy the following gallery:
By this point, it should be fairly easy to see why I love this movie, but I want to make it clear that I still don’t think I’m straying too far away from the theoretical principles to which I have claimed to be subscribed. To me, an interesting story involves following a character who’s in a fascinating situation, and usually what makes the situation interesting is how the character clashes with his/her context. Here, the situation of being in this kind of warped world with such strange characters is so interesting that virtually any character, no matter how uninteresting, can make this film captivating, as long as he/she is reasonably consistent as a character. I can’t stand films that try to present an imaginative world in an objective and emotionally distant way, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but a film with an immersive and captivating world (see Dark City) invites the viewer to explore it and get wrapped up in it, which makes full use of cinema in its purest form: transportive simulation. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the appeal that comes from a different story that the film reflects, which is the story of its own construction. This film offers a way to watch a director struggle to create the kind of world that his film needs, and the mix of powerful successes and unbelievable failures gives the film a very cinematic sort of drama. This tension in the film is just enough of a story of its own for the needs I expressed in the first paragraph of this essay to be appeased, making for a very enjoyable movie experience.
Also, I truly do consider this to be, in terms of visuals only, the greatest film ever made, and I would appreciate it if any readers challenged that by offering an example of a film that looks even better. This is not a request, but a dare. Please accept it.