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Movie Musings: The Path to Darth Vader, buried within the Star Wars Prequels

To many, it seemed that the Star Wars prequels could be summed up in four words: George Lucas blew it.

However, in the years since the three films were released, and despite the neverending flogging from a very vocal (but usually online) fanbase, I often found myself still intrigued by what had been laid out before the public.

While many had high hopes of a film trilogy that would have shown Anakin Skywalker ‘hunting down and destroying Jedi,’ Lucas instead attempted to tell a story of how a giving and caring person, was corrupted into craving ultimate power.

Unlike a mere rehash of the films many knew and loved, the Prequels attempted to tell their own tale. Notable, was how Darth Sidious (under the guise of a Senator-turned Chancellor named Palpatine)  managed to not only bring down the Jedi Order, but coerce the Galactic Republic into giving him total control, and forming the Galactic Empire.

Of course, Sidious continued to play with the ‘rule of two,’ when it came to doctrine of the Sith: there would be only a Master, and an Apprentice.

Over the course of the three films, we’d see several of Palpatine’s apprentices rise and fall. One looked like a demonic bad-@$$, another was a Jedi who turned to the Dark Side, then a mechanically-aided alien creature, before Sidious finally set his sights on Anakin.

With Skywalker at his side, Palpatine could have had one of his most powerful apprentices ever. However, circumstances left him with a badly-wounded husk of a human being…one who was then transformed into an imposing dark presence, who became one of the most visually-distinctive figures in the Star Wars Universe.

While many were let down with Lucas’ depiction of the Jedi Council (a rather pompous lot whom had become lazy after a millennia of having no Sith to counteract), there was also some negativity bandied towards his depictions of the multiple Sith Apprentices as well.

Many fans were used to the general idea of there being a ‘constant’ apprentice to the Emperor, as it was in The Original Trilogy with Vader.

However, what some may not have considered (from a certain point-of-view), was that the three figures we see being loyal to Darth Sidious, might in fact, be considered as ‘puzzle pieces,’ that together, form Darth Vader.

In several making-of pieces, Lucas makes note of what he calls, ‘an echo.’ This is usually in reference to something we see, that will also come back later in some form.

The first time I recalled this word usage, was during a “webisode,” discussing the creation of General Grievous.

Lucas was adamant that the concept artists not ‘recreate Darth Vader,’ but was taken by an image that showed a metal creation, with organic eyes. This was the birth of Episode III‘s new bad guy.

His telling of how Grievous was “an echo of what Anakin is going to become,” started the wheels in my head to turn. Soon, I began to think deeper, about the apprentices to Darth Sidious.

This post, is the result of those thoughts. So, let’s see what I’ve dug up.

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Darth Maul

From the moment he was introduced visually to the public back in 1998, many eagerly clamored for more of Episode I’s Sith Apprentice.

His kicks and flips were one thing, but his tattooed visage and double-bladed lightsaber, quickly made him the ‘Boba Fett’ of the first prequel film. Many were eagerly snapping up toys of Maul, and speculating on just how he’d fit into the grand scheme of the new trilogy.

…and then he was cut down by Obi-Wan Kenobi, infuriating many! How could Lucas throw away what was (essentially) an awesome character, many wailed.

The truth is, George Lucas rarely goes for what’s ‘cool.’ This explains why fan-favorite character Boba Fett, was so easily dispatched in Return of the Jedi. To George, Fett had served his purpose, and there was no further reason for him to live on.

Of course, George’s vision was mere peanuts compared to the fans and the Star Wars Expanded Universe, that soon made Fett out to be ‘The Most Interesting Bounty Hunter in the Galaxy.’

When going over Maul’s appearance in The Phantom Menace, I soon thought I had figured out what Lucas was trying to do.

To me, it boiled down to a line that Luke Skywalker told the Emperor in Return of the Jedi: “Your over-confidence is your weakness.”

Maul is much the same way. He’s been trained by Sidious, and like a brash young upstart, he seems to think he can take on anything. With his whirling dervish moves, he feels his skills will give him the upper-hand in getting revenge on the Jedi.

Maul’s skills come into play when he stuns Qui-gon and take him out, but his over-confidence gets the better of him, when he revels in Obi-Wan hanging over the pit on Naboo.

Obi-Wan ended up getting the upper-hand against Maul, by jumping over him, and slicing him with Qui-Gon’s lightsaber.

This also serves as an ‘echo’ in Revenge of the Sith.

When Obi-Wan confronts Anakin on the planet Mustafar, Anakin is confident in his powers, and much like Maul, his moves are fast and vicious.

We also get an ‘echo’ to Obi-Wan in Menace, when Anakin attempts to jump over Obi-Wan. However, Obi-Wan has been in this situation before, and he knows what to expect (even cautioning Anakin not to do what he knows he’ll do).

Just like Darth Maul, Anakin’s over-confidence becomes his weakness, and Obi-Wan mortally-wounds his former apprentice, with a well-placed slice of his lightsaber.

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Count Dooku (aka Darth Tyrannus)

In Attack of the Clones, Count Dooku was revealed to be a former Jedi (and Master to Qui-Gon Jinn), who left the Jedi Order.

Word was that Dooku became disillusioned with the Order, and how it was conducting itself. It was briefly mentioned that Qui-gon himself was sometimes at odds with the Council, and these tendencies may have been instilled in him by his own Master.

It surprised the Jedi, when Dooku was soon mentioned as being a member of the Separatist Movement, which seemed intent to try and take control of the Galaxy, away from the Republic.

Just as Dooku found disillusionment with the Jedi, an ‘echo’ of this seemed to be mirrored in Anakin as the Prequels continued onward.

Anakin’s emotional turmoil is on display in Attack of the Clones, most notable in regards to the death of his mother, as well as his feelings for Padme Amidala. The monastic lifestyle of the Jedi began to clash with Anakin’s thinking, and as he tried to wrestle with those around him telling to let go of his emotions and feelings, he often found himself unable to do so.

We see more of Anakin’s disillusionment in Revenge of the Sith, when he is given a position on the council, though mainly out of obligation to the requests of Chancellor Palpatine. The Council does so at the request of Palpatine, but Anakin does not become a Master simply by sitting on it. Anakin in turn, is upset by this, but is further upset upon being given a secret request by Obi-Wan, to spy upon the Chancellor, at the Council’s request.

