Archive | April 2014

Action Figure Analysis: The Costumes of Padme Amidala, from The Phantom Menace

15 years ago, millions of Star Wars fans walked/ran/skipped their way into cineplexes, to feast their eyes on what was considered The Second Coming to one of the biggest series in history. May 19, 1999 in the US, marked the official release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Of course, what followed was a money-making summer for the film, but it gained a reputation throughout the fandom, that it didn’t live up to the hype that had been festering within fans for 16 years. George Lucas’ return to the Director’s chair for the first time in 22 years, resulted in a film that some said was ‘wooden.’ As well, the performances by Jake Lloyd and Ahmed Best were heavily criticized. Then again, most of the fandom seemed eager for the Dark Side to overtake the Galactic Republic, as displayed by many complaining that Lucas had killed off the Sith Apprentice Darth Maul too early.

15 years later, though many cannot let go of the hate flowing through them (I made my peace with the prequels long ago), one thing that has stood out through the prequel trilogy, are the many and varied outfits worn by Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman).

Trisha Biggar served as Costume Designer on all three of the prequels, weaving designs that seemed different, yet familiar. George Lucas’ eye as an anthropologist was also there in Trisha’s costume work. One can see many different cultural staples in each of the outfits Portman wears.

In one of the commentaries for the Original Trilogy, Carrie Fisher jokingly commented how “her mother” in the prequels got all these different outfits to wear, and in the 1977 film, A New Hope, Fisher’s role as Princess Leia Organa, only produced two.

As we close in on May the 4th (be with you), and the upcoming 15th Anniversary of the May 19, 1999 release of The Phantom Menace, I thought I would take a trip down memory lane, and look at the various outfits worn by Padme through the course of the film.

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Queen Amidala (Theed Invasion)

From The Power of the Jedi Line (released in 2000)

The first costume we see Padme in in The Phantom Menace, is one of the most ornate. However, given its largely plastic nature, Padme comes off more like a statue than a figure. Her articulation is limited to her arms and neck. Though the most interesting thing, is that they have given her legs and heels under the skirt.

Given the majority of the costumes that Portman wore in the film, it was this one that made its way onto many different ads and products during the 1999 product blitz.

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Queen Amidala (Royal Decoy)

From The Power of the Jedi Line (released in 2001)

I was at first unsure about including this figure, as it is not actually Padme, but her handmaiden Sabe (played by Keira Knightley), acting as her decoy. The overly-elaborate outfit worn by Sabe seems much heavier in appearance than the previous outfit. As well, neck articulation is hindered by the plastic simulation of cloth around her head. The figure is also one of several that does not come with any accessories.

However, the figure makes up for this, by including elbow joints with the figure, allowing her to bring her hands together in the more humbled pose we saw in the film. The outfit would even be included in the 12-inch doll line, known as The Queen Amidala Collection.

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Rabe (Queen’s Chambers)

From The Original Trilogy Collection Line (released in 2005)

Like the Royal Decoy figure, the figure of Rabe is not the Queen per se, but in the escape from Naboo, Padme dons a robe similar to the other handmaidens, in order to protect herself.

Even though the figure is classified as Rabe, she is more enigmatic in her sculpting, and doesn’t appear to resemble actress Cristina da Silva.  As well, all the pictures of Rabe on the original figure’s packaging, show Amidala in the outfit. So, that is another reason I have included her in the list, as there has never been an official Padme Amidala in Handmaiden Disguise figure released with this wardrobe.

The figure has very minimal articulation, with only the arms and Rabe’s right elbow allowed movement. There is also a nice gold wash on the figure that looks really nice when the light catches the paint just right. The extension of the right arm, is for the figure to hold the Naboo blaster pistol included.

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Padme Naberrie

From The Phantom Menace Line (released in 1999)

One of the first female figures release in conjunction with the film. Claimed to be a handmaiden the Queen wished to send with Qui-gon on his mission to find parts to repair their ship, Padme aroused little suspicion wandering the streets of Mos Espa, but did catch the eye of a little slave boy named Anakin Skywaylker.

Padme (Naberrie) is one of the few figures from the original Phantom Menace line, that has not been remolded/resculpted since her first release. I personally felt the figure could do with a resculpt, to add more articulation, given that Padme is in this outfit for a good amount of screentime in the film. As well, her neck is a little thicker than later figure iterations.

Padme came with a View Screen that was used during the podrace in Phantom Menace.

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Queen Amidala (The Phantom Menace)

From The Legacy Collection Line (released in 2008)

Nine years after The Phantom Menace was released in theaters, one of Padme’s most elaborate costumes was released in action figure form. The figure was included as part of a three-figure set titled Evolutions. The sets would show everything from the evolution of Stormtroopers, to Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader.

Though a layered outfit like some of the previous releases, Hasbro gave this version of Amidala more articulation, including  ball-hinged neck, shoulders, elbows, and even a swivel waist. They even attempt to simulate on the smaller scale, the threaded features hanging down from her headdress.

