Growing up in suburbia, I wasn’t schooled much in the ways of “dark comedies.” Most of my entertainment either came from the world of animation, or family-friendly blockbusters like Star Wars, or Back to the Future.
Probably my first encounter with a dark comedy, was when previews for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice enticed me to want to see it…only for my 8-year-old mind to wonder what I had wandered into, seeing people tear their faces off, and pin-toothed snakes terrorize a wealthy family.
It would be some years before I could really get into, or understand dark comedies (such as Dr Strangelove!). One of the earliest I saw, happened to be by director Robert Zemeckis, who had captured my youthful attentions with The Back to the Future Trilogy, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
I can’t recall exactly when I finally saw Death Becomes Her, but its imagery and storyline was one that just plopped right down inside my head, and never left.
Around the film’s 20 year anniversary in 2012, I lamented in a blog posting, how a proper Blu-Ray release, was still out of the grasp of the average American. As it stood, Universal Studios had only released a bare-bones, pan-and-scan version on DVD, that cropped off the sides of the main imagery. The only way to view it on widescreen, was with the film’s laserdisc release.
Fortunately, help came in the form of distributor Shout Factory in 2015. Under their Scream Factory horror- release banner, we finally have the film for the 21st century!
The film follows three people: Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) , Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), and Ernest Mennville (Bruce Willis).
Madeline has been an egocentric ‘friend’ to Helen ever since they were young, and also stole several of her childhood friend’s boyfriends…including Ernest, who eventually became Madeline’s husband.
However, as time has gone by, Madeline’s acting career has fizzled, along with her looks. Ernest, who once held potential to be a surgeon, is now little more than an alcoholic undertaker.
Madeline falls into further depression when she finds out that Helen has written a book, and seems to have regained her youthful appearance!
Pretty much at the end of her rope, Madeline takes the advice of a doctor, and visits a mysterious woman named Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini), who is willing to give her a special potion…for a price…
Thoughts on the Film
Following a successful (if exhausting) directing run from 1985-1990 (in which he directed The Back to the Future Trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit), Robert Zemeckis’ first film of the 1990’s, plays with its dark comedy storyline, by touching on the culture that most likely was within walking distance of the studio that produced it!
Martin Donovan and David Koepp’s script takes the rather vapid and superficial world of beauty and Hollywood, and just relishes roasting those who struggle to hold on to their beauty, in some of the most shocking ways.
Streep’s turn as a harpy-ish diva, is probably one of the film’s highlights. Meryl seems to have some fun with the part, and I think it’s one of her more unusual roles in her filmography.
Hawn’s character is one who has harbored a grudge against Madeline for years, and is finally at a point where she is in a mental state of mind to ‘put Madeline Ashton out of her life.’ Hawn’s portrayal of the character from meek-to-vengeful, never feels as solid as what Streep brings to her character…but then again, maybe it’s to show how the character of Helen has never been able to put herself back together properly, after Madeline stole Ernest away.
Speaking Ernest, Bruce Willis’ turn as the hen-pecked undertaker, is a nice change-of-pace, from the more action-oriented roles we’ve seen him do. Willis seems to have fun playing with his character’s vocals, ratcheting them up and down depending on the craziness of the scene. But even so, one can definitely get a sense of Ernest’s frustrations, that his life seems to have reached a dead-end in a number of places, making him yearn for some meaning.
The film also seems to have the pacing of several of Zemeckis’ films (like the first Back to the Future), in which the first act slowly sets up the pins, but in the second act, he knocks them down, and grabs our attention…in this case, with a cadre of mind-blowing effects (well, for 1992, anyways).
Watching the film’s centerpiece in which Madeline and Helen just go at each other in a special-effects-heavy fight, has made me wonder what the audience was thinking back in 1992. It feels like the effects were largely the crux of the film’s marketing campaign (just look at the DVD cover art!), and left little for the audience to expect.
While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think that it almost feels like an extended episode of the television series, Tales From the Crypt (of which Zemeckis would be an executive producer on!). Koepp also has fun with playing around with the character’s names (the lead’s nicknames for each other are ‘Mad,’ and ‘Hel’).
That seems to be what Death Becomes Her mainly wants to be: a funny black comedy, with the added bonus of continuing Zemeckis’ penchant to keep dabbling in advancing effects technology. This also feels like the director taking a breather after Back to the Future and Roger Rabbit, and falling back on the kinds of slapstick comedy that one recalls him and Bob Gale writing/working on almost a decade before (I Wanna Hold Your Hand, 1941, Used Cars). It’s basically a $55 million ‘vacation’ for the director, with him getting to continue playing with his new visual effects toys.
The Special Features
While a dream release for me would have delved into the film’s visual effects with a feature-length audio commentary over the film, Scream Factory actually plays nice, and gives us a brand-new, 25-minute retrospective. The featurette includes new interviews from director Robert Zemeckis, writer David Koepp, director of photography Dean Cundey, and many more.
Sadly, the cast is nowhere to be seen, except in a making-of featurette, that was created during the film’s production. They sit for the typical candid ‘talking head’ bits, and we even get to see some of the behind-the-scenes material, showing how they shot one of the film’s more memorable scenes.
We also have a photo gallery, and a theatrical trailer thrown in.
Menu-wise, Shout Factory shows a commitment to making the menu screen ‘pop,’ and we get some of Alan Silvestri’s music, along with full-motion clips from the film.
Probably one of the most fun ‘easter eggs’ I encountered, was when I opened up the clamshell case…only to find that the paper cover for the movie, contained a reversible, alternate cover!
This allows you to wrap the case in its more conventional DVD cover (also seen on the cardboard sleeve), or one featuring an unknown woman, holding the vial of pink elixir. Unknown to some, this was the original poster art image used to promote the film, in 1992.