Being used to spy on the Chancellor feels like a further crumbling of Anakin’s faith in the Jedi Order, and he grows upset as well, when Padme asks him to speak directly with Palpatine. Because of his closeness to Palpatine, she requests he ask him to consider diplomacy against the Separatists, to end the war (“Don’t ask me to do that,” he snaps at her. “Make a motion in the Senate, where that kind of a request belongs!”).

I will admit when it comes to Dooku, there isn’t quite as much in regards to him, as he’s a bit less ‘confrontational’ than Maul or Grievous.

Even so, Dooku was powerful enough to channel Force lightning upon Anakin, while also maneuvering his own lightsaber, with an aire of grace and fluidity.

We also see, that he was not above playing mind games, even with the Jedi.

Notable is when he has Obi-Wan Kenobi captured on Geonosis.

At one point, Dooku tells Obi-Wan point-blank, that a Sith Lord is controlling the Galactic Senate.  Dooku even tries to use this information to turn Obi-wan, claiming the two of them can destroy the Sith. It could be that Dooku hoped that Obi-Wan’s loyalty to Qui-Gon could make him able to be turned, but Kenobi stays strong and refuses the offer (it almost ‘echoes’ Vader’s attempts to turn Luke in The Empire Strikes Back).

The information is later relayed to the Council, and rattles them slightly. Though they don’t wholly believe what has been told, they decide to keep a closer watch on the Senate.

This tactic of trying to turn good people to the Dark Side, is almost ‘echoed’ in Revenge of the Sith with Anakin. When he meets Padme on Mustafar, he tries to convince her that he is powerful enough to overcome Palpatine, and that this can pave the way for them to be happy. With Palpatine overthrown, Anakin claims that they can ‘rule the galaxy, and make things the way they want to be.’

Though just like Kenobi, Padme refuses to give in to this Sith Apprentice’s offerings of power.

Of course, Anakin’s confrontations with Dooku in Episodes II and III, resulted in dismemberment for the both of them.

Dooku cut off Anakin’s arm in Episode II, and in their next confrontation, Anakin cut off Dooku’s hands, and decapitated the former Jedi, at the behest of Palpatine.

One could almost see that moment, as Palpatine testing Skywalker, to see how loyal he could truly be. Though Anakin shows a slight remorse, Palpatine claims that his actions were justified (“He cut off your arm, and you wanted revenge,” says Palpatine).

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General Grievous


During the Clone Wars, Darth Sidious and Count Dooku employed an overseer for the Separatist’s Droid Army, in the form of General Grievous.

When first introduced in the Cartoon Network animated series in 2004, Grievous was seen as a cunningly-fast, and dangerous threat to the Jedi.

It was a far cry from his appearance in Revenge of the Sith though, where he seemed to be one of those villains who talked big, but then quickly ran away, shaking his fist at the “Jedi scum,” as he made his way to a new location (usually with a raspy cough).

Just like Maul and Tyrannus, Grievous also supplies a piece in the evolutionary puzzle of Darth Vader.

Whereas Maul shows how overconfidence can cloud a Sith’s judgement, and Dooku shows how a Jedi can be turned to the Dark Side via disillusionment, Grievous shows himself to be an early predecessor of a creature, kept alive via technology.

However, the mechanics are far from perfect, as seconds after he is introduced in Episode III, a raspy cough can be heard, a sign that the technology that Grievous is encased in, can’t cure all his ailments.

George Lucas has often been fascinated by the concept of man-and-technology, a theme that winds it’s way through his entire filmography.

Some could almost consider Grievous to be Vader’s predecessor. With his imposing height and appearance (at times looking like a living alien skeleton), let alone his threatening demeanor, the two almost seem cut from the same cloth.

While some criticize the rasping cough that accompanied the general in the film, it can be considered another ‘echo’ to the ‘creature/man-in-suit’ theme surrounding Vader.

The technology to save Grievous, is shown to have flaws, notably in how it cannot cure his cough. There is also the not-so-protective chest cavity, where his vital organs are stored. We see this flaw when Obi-Wan Kenobi manages to pry it open wide enough, to eventually fire a blaster, and cause the contents to catch fire, leading to the General’s death.

When it comes to Anakin, the cybernetic enhancements and the dark suit that he is encased in at the end of Episode III, are the final steps to erasing all traces of the former human being he once was. Plus, one assumes that since the Empire didn’t tell what had befallen Anakin (probably writing him off as another Jedi casualty), many never knew who was behind the imposing mask, and simply referred to him by the title of Darth Vader, as the Emperor requested.

I imagine some feel that my inclusion of Grievous here is somewhat of a ‘cheat,’ given that he was never a true apprentice to Darth Sidious. However, we did see in one scene, that Grievous was taking orders from Sidious (such as being told to move the Separatists to the planet Mustafar). Plus, he claimed that Dooku trained him in the Jedi Arts.

I feel that Grievous could be considered an unofficial apprentice for the first half of Episode III, after the death of Count Dooku. Shortly after Grievous is destroyed by Obi-Wan, that is when Anakin is given the title of Darth Vader, pledging himself to Palpatine’s teachings, and the Dark Side.

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Final Thoughts

When it came to the Prequels, George Lucas strove to make us question just who Darth Vader was.

Throughout the Original Trilogy, and the many years of advertising, Vader’s helmeted visage became an icon for the series. However, this was counter to what Lucas originally envisioned.

An example is in A New Hope. Whereas many thought it was Vader who was running much of the operations for the Empire, he was little more than an overseer to certain events, and little more than a lapdog/assistant to Grand Moff Tarkin, who was running the show on the Death Star (it was Tarkin after all, who ordered the destruction of Alderaan).

Throughout the years, many have often complained that Episode I’s storyline should have been excised. They claimed the story should have started with Anakin as a teenager, with him ‘falling’ in Episode II, and then in Episode III, there’d be images of him being totally evil, destroying Jedi left and right!

However, many fail to comprehend that most of what Obi-wan ‘fed’ Luke, were stories like the kind a Grandfather would tell his Grandchildren, about how the old days were so much better…but oftentimes, keeping out certain details. After all, most never realize that Obi-Wan (and later Yoda) pretty much lied to Luke about what really happened to his father, seemingly trying to set the young Skywalker up to murder his own father.

To many that grew up on the series, it was these little tidbits of background information, that fed our imagination, and made it hard to fathom the notions that this imposing dark figure, was once a Force-sensitive little boy, who would happily shout “Yippee!”

Despite the flaws of the prequels (yes, I will admit they aren’t perfect) there are some ideas and areas of interest in them, that still keep me thinking all these years later.