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Queen Amidala (Coruscant)

From The Phantom Menace Line (released in 1999)

When addressing the Senate regarding the blockade of her planet, Padme appeared in this costume that seemed largely inspired by an Eastern-style of dressing.

The figure’s release came during the fall of 1999, and served as more of a statue than a figure. The figure has only 3 points of articulation, and was often hard to have stand on her own feet. As well, no weapon was included in her packaging.

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Queen Amidala

From The Vintage Collection Line (released in 2012)

To coincide with the release of The Phantom Menace in 3D, Hasbro released a new set of figures for the film. The line was a mix of new and resculpted figures, and with the Post-Senate Amidala figure, the last of Padme’s outfits had been rendered in 3.75″ scale.

Many could find the outfit easy to miss, as it comes following the inability for the Senate to act on the Trade Federation’s blockade. Figuring that the Senate and the Courts are of no help, Padme decides to return to Naboo, and take matters into her own hands.

Even though her outfit looks cumbersome, Hasbro has added in articulation in the figure’s waist, and even her elbows. For good measure (even though Padme did not brandish a weapon with the outfit), she comes with a Naboo blaster pistol.

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Queen Amidala

From The Legacy Collection Line (released in 2009)

The best title distinction for this figure would probably be Queen Amidala (Travel Gown). Padme wore this outfit when traveling aboard her Royal Starship, back to Naboo. While wearing it, Padme asks Jar Jar Binks to help enlist the Gungans to help then take back the City of Theed.

Much like the other Queen Amidala figure released in The Legacy Collection line, this one contains many of the same articulation points, along with a Naboo blaster pistol for a weapon.

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Sabe (Queen’s Decoy)

From The Power of the Jedi Line (released in 2001)

Just like the previous Royal Decoy figure, Sabe returns again, this time in a more mobile outfit, but still retaining the white makeup and red markings that are worn by the Queen. For the remainder of The Phantom Menace’s assault on Theed, Sabe would wear this outfit, which helped fool Nute Gunray into thinking Sabe was the Queen, allowing Padme to get the upper hand against the Viceroy.

The figure has a rather awkward arm configuration, as Sabe is mainly meant to be holding a Naboo blaster in both hands. Even in her packaging, this was how she was depicted in the plastic bubble on her card.

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Queen Amidala (Naboo)

From The Phantom Menace Line (released in 1999)

Released 3 weeks before the film’s US premiere, this was the first official Queen Amidala action figure, with her wearing her handmaiden disguise. The outfit was seen, when Padme steps forward to personally request of Gungan Leader Boss Nass, to help her people. Released a few years before the trend of 3D facial-scanning, Hasbro’s sculptors did a pretty decent job capturing Portman’s likeness.

Of all the different outfits, from The Phantom Menace, it would be this one that would see several iterations over the next 13 years. The first re-release of the outfit would come in 2000, with a cloth skirt, and an ascension gun from the film. In 2012, the Movie Heroes line would update several figures from The Phantom Menace, including Padme in this outfit. That iteration would give more articulation, though the coloration on Padme would come off making her look more pale than the previous figures.

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Queen Amidala (Celebration Ceremony)

From The Original Trilogy Collection Line (released in 2005)

Once the Naboo and Gungans have reclaimed their planet from the Trade Federation, a celebration is held in Theed, with Amidala presenting Boss Nass with the Globe of Peace, signifying a new chapter in the planet’s history.

The design of this outfit is airy as well as regal, but does have some problems with the figure. It’s often hard to get the figure to stand perfectly straight, given the fluffy-looking translucent plastic, as well as the pose of the legs underneath. However, there is nice detail in the royal crest on the dress, and in the golden headpiece on Padme’s forehead. Gold accents are even in the paint on her shoes.

Much like the Rabe figure, this one has one elbow joint, this one in her left arm, that allows her to hold out the Globe of Peace accessory she comes with.

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It only took 13 years, but almost all of the costumes related to Padme Amidala from The Phantom Menace, have been immortalized in 3.75″ action figure form. If one looks over the various figures, they paint an intriguing tapestry of how Hasbro evolved in their production and articulation on these figures. But of course, this was just the first of three films.

This installment of Action Figure Analysis did take me back to May of 1999, and a particular event. I remember the anticipation for Episode I, and even the midnight release of the film’s action figures at my local Toys R Us in Waterloo, Iowa. When the doors opened, people quickly began to fill up shopping carts with action figures, dolls, vehicles, and any new merchandise they could get their hands on. Of course, by the end of the night, not a single Darth Maul was left on the pegs.

While many choose to wish the film (let alone the prequels) didn’t exist, one can’t help but feel the prequel trilogy helped breathe new life into Star Wars. It’s a good bet that without those three films, The Clone Wars animated series (both in 2003, & 2008) would not have been made, and we wouldn’t be anticipating the 2015 release of Star Wars: Episode VII. One can only wonder if JJ Abrams and his team will give us a character with as many costume changes as Portman had throughout her time as Padme.