If there is a big area of disappointment for me, it is that there’s no acknowledgement of the ‘original cut’ that was altered into the final product, after a poor test-screening. One would have assumed that maybe in the 25-minute special, Koepp might have shed some light on where he had wanted to take the film originally.
Supposedly, Ernest actually had a confidante, in the form of a bartender named Toni, played by Traci Ullman. Though she showed up in some of the movie trailers, nothing of Ullman’s performance is left on the final print, making Ernest lonely and frustrated with his life, with seemingly noone to confide in.
With the release of Death Becomes Her, we are now only two films away from having all of Zemeckis’ filmography on Blu-Ray format (the films I Wanna Hold Your Hand and What Lies Beneath, are still DVD-only).
While the release didn’t blow me out of the water, I was at least glad to see that Shout Factory
was willing to put some time and effort into not only releasing the film in a decent quality widescreen release, but even threw in the brief retrospective and a few other features.
As many have seen over the years, Hollywood has pulled back from the special features idea of the digital video disc. One assumes that if Universal Studios had released this film, it would have been just the film by itself.
While not one of the best lost gems of the 1990’s, if you’ve got a soft-spot for dark comedy, or are a fan of Robert Zemeckis (or want to simply vent on the vapidness of the media fawning over how youthful and beautiful a celebrity looks), this is definitely the release for you!
For those who are fans of the series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, the decisions of the show’s parent-company Hasbro, has been both up-and-down. It seems for everything they do right, there’s always a couple things they seem to do wrong (by the ‘fans,’ mostly).
When the announcement that a MLP-related film was going to be released in 2013, there was some excitement…until it was revealed that the characters would be from an alternate, “human” dimension, albeit one where the FiM character of Twilight Sparkle (voiced by Tara Strong), would find herself on a high school adventure, trying to mend broken friendships, and get back her stolen crown from former ponygirl, Sunset Shimmer (voiced by Rebecca Shoichet).
Many were expecting subpar work, and while the film did not blow everyone away, many agreed that there was plenty more good than bad in the mediocre product that had been produced. Word was the film caused quite a number of young girls to give in and buy from the new Equestria Girls doll line, and the numbers soon brought about word of a sequel: Rainbow Rocks.
Just like the first film, this one was treated to a limited theatrical release in large cities. And surprisingly, word from those who had seen it, was very positive. One joke heard at a Comic-Con panel, was from one person who said it was The Empire Strikes Back of the Equestria Girls film series (some had alluded to The Wizard of Oz for the first film).
Following the events of the first film, Sunset Shimmer has been working on trying to turn her image around at Canterlot High School, but is still finding some resistance among much of the student body. However, Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity, have made good on their promise to help her try to learn more about friendship.
As the school prepares for a Musical Showcase, the event is turned into a Battle of the Bands when three girls calling themselves The Dazzlings (Adagio Dazzle, Aria Blaze, and Sonata Dusk) become part of the student body, and incite a fracas among everyone.
These new girls seem to have some sort of magical power to incite discontent among the students, and our main girls realize they have almost no powers to stop it. Their one solution is to try and contact Twilight Sparkle for help, and surprisingly, the Princess of Friendship (and her companion, Spike!) return to try and save the day!
There are some films that manage to build upon a low-key first film, and Rainbow Rocks does just that. This reminded me of how I felt when Spider-Man 2 in 2004, managed to be more entertaining than the milquetoast 2002 Spider-Man.
Rainbow is a film that definitely gives us a larger glimpse into this alternate world, and helps us see that it is not a carbon-copy of the world of Equestria. This can possibly annoy some, as the characters in this universe don’t seem quite as developed as those in the pony world. One example is Rainbow Dash, who seems a little more self-centered than even her pony-counterpart. This has bugged a lot of people, but one has to remember we are dealing with a teenage personality…and, let’s face it, most of us were not perfect at that age (as we liked to believe at the time).
DHX Media has definitely improved on their bag of Flash Animation tricks this time around. There’s some great use of perspective, with characters breaking the Z-axis (as seen above), eliminating a lot of scenes that would have seemed ‘flat.’ Getting extra dimension into the scenes definitely helps, let alone the hypnotic hip-swaying that they give to Adagio Dazzle, and the light and smoke effects this time out.
As a concept, the Dazzlings to me are ‘acceptable.’ It’s hard not to see them as borrowing a little from the Monster High book of character designs, though they almost become little more than a trio of girls almost on par with Sunset’s actions from the first film. Much of the time they just seem to stand around, biding their time until the main event. However, there are some fun little character moments here and there (and Sonata Dusk’s dopey personality has earned her a small following online so far).
Musically, The show and first film’s songwriter Daniel Ingram has returned for a larger assortment of songs to be sung. While the first film had maybe one major song that was enjoyable, there’s quite a few here that may make you ask which is the best. From the retro-rock of the opening title song, to the swaying beats of the Dazzling’s pieces…and, one that I just can’t put into words.
I think I speak for a lot of people, that this film’s secret weapon is definitely Sunset Shimmer. Unlike Discord’s redemption in the Friendship is Magic series, Sunset’s redemption feels a bit more grounded and ‘real.’ I saw her almost like a recovering addict: after the events of the first film, she’s been knocked back to square one, and has to figure out where she fits in to this world. Though she may seem quiet at times, the animators and storyline show us that she is analyzing things, and just may hold key information…if only she’d speak up at times.
One of the high points of the first film was Spike, and while he does return here, he serves little more purpose than “Twilight’s pitch-dog” for much of his screen-time. As well, the fandom’s on-again/off-again feelings regarding teenager Flash Sentry (and his crush on human Twilight Sparkle), will most likely continue to be debated about in online forums still.
It seems that I’m being rather hard on the film, but in truth, it does feel like there has been extra time and effort put into this one to improve on the first outing. The Equestria Girls films show that there may be something there for this iteration, other than a placebo for the FiM fandom between the TV series’ down times. Personally, I equate the films to mid-season numbering, like the first Equestria Girls film is “Season 3.5,’ and this one is “Season 4.5.”
