To most of our modern media, Disney‘s second ‘Golden Age’ of animation seemed to end with Tarzan in 1999. Almost every article I’ve read that mentions Disney animation in some form or another seems to assume that nothing good came from Disney‘s feature animation division until almost a decade later. Pity that they often gloss over a film that seemed to do pretty well in the summer of 2002 (then again, the media tends to focus on how much money you make, not the integrity of your character).
Conceived of by story artist Chris Sanders, the original concept for Lilo & Stitch was that of a strange alien creature lost in a forest. After more story work, the lost alien creature soon became a fugitive alien experiment (codenamed “Experiment 626”).
There was a feel of rude-n-crude humor to Stitch, but what managed to keep the film from falling into just being mediocre, was the story of Lilo (Daveigh Chase), a little girl whose imagination makes it hard for her to fit in, as well as get along well with her older sister, Nani (Tia Carrere).
In a way, both Lilo and Stitch’s abrasive tendencies allowed them to learn from each other, and provided one of the most unconventional films to come from Walt Disney Feature Animation in quite some time.
Production-wise, making the film was different in a number of ways:
1) It was only the second film to be produced entirely at Walt Disney Feature Animation in Orlando, FL (the only other animated film to be made there was Mulan).
2) Aside from an orchestrated score composed by Alan Silvestri (composer of Back to the Future), the majority of the music used were songs that were sung by Elvis Presley.
3) Background art for the production was painted entirely in watercolors.
Much like Atlantis: The Lost Empire had relied on artistic inspiration from Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, Sanders’ unique stylings would be all over his production. Straight lines in the production were largely done away with, and almost everything was given an expanded or rounded look to it (which definitely contrasted with the very angular designs of Atlantis as well).
The idea behind the production of the film, was making something on a smaller budget, but still retaining the heart of the piece. For inspiration, the filmmakers would often look to Dumbo, which was a simple little story that was also made on a much smaller budget than other films the studio had produced at the time.
This feeling to make a film in the spirit of the first Golden Age of animated features (1938-1942) also carried over into a small scene in the film. One of the first things that Stitch becomes interested in is a book showing the story of The Ugly Duckling. This was one of the last Silly Symphonies that The Walt Disney Studios produced in the late 1930’s, and I often cite it for its ability to be very emotional. There’s one scene that I recall seeing in the theaters, that noone ever really noticed as an ‘homage’ to that animated short.
To direct our attention to the film’s upcoming release, the marketing department soon attempted a campaign that was unlike anything we had seen before. Instead of giving us outright clips of the film, 3/4 of the movie trailers consisted of the alien Stitch invading some of the most heartfelt moments we recalled from the Disney classics of the early 1990’s.
Marketing made Stitch out to be the black sheep of the Disney character stable. He was the rebel, the anti-Mickey if you will. Even though he was engineered to destroy, a lot of people loved Stitch’s round, cuddly shape. It could tie into how we respond to various shapes. One study I remember reading said that babies tended to seem more comfortable with rounded, natural shapes than angular ones. This could also explain why so many people love Mickey Mouse: he’s largely made up of circles.
In the end, Stitch didn’t make gobs of money, but it was one of the most well-received animated feature from Disney, and it commanded a decent $145 million gross in the US alone. What I remember most about the film’s opening weekend, was a sight I’ve never witnessed since regarding a Disney theatrical release. At the time, I was working at a movie theater, and was surprised to see that the 10pm showing for the film was sold out! I snuck in to check out the crowd, and it wasn’t families…it was teenagers and 20-somethings that made up a good 90% of the audience!! Such a thing would become commonplace with many of Pixar’s films, but this was a rare occurrence.
Unknown to alot of people, a couple major changes were made to the story during its final year in production.
One of them was made after a test audience’s reaction to the scene where Jumba chases Stitch into Lilo and Nani’s home, and proceeds to fight him inside.
The original piece was a lot more violent, and at one point, the chainsaw Stitch finds gets out of his hands, and chases Lilo around the kitchen. At the end, the destruction of the home was more intentional as Stitch and Jumba’s fighting escalates. Stitch pulls out the stove, and turns up the gas, which soon turns into a ‘do you have the guts to do it’ moment between the two, resulting in Jumba pulling the trigger and destroying the home. This definitely was a bit more menacing than the final product, which became a comical game of ‘hot potato,’ with a jammed blaster.