*In the next installment of The Costumes of Padme Amidala, we will look at the costumed figures of Senator Amidala, that appeared in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.*

 

Book Review: Creativity, Inc – by Ed Catmull, and Amy Wallace

When it comes to the company PIXAR Animation Studios, it is often the names of two of its three founders who spring readily to mind. There’s Steve Jobs, who chose to purchase the company from Lucasfilm in the mid-80’s. There’s John Lasseter, a former Disney animator who saw potential in using the computer for animation.

And then, there’s Ed Catmull.

Ed Catmull, at Lucasfilm in 1979

To many of us out there, Ed is the quiet enigma. More studious, and only willing to talk if he has something to say. Until the release of 2008’s The PIXAR Story, I had never really heard much of Ed’s philosophy on things, and even given his position in life, I was perplexed. How did this quiet man who dreamed big with computers, end up becoming the President of PIXAR Animation Studios, and in 2006, President of Walt Disney Feature Animation?

Like John Lasseter, Ed was also inspired by Disney. He claimed that he drew a lot, but felt he wouldn’t be able to reach the technical level needed to become a member of the company’s animation staff. Instead, he turned his attention to Computer Sciences at the University of Utah. Back in the day, there was a great deal of experimentation going on, and Ed saw something that many in the mid-70’s could probably never envision: use the computer in regards to animation. In fact, it was this idea that would become Ed’s lifelong goal: to some day create the first computer-generated feature film.

Of course, almost 20 years later, Ed would be part of that team that made history, when PIXAR released Toy Story. Since then, the company has become one of the most successful in history, relying less on executive decisions, and moreso on those of its creative staff.

After spending almost 3 decades being the President of PIXAR Animation Studios (and 8 at Disney), Ed has taken the time to put down most of his musings about running a company into Creativity, Inc, with the help of Amy Wallace. From the start, it becomes readily apparent that Ed is not here to egocentrically tell about his climb to greatness. Instead, he uses his life and  memories to explain why many of the ideals and business practices he uses, are worth noting and sharing with his readers. Ed’s book is meant to prove that the business models he knows and has seen implemented at Pixar (and in the last decade, at Disney Feature Animation), can apply to other businesses out there.

Pixar’s Founders: Ed Catmull (left), Steve Jobs (center), and John Lasseter (right)

Creativity, Inc strives to convince us that there is no sure way to avoid failure in a business, or to be pitch-perfect…and we should be okay with that. Given the company he’s worked for, we’ve heard numerous media personalities gush over every PIXAR success like the team just spent 3-4 years having fun after coming up with their film ideas one afternoon. But as Ed and several of the PIXAR staff have often repeated, “Every single film we’ve made has at one time or another, been the worst film we’ve ever made.”

Ed even gives examples of this, when he describes the original outlines for Monsters Inc, and Up. What he describes are story ideas significantly different from the final product, and would have sent the production off on many different tangents. I’m sure there are dozens of readers who went “…huh!?” after reading the original draft of Up that Ed describes.

Throughout the book, Ed recounts his time working on various productions at PIXAR, providing some great insight. He discusses why the company cancelled a film titled Newt, as well as giving a peek into the group of persons dubbed, “The Brain Trust.” Ed also pulls insight from each of the myriad people he works with at PIXAR and Disney, regarding how they respond to challenges and fears in their own ways. Oftentimes, others will take the same concept, but have their own metaphorical structure for it in their heads.

Of all the chapters included, the one that had me at the first word was Chapter 12: A New Challenge. This chapter chronicles a series of events that have been at the forefront of my wonderings since the fall of 2005: when Disney acquired PIXAR in a $7.4 billion acquisition, and brought Ed and John to Walt Disney Feature Animation, in hopes they could fix the struggling studio. It strays a ways outside of Ed’s more precise layouts in other chapters, but to hear his point-of-view from how those at PIXAR first reacted to the news, to what he and John found when they started trying to restructure Disney, is pure gold. The chapter also serves the duel purpose of informing us of a major event in Ed’s life, and seeing if the principles and examples he discussed in previous chapters, could be applied to Disney Feature Animation.

John Lasseter, Steve Jobs, Disney CEO Bob Iger, and Ed Catmull, on the day it was announced that PIXAR would be acquired by The Walt Disney Company.

The chapter even addresses why the studios were not merged (or share technology, or personnel). There is some talk about the previous version of the film Bolt (when it was titled American Dog), and also what had seemingly stymied the creative process that had turned the studio into a second-guesser, far from the innovative powerhouse it had long been known for.

The book’s release also comes at an interesting time. 2013 was quite a shocker for you if you were a fan of Disney and/or PIXAR. Many were surprised when Monsters University was shut out of the Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Feature, but the most shocking thing that has come about, has been the runaway success of Frozen. To the general public, the film seemed to come out of nowhere, and took on a life of its own, unseen since the release of The Lion King almost 2 decades before. Even after 5 months, it has made over $1 billion worldwide, and its soundtrack has sold over 2 million albums since its release. To many, the film has become a symbol that Disney Feature Animation has found its footing again.