The way I see it is, if you don’t really care for this alternate-dimension film series, you can ignore it, and it doesn’t impact your watching of the FiM TV series.
The Special Features
It almost seems that the amount of special features included in this film’s release, is a little more sparse than the first film’s home video offerings. Then again, most of the features there were geared towards that film’s ‘target demographic,’ and not towards the older fans who were a little more enamored with the filmmaking process.
To me, the highlight of this release (and the main reason for my purchase of it), was the inclusion of an (optional) Audio Commentary track over the film. The track is a round-table viewing with the likes of Mike Vogel (VP of development for Hasbro Studios), Brian Leonard (Executive Director for HS), Meghan McCarthy (writer of Rainbow Rocks), Jasyon Thiessen (Supervising Director of RR), and Ishi Rudell (Co-Director of RR).
I’m a fan of audio commentary tracks where the filmmakers are having fun, let alone providing some observations and shout-outs to certain bits. Several times, the storyboard artists are called out for several major scenes, and the director’s make a rather uncouth joke regarding the side-effects of Taco Tuesday (that’s all I’ll say). There are even things that they question themselves regarding logic (like how in an opening scene, the Dazzlings can contain their enormous hairdos in their hoodies).
There were several small shorts released in the months before Rainbow Rocks premiered, and they are included here in their own section. Several deal with the girls getting their instruments, though a few show them planning a party, let alone rocking out in some non-movie outfits.
One has to wonder if along with promoting the film, most of these were made as ways to get the animators better acclimated to animating the human characters this time around. As well, there’s plenty of little extras to be had here (including the human versions of the Flim-Flam Brothers, and a small cameo by a certain Draconequus, as seen above). There’s also some additional music that didn’t show up in the final film.
There’s also a sing-a-long feature, where you can view clips with lyrics to three of the songs in the film.
*Technical Issues with DVD Release*
Unless you saw the film in theaters, most may not know that there was an error when the DVD was released. Somehow in the disc pressings, chapters 5 (Battle of the Bands) and 6 (The Semi-Finals) got rearranged.
While the separate chapters will open fine if you select them individually, this error occurs if you click Play Movie, and attempt to watch the film from start to finish. If you see the Chapter 6 image above, before you see Celestia and Luna talking on stage, than most likely, you have the disc error. Shout Factory has mentioned that this error did not affect the Blu-Ray production.
If you have a DVD that needs to be replaced/corrected, it is advised to go to the following page Shout Factory has set up: Rainbow Rocks Replacement Disc Program
Word is that they are working to ship the corrected DVD releases as soon as possible, but just keep an eye out for these errors if you’re looking to make a purchase.
With Equestria Girls, many of the fans of Friendship is Magic were greatly incensed that somehow, the world they knew and loved, might be invaded by ‘tall fleshy two-legged creatures.’ If anything, Rainbow Rocks shows us some more concrete evidence that if this human-world series continues, there’s enough within it to stand on its own two feet, with little “cross-dimensional camaraderie.” The world won’t have the amount of fantasy and mythological depth as FiM, but there could be some interesting directions to go in it (college, perhaps?). As well, what is done with Sunset Shimmer (not to mention an easter egg after the credits roll), has ignited a great deal of interest from many who were at first dead-set on hating this thing.
At a recent quarterly report given by Hasbro in the Fall of 2014, there was a major announcement that caused another fandom explosion, when word came that a movie with actual pony characters from the FiM TV series, had started development for a 2017 release date! Few details have been given, except that Meghan McCarthy is signed on as a co-producer, and the script is being written by Joe Ballarini. It shold be noted that Ballarini is not a regular on the current TV or film series related to the pony characters. As such, his only animation credit to date has been the 4th Ice Age film, with the majority of his work being in live-action (with writing credits for the film, Dance of the Dead).
So, while it may seem we are on level ground regarding the future of the Equestria Girls, we have a whole new can of worms to open, as to what a pony-related film in 3 years, will be like.
Back in June, I included a post in my Films that deserve a more dignified home video release sub-section, mentioning a childhood favorite for many of us who grew up in the 1980’s. The Neverending Story has often been a fascinating film that I definitely recall seeing in little corners of my life. A girl in middle school always carried a copy of the original Michael Ende book around with her, and in an animation-acting class in college, I re-enacted the scene from the film where Bastian meets bookstore owner, Mr Coreander.
Though while films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and even The Goonies had been given some special treatment with the advent of the DVD-age, Story languished as little more than a film-only release in bargain bins at discount stores. It was this treatment that kept me from purchasing the film for many years…until word came that Warner Brothers was going to release a Special Edition!
In regards to film releases on home video, Warner Brothers has had a spotty track-record. While they did release the film adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors with the original cut included (in color!), they also pretty much just threw out the last seasons of Tiny Toon Adventures, just to to get them out on the market.
The film focuses on Bastian Balthazar Bux (Barrett Oliver), a young boy who is still trying to get over the death of his mother. One day while running away from a group of bullying boys, he finds himself in a bookstore, wherein its owner entices him to take a certain book, claiming the others that Bastian likes to read, “are safe.”
Plunging into reading The Neverending Story, Bastian soon finds himself caught up in the hero’s quest of Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), a young warrior tasked with finding a cure for The Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach), while attempting to save her and their world from a destructive force known only as “The Nothing.”
On its own, the film acts as a truncated version of the first half of Ende’s novel. However, one can definitely sense care in the material. The filmmakers definitely get down the task of creating a believable world, let alone a character that you can truly root for. The fact that the task of saving the world falls to a weaponless boy, is definitely a perplexing quest to make one like Bastian intrigued.
Speaking of perplexing, it does feel that given the limitations of the time, much of the story almost seems cobbled together as it goes from setting to setting in the world of Fantasia. 3/4 of the way through, the film almost feels like it gets stuck in a corner, and has to resolve several different plot points in a very small amount of time.