One of George Lucas’ strengths, are his thoughts and ideas. We see these played across in many of the films he’s not only directed, but also produced. Some times he hits the sweet spot, and other times, his visions clash with those of the viewers.

This is true of Vader’s big moment at the end of Episode III, after his new suit is completed. The scene is almost an ‘echo’ of the carbon-freezing scene in Empire Strikes Back, only instead of Han Solo encased in a carbonite block, Vader is now encased in his suit. A heavy metallic sound upon the table’s rotation, almost makes it seem like he is now forever ‘trapped,’ both physically and mentally, by what he has done, and what he has now become.

Of course, Lucas tries to make us feel sympathy for Vader, but he ends up somewhat ruining the mood, in a moment that became more cringe-inducing than emotional.

Even so, he’s given me plenty of ‘food for thought’ over the years, and this post is the results of some of it.

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Movie Musings: Remembering ‘Mars Attacks,’ 20 years later

The year: 1996.

One day, a strange-looking species of extra-terrestrials, descended from the heavens, and quickly laid waste to our planet. Humanity attempted to fight back, but even their strongest weapons proved to be of no use. And then, in a moment of sheer absurdity, a secret weapon was found. The most unexpected thing of all, managed to take down the alien scum, and save the human race.

No, its not Independence Day. It’s Mars Attacks!

After a Summer dominated by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s Patriotic alien invasion film, Winter found director Tim Burton, attempting to do his own thing with aliens. Burton had provided Warner Brothers with hits such as Beetlejuice and Batman, and to them, it probably seemed a no-brainer, to allow Tim to

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Nothing “Topps” Nostalgia

Tim Burton has often looked to the past for some of his artistic inspiration, and that was just whaat he did with Mars Attacks.

While some of it’s sensibilities would link it to the ‘invaders from space’ films like Earth vs The Flying Saucers, the bulk of it’s inspiration, would come from…bubble-gum cards?

The Topps Company released the Mars Attacks card series in 1962, depicting a number of skull-faced, big-brained invaders from Mars, destroying cities, vaporizing animals, and plenty more un-pc machinations.

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Keep in mind of course, that these images were on bubble-gum cards, geared towards kids!

The subject matter caused an outcry, and the cards were quickly discontinued…however, the memory of their imagery lingered, and many of the materials based on them (due to their limited run), became collector’s items in later years.

As those children became adults, Topps reprinted some of the cards, and quickly found adult collectors eager for more.

The 1996 film that Burton made, brought about a larger resurgence in the Mars Attacks property. Along with film-based material, a newer interpretation of the aliens were created by Topps, and new cards and comic books were produced, along with figures, and crossovers with other comics series (such as Judge Dredd, and…Transformers!?).

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A (Monster) Mash-up of Genres

Of course, one can’t just spend 1 1/2 hours showing aliens blowing up stuff on the big screen. Mars Attacks needed a story to tie together the carnage. But where was one to turn for story inspiration?

How about, the films of Irwin Allen?

In the 1970’s, Allen gained notable fame for bringing together large casts of name-actors, and thrusting them into the center of major disasters. Out of this filmmaking came hits like The Poiseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and many more.

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An example of the film’s big-name cast. From Left to Right: Brian Haley, Pierce Brosnan, Jack Nicholson, Natalie Portman, Glenn Close, Martin Short, Rod Steiger

That seems to be what was put together for Mars Attacks, though word was, the film was going to be bigger than what it eventually became. Originally, the martian attack would have taken place around the globe, and involved a lead cast, of over 5 dozen characters! The original script would even be tagged with a budget of $260 million (which was enormous by 90’s standards!).

Story and Screenwriter Jonathan Gems, credited Burton (who was not given a writing credit) for honing in the story, focusing it solely in the United States, and paring down the characters, to a ‘measly’ 23 leads.

There are even a few jabs at that greatest of all war-time comedies, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  This is evident in one of the alien’s translated words meaning ‘bodily fluids,’ and President Dale having an elaborate War Room. Plus, much like how actor Peter Sellers played several roles in Strangelove, Jack Nicholson does the same in Attacks, playing straight-laced President James Dale, and sleazy Vegas developer, Art Land.

The production design also plays around with the time-period. Though it is meant to be modern-day America, many of the settings we see are decidedly retro. The scenes in Kansas definitely feel like Richie Norris (Lukas Haas) and his family, are stuck in a time-warp, and whenever we see Police officers or Military personnel, their uniforms and vehicles are decidedly retro.

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Burton has dabbled in combining generational stylings in other films, such as Edward Scissorhands, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. With Mars Attacks, it feels like he really opened the door wide, with several decades worth of inspirational imagery.

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Character Caricatures

Just like those Irwin Allen films, Mars Attacks’ advertising boasted a veritable who’s-who of casting. Such big names included Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, and…Tom Jones!?

The film also has some fun with its character types, with Paul Winfield playing the low-key General Casey, who would act as counterpoint to the more bombastic General Decker, played with over-the-top zeal by Rod Steiger.

Along with the more seasoned actors, the film also brought on some young blood, with Natalie Portman portraying Presidential Daughter Taffy Dale. There was also Lukas Haas as Richie Norris, the young man stuck in the middle-of-nowhere America (aka Kansas), with his trailer park family (played by Joe Don Baker, O-Lan Jones, and Jack Black).

One actor who I remember being surprised to see again, was Sylvia Sidney. First introduced to me as the Maitland’s caseworker Juno in Beetlejuice, Sidney plays the senile Grandma Norris, who ends up finding the secret weapon to saving the human race. She also gets one of the best lines in the film.

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“They blew up Congress!”

The film would be Sidney’s last film appearance, as she would pass away in 1999.

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Pushing into the Digital Frontier

Tim Burton has often had a strong affinity for the effects and animation work of the past.

When it came to pulling off the craziness of faces contorting in a grotesque fashion, or bringing his twisted Christmas fables to life, he often opted for stop-motion puppetry.

Burton was all set to do the same with Mars Attacks, but that plan quickly fell by the wayside, as Warner Brothers wrestled with keeping the film’s budget under control.

The solution, was to have the full-motion martians realized in the same way as Steven Spielberg Jurassic Park dinosaurs: with an assist from Lucasfilm’s visual effects company, industrial Light and Magic.