However, it should be advised that Creativity, Inc is not some sort of get-rick-quick book. Ed is not going to give you the secret formula for making billion-dollar movies (sorry, you idiotic executives). It will be interesting to see or hear if any companies out there take Creativity, Inc to heart enough to make major changes in their corporate structure. Much of what Ed proposes is much like a New Year’s Resolution in regards to company betterment: you can talk about it all you want, but you have to work to make sure that the guiding principles in place are actually helping, and not hindering.

In the end, Creativity, Inc proves to be a much different book associated with the legacy of PIXAR Animation Studios. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime mixture of observations both managerially and creatively. Just seeing those two words mixed together should not be compatible, but Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace manage to find a way.

Movie Musings: Sequels – When it’s Time to just say “STOP!”

Sequels.

The word has become so ingrained in our culture, that it’s expected as much as news that Lindsay Lohan has spiraled further into career ruination.

These days if a film goes over big, the studio can’t help but announce when the next follow-up to that film will be. Sometimes, they’ll get so full of themselves, that they’ll announce preset dates well in advance of the latest film’s release. Such an occurrence happened in January, when strong word-of-mouth before The LEGO Movie‘s opening day, prompted Warner Bros to announce that they had already started work on a sequel.

I recall that happening with Spider-Man 3 in 2007, when Sony claimed that they had already locked in release dates for Spider-Man 4-6. Of course, we all know how well Spider-Man 3 did, and those additional film dates soon disappeared (leading to an eventual reboot 5 years later).

In recent years, one of the worst trends has been to sequelize films that are often some 10-20 years old. One of the finest examples of this was 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Fans kept begging and pleading for a new Indy film, and when they got one, they came out underwhelmed.

Some could even say the same about Tron: Legacy, the 2010 release that was a sequel to the cult classic feature that was released in 1982 (a span of 28 years between films!).

Currently, the world is falling all over itself to find out information about the upcoming Star Wars sequels, Episodes VII-IX, which are said to take place in the Star Wars universe some 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi (and ignore the decades of Lucas-approved “fanfiction” known as The Expanded Universe). As well, many are giddy about word of original cast members coming back, let alone seeing familiar places and vehicles.

Though the upcoming Star Wars films could have been the focus of this Movie Musing, there are two current film properties that have been in the news for so long, that recent talk in the last few months have influenced this writing.

The first of them, is Ghostbusters 3. This film idea has been talked of/in-development for so long that it just does not sound viable.  Given it’s been 25 years since Ghostbusters 2, the majority of the cast has aged, retired, or passed on. As well, Bill Murray has said he won’t be a part of the film, and Ernie Hudson claims that the recent death of Harold Ramis has made him feel the film shouldn’t go forward. However, Dan Aykroyd feels strongly that it can be pulled off, even though Ivan Reitman (who directed the first two) has also pulled out.

The second news, was in regards to The Goonies II. Aside from a strange Konami video game made in the 80’s, there has never been a filmed sequel to the 1985 kids adventure film. Though for many years, fans have clamored for more adventures, even though many of the actors were soon adults, and well beyond the. Word kept going on and on for years, with some online claiming to have found early script drafts. But the internet pretty much exploded a week ago when the original film’s director Richard Donner claimed that it was ‘going to happen.’ Word is that Steven Spielberg may also be on board as an executive producer, and Chris Columbus will also pen the script (both men had the same duties on the first Goonies).

While some claim “Goonies never say die,” I feel that truly, some things need to be put to rest.

The way people go on and on that they want sequels to things even after all the years have passed, is rather insane. I’ve tried talking to a few and tell them that the majority of the time, there’s no way this sequel is going to live up to their expectations. They’ve been dreaming of this for so many years. “Yeah you say that,” some say, “But it could be amazing!”

Therein seems to lie the problem: so many have hope that their wildest dreams are going to come true, that they can’t quite entertain the possibility of letdown. It’s like people blowing hundreds of dollars on the lottery, overly-confident that their gamble is going to pay off.

I’ve compiled a number of my own thoughts as to why these decades-later endeavors are bad ideas, and you can read them below:

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1) “You’re 10 years too late” – This to me is around the time when it’s time to just put a series to rest. One of the exceptions is Toy Story 3, but then again, it didn’t have many grand plans to keep pushing its characters into movies going onward and upward. It’s also one of the worst things you can do, to sequelize a film after this long. As seen in films like Tron: Legacy and Crystal Skull, the films had to spend plenty of time re-establishing the world from the first film.

7-10 years of time is enough to pass for a newer generation of filmgoers to appear, and when it comes to this amount of time passing, many films find themselves mired in becoming “a bridging vehicle.” The film ends up acting less like an actual sequel, and more like a film that tells you, “here’s what they did before, this is how things are now…and now that that’s all wrapped up, the next film can get going at full takeoff without all this boring exposition!” Of course in those cases, some films seem unlikely to ever get beyond the “bridging vehicle phase. There’s just been talk about a Tron 3 or an Indiana Jones 5, but no solid word that either is in full-on production.