There were mixed reactions regarding the last Blu-Ray release, which many online have claimed to have just been thrown onto the market. As I don’t have the capabilities to properly analyze the film with a fine-tooth-comb, I can say that the colors on this piece definitely feels like an improvement over the previous copies I’ve seen many years ago (though those were VHS and DVD). I even noticed features in the film I hadn’t seen previously, such as twinkling lights at the base of The Ivory Tower!
For years, there has been word that the version of the film we in America saw, was a cut version. There is talk that the original German cut, there’s some 8 additional minutes, though they don’t really add any major scenes, but tend to stretch out the mood in some areas. Sadly, we still can’t see what audiences over in Europe saw.
The Special Features
Of all the incentives to purchase this release, the inclusion of most of these special features was what led to my immediate purchase of the film.
Audio Commentary – Christina Hacopian conducts a small Q&A with director Wolfgang Petersen over the course of the film. Christina immediately gushes regarding her fandom of the film, though it soon becomes apparent that while a fan of the film, she hasn’t read Ende’s book. Her questions are mainly in regards to the film, asking Petersen about certain scenes, and about making the film in general. Sadly, nothing really mind-blowing is given…well, except that a certain bearded director did help Petersen when cutting the film down for the American release. Oh, and in case you were wondering what name Bastian gives the Empress, you’ll also find it here too.
Reimagining The Neverending Story – This reminiscence is a rather remarkable goulash of information. Though there are newly-filmed clips and interviews, it also weaves together bits from the specials, The Making of The Neverending Story, and 60 Million for Fantasies. Of the interview pieces, many of them are from members of the crew, telling of their experiences. One interesting moment, comes when they discuss the dilemma of ending the film (which did not please Michael Ende when he found out!).
The special is notable in that you may find yourself pausing it quite a bit, as numerous still images go by, showcasing production stills, and plenty of video clips regarding the production of the film. I dare say there’s more than enough material to make a really nice coffee-table book (anyone up to help me with a Kickstarter to make that?).
For the original cast, the only appearances in the piece are Tami Stronach (the Childlike Empress), and Gerald McRaney (Bastian’s father?). Of the two, Tami gets the most screen-time, telling a few small stories of her experiences on set. Sadly, among all the pieces, this is the only one-on-one we get with a member of the main cast.
The Making of The Neverending Story – Something tells me this special was probably made some time in the last 5-10 years, given that interspersed among the dated making-of material, there are some more modern pieces. It also was most likely a German-only release, as Wolfgang Petersen offers some words, speaking in German.
One fun little bit is watching how they made up Tilo Prickner as the bat-flying Night Hob in the film. It’s a short-yet-sweet bit showing his preparations, let alone his frustrations one day when wanting to get out of his confining makeup.
1984 SWR Documentary, “A World of Fantasies” – For some time now, this documentary could be found on Youtube, under the translated title, 60 Million for Fantasies. The special almost serves as a major spoiler to the film, as the hour-long special follows the structure of the story from start-to-finish. It is also a time-capsule, in that it was made and released during the production of the film. It is nice when the special slows down, notably in the scene filming in the Swamps of Sadness, which was completely made inside a soundstage at Bavaria Film Studios. What’s mind-boggling is that just to film for a single day in the setting, cost $130,000 US (and they filmed on that stage for several weeks!). As well, the filmmakers focus on Petersen during the heart-wrenching scene in which Atreyu’s horse Artax is overtaken by the sadness of the swamp, and one can see when the emotion hits the director’s face.
What I liked about this is there was no steamrolling over one of the most interesting parts of this documentary: a few minutes where author Michael Ende gives his own views on how the film seems almost to be a “perversion” of his original work.
Restoration – Warners touted that this latest release would get an upgrade, and we are treated to a small featurette on it. Restored not far from where the film was originally filmed, we are shown a step-by-step process on what it takes to go from analog, to digital. It’s also worth noting that we see a few scenes that were cut out of the American release.
Trailer -What would a release be without a return to the coming attraction reels of yesteryear? It’s rather amazing to see how in the old days, there was little worry about dumbing things down for kids.
I will warn you, that you may need to dig a little to find copies of this release. The Target store I visited only had two copies in stock, and neither was put out on the floor in their New Releases or Children’s section. It was a little funny when the clerk who found it for me glanced at it and went, “I remember seeing this in theaters when I was a kid!”
Over the years, I will say I’m a realist when it comes to expecting more from things. I’ll always hold onto a dream of a truly incredible release of The Neverending Story, but the Blu-Ray release gets an “E for effort” in my book. I’m sure there are hundreds of people like me out there, who have been clamoring for a glimpse behind-the-scenes of this passed-over film, and most of the special features, will give them that glimpse. That to me is one of the highlights of the piece: seeing all these physical effects in mechanical and makeup form, that managed to make you believe what you were seeing on the screen. Sure, the matte lines around Falkor’s hair wasn’t perfect, but as a kid, you brushed those issues aside.
There’s also a fun game of listening to the different vocals across the various specials. Because this was a cross-cultural production, there’s quite a few different bits of dialogue one hears. Notable is how ‘young’ Hathaway sounds when filming some scenes, different from his final vocals as Atreyu. As well, it’s funny when in one scene, we hear some creatures speaking in different tones of voice (one doing a rather hokey American vocal).
I do feel a little sadness that though we did get to hear from Tami Stronach, there’s no trace of Barret Oliver or Noah Hathaway, other than praise for them here and there, and the clips of their time on set.
What’s also interesting is during several of the specials, it’s brought up of the importance of how the international market would make the expensive film a success..notably, America being key. It’s funny to think that America was the key to money-making success for films like this 30 years ago. In our world today, Hollywood is banking on countries like China to save its bottom-line for large-scale productions. While the filmmakers back in the 80’s supposedly cast American actors to make their film more ‘bankable,’ we’ve taken to adding special scenes in films like Iron Man 3 and Transformers: Age of Extinction, to please foreign markets.