Though it may be seen as a travesty to some, I still like what ILM brought to the table. Making the martians digital creatures, can be seen as another stepping-stone in their development of the technology (they had already started doing ‘character animation with the films Casper, and Dragonheart).

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Creating the martians in the computer, allowed them to be rendered with reflections and lighting, to make them actually seem a part of the real-life scenery. Of course, the animators also added some ‘staccato’ movements, giving the characters a hint of their stop-motion ‘heritage.’

Of course, ILM can’t take all the effects credit for the film. Warner Brothers also added an assist, with their in-company group, Warner Digital Studios. WDS became responsible for the brunt of the global destruction in the film, as well as the myriad shots of the flying saucers, and death ray blasts.

It is fun to also see the filmmaking toe the line between advanced effects, and some that are meant to reference older films. Some shots are simple ones, where the camera doesn’t move, much like how a number of effects were achieved in older days. Plus, some animation cycles of the martians, are re-used multiple times.

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Of course, sometimes the real stuff is always good for a film. The filmmakers even used a real-life disaster, as destruction footage in the film. In 1995, The Landmark Hotel and Casino was destroyed by controlled demolition in Las Vegas. Footage of the event was captured and repurposed for the film, when the Martians destroy Art Land’s casino.

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In Conclusion

Sadly, in 1996, there was only room in America’s hearts for one alien invasion film…and that honor of most-beloved, civilization-destroying feel-good film, fell upon Independence Day.

Mars Attacks didn’t come close to making ID4′s box-office take, failing to fully recoup its budget and marketing costs.

Both films did share a multi-part story about an alien invasion, but whereas Emmerich’s film used coincidence and numerous references to Star Wars, Burton’s vision was a bit of a downer. Some claimed the film was WB’s attempts to ride ID4’s coattails, but in truth, the film had been in development before Emmerich ever pitched his film idea to Twentieth Century Fox.

It’s dark comedy tone may also have turned away a number of people. There wasn’t anyone quite as charismatic as Will Smith in the film, and a large portion of the all-star cast, would find themselves turned into colored skeletons (or disintegrated) by the martian weaponry.

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Even the Martians’ end-game was never discussed. At the most, it seemed like they were little more than bored teenagers, and just decided to invade the Earth for kicks and giggles.

The film could also be considered ‘cruel’ by today’s standards, as just like in one of the Topps cards, Burton decimates a few animals (the First Lady even lobs the skull of the deceased family dog, at a martian intruder!).

I will admit that I don’t hold Mars Attacks up as a true Burton masterpiece, but it is a film that shows his sensibilities, and love for both the Topps cards the film is based off of, and a film that attempts to revel in the irreverence of the 1950’s B-movies, and the disaster films of the 1970’s.

Plus, one of the more fun moments, is Jack Nicholson’s speech, given to the Martian Leader. It isn’t as well-remembered as Bill Pullman’s from ID4, but the timbre and the accompanying music, make it quite entertaining to hear.

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“Why can’t we all just…get along?”

My (personal) fondness for the film, also ties into my high school days of marching band. It was my band director who helped ‘introduce’ me to Danny Elfman’s music, and opened my eyes further to who/what Tim Burton was (putting to rest a lot of the strangeness that seemed frightening to my suburban-raised mind).

I recall picking up the soundtrack to Mars Attacks in the winter of 1996, and loaning it to my director to listen to (at first, he didn’t even think Elfman had done the music for the film!). Less than a year later, we were playing the film’s theme as part of our Marching Band’s Danny Elfman-themed show (Music for a Darkened Theater, Vol 3). Our director even went all-out, costuming one of our band members as the Martian Leader, who ‘vaporized’ several members of the band as the song played (my sister ended up being tagged as one of the ‘victims,’ collapsing to the ground in a vaporizing puff of ‘flour’).

It almost feels like the 1990’s were the perfect ‘breeding ground’ for such a picture. If the film had been made in the early 2000’s, it probably would have seen it’s subject matter depicted in a ‘heavier’ way, much like how Steven Spielberg re-imagined H.G. Wells’  The War of the Worlds, in a post 9/11 world. If anything, a post 9/11 Mars Attacks, would probably have been less faithful to the Topps cards, and treated more as a realistic war film.

As it stands now, it is one of a number of those 90’s films, that definitely feels like a product of it’s time.

Movie Musings: Deciphering the ending to A.I. Artificial Intelligence

*Note: This ‘Movie Musings’ article is going off the assumption that the reader, has seen the film “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” If you haven’t seen the film and wish to remain spoiler-free, please turn back now.”

In the Summer of 2001, I was eagerly awaiting  a film that was said to have been several decades in the making: A.I. Artificial Intelligence. While originally a film that tantalized Stanley Kubrick, he was said to have been unable to imbue his obsession with emotional heart. Who was he to turn to? Steven Spielberg, of course-the man who touched millions of hearts in 1982 with E.T.

Over many years, the two would often talk about the project, an adaptation of the Brian Aldiss short story, Supertoys Last All Summer Long.

However, the two soon reached an impasse. While Kubrick felt Spielberg could do the film justice on an emotional level by directing it, Spielberg felt that Kubrick should direct the project instead, since he had devoted so much time and effort to it.

And then in 1999, Kubrick passed away. Following Kubrick’s death, several members of his family asked Steven if he would consider trying to finish the picture. Spielberg then took the numerous pieces of information that had been done over the years, and crafted a screenplay, (one of his first since Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

Steven largely kept to the outline and information that had been accumulated over the years, but to many who saw the film, there were cries of blasphemy, that he had destroyed a perfectly “Kubrickian” ending.

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After David and Teddy use an Amphibicopter to dive down into the remnants of the sunken Coney Island Amusement Park, David finds a statue of the Blue Fairy, from the Pinocchio fairy tale.

Unable to separate fantasy from reality, David believes he has found the one being who can grant his wish: to make him a real boy, and thus allow him to return to the Swintons, and win back Monica’s (aka his Mommy’s) love.

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As David asks the Blue Fairy to make him real, the voice of the story’s narrator is heard:

And David continued to pray to the Blue Fairy, there before him. She, who smiled softly, forever. She who welcomed him, forever.

Eventually the flood lights dimmed and died, but David could still see her, pale-y by day, and he still addressed her, in hope.

He prayed until all the sea anemones had shriveled and died.

He prayed as the ocean froze, and the ice encased the caged Amphibicopter and the Blue Fairy too, locking them together where he could still make her out- a blue ghost in ice. Always there. Always smiling. Always awaiting him.