2) “You’re no Spring Chicken” – Another name for this could be, “not as spry as I used to be.” 10+ years after the previous film came out, there are definitely going to be changes. It’s like when I went to my 10-year high school reunion. While we weren’t “old” perse, a lot had changed in our lives.  That can often be a crutch when it comes to sequels taking place after so long: many of the things a character did previously, they may not be attuned to doing now. Crystal Skull served as a good example of this: though Harrison Ford could do some stuff, he wasn’t able to do as much active adventure as he once did.

As well, characters are expected to grow and mature. It’s a pretty good bet when Episode VII is released, you won’t get that same adventure dynamic from 1977’s Star Wars. Han and Leia are most likely grandparents by now, and Luke has probably slowed down to much the same speed as Obi-Wan Kenobi. And I’m sure we’ll even see that Chewbacca wasn’t able to keep from going grey.

3) “The Times They Are A-changein” – A decade later may not sound like much time, but things can definitely change, both on film, and behind-the-scenes. A character that was relevant in one decade, may not be so in another. Like in Crystal Skull, Indy can’t be fighting Nazis in the 1950’s, so the next best thing was Russians (aka “The Red Menace”). As well, George Lucas’ vision of aliens was meant to update the adventure genres that he was using. Whereas adventure in the 30’s was based off of the Adventure Serials, Lucas felt that 20 years later, the equivalent in mid-20th Century thinking, were the B-Movies with their science fiction themes.

As well, some have fond memories of the older special effects, back in the day when the industry was crawling out of the dark ages in the wake of Star Wars‘ success. However, in this day and age, the use of practical effects and makeup effects is most likely going to take a backseat to the computer. Even with the use of models and physical effects, there were many who still complained that computer effects in Crystal Skull just distracted from the story. And even if Ghostbusters 3 or Goonies II get off the ground, the days of paint-in-water-tank cloud formations, and elaborate matte painting work is long gone. There’s no way they’ll pull those old ways out of mothballs for films like these.

4) “I saw faces of friends, vanished and gone” – As one gets older, people come in and out of our lives, and we most likely will suffer loss. This is a big part of sequels that take place after a long time: the characters we remember from long ago, may no longer still be around. Or even more, may refuse to take part in the series.

This was a major part of the latest Indy film. Almost all of Indy’s old friends (and even his Dad) were no longer in the picture, plunging us into a not-so-fun world for this character. Dr Jones was still living his life, but with less of his original support team around him. He had found new friends and acquaintances, but to the audience, they just weren’t the same.

5) “You Never Forget Your First Time” – In a documentary made for the Laserdisc release for E.T., Steven Spielberg and producer Kathleen Kennedy discussed how they at first considered a sequel to the film, but decided against it. Word is that even today, Spielberg still gets asked when E.T. will return to Earth. However, he has declined. His idea is that E.T.’s visit and journey on Earth, was a one-time deal, and that anything beyond that would just “cheapen” the memories.

I always loved Steven’s reasoning, because so many people seem enamored with the thought that they can experience that virginal bliss all over again with a sequel…but this just never happens. It’s like when you discover a truth about life: you can never make yourself as naive as you once were.

I’m pretty sure while many out there are excited for the upcoming 2015 sequel  Jurassic World, we’ve seen so many computer-generated dinosaurs since 2001’s Jurassic Park III, that the thrill of seeing these creatures for the first time is long gone.

6) “Everyone has already written the sequel in their minds” – Robert Zemeckis mentioned this during a discussion when he was asked to make Back to the Future Part II. And for films that have been gone for so long, thousands of people have speculated away regarding the fates of characters in various films.

The imagination has no limits, and while many can often think of grand adventures to send these characters off on, the final product that will appear still has to adhere to budgets and certain studio aesthetics.

7) “Just use their kids!” – this was one topic that has been bantered around for so long when it comes to these 10+ year sequels: just get the kids of the characters to keep doing what the elders once did. However, you can’t replicate what your parents did (and given some of the mistakes they may have made, would you want to!?). Some fans speculated that in the aftermath of Back to the Future Part III, the most likely chance of a Part IV, would be to have Doc and Clara Brown’s sons Jules and Verne continue the adventures. Thankfully, this has not been done.

That could possibly be the crutch for Star Wars, Episode VII. It is most likely that Luke, Han, and Leia will take a backseat as a younger set of characters take the stage. The audience is going to have to contend with the fact that these kids are not their parents, and this isn’t the same world when the Empire was in control. The newer generation in the Star Wars universe, is going to most likely have to fight new battles, with new enemies. Personally, I would put any hope aside of seeing the return of Darth Vader (or fanboy palpitations that JJ Abrams might bring back Boba Fett). It’s like they say: you can’t go home again.

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As one can read in the paragraphs above, I have thought long and hard about these sequels for so long. To me, the best advice I can give (and no, it isn’t a place on the popular song), is simply: “Let it go!”