Of course, I’ll still hold onto the dream that maybe some day, a release like the one I Photoshopped below, may come to pass for The Neverending Story:
I would also love it if maybe one day, we got a full score release of Klaus Doldinger’s music, let alone maybe alternate musical cues. Even with this Blu-Ray release, it still feels like there’s still plenty of stuff out there for us fans of The Neverending Story to dream about.
*UPDATE: ADDENDUM REGARDING THE FILM BEING “REMASTERED”
Wow, this is some serious ball-dropping here on Warner Brothers’ part. Those who had seen ads had seen the mention of The Neverending Story being remastered for this release, let alone the inclusion of that restoration special on this disc. However, On the Facebook page for The Neverending Story, WB admitted this a few hours ago:
Yes…The cake is a lie!!! My guess is someone in the back rooms of Warner probably didn’t think anyone really cared enough to notice…well, except for those online with a discernible eye for detail when it comes to High-Definition pictures.
As of now, there’s been no word of a re-pressing to give those who purchased this latest a remastered copy. As it stands now, that remaster talked of in the restoration special, may only be found on certain Region 2 Blu-Rays, in either the European or Japan marketplaces.
I hate to report on this information, but after seeing a number of forum talks on this subject, let alone many of us having read about getting an anniversary-level remaster over the past several months, I felt I should at least include my mention here. And here I thought there would at least be a little more TLC put into this release, but then again, I do go off into those daydreams.
In May of 2010, I attended a charity screening of Toy Story 3 put on by PIXAR Animation Studios, to benefit the Comer Children’s Hospital, in Chicago, IL. Needless to say, it delivered on several emotional levels, and became in my mind, a worthy conclusion to the Toy Story Trilogy.
After the film ended, there was time for a few questions, and the first came from a little boy:
“When is Toy Story 4 coming out?”
After that summer, that’s all every other person could talk about regarding the topic of “sequels that PIXAR HAD to make” (along with sequels to the likes of The Incredibles, and Monsters Inc).
Instead of letting the fact they had a billion dollar hit on their hands go to their heads, PIXAR chose to instead, take a different approach to continuing the adventures of Woody (Tom Hanks) and his friends. Much like they had done with the film Cars, the toys would find themselves entering the world of shorts, with several showing before various Disney and PIXAR releases.
Then in the fall of 2013, the company moved their characters into prime-time, with their first Holiday Special: Toy Story of Terror.
Attending the D23 Expo in August of 2013, some 40,000 people and myself, were treated to the first 10 minutes of the short, which would be premiering on ABC that fall. I didn’t see it when it officially came out, and just now got to see it all when it came out on Blu-Ray.
The film contains just a small smattering of the main Toy Story cast, with regulars Woody, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Rex (Wallace Shawn), and Mr Potatohead (Don Rickles). Along for the ride are a few toys from their new owner Bonnie: a triceratops named Trixie (Kristen Schaal), and Mr Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), a lederhosen-wearing hedgehog.
Going on a trip with their owner Bonnie (Emily Hahn) and her Mom (Lori Alan), one of the car’s tires goes flat, and the family drops in at a small motel in the middle of a thundering downpour.
Of everyone there, it is Pricklepants who feels that the mise en scene, seems ripped straight from the images of a horror film. Naturally, the toys think the plush thespian is just over-reacting…until, several in their party start to disappear!
Director Angus MacLane has been a major fixture at PIXAR for quite some time. Having worked as an animator, writer, and recently director, he’s definitely had a well-rounded career inside the famed animation studio.
Prior to Terror, MacLane had directed one of my favorite Toy Story Toons, titled Small Fry. I actually got to hear Angus tell about his experience working on the short when I went to PIXAR in 2011, as part of the Cartoon Art Museum’s annual fundraising event. Angus’ stories about coming up with the toys for the piece, let alone his teen years spent as a “ball pit supervisor,” definitely stuck with me. And just as in Small Fry, his storytelling in Toy Story of Terror shines through.
Unlike a feature film which can encompass 1-1/2 to 2 hours, this animated short only has 22 minutes to tell its story, which is not a bad thing. PIXAR still retains their animation and story qualities, albeit on a smaller, but not necessarily less-grand scale.
I was really struck by the fact that even though the film conveys a spooky tone and atmosphere, it is not exactly a Halloween short. I do love it when a PIXAR film can have you walk in expecting one thing, and instead, it morphs into something a little different…but not wholly without being enjoyable.
Toy Story 2 almost feels on par with the atmosphere in this short, and given that TS2 is my favorite PIXAR film, I think that’s why I enjoyed this so much. Maybe it’s also because Jessie (voiced by Joan Cusack) figures so heavily into the story. PIXAR reached a new level of female characterization when they introduced Jessie 15 years ago, making her one of the most dimensional female leads they had done yet, paving the way for complex characters like Dory, and Helen Parr.
There’s also plenty of easter eggs hidden throughout the short, that will have you watching it over and over again, pausing and slowing down certain scenes.
When it comes to extras with their home video releases, PIXAR usually does a good job, and they have given buyers of this set, plenty of extras to riffle through.
Audio Commentary– Angus MacLane shares the commentary track with Ian Megibben (the short’s Director of Photography), and Axel Geddes (the short’s editor). The guys get into several of the in-jokes of the film, as well as peek into Angus’ psyche, in which it is revealed much of his language is in that of films and their references. With all three of these guys having something to contribute, the commentary rarely ever hits a lull, and should provide some nice insight for fans of special features.
Toy Story Toons shorts – the set collects the three previously-released Toons: Hawaiian Vacation, Small Fry, and Partysaurus Rex. It’s nice to have these three Toons included in this release, as they had been split up across several different film and short collection releases. The previously-heard audio commentaries to Vacation and Fry are included, but the added bonus, is the one for Rex, which hasn’t been released until now. Though it’s not as informative as the first Toons’ commentaries, it is pretty fun.