Eventually he never moved at all. But his eyes always stayed open, staring ahead forever all through the darkness of each night. And the next day. And the next day.


This is where some claimed that Kubrick would have ended the film, but as some in the auditoriums that summer began to rise from their seats, the narrator’s voice continued:


Thus…2,000 years passed by.

From here, we were treated to an image of lithe creatures, flying around in cube-constructed vehicles, cutting into the ice covering the Earth. The original proclamation by many was to assume that these were aliens (making several flash-back to the thin-limbed creatures in Close Encounters). However, they are actually Future Mecha- the evolution of artificial intelligence, having outlived their creators. The most obvious reason for their lithe form is that they retain a certain resemblance to their creators (a head, a body, and 4 limbs), but they have no use for human features like hair, eyes, or internal organs. Word was that Kubrick originally envisioned them with a leathery texture, but here, their translucent forms, make them look like an exaggerated iMac version of the human form.

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Eventually, a group of Future Mecha find David and Teddy in the amphibicopter. After restoring power to David, they then scan his mind, and begin to analyze his memories. Much like human beings searching for information about ‘the ones who created them,’ the Future Mecha here are excavating into the ice, looking for more information on their own creators. With David, they have an amazing find: a mecha ancestor, who actually lived among humans!

Using his memories, the Future Mecha create a replica of the Swinton home. David can’t comprehend the difference between his memories and the fabricated world, and assumes that he and Teddy have ‘come home.’ Running around looking for Monica, David comes across The Blue Fairy in another room.

David once again asks to be made real, but the Blue Fairy claims she cannot do this. Eventually, we see several of the Future Mecha examining this scene. It soon becomes obvious that they are controlling the image of the Blue Fairy.

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David asks where Monica is, but is informed that it’s been 2,000 years since she was alive. The Blue Fairy then claims that other humans can be brought back to interact with him, but because of his imprinting, David only wants Monica.

The Blue Fairy claims that only through the use of human tissue or hair, can they bring people back. Luckily, Teddy is there, and reveals to David how he saved some of Monica’s hair (from an incident earlier in the film). David offers the hair to the Blue Fairy, claiming that now, she can bring Monica back.

In the room with the Future Mecha, one of them speaks in English, and we hear the voice of the narrator: “Give him what he wants.”

David is then returned to his room in the false-home. When a knock comes at the door, David eagerly assumes it’s Monica, but finds it is one of the Future Mecha, who is designated as The Specialist (in the credits, and voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley).

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Sitting down with David, the Specialist expounds on his race’s fascination and search to understand more about their creators.

The Specialist claims they attempted to recreate humans from pieces of bone or skin, but also attempted to try and see if they could bring back human memories, which would surely help them understand more about their creators.

However, their attempts proved futile, as the longest any creation lived, was less than a day…and once a person had been brought back once, it could never happen again.

“David, you are the enduring memory of the human race,” explains the Specialist. “The most lasting proof of their genius. We only want for your happiness, David. You’ve had so little of that.

Even in explaining what bringing Monica back will mean (only a single day with her), David will not be deterred.

“If you want for my happiness,” he says, “then you know what you have to do.”

And with that, the sky outside lightens, as ‘a new day’ comes. The Specialist then tells David that Monica is just waking up, and David finds her in the main bedroom.

Monica then greets David with a smile, and he quickly offers to make her some coffee, as the day begins.

Throughout the day, David is all smiles, as he and his Mommy do all sorts of things. There is no mention of Monica’s husband Henry, or her son Martin. As the narrator says, “There was just David.”

Eventually, the day draws to a close, and David returns Monica to the bedroom. As she settles down to sleep, she remarks on the ‘beautiful day,’ before drawing David in close, and telling him:

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“I love you, David. I do love you. I have always loved you.”

And with those final words, Monica goes to sleep…one from which she will never awaken.

David soon goes to ‘sleep’ as well, the reciprocation of Monica’s love, the fulfillment of his very existence.

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Coming Full-Circle

What many moviegoers who felt the ending was cliche fail to realize, is that this ending brings the film full-circle. Throughout much of the film, circles are a motif we see in a number of areas and designs.

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An example of circular motifs in the film, as well as a scene later in the film (right) calling back to an earlier one (left).

In the beginning, David was created as a placebo for those unable to have children, or those who needed something in order to ‘move on.’ When David was living with the Swinton’s, Monica was never fully able to accept David, because he wasn’t real. He acted more as a stand-in to her son Martin, until he recovered.

Eventually, Monica decided to take the next step, and “imprint” on David. This allowed him to ‘love’ her unconditionally, as per the parameters in his program, but it was like a hardwired bond that could never be broken. If Monica ever decided she didn’t want David, he would need to be returned to Cybertronics, to be destroyed. Though he looked human, he really was nothing more than a ‘super-toy’ like Teddy, meant for a specific purpose.

2,000 years into the future, mecha have supplanted humans as the dominant species. And, in a turn-about way, we find that the machines of the future, have the ability to create humans. However, the process to create and preserve human life, is still a mystery that they are unable to resolve.

In the case of the film’s finale, it is Monica who has been created to fill a void for David. However, while many assume this is a schmaltzy happy ending by way of an overly touchy-feely Spielberg, digging deeper into the ending scenes, shows otherwise.

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A Beautiful Day, A Beautiful Lie

Though many assume that David’s final day with Monica is a beautiful thing, one has to figure it is little more than a beautiful lie.

The Monica David spends the day with, is very different from the one we see at the beginning of the film.

She never questions where her husband Henry, and ‘real’ son Martin have gone. At one point, she questions the day, and simply accepts David’s answer: “it is…today!”

For much of the day, Monica is all smiles, though a questionable expression, comes when David shows Monica a number of finger-paintings, as he explains about his journey.

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It’s a look that almost harkens back to the the rather placid eyes of David’s when he was first brought into the Swinton household, leading me to believe that this Monica was recreated moreso from David’s memories.

One assumes that the Specialist and his kin, must have rooted around in David’s ‘brain,’ and found situations that seemed to bring happiness, and from that, designed a day, that would recreate those moments, but on a whole other level.

Like in the beginning, there are games of hide and seek, and a Birthday party. Though the game is more of fun than awkwardness this time, and the party is for David, not for Martin.

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The earlier, awkward game of hide-and-seek, and then the game again, on David’s perfect day, where both mother and son scare Teddy.