Another change was the slamming on the brakes of an action set-piece in the wake of the events of 9/11. Originally, to get Lilo back from Captain Gantu, Jumba, Pleakley, Stitch, and Nani hijack an airplane, including flying it through a commercial district on the island.
This was a key sequence in the film, and much of the scene had already been animated and finalized.
The solution? Restructure the 747 so that it looked like an alien spaceship (after all, Jumba and Pleakley had to get to Earth somehow!), and change the commercial district to a mountainous canyon area.
The eventual DVD release of the film before Christmas satiated the public’s need to have a little piece of the adventure in their own homes, but many animation fans and myself were a little upset. Why? Well, the American release was a single-disc that gave us very little…whereas foreign releases to some countries contained everything from audio commentary, a documentary on the making of the film, and even numerous deleted scenes (such as the original house attack and the rescue by 747).
Eventually, our patience paid off as in the Spring of 2009, the 2-disc edition finally made it to our shelves, and I was sure to get it. If you love the film but don’t have the 2-disc set yet, get it! Or, maybe hold off as I’m sure some time in the next few years, we’ll get it on Blu-Ray.
Lilo & Stitch is one of those films that many of us recall before the resurgence of the dark times at Walt Disney Studios. That fall, Treasure Planet’s low-grosses in the wake of its exorbitant price tag would begin the eventual demise of hand-drawn animation at the studio, and leading to the eventual closure of numerous satellite studios the company had around the world (including the Feature Animation branch in Orlando). Chris Sanders stayed with Disney through the dark times, but when his concepts for the production American Dog (which later became Bolt) were not met favorably, he exited the studio and headed to Dreamworks. What did he do there? Oh, just a little film called How to Train Your Dragon (along with his Stitch co-director Dean DeBlois).
Aside from films made by Pixar Animation Studios, almost nothing that came out after Stitch quite captured the charm and emotions that permeated from that film. Lilo was not your conventional princess or ordinary little girl (she had issues, and at one point even lashed out at a girl who made fun of her), and doing things a little different is a way to make people remember you. Stitch could have just been an E.T. rip-off, but he was a weapon that soon learned there could be more to who you are…that you can change, and find a way to belong.
Some of you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the television series, or the direct-to-video releases. Well, I’m one of those people that cuts off where the main creator(s) walked away. I’m the guy who will acknowledge Terminators 1 & 2, but nothing that came afterwards.
Lilo & Stitch also makes me fondly recall the summer of 2002, when I was entering my final year of studying animation, with our Team Animation class looming on the horizon, and my eager young attitude anticipating what was to come down the road, both in life, and in animation.
*Even though the film market has expanded globally, there are still plenty of films out there that the average filmgoer does not know about. This column is a way to tell about those hidden gems that may not get enough marketing, or worldwide attention.*
While the name Hayao Miyazaki is well-known and associated with Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, one of its lesser-known directors to American audiences is Isao Takahata (one of the studio’s co-founders).
Three of Takahata’s films have been released stateside, but it is only his emotionally-gripping animated film Grave of the Fireflies that is often talked about in many film circles (film critic Roger Ebert is known to have spoken of his love for the film). The two other films of his that have seen US DVD releases, are the 1994 film Pom Poko, and his 1999 animated comedy, My Neighbors the Yamadas (based on the comic by Hisaichi Ishii).
Probably the one reason that Fireflies got a release in the United States, is that Walt Disney Pictures (who have been releasing Ghibli films for over a decade) do not have the distribution rights. That film in and of itself is almost the Schindler’s List of anime films (it’s a masterpiece, but not the kind of film you can just watch over and over again), and was released by Central Park Media.
Sandwiched between the release of Fireflies in 1988 (which played as part of a double-feature with My Neighbor Totoro, believe it or not!) and Pom Poko, Takahata adapted and directed the 1991 theatrical release, Only Yesterday.