Team of Specialists – Unlike the recent film releases by Walt Disney Animation Studios, PIXAR is still willing to give little behind-the-scenes glimpses, that I’m sure will inspire some kids out there to get curious about the art of animation. Here, director Angus MacLane takes us along on one of his workdays at PIXAR…with some other small jumps back and forth through time. We get to see everything from research, to foley artists, and even a small conversation with Michael Giacchino, the composer of the short’s music (and composer of scores for films such as Up, and The Incredibles).
Deleted Scenes – With only 22 minutes of running time to go on, it was a given that some story elements would end up being cut out of the story. We are treated to 3 deleted sequences, in storyboard format, and including rough vocal tracks by the PIXAR staff. None of the sequences is really major, so it doesn’t really feel like we’re missing any major keys to the short.
Vintage Toy Commercials – When making Toy Story 3, PIXAR made some great vintage-style commercials of Lots-O-Huggin Bear. Here, they do the same with three other toys. I won’t say what they are for, but the childhood vibe is strong for those of you (like me) who were kids in the 80’s.
D23 Teaser – This little teaser was shown to us at 2013’s D23 Expo, following the first 10 minutes of the short. It’s nothing really major, but definitely makes you wonder what you’ll see (and the good thing is, they keep so much of the juicy stuff unshown!).
Unlike the DVD release, the Blu-Ray release also gives you the chance to load a Digital HD copy to your digital media items.
I’m probably one of many who can keep a stone face and say, “I’m perfectly happy if there is never a Toy Story 4.” To me, the Toy Story Toons, and the Holiday short(s) that PIXAR Animation Studios have put out, are a wonderful way to keep the adventures of our favorite childhood playthings going, without destroying the excellent trilogy of films that the studio has put out.
Toy Story of Terror to me, is definitely money well spent. I went into it knowing as little as possible, and I hope I’ve conveyed my sense of excitement in this review, without delving too deeply into some of the film’s plot points. I strongly recommend seeing the short, and I hope once you do, you’ll be thankful that I didn’t ruin anything.
After watching the whole disc set, I will say that the $15 amount for the short, the extras, and the digital copy, is one of the most satisfying home video purchases I’ve made in awhile. Not even many full-length feature films have as much TLC given to their releases.
Btw, if you have ABC, the continuation of the Toy Story “Holiday” specials will continue in December with the release of Toy Story That Time Forgot. In case you’re wondering what may be coming, here’s a preview pic that was released of that upcoming special:
Also of interest, Angus MacLane is a LEGO Hobbyist, who enjoys making little figures/things out of myriad LEGO pieces. You can see more of his work by clicking on the graphic below.
It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 5 years since Shout Factory took over distribution of putting Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes on DVD. Starting with Volume XIII in the fall of 2008, we are now almost 5 years and 13 volumes into their continued efforts to keep circulating the tapes on DVD.
Volume XXVI continues the presentation of 4 more ‘cheesy movies’ to DVD with themed packaging, specially-created DVD menus, fancy DVD cases, and 4 DVD-sized prints of the case art done by Steve Vance. So, now that we begin our countdown to “Vol L,” let’s see what the latest release has to offer.
“You guys, I was just thinking, this isn’t bad for a Bert I Gordon movie” – Joel Robinson
Throughout the years on the Satellite of Love, several filmmakers would return again and again as ‘repeat offenders’ with their film repertoire. One of those directors was Mr Bert I Gordon. Throughout much of his career, Bert was known for films with really big things, such as The Amazing Colossal Man, and Village of the Giants. However, with The Magic Sword, Bert instead chose to focus on a more fairy tale-like storyline.
A mortal young man named George (Gary Lockwood) lives with his elder stepmom/sorceress, Sybil (Estelle Winwood). Though George is not yet 21, Estelle still has no qualms about treating him like a child. Even so, this doesn’t stop George from observing the kingdom’s Princess Helene (Anne Helm) in a magic pool. But as George watches, the Princess is kidnapped by the sorcerer Lodac (Basil Rathbone), with the promise that he intends to feed her to his dragon in seven days, as revenge on the Princess’ father for executing his sister.
It just so happens that Sybil has numerous enchanted objects that can help George, but she tells him he isn’t to have them until he turns 21. But as one can expect, George tricks Sybil, and gets his accoutrements. Joining up with the King’s most heroic knight Sir Branton (Liam Sullivan), the quest begins, with the group having to make their way through Lodac’s seven curses.
Most of Gordon’s works have taken place in modern times, and this was his first attempt at a ‘sword and sorcery’ film. It’s not quite Sinbad, but it has a great flair for being a nice Saturday afternoon adventure, even causing Joel Robinson to quote the line at the beginning of this little mini-review. One fun little bit is Crow falling in love with Estelle Winwood in the film, to the point that he is even willing to throw away his obsession over Kim Cattrall from a previous film viewing.
Along with The Magic Sword, the disc also includes a brief 8-minute feature entitled Bert I Gordon: The Amazing Colossal Filmmaker. I must admit I was hoping for a more lengthy piece regarding Mr Gordon. This little feature mainly covers Bert’s musings about his early love of films, and his early work in the midwest before deciding to strike out for Hollywood. As for Bert’s films, they are largely confined to just a small smattering of images and summary about his making of films dealing with size-related people/creatures.
“I’d slap this movie if I could” – Tom Servo
Over the years, we’ve been told in school that ‘it’s what’s inside that counts,’ but when it comes to making films, it’s usually what’s outside that sells tickets. We’ve seen all manner of beautiful people that serve on magazine covers (known as ‘models’), be snatched up and thrown in a film on their looks alone.