During the events, some may even question just “where” David and Teddy are when this happens. My feelings are that it is the equivalent of a neural highway/internet configuration that the future mecha have created. We see they can transmit imagery and such without cables or wires in one scene, so most likely, David and Teddy’s “brains” have been transmitted into it for the final part of the story.

Plus, in the simulated world the Future Mecha have created, almost anything seems possible. Notable is that in this world, David seems more alive than before. For example, we see him shed tears, which he never did in the real world.

Of course, sadness of the lie comes at the end, when the figure of Monica, tells David that she loves him. The real Monica could never bring herself to utter these words to David, but this one can say it willingly enough, that David is placated into thinking that his cherished wish has come true…when in truth, he is really on a dead, frozen planet, being placated by his more advanced descendants.

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Thoughts on the Future Mecha

The Future Mecha also show how the creations, have evolved beyond their creators.

In the past, Gigolo Joe explained to David that even though they were living among the humans, and did numerous things for them, they were hated and oppressed by their creators (as we see in a number of sequences).

“They made us too smart, too quick, and too many,” Joe explained to David. “We are paying for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left, is us!”

David himself, is an important link in the evolutionary chain of mecha. Before his creation, robots were programmed what to think and do, but as seen in David’s quest, he is the one who “chooses” to seek out the Blue Fairy. This seemed more like a ‘baby step’ in mecha evolution though, because David was unable to think and reason beyond his simple program to love Monica. He couldn’t  live beyond that main piece of his programming, and as we see when the Future Mecha try to bargain with him to consider other ways to view him interacting with humans, he never wavers from wanting to see her again.

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Of course, one has to wonder how this affected the Future Mecha. They were most likely able to extract information from David’s memories, but were probably saddened that they were unable to interact with him on a more investigative level.

David would probably be seen as a God to them, considering he was alive when their creators roamed the Earth. His interaction with humans 2,000 years ago, makes him at this point in history, the most ‘human’ thing left on the planet.

When one backtracks to the beginning of the film, it is the voice of the Specialist we hear, first narrating over an image of a roiling ocean.The film has an often cold sterility to how some characters act, let alone the coloration of some scenes being slightly muted at times.

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If one looks at the film overall, it could be seen as a possible extrapolation of information the Future Mecha have gleaned from David, and what they have unearthed about the past. Given the Specialist’s voice is heard in a narrative capacity 3 times, it stands to reason that maybe he is relaying this story as some form of history lesson, on the evolution of the mecha ‘species.’

This can also make sense, as the story largely is about David’s creation, birth, life, and eventually, death.

There is a certain ‘sterility’ throughout the film as well, almost like affection and emotions, are kept at arm’s length from us. Even in the color palette in some of the environments are not as bright as we would expect…making one wonder, since the Future Mecha are unable to fully have as strong of emotions as their human creators (are they even imbued with a soul?), maybe that sterility and uneasiness of trying to channel emotions into the story, is a little ‘wonky’ to them.

Though one has to also wonder, if these Future Mecha see human beings as their creator, do they also subscribe to the man-made theory/thought process of a Supreme Being, or has limited knowledge and information in the future, truly supplanted such notions, and moved humanity to the top of that Divine Plane?

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While it isn’t one of my Top 5 films by Steven Spielberg, A.I. Artificial Intelligence is one of those films that has managed to sit in the back of my head, and bubble to the surface every once-in-awhile with its subject matter.

The concept of the creation of artificial life, as well as human acceptance, is something that has often fascinated me, maybe in some capacity, because of studying animation, which some have called, “The Illusion of Life.”

During the summer of 2001, I was part of a Spielberg-related chatroom, and for the rest of the summer, I and many others, would trade discussion back-and-forth on the film, and what we felt certain elements stood for. Other Spielberg topics languished, as the A.I. board quickly rose to 10,000 posts and beyond. No stone was too small to overturn, as we searched for symbolism, the meaning to the end, as well as created fan-fiction to fill in the holes we saw.

Much like how Titanic brought me to a community to discuss my thoughts in 1998, A.I. Artificial Intelligence did so 4 years later, in a new capacity. Even watching the film 15 years later, there are still new things I am finding out.

 

Retro Recaps: The Making of E.T. (The Extra-Terrestrial)

Once upon a time, making-of specials and documentaries, were incredibly “thick” with material.

You’d get people to sit down and reminisce, often coming up with the most amazing stories from the production they were thinking back on. All of a sudden, an incident that hadn’t been thought of in years would resurface, or the meaning behind a particular scene, would become clearer. To me, I ate up many of these documentaries like Reeses Pieces.

However, in more recent years, making-of specials have become flash-in-the-pan. They are often whittled down to 20-30 minutes, usually with the briefest of ‘talking heads’ from the crew, and more time given over to the cast.

Though when it comes to many of the making-of films I’ve seen, one name often comes up: Laurent Bouzereau

MakinfofET-3Bouzereau is one of the most well-known film documentarians around, with a major focus on the works of both Alfred Hitchcock, and Steven Spielberg.

His association with Spielberg largely began in the 1990’s, when he produced and directed a number of retrospective/making-of documentaries for the laserdisc-format.

Several that stand out from that time, include his making-of special for Jaws (which clocks in at almost 2 hours!), and his retrospective on Spielberg’s 1941.

In 1996, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was released on laserdisc, and as an added feature, a 1 1/2 hour documentary by Bouzereau was included.

With the documentary’s 20th anniversary upon us this year, I couldn’t help but share some of my thoughts on one of the best ‘lost documentaries’ that you surely have never heard of (I mean, how many of us even HAD a laserdisc player growing up!?).

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In The Beginning…

What many don’t know, is that E.T. originally started out as another project by Spielberg. A darker humans-meet-aliens story, called Night Skies.

MakingET-4Producer Kathleen Kennedy (left) shares a story about how Spielberg requested she research an incident where a farm family was terrorized by extra-terrestrials (sounding similar to one scene in Close Encounters), and use that as the basis for the film.

Also of interest, was Kennedy seeing a film called The Return of the Secaucus Seven, and requesting that its writer/director John Sayles, write a draft for this film…though 14 years later, she couldn’t recall just why she felt Sayles was the perfect fit for the project.

However, upon reviewing the first draft of Night Skies that Sayles wrote, Steven found it wasn’t quite where he wanted to go, and dropped the dark angle, soon after starting over with something simpler.

Steven also called a halt to the alien development, which was originally being handled by physical effects maestro, Rick Baker!