Based on the manga of the same name, the film concerns a woman named Taeko (Miki Imai), an office worker in Tokyo who plans to take a 10-day vacation. Her sister’s husband owns a farm in Yamagata, and after having had a nice time there previously, Taeko requests to visit it again.
As she takes her trip, her mind starts to drift back to 1966, when she was in the fifth grade, remembering times both good and bad.
Ever since I first heard about the film on the internet site Nausicaa.net, the only knowledge I had about it were some vague images and a short summary. I went into the film not quite knowing what to expect, and came out pleasantly surprised.
If Miyazaki is known for making his characters and films take flight, Takahata seems to do a pretty good job of keeping his characters grounded, but with plenty of emotion! Probably one reason why this film has not been released, is that it is more of a dramatic comedy, and contains some material that may seem too slow for children, or cause some to wonder why it wasn’t made into a live-action film instead. Some parents may even find a couple parts of Taeko’s past a bit hard to stomach.
Yesterday also walks a fine line when we pass between the past and the present. Artistically, Takahata chooses to render the past in a lighter color palette, with plenty of white around the edges, almost like we’re peering into a distant memory. The present is rendered in ways that make the city of Tokyo seem large and imposing, and the farm setting of Yamagata seem expansive and peaceful. There’s even a very informative scene regarding the harvesting and uses of the safflower plant, which I’m sure not many people know about.
Design-wise, Takahata’s characters fit pretty closely into the mold for most of Ghibli‘s characters, but aside from the wide-eyed child designs that we’ve come to know from Ghibli, the adults rendered in this film seem a bit more ‘real’ than we’re used to. The adults like Taeko have smaller eyes, with less-caricatured features. Even so, I found myself strangely surprised and entranced by one trait that not many Ghibli characters show: cheeks. Taeko’s smile creates lines that one almost never sees in characters, and such traits follow suit with several others in the film.
The film is also rife with some very creative and exaggerated expressions, such as in a past scene, where Taeko and her family partake in freshly-cut pineapple. She attempts to finish her piece and several more, but one can see the expression on her face relays that she is not enjoying it.
This is one of those non-Miyazaki-directed films that belongs right up there with Whisper of the Heart, and The Secret World of Arrietty. It’s captivating like Whisper, yet is heightened by the emotions of an adult looking to the past, and wondering about her future, which I think many of us have done at least a couple times in our lives.
Unlike Miyazaki who has relied on composer Jo Hisaishi as a musical ‘partner,’ Takahata has had a different musical collaborator on each of his films. For Yesterday, he recruited Hoshi Katsu, a name which means little to others, but made me very excited when I realized who he was (he composed numerous tracks for the anime series Urusei Yatsura, one of the first anime/manga I latched onto in the late 90’s)! I’ve grown fond of his simple piano melodies over the years, and also his use of synthesizers. With this film, the melodies he weaves are more subtle, to the point that one almost forgets there is music, but when one hears the themes he has composed, they sound like a dream or a distant memory.
Over the ending credits, the film takes an American song and translates it into Japanese as the ending theme (a process that was used in Whisper of the Heart as well). I won’t say just what the song is, but its interpretation has not been able to leave my head, and I think (along with the visuals) makes the ending one of the best in the Studio Ghibli catalogue. Plus, I’ll never be able to listen to The Carpenters the same way again (ok, that’s the only hint I’ll give, since they have been part of my Spotify and Pandora playlists over the last month).
Like Grave of the Fireflies, the film shows that Studio Ghibli was willing to take a chance on a film that went with much deeper subject matter than normal. Apparently, their efforts were rewarded, when the film became the #1 box-office hit of 1991 in Japan. Looking around the web for further information, I was surprised to find that 20 years after it was released, it was turned into a stage musical as well!
At this time, your best bet to find the film would be to search for an all-regions DVD copy out there. While there has been no word about an American release here, it was released in parts of Europe and Australia back in 2006.
I was lucky enough to catch the film when the touring showcase Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata and the Masters of Studio Ghibli came to town. If you get word of this touring showcase, go as soon as possible, as it is one of the few chances many will get to see some of these films on the big screen, along with such rare showings of films like Only Yesterday, and the made-for-television film Ocean Waves (of which I plan to see shortly!).