Sure, we love popping in films like The Goonies, and Ghostbusters. But many seem mainly to cling to those memories of a different time. We saw things we hadn’t seen before, went on adventures we couldn’t even fathom. And to many of us who saw those films as kids, they electrified our still-developing minds. In truth, they were “one-time deals,” amazing viewings that no sequel can ever really rebirth.

Personally, I do not wish to see Mike Walsh and Mouth down on their luck in a small apartment in Astoria, Oregon. I don’t wish to see Ray Stanz pulling himself together to train and recruit a younger version of “new Ghostbusters.” And regarding a recent development announcement that just came out, I do not wish to see Robin Williams dress up as Mrs Doubtfire in a sequel 2 decades after his career was at an all-time high.

I’m sure my cries will fall on deaf ears. I’m probably just some keyboard-typing pessimist, but sometimes I have to be that torrent of cold water in the face.

In the end, I will give one positive. In regards to all this talk about sequels and people begging and pleading for more, my two heroes who have stood against the tide of rabble, are Robert Zemeckis, and Bob Gale. After Back to the Future ended with 1990’s Part III, they vowed that there would not be a Back to the Future Part IV. And after some 25 years, they have made good on their word. The adventures of Marty McFly and Doc Brown are preserved in that time capsule of late 80’s nostalgia, with its filmmakers leaving us to speculate (but never show) just what became of those characters.

At a screening event in 1990, Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Neil Canton hold up shirts proclaiming their stance on further adventures for Marty McFly, and Doc Brown.

If only there were more people out there with that kind of integrity, to allow others to live with their memories, instead of offering them snake oil as a cheap attempt to try and relive their glory days.

Movie Review: Ernest and Celestine

Sometimes it is in popularity, that some things we never considered, can come to our attention.

I still remember watching the 1994 Academy Awards Ceremony, and seeing clips for several of the animated shorts that were nominated. I was intrigued by the visuals for the winning short called The Wrong Trousers,  and when Wallace and Gromit  became available in the United States on VHS a few years later, it was those memories that pushed me to get those shorts on video. Pretty soon, the duo’s adventures were embraced by my family.

Starting in 2001, with the new Best Animated Feature category, we have seen a number of lesser-known (aka foreign) works make their way onto the nominations ballot. These include such films as The Triplets of BellevillePersepolis, and The Secret of Kells.

What I found most amazing, is that the majority of the foreign animated features that have been nominated, have largely been French co-productions. Apparently, there must be something in the water over there, that allows them to create such works that can get through to the attentions of us over here.

With the recent awards season, another French co-production found its way into the Animated Features category, with the nomination of Ernest and Celestine, produced by Didier Brunner (producer of The Triplets of Belleville, Secret of Kells), and directed by Benjamin Renner (making his feature directorial debut).

The film’s world is comprised of two species: bears, and mice. While bears inhabit a human-like above-ground city, the mice live below. Each has set certain parameters in place, that prevent any cross-species intermingling. The bears are told that if you let one mouse in, more will follow. For the mice, they are told that the bears above are evil creatures, that will surely gobble you up.

One who does not take much stock in the rantings of her elders, is a little orphan mouse named Celestine. Though being groomed to work within dentistry in the rodent-world, she seems more occupied with wanting to fill her sketchbook. Of course, it is the concept of being friends with these “big bad bears” that turns many away from her.

One day, she comes across a down-on-his-luck bear named Ernest. Starving, Ernest almost gobbles up the little mouse, but being quick-witted, Celestine manages to help him find a source of food in the basement of a nearby sweet shop…which soon ends up being the first of many troubles the two get into.

The film is based on a series of books created by Gabrielle Vincent. After seeing the film, I searched around for more on her work, but sadly, it seems her books have not been translated into English.

Art from the Ernest and Celestine book series, by creator Gabrielle Vincent

Art from the Ernest and Celestine book series, by creator Gabrielle Vincent

As well, trying to find information on Gabrielle was a quest in itself. I was lucky enough to find a link on Tumblr, that tells of her work, and the making of the film (courtesy of one of the animators who worked on the film!). Over 19 years, Gabrielle made over 30 books of the interactions of Ernest and Celestine, before she passed away in 2000. Word was that during her lifetime, Gabrielle turned down offers to adapt her works into mediums like television and film.

It’s a shame that not many know about these books, as I have been amazed at the detail in some of the story images I’ve found online.

While the film’s characterization is not exact to Vincent’s art style, it portrays it in such an honorable way, that one need not get so worked up. I saw it as necessary, if one is to make the characters as expressive within the animation medium as possible. Probably of all of the nominees for Best Animated Feature this year, I think this one is the most beautiful and inspiring.

Ever since being intrigued by the emotional animation of The Ugly Duckling and Beauty and the Beast, I’ve always gone into every animated feature, expecting it to hit me in an emotional way, and this film delivered in many wonderful ways.

For 3/4 of the film, I was sitting upright in my theater seat, guffawing with the other 15 people in the theater, gasping at certain scenarios, and taking in the minute expressions of the different characters.