Recently, Baker did release some images of just what the Night Skies alien development was, before Spielberg decided to look elsewhere. As one can see in the image below, the creatures were definitely going in a different direction.

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Image posted online by Rick Baker, showing early clay models for the “Night Skies” aliens he was developing before the plug was pulled

Though in going over the information, it almost feels like that “terrorized family” aspect that had originally intrigued Spielberg, ended up going into another 1982 release that he produced (and wrote), called Poltergeist.

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Opening up with E.T’s Screenwriter

One of the often unsung heroes of E.T., is screenwriter Melissa Mathison.

MakinfofET-2One film that Spielberg had loved was The Black Stallion, which Mathison had also written. Once he had the framework for his ‘boy and his alien’ story, he asked her to work on fleshing out the rest of it.

In the early 1980’s, Mathison was married to Harrison Ford, and she claims she drew some inspiration from Ford’s son and his friends, for the Dungeons and Dragons game scenes in the film.

She also revealed something startling in part of her interview. When researching how to form E.T. as a character, she would poll random children for ideas, and found something consistent with a few of them:

“I was struck by the fact that several of them mentioned, that they would like, if this magical creature came into their life, they would like him to be able to ‘heal.’ And I thought it was such an incredibly poignant idea to come from a child. And they weren’t talking about ‘save someone’s life’ by healing, they were talking about, ‘take the owies away.'”

It definitely is something unconventional when it comes to aliens. One would most likely expect lasers or cool spaceships, but a healing factor was not something I don’t think an average adult would ever consider.

Unlike Sayles’ Night Skies first draft, Mathison’s first draft for E.T. so impressed Steven, that he claimed that he could have started shooting it the next day. Over the years, he would often claim it to be the best first draft he ever read.

Mathison also worked with Spielberg again in the last few years, when she was involved with the screenplay for Spielberg’s upcoming adaptation, of Roald Dahl’s book, The Big Friendly Giant.

Sadly, she passed away last year at the age of 65, but one has to wonder what her final screenplay with Spielberg will bring, when his latest film is released.

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Mathison with Sean Frye, Henry Thomas, and C Thomas Howell, going over a scene for E.T.

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Chatting with the Cast

The documentary also gets the chance to talk with the main human cast of the film. They include Henry Thomas (Elliot) Drew Barrymore (Gertie), Robert MacNaughton (Michael), Dee Wallace Stone (Mary, the kids’ mother), and Peter Coyote (known only as “Keys” in the film, because of the ring of them on his belt loop).

There are some fun background facts about some of the actors. Peter Coyote tells of his embarrassing audition for Indiana Jones (he was auditioning for the lead), in which he tripped over his feet and knocked over a lamp. He lost the role, but his clumsiness stuck with Steven, who called on Peter for the role of Keys.

Of those that are speaking, it is Thomas and Barrymore who get the most time.

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Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore

Thomas shares quite a few insights into production, including his audition, in which he ad-libbed trying to keep a government agent from taking away his alien friend. The whole clip is included on the documentary, including Spielberg’s words off-camera a few seconds after the conversation ends, going: “Ok kid, you got the part!”

Drew also mentions how she originally auditioned for the Carol Anne role in Poltergeist, but Spielberg claimed she wasn’t right for it. Instead, her ability to spin all sorts of crazy stories (she told him she was going to tour with a punk-rock band), led him to cast her for the role of Gertie.

Unlike most films, E.T. was shot in the order of the shots as we see on film, which allowed the kids to find E.T. and grow to understand him, in the same vein as what we see on-screen. This meant that by the time they got to the big scene where E.T. is sick and dying, the emotions were genuine (and, to which Spielberg mentions, many of those shots were got on the first take).

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Being Candid with Steven Spielberg

I don’t know what it is about Laurent Bouzereau, but he seems to have a way of just putting Spielberg into such a relaxed state of talking, that Steven just opens up in some of the most surprising ways.

There are a few times where Steven gets so excited thinking of something, that he almost works himself into a frenzy.

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Notable is one scene in which E.T. is eating some watermelon, and his left hand (performed by an off-camera mime named Caprice Rothe), reaches for a seed that has stuck to his face, and casually plucks it off. The discussion then lead into this:

“I mean, who would have thought of that, except someone who is really in touch with human behavior? And she really had a great understanding of the way the human body moves and what we do with our hands and our bodies. It’s just a tiny moment people don’t ever recognize in the movie, but I’m really proud of what she brought to that scene, just by taking a little piece of food off the lip-brought E.T. to life, like that! He was alive in that moment, completely alive! Nobody was running him. There were no wires, there were no servo motors going, that was really someone from somewhere else.”

MakingET-10Steven also reveals how he would often voice E.T. off -camera, and we see him in one behind-the-scenes clip, hunched off-camera doing a high-pitched voice, feeding Henry Thomas E.T.’s lines.

Supposedly, Thomas got so used to hearing Steven saying the lines, that after seeing the film at its premiere, he could still hear Steven’s voice in his head!

The bit where Spielberg discusses this is also memorable, because he even starts trying to mimic E.T.’s voice to Laurent (off-camera) during the interview.

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Of Missing Scenes, and Sequels

What is most thrilling about the making-of special, is that there are actual clips from scenes that we’ve seen still pictures of, or may have been referenced in some of the film’s storybooks, but never seen in motion.

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One of the most famously talked of, is when Elliot is taken to the Principal’s office after freeing the frogs in his science class. The unseen Principal, is actually Harrison Ford (and in one interview, Thomas tells how amazed he was to be in the presence of Han Solo).

There was even an alternate ending to the film, than what we know now.

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The alternate ending, shows Elliot playing Dungeons and Dragons with Michael and his friends. However, unlike the earlier scene where Elliot is shunned, he is the Dungeon Master of the game, and as we pan up from the group of boys playing, we see on the roof of the house, the communications device E.T. used, possibly foreshadowing that the two may meet again.

Word was that after seeing the film cut with the goodbye scene in the woods, it was felt that that scene said all that needed to be said about the parting of the two friends.

There was even some discussion about a sequel for a bit, but eventually, it was decided to drop any thoughts of one. Kathleen Kennedy tells how the feeling was that it would “cheapen the film and its experience” for the audience.

As Spielberg states:

“I never made a sequel to E.T., because I can’t ever make an E.T. movie as good as what I did. I would only shame the memory. I would only show people ‘the flaws.’ E.T. isn’t a ‘mechanical cottage industry,’  that invites further adventures of E.T. and other kids on the planet Earth. It is a one-time event, and to do two or three or four movies based on that one character, is creating a franchise, that I didn’t frankly think was the honest and right thing to do.”