There’s so much more I’d love to tell about this film, but I’ve said as much as I feel capable of without possibly spoiling the discovery of this film for many of you. Up until now, I’d only seen Takahata’s film Grave of the Fireflies, but now I’m curious as to what he did with other Ghibli titles like Pom Poko, and My Neighbors the Yamadas.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. It’s hard to believe that such a simple film about ‘a boy and his alien,’ could have taken the world by storm as it did in 1982.
My parents said that the film was the first I was ever taken to, but being 2 years old, I don’t recall anything about the experience. It wasn’t until Universal Pictures released it on home video in the mid-80’s, did I finally see the film. Like some young boys, I thought it was dopey, but watching it some years later, I began to appreciate more the type of film that Steven Spielberg had crafted. At the time, it was one of the most personal films that he had done.
Naturally, toys were prevalent during the film’s release, and there were even vinyl/plush E.T. figures made. But it wasn’t until 2002, that the little alien would get a full-on action figure line. Made by Pacific Playthings, and distributed only through Toys ‘R’ Us, the line gave us several iterations of E.T., as well as action figures and playsets based around the human characters. However, at the time, the figures were chunky in their plastic iterations, and E.T.’s eyes looked ‘dead,’ making him look like he’d been shanghaied from an amusement park attraction. These seemed to be the only way to get figures of this alien creature…until NECA Toys got the license to produce merchandise for the film’s 30th Anniversary this year.
When I first heard about this, I got incredibly excited. NECA Toys had proven themselves to me in the last 5 years with their figure work for films like Harry Potter, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. These guys had the talent to pull off the detail to make this iteration of E.T. look like the character we saw on screen…and the sculptors knocked this one out of the park!
This is one of the few sculpts that just brings a smile to my face. He doesn’t look like an escaped animatronic figure, but almost like he could start moving at any moment. There’s a wonderful amount of detail put into the face, arms, and body. Though if you were hoping to see E.T.’s ‘heart-light,’ this figure does not have it exposed.
There’s a wonderful ‘wash’ job done, adding some layered brown to the plastic used, giving E.T. a real ‘earthen’ look.
Another fine point are the eyes. They weren’t just blue in the film, but had a tinge of light green around the pupil. Strange enough, that little ring around the pupil works incredibly well to keep the eyes from going dead.
Of course, E.T.’s squat body isn’t going to allow him to pose like Spider-Man. Even so, NECA gives us a nice level of rotation in E.T.’s ankles, shoulders, and elbows. It’s in his wrists that the articulation becomes limited. You can move the hands a little bit, but you can’t make them do a full 90-degree bend.
The four-fingered hands also provide us with those long fingers we remember seeing, with the right ‘index’ finger painted an orange color to signify E.T.’s healing touch.
But E.T. isn’t just a lump of an alien. He did have flexibility where it counted-in his neck. This design aesthetic was part of Spielberg’s wish that E.T. come off as a believable character, that you wouldn’t believe was a person in a suit. Throughout the film, E.T. could extend and collapse his neck, which would be difficult to do in toy form. To remedy this, NECA has given us two separate neck pieces, that connect by a ball-hinge piece at the base of the neck, and inside the back of the head.
This is where one finds out that these are not just kids toys, as I struggled for a bit trying to change the neck out several times. I’m not one to apply alot of force to my figures (the joint on one of my T-1000’s arms snapped a few months ago), so I tend to leave E.T. with the smaller neck piece. It makes him seem more calm and ‘humble.’
This E.T. release also comes with two other accessories:
– an orange bag of black, yellow & orange candy (from a company that achieved great success because of the film, but seemed unwilling to add the candy’s name to the item in question for the toy release).
– a white bathrobe. I originally thought this was from a scene near the end of the film, but it’s actually worn by E.T. in a deleted scene where he and Elliot (Henry Thomas) are in the bathroom of the house. The scene was reinstated into the 20th Anniversary release in 2002, where much of the E.T. animatronic/costumed figures were replaced by a computer-generated version (word was the scene was omitted because the technology of the time couldn’t make E.T. do everything in the scene that Spielberg wanted).