This most definitely was the case when Kathy Ireland was cast in the Golan-Globus picture, Alien from LA. Though if thoughts of Kathy Ireland being a beautiful alien girl crash-landing in the land of sun-and-surf are on your mind from this title…IT’S A TRAP!!
Even though the film’s original poster showed Kathy in tight jeans and a belly-baring t-shirt, the majority of the film has her playing a squeaky-voiced, glasses-wearing shrinking violet who is even rebuked by her ex-boyfriend for being so afraid. Soon after she’s dumped, Kathy’s character receives a letter that her archaeologist father has disappeared, and she goes off to try and find him, only to find herself in a strange world deep beneath the surface of the Earth.
One can only wonder what words were used to convince Kathy that this film was a good career move. It plays almost like a (very) loose interpretation of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. This is evident in the name of Kathy’s character, Wanda Saknassum. Her last name is similar to another character in Verne’s story, though one can’t also help but see a tinge of Alice in Wonderland in the film, given that Wanda falls down a hole into a strange world, and just wants to go home.
For the life of me, I can’t tell you what is going on the majority of the time with this film. Much of it is just Kathy’s character running into one situation after another in a strange, Mad Max-like society that includes everything from a woman with a tail, to a little person (Deep Roy) with 3-inch eyelashes.
Several DVD releases in the past have had interviews with cast and crew of a film, and this disc actually goes straight to the source for its interview: Alien From LA’s writer/director, Albert Pyun. Over the course of 8 1/2 minutes, Pyun tells of his making the film, casting Kathy Ireland, as well as his reaction finding out that his film had been chosen to be riffed on by the MST3K crew.
“Boy, this must be a massive organization to throw away a $1.50 helicopter” – Crow T Robot
They say ‘success breeds imitation,’ and that was certainly the case as the 60’s wore on. After the successful run of James Bond films in the early 1960’s, the “Eurospy” genre of films was born, with all sorts of European productions attempting to cash in. Some even went so far as to sneak in the numbers ‘007’ in their (non-James Bond) film titles, before United Artists put an end to it.
The guys on MST3K encountered several of these terrible films (including Secret Agent Super Dragon, and Operation Double 007, which starred Sean Connery’s younger brother!). With this DVD set, we have the more-exciting-than-it-sounds Danger!! Death Ray.
After a scientist and his Death Ray (made purely for “peaceful purposes”) are kidnapped, an unnamed government organization puts its top agent named Bart Fargo (no, really, that’s his name!) on the case. Bart faces all manner of enemies at every turn, including one whom the MST3K group jokingly refer to as Abe Lincoln given his beard (“Abe Lincoln, IS, Time Cop!”). He also meets a young female artist, who becomes the obligatory love interest, and seemingly falls for Bart because she has little else to do.
Some films that are just plain stupid I can easily dismiss as fun (like the horrid Wild World of Batwoman), but Death Ray often gets me seething. Why? Well, I guess it has to do with that Death Ray. A scientist creates a death ray that he claims was made for “purely peaceful purposes,” so…WHY CALL IT A DEATH RAY THEN!? For that matter, very little about this weapon of mass destruction is hit on, except for a few moments at the beginning and the end of the film (“By now the death ray has been completely forgotten,” quips Crow at one point).
As well, Bart Fargo is so sickeningly suave and charming, that I was soon wishing for someone to take him down. There are also some lines that are just plain wrong. When Bart is called into his Superior’s office, where he attempts to interject that he’s on vacation, his boss just speeds through his lines, calling Bart “worse than an Arab.” It doesn’t help that the boss is another one of those ‘I hate your guts but you get the job done’ kind of bosses, and there’s even a secretary that just screams ‘Moneypenny’ given Bart’s ‘obligatory flirting scene’ with her.
It also doesn’t help that this film has some of the most annoying-yet-catchy music there is. There’s a small group of men and women singing a neverending rhythm of ‘bupa-dupa-dubba’ over and over, not to mention a jazzy song that sounds eerily like the song, “Watermelon Man.”
There are plenty of great riffs in this, and a few scenes cause the crew to start chuckling humorously at the film’s budget cuts when it comes to doing some major ‘effects’ work. As well, they can’t stop chuckling regarding the name of our secret agent. The film even causes Tom Servo to build his own ‘peace-loving’ death ray, and ends up using it on Crow during one of the interstitials.
This disc is the only one in the set that includes a small featurette that isn’t directly related to the film. In this case, we have Life After MST3K: Mike Nelson. Mike gives us a little overview of his time on MST3K (can you believe he was 25 when he started with them?), and what he did afterwards, from authoring several books, to helping co-found Rifftrax to riff on major film productions.
“Oh movie, I’m not a prayin’ man, but if you can hear me, please: kill John Agar!” – Crow T Robot
During the many seasons of MSt3K, there were several references to the Universal Pictures release, The Mole People. There were several instances where actors appeared in skits dressed in mole people masks, and in the film Wild World of Batwoman, the filmmakers of that production re-used footage from the film!
Strange then, that it took until Season 8 for the showrunners to even tackle this film.
As for myself, I had never seen The Mole People until I opened up this boxset.
Several men are working at am archaeological site in Asia (nowhere in particular in Asia, just “Asia”), when an Earthquake in the region reveals strange artifacts and ruins that seem to suggest a hidden race of people. After getting trapped below the earth, the men come across an albino-skinned race of people, whose eyes have adapted to the low light of the inner-world, and who have enslaved a race of strange creatures that can burrow under the ground. The archaeologists find that their flashlights make the ‘mole people’ see them as gods. However, the high priest of the people (Alan Napier) soon suspects that these men are not what they appear to be.
This was one of those films that took me awhile to get into, mainly because of the ‘humans wander into a strange world and are hailed as gods’ thing I’ve seen done many times over (anyone see Dreamworks‘ animated film The Road to El Dorado?). There’s nothing very likable or intriguing about our archaeological ‘heroes,’ other than one of them is played by Hugh Beaumont, a year before he’d become the television patriarch of the Cleaver family.