Many of the backgrounds are not completely painted, and look like they’ve been plucked from a children’s book themselves, with the wispy white of the paper seen on the edges of some scenes. The artwork on display kept captivating me throughout, and sometimes I found myself in a three-way tug-of-war with the film: trying to read the subtitles, watch the characters, and take in the artwork on display. This is a film that I can see inspiring others out there to get creative.

I always love how films like this can mine comedy just out of situations or expressions. They don’t need to fall back on “standards” like we’ve seen in many US releases out there. There are so many little things the characters do in this film, that I just couldn’t help but crack up over and over again. As well, the hand-drawn animation gives the artists free reign to exaggerate. This comes into play when a gaggle of mouse police figures chase Ernest and Celestine. Instead of showing dozens of individual mice, the animators group them together in a massive “Wave” form, that bears down on our two leads, making the situation humorous, but a bit deadly.

The film’s music is composed by Vincent Courtois, and has a beautiful, languid simplicity to it that I greatly welcomed. Courtois even gets ingeniously creative, notably in a song sung by Ernest. However, there did come a moment where music and art fused together in a most glorious way. When Celestine claims she wishes to paint winter, Ernest plays a tune on a violin, musically creating a canvas of what winter ‘sounds’ like. The moment lasts 2-3 minutes with just images and music, and is something that has to be experienced on screen. Trust me on this one.

If there’s one point where the film falters, it feels like it starts to get a little too languid 3/4 of the way through. The film clocks in at one hour and twenty minutes, and even then, it feels like maybe the film would have possibly been better serviced as a series of smaller short-subjects, chronicling the adventures of Ernest and Celestine. Then again, maybe that could be an offshoot of the film in the future: further adventures, based on the other books Vincent wrote.

Ernest and Celestine is a film that proves that beauty can be found in even the simplest of things: whether it be a friendship between a bear and a mouse, or in line strokes and watercolor. This was a film where I completely could get behind those who had nominated it. Though it didn’t win at the Academy Awards, it did receive a special mention during the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and won for Best Animated Film at France’s Cesar Awards.

At the time of this writing, it is being shown in limited release in select theaters across the US. The majority of the prints feature an English-dubbed cast that includes Forest Whitaker as Ernest, and Mackenzie Foy as Celestine (a few theaters are running prints with the original French dialogue, and English subtitles). Still, one can hope that maybe over the next year, those who couldn’t see it in theaters, will discover the film when it comes out for the home video market. It’s one of the first films this year that I strongly recommend to those with an eye for art, or who may be in the mood for good old-fashioned storytelling that hits you in all the right spots.

Ernest and Celestine is currently playing in limited release in various cities. You can find out more about the film and its release schedule, at The GKIDS Website.

 

Terrible 2’s Reviews: Men in Black 2

*Some people may say that most films lose their way by a third sequel, but that isn’t always the case. For every “Wrath of Khan” or “Toy Story 2,” there’s a dozen ‘number 2’ films that were made, that could not uphold the energy and enthusiasm of the first film. This review section, aims to talk about these “Terrible 2’s”*

I’ll come right out front and say what’s been on my mind since the Summer of 1997: Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black was a good film, just not a great one. It had its moments, but this special effects-filled film didn’t fill me with the kind of wonder and amazement as many in the 1990’s.

Even so, it became the highest grossing film of that summer, beating out Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park (which will also be coming down the pike).

The first film told the story of a hot-headed NYPD officer (played by Will Smith), who is soon recruited by a top secret organization that attempts to hide traces of extra-terrestrials living among us. Smith’s character is handpicked by veteran MIB Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), given the name “Agent J,” and is soon on his way. However, the two are soon caught up in a plot that could mean the end of our world, and a war between others in the galaxy.

The first Men in Black was almost like Jurassic Park in how it was executed with visual effects: Though there would be use of that wonderful new CGI technology  (courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic), the film would also contain some great physical makeup and creature effects from the likes of Rick Baker. In fact, the films makeup effects would win it several accolades come awards season.

By the end of the film, Will Smith’s Agent J realizes that there’s a reason why his partner recruited him.

Back in the 1960’s, K was a normal young man who was on his way to see his girlfriend, but on his way there, he ended up getting into a meeting with an alien, and some of MIB’s first agents. K soon found himself becoming a member of the group, and left his civilian life behind…but not quite. K had been pining for his lost love for years, and with him feeling that J would be a suitable replacement, he wishes to return to the life of an ordinary man.

And with that, K was neuralyzed, with a happy ending showing he ended up with the woman he loved. Meanwhile, J seemed to have acclimated well to taking his former partner’s place, and with the help of a morgue-assistant-turned agent named “Agent L” (played by Linda Fiorentino), everything seemed to be coming up roses.

That was, until the Summer of 2002.

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There are some types of films that I refer to as “The traitorous best friend.” This can be seen as how the first film makes you feel comfortable, and it seems you and the film have a good rapport. But, when the second film comes out, one finds that good will and friendship was all for naught, and the sequel ends up stealing your wallet, and throwing you under a bus.