Galactic Friend E.T. is one of two figures that have currently been released as part of the first wave of E.T. merchandise from NECA. Another figure they released is called Dress-Up E.T., which recreates him wearing the wig and outfit that Gertie (Drew Berrymore) dresses him in after she comes home from school. Unlike Galactic Friend, Dress-up has a different facial expression. I almost considered getting it to have multiple faces/expressions, until a review on the site Captain Toy said that the hair that E.T. is wearing is permanent.
Personally, I’m fine and content with my ‘naked’ E.T. After all, that was how he normally went around in the film.
Closer to the Blu-Ray/DVD release this fall, NECA will release two more figures of E.T. One of him in the blue-checkered shirt when he bummed around the house watching TV and drinking beer (though NECA has stated that he does not come with empty cans), and one of him wrapped in the white cloth while riding in the basket of Elliott’s bike.
Of course, some have wondered if we’ll get NECA iterations of the human characters. While I’d love to have a figure of Elliott on his bike, it’s a pretty good bet that NECA will not be doing these figures. They seem content with simply doing creatures, and ‘normal humans’ aren’t quite their bag.
On a final note, retail price will range between $13-$20 for the figure, which may make some people balk. I was more than happy to pay that amount for something of this quality. E.T. will moreso be a display piece on my NECA shelf (standing amid figures from Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, & Terminator 2), but I’m happy to have him in my collection.
*This column is one in which we look at different films that we feel should get better treatment regarding release to the public, based on their content and behind-the-scenes material*
It used to be that when scary or spooky things happened, it was in abandoned houses, spooky castles, or giant mansions on a dark and stormy night. With the release of Poltergeist in 1982, Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper showed us that spectral activity could also be found in a place right in our own neighborhood: our own house!
The film concerns the Freelings, who live in a suburban community called Cuesta Verde. Some time after they have moved in, their youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) begins to watch the static on their television set, claiming that she is conversing with “The TV People.” Strange occurrences begin to happen in the household, but one night, a tree outside the older brother’s window seems to come alive, and grabs him! As the parents rush to save him, the closet in Carol Anne’s room opens, and she is sucked into it! Finding her gone, the parents are unsure where she is, when they suddenly hear her voice emanating from their television set! They soon find that supernatural spirits (or poltergeists), have taken their daughter, and enlist the help of a spiritual medium named Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) to help get Carol Anne back.
The film proved to be a huge success, and eventually spawned two sequels and a television series. Currently, there is word that MGM Studios (in the wake of escaping from bankruptcy) has plans to start remaking lots of films in their library, with one of them being Poltergeist.
What makes the original film work so well, is that suburbia was always meant to be the place where you were safe from the big city. Gridlock, crime, and strangers were meant to be non-existent entities in these planned communities. The use of a spectral presence in the film helps heighten the tension and the scare value, not to mention that the one in danger is not an idiotic teenager, but an innocent child (I think every parent is fearful of something bad happening to their children).
It’s also noteworthy for the involvement that Steven Spielberg had in regards to the film. He wrote the story, co-wrote the screenplay, and acted as a producer on the film (the most amount of story interaction he had since Close Encounters of the Third Kind). One has to wonder that if Universal Studios hadn’t held him to directing only one film at the time (a little picture called E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial), Spielberg would have directed this as well (there have been several occasions in the last 20 years, where he did direct several films back-to-back). Directing duties were given instead to Tobe Hooper (director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), though to this day, there’s alot of back-and-forth on just who directed the film: Hooper, or Spielberg.
You’d think that since it is considered one of the scariest films out there (I still think it holds up well all these years later), that more effort would be put into its release on DVD and Blu-Ray. Sadly, this has not been the case. The last release for the film occurred in the last 3-5 years, but very little material was added. Extra features included only the film’s trailer, and a documentary titled They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeists. Prior to this, the only other time extras had been offered on a home video release, was when the film premiered on laserdisc, which included a making-of featurette that was released before the film premiered in 1982. It almost feels that the way the studio treats this film, the ground will open up, and suck down anyone who attempts to give the film a little more material.