For this DVD release, a 17-minute documentary is included titled Of Mushrooms and Madmen: Making The Mole People. I actually found this little extra to be quite intriguing, in that it tells how the film became one of several that was made using Universal Pictures‘ plans to make films largely with stock footage to cut costs. There’s even several minutes dedicated to talking about some scenes and situations that flew in the face of 50’s censors. After you see this, you may not look at the film the same way again.
Finally, I thought I’d add a few words regarding Shout Factory’s presentation of this set. They continue to provide the same boxset design as their last 12 releases, and it’s nice to see this theme continued.
Over the course of their releases, the company has continued to make little strides in regards to the DVD menus for these releases. They did some great work on Vol XXI’s set featuring 5 Gamera films, and I must admit I am very impressed with what they have done with this set. The DVD menus for almost all these films have some great detail that seems to rival even some of Hollywood’s DVD menu work.
Most of the previous menu designs took place on a recreated version of the Satellite of Love set, while the last few have had menu designs themed to the film in general. Here is a screenshot from one of my favorite menu images from Alien From LA:
Each of the films even comes with a theatrical trailer, so you can see how the films were advertised when they were released in theaters. For example: Danger!!Death Ray’s trailer is over 2 1/2 minutes of almost every single action sequence in the film. It also contains the film’s only two songs, and gets so monotonous, that I started singing “watermelon man” like Tom Servo did during the film’s main riffing (proving how much they dulled the pain of that film with their work).
I will admit that when it comes to most MST3K DVD releases, most of them are kind of hit-and-miss for me. I’ve only bought a few sets that ever had all four DVD’s be entertaining, and not all of the releases from Shout are on my shelves.
Volume XXVI is definitely one of the more entertaining sets to be released, and gets high marks from me regarding the film choices, and the presentation of the set.
It’s funny what can happen sometimes. In my episode review of Buster and Babs Go Hawaiian, I lamented Warner Brothers’ last releasing a boxset of Tiny Toon Adventures way back in 2009. As if some cosmic force heard my thoughts, we now have the release of Tiny Toon Adventures – Crazy Crew Rescues!
It sounds like some kind of made-for-tv movie, but this is the series’ Season 2 release many of us have been waiting for!
The set also includes four episodes from Season 3 of the series. This could be to balance out the eventual Volume 4 release, so that both of these volumes have (almost) the same number of episodes. As to when (and if) we’ll get Volume 4, it’s too soon to say.
It’s amazing how the animated series churned out over 65 episodes(!) in its first season, and then followed up its second season with only 13. Maybe the break-neck pace of the first season killed off most of the staff.
There are a couple episodes in Season 3 that really made me happy to see again. Notable among them are:
Buster and Babs Go Hawaiian – One of my all-time favorites, as mentioned in one of my previous Retro Recaps. Notable for being the only time in the series where Steven Spielberg voices himself!
Kon Ducki – Plucky Duck’s epic film about sailing to Salinas in 21 days, including a making-of special tacked on.
Sepulveda Blvd – a parody of Sunset Boulevard, where Montana Max portrays a plagiarizing cartoon writer, who shacks up with washed-up former cartoon star, Elmyra Desmond.
This DVD set also contains two episodes with segments regarding Plucky Duck as a child, that are often remembered by many to this day. One is in regards to him using the toilet (“I wanna flush it again”), and another revolving around a mall elevator (“elelator go down the hole”). If either of the quotes in that last line sound familiar to you, then you surely know one or both of these segments.
It’s also notable that several of the episodes include background characters that would appear in the direct-to-video special, How I Spent My Summer Vacation.
One of the highlights of the set, is the inclusion of an episode that was removed from television syndication due to controversy. In the episode Elephant Issues (a parody of the phrase “relevant issues”), the three segments cover everything from illiteracy, prejudice, and peer pressure. The segment regarding peer pressure, titled One Beer, was what put the episode in jeopardy. In the episode, Buster Bunny, Plucky Duck, and Hampton J Pig, find a bottle of beer in the fridge. Plucky and Hampton soon give in to Buster’s needling, and the three plunge into a television-style ride through the dangers of underage intoxication.
“But Buster, this isn’t like you,” says Hampton at one point.
“I know,” replies Buster. “But in this episode, we’re showing the evils of alcohol.”
Rumor is this episode only aired once, but as is the internet, I can’t find enough sources to make this a concrete fact. Though in a sense, it seems every series has at least one episode that makes people do a double-take.
There’s another episode that includes a line that I’m pretty sure would be a red flag with censors today. It involves Buster and Plucky talking about how to get Babs to stop her incessant comedy routines. Plucky’s response after a couple impressions? “Shoot her…just shoot her.”
While the release of these episodes is welcome, the quality of the ‘presentation’ of the episodes has taken a steep nosedive. It seems that the objective for this set was simply to get episodes out, with minimal involvement.
To show what I mean, I’m including screenshots showing the downgrade in presentation quality. First, a side-by-side comparison of an “episodes” screen from 2009’s Season 1, Vol 2 set, and one from Vol 3:
And now, let’s look at the quality of the disc-art from both releases:
I know not many people buy these boxsets for stuff like this, but come on, show us a little more care Warner Brothers! The DVD menu and disc art for this set looks like something some of us could do making bootleg Season 3 sets on our own time!
Much like the previous DVD release, there are no special features. No interviews with voice talent like Charles Adler or Tress MacNeille, and nothing from the crew who worked on the series. Pretty sad, as even additional DVD releases of Animaniacs and Freakazoid got some extras.
In the end, Crazy Crew Rescues wins no points for creativity, but gets the job done in fishing into the well of nostalgia, and bringing some more cartoons into the light.
To close out this little review, I thought I’d include two scenes from one of the episodes, showing Babs Bunny doing impressions that just wouldn’t fly today (but managed to get past censors in 1991):