That to me, is what happened with Men in Black 2.

From everything that was outlined in the ending of the first film, it felt like there was ample room to move on, and do something new. But somewhere, some high-powered studio exec must have written in huge bold letters on early script drafts:

“Bring back Tommy Lee Jones!”

And thus, that becomes the plot of this sequel.

At the start of the second film, we see that things are not going so well for Agent J. Apparently, Agent L (never seen in this film!) couldn’t handle being an MIB agent, and as such, was neuralyzed, and sent back to her job at the morgue (rather convenient).

Since then, J has been trying to find a replacement, but none are living up to his expectations. It is soon after that MIB Chief Z (Rip Torn) finds out that an alien shapeshifter named Serleena (played by Lara Flynn Boyle) has come to Earth, seeking a power source called “The Light of Zartha.” Z then informs J that only his “best man” ever knew of the Light’s secret location…and he was neuralyzed 5 years ago.

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And that to me is really where much of the film’s premise stalls. The end of the first film made you think the world of these characters was going to expand out, and maybe we’d meet some more agents around MIB. But instead, we go back to the old partner dynamic. Forget that J seems to have made his own way within MIB, he needs to go back to being second-banana to K.

When one looks over the film, it could be the equivalent of what happens to quite a few sequels that try to outdo their predecessors. Some of the cinematic crimes this sequel pulls:

Unraveling all the endings in the first film – If there is such a thing as a ‘cinematic crime’ regarding this film, this to me is its biggest offense. However, it wasn’t so much that we lost characters like Linda Fiorentino’s “Agent L,” as what the script basically did to the character of Agent K.

Basically, happily-ever-after wasn’t good enough for the filmmakers, and it turned out that even with his MIB career wiped clean from his mind, K still was obsessed with the stars. And with that, the girl he (thought he) loved left him, and K ended up going to work in a Massachusetts Postal Office. As well, it is implied that he may have had several relationships with other women during his time with the MIB’s.

Familiar characters given a lot more useless stuff to do– in the first film, some of the most interesting characters just had a small amount of screentime, from the spindly Worm Guys, to the talkative Frank the Pug. Here, their roles have been expanded, but seem to do nothing but add extra filler. Frank is even made J’s temporary sidekick (aka “Agent F”), but provides little but throwaway one-liners. Tony Shalhoub as the shady pawnshop owner Jeebs makes a return, but even his role feels shoehorned into the plot.

Cameos up the wazoo – I don’t know why it is, but some films seem to develop a habit that once they are popular, they need to start chocking their film full of celebrity cameos. Sure, it’s good for a little chuckle when you see the likes of Martha Stewart and Michael Jackson in a film, but it doesn’t add anything except a few extra minutes to the film.

An over-abundance of computer-generated imagery – The first Men in Black utilized computer-generated imagery, but in a more subdued way, with much of the effects done through practical means. With this sequel, CGI is overly-abundant, from Serleena’s plant-like nature, to numerous other aliens. It’s not enough you get Johnny Knoxville as an obnoxious extra-terrestrial, but he’s got a smaller appendage with a miniature Knoxville head CG’ed onto it. There’s plenty to complain about, but that’s as far as I’ll go.

Over-abundance of product placement/tie-ins – The first film is not exempt from this (the agents sport Ray-Ban sunglasses, after all), but I’m sure someone at Sony probably was quick to bring aboard numerous companies to hawk their wares on the big screen for the sequel. We see everything from a Sprint phone store, to numerous plugs for Burger King. As well, we get a close-up shot of several cans of Mountain Dew, and see that MIB HQ has a bigger budget than we thought, as J drives around in a Mercedes-Benz. There’s also a subtle throwout to the Sony Playstation, when the controls for the MIB vehicle in flight mode, are designed off of a Playstation 2 controller. It probably took a lot of courage to just keep Will from pulling off his shades and saying to the audience, “just buy these!”

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The film’s performance during the summer of 2002 wasn’t as big as some had hoped for. It’s hard to gauge just what happened, but you could probably make a case that the summer’s box-office thunder was largely stolen by 2002’s Spider-Man, which ended up trouncing almost all comers at the theaters.

MIB 2‘s totals bucked the trends of most popular sequels, in that it fell short of reaching the same heights as the first film in total receipts, both domestically, and internationally.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld’s career was never at a higher peak than during the 90’s. That was when the Director of Photography – turned – Director was really in demand. His name was attached from everything to The Addams Family, to Wild Wild West. In fact, if not for West, one assumes we could have had MIB 2 at that time (I’m sure many of us would have at least felt better leaving the theater in 1999 after seeing MIB 2, than Wild Wild West).

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Men In Black 2 is a film that’s always stuck in the back of my head as a messed-up sequel, and not even a third film 7 years later could redeem the series in my eyes (it doesn’t say much when your third film ignores even more history, let alone sidelines Tommy Lee Jones for 5/6 of the entire film!). Though one can most likely assume that after the third film, there are no plans for a Men in Black 4.…well, one can hope.