Thinking about the film over the years, here are some things I’d love to see on a proper release:
1) Audio Commentary – Of course, you’ll never get Steven Spielberg on the commentary track (he’s one of the few hold-outs who declines such a thing), but what about a track dealing with some of the cast, or even the other writers, producers, and director Tobe Hooper? You can’t say that a group commentary wouldn’t elicit some interesting stories or memories regarding the experience, or cast members who have passed on (like Heather O’Rourke, or Zelda Rubinstein).
2) Interview retrospective with the cast and crew – This would probably be the closest you’d get to picking Spielberg’s brain, as he is usually willing to sit down and just chat privately about his experiences. Plus, it would be interesting to know if he believes in spiritual phenomena after all these years (during a War of the Worlds press conference in 2005, he was questioned whether he still believes in alien life). It might also be nice to hear what inspired Spielberg to write the story that eventually became the film. Word was during early production of E.T., Spielberg had heard of a family terrorized by aliens, and that was part of his early musings with that project. But it seems that he chose to split the terror and wonder into two films, making Poltergeist the terror of the unknown, and E.T. the wonder.
3) Creating Fear: The Special Effects of Poltergeist – At the time, Poltergeist was the second film in which Spielberg had gone to George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic for help realizing the impossible. In regards to post-production, ILM was doing everything from building miniatures and creating creatures, to doing process-photography shots in the film. It’d be nice to hear from various personnel/staff on what they had to go through, as well as the production design staff in developing the look of the otherworldly spirits.
4) The Making of Poltergeist – This was a making-of featurette that was created in 1982 as part of the film’s promotion. It offered some insight from both cast and crew, as well as little tidbits on some of the visual effects, such as the ‘living closet’ effect that almost takes Carol Anne and her brother.
5) Trailers – Because really, what special features list isn’t going to have them? Plus, it gives us the ability to see how marketing trends were in the early 1980’s.
6) They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeists – This could be optional to me, but the documentary included on the DVD/Blu-Ray release could be insightful.
I assume some people would love some special features like Hooper vs Spielberg: who is the true director of Poltergeist, or The Curse of Poltergeist. However, that’s stuff that you’d see on E! Entertainment Television, and wouldn’t make for ‘suitable’ making-of material.
In regards to the story, one can’t also help but feel that it may have been inspired by Spielberg’s love for the Rod Serling show, The Twilight Zone. Some have noted similarities to an episode called Little Girl Lost. In it, a girl rolls under her bed, and into a strange, otherworldly dimension. Her parents can hear her voice in her room, but can’t figure out where she’s gone to. This is very similar to Carol Anne’s disappearance in Poltergeist, yet not quite as visceral and terrifying. (FYI, the episode Little Girl Lost was also parodied slightly in the Treehouse of Horror episode on The Simpsons, where Homer ends up in ‘The 3rd Dimension’)
I only saw the film maybe 2 times in my youth (on home video), but there were still plenty of things in it to freak me out. I also had a clown doll (word was my Mom purchased him for me when I was little, because I called him a ‘funny clown’). However, after seeing Poltergeist, I never looked at him the same way again (and yet, I never got rid of him…maybe out of fear he’d come back to get me if I tossed him away). I think the film also brought forth a strange curiosity with spirits. I was never into the likes of Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, but when there would be TV movies or the occasional Unsolved Mysteries that dabbled in “The Unexplained,” I was there. There was even a strange made-for-tv movie about a haunted suburban development that seemed eerily similar to Poltergeist.
Of course, being that this is the internet, there’s going to be a few people so deeply in love with a subject, that they’ll make a website dedicated to it. One that I came across when perusing the web about Poltergeist, was Poltergeist: The Fan Site . Fan David Furtney has accumulated a great deal of information regarding the film. His site showcases everything from scans of concept art, to information from the film’s press kit, and even information gleaned from copies of the film’s shooting schedule.
“Every fourth person you know has probably had an experience with a poltergeist or a ghost, or knows somebody who has. You just have to ask around” – Steven Spielberg, 1982 (from the Poltergeist movie press kit)