Probably the closest we ever got to an E.T. sequel, was the Spieberg-endorsed The E.T. Adventure, which was a fixture in all of the Universal Studios theme parks for awhile.

In the ride, guests would ride bicycles to help E.T. get home, where his healing touch would help save his dying homeworld.

The ride was very much in the same vein as the Peter Pan’s Flight attraction at Disneyland, with the ride vehicles suspended on an overhead track, giving the illusion that you are soon flying over a cityscape, and onto E.T.’s homeplanet.

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Behind-The-Scenes

Even though the film was touted for its effects work, it feels that much like Back to the Future and The Goonies, it is the characters and the story that take more precedence.

The documentary also gives plenty of shout-outs to the crew who built E.T., as well as the various little persons and others who helped bring him to life.

There is talk about the attempts to make E.T. seem believable, but also having to deal with the limitations of the animatronic technology of the time.

Also of note, is a small interview with Ralph McQuarrie, who was a major design influence on Star Wars.

McQuarrie was commissioned to design E.T.’s spaceship, whose design was a Jules Verne-inspired ship, with squat little landing legs coming out from its ‘body,’ almost making it resemble E.T. in a way.

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A Word of Warning

When the film was done, word was that Spielberg later regretted scenes at the end, in which as the government agents attempt to stop Elliot and the other boys from escaping, they do so while brandishing firearms.

On-camera, Spielberg mentions how if the film is ever re-released, he intends to use computer technology to “fix” those scenes.

6 years later, he was true to his word when a Special Edition of E.T. was released, with the guns being replaced by walkie-talkies.

The Special Edition of the film received the same amount of flack that was directed at George Lucas for his Star Wars Special Editions. Though unlike those films, when E.T. came to DVD in the fall of 2002, it also contained a disc with the original cut. 10 years later for the film’s 30th anniversary (feeling old yet?), the Special Edition cut was nowhere to be found.

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I originally saw the documentary in 10 parts on Youtube, before copyright claims ended up making the person take them down. It has recently resurfaced cut into two pieces, though with some missing pieces here-and-there, making some of the conversations severely disjointed in places.

Unlike the full 2-hour Making of Jaws piece that was included on that film’s recent Blu-Ray release, The Making of E.T. has never been re-released since its 1996 premiere on the E.T. laserdisc release.

Several snippets of commentary were included in a small book included in the 2002 DVD’s special edition boxset release, but it just doesn’t feel the same as Laurent’s documentary.

He has a way of painting his making-of pieces with the kind of informative format that just keeps me coming back to watch them over-and-over again. Then again, I have been one of the weirder persons who craved stuff like this (I’m also the guy who hopes for audio commentaries on Blu-Ray releases these days, even though that practice is pretty much dead).

If you’d like to know more about Laurent Bouzereau, and the other works he’s done, you can find out more at his website, Nedlandmedia.com

Movie Musings: 5 Issues I have with Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, 15 years later

Why does Michael Bay get to keep on making movies?

I guess “Pearl Harbor sucked…just a little bit more than I miss…you.

(from the song End of an Act, from Team America: World Police (2004))

Even after all these years, I still recall the previews for Pearl Harbor. Say what you will about Michael Bay’s films…whoever cuts the trailers to his films, usually manages to make them into delicious eye-candy.

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The trailers certainly did their work on me. Even though I recalled feeling a sense of numbness after seeing Armageddon 3 years earlier in theaters (in 1998).But even with the placidly-acting Liv Tyler, and over-the-top attempts to save the planet in that film, the footage that was released regarding Harbor, seemed to promise a new step forward for the director.

I can still remember seeing the film at the now-closed McClurg Court theater (on Memorial Day weekend, 2001), which boasted a 60-foot main-screen, that the film would be projected on.

It was a given that some directors mature over time (look at Spielberg’s Schindler’s List) as they learn new things, and want to tackle new stories and ideas. Maybe this was it for Bay: a chance to pull back from his hyper-kinetic machinations, and actually get us to care about a historical event, and the fictional characters created for the story.

As it turned out, the answer was no.

I usually try to take a Jedi stance on anger or hatred, but there are certain elements of that Pearl Harbor screening, that have stuck with me, even to this day.

And so, I decided to list 5 things that bugged me…and one good thing, about one of Michael Bay’s most overly-patriotic films ever made.

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Subtlety is not Bay’s strong suit

It feels that when it comes to Michael Bay, there’s no middle-ground. You’re either in the midst of a picturesque commercial shoot…or you’re in the middle of a hyper-kinetic action scene. Anytime you try to get him to sit down and have a heart-to-heart conversation, he grows bored really quickly, and just wants to get out of there as fast as possible.

That is one thing that seems to be missing from a lot of Pearl Harbor: the little moments that actually get you to care about anyone, let alone get any build-up.

One memory I still have to this day, is the audience I saw the film with, was already filling in the blanks before we’d gotten to the payoffs further down the line.

In one scene, Kate Beckinsale’s character rushes for the bathroom, as her clueless girlfriend just finds it odd that she’s been going a lot recently.

I still recall, from out of the darkness in the theater, almost in perfect surround-sound unison, I heard three voices say (with as much eye-rolling as can be imagined):

“…she’s pregnant…”

The sound of their voices said it all. And of course, there were plenty more eye-rolling moments.

In one scene, as she’s composing a letter to Affleck’s character, Beckinsale sits by some rocks, the waves crashing around her, as she waxes romantically about how much she loves and misses him. It isn’t quite as gratuitous as the animal cracker scene in Armageddon, but the lovey-dovey dialogue also doesn’t seem to have any underpinnings to really make us believe what the characters are saying is genuine.

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Even in the early morning moments before the attack on the harbor, Bay shoehorns in as much Americana as he can. From little girls with fairy wings, to boy scouts on a camping trip, to a woman hanging wash on the line (which means if she’s drying the clothes before the harbor was attacked around 8 am that morning, she must have gotten up pretty early to do the wash!).

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Pearl Harbor is no Titanic

In a number of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage I saw, one film popped up several times: Titanic.

Only a few years old, the “King of the World” was on the lips of several of the cast and crew, who felt that their film had all the same ingredients as James Cameron’s film. Therefore, they were bound to gross hundreds of millions of dollars…maybe a billion!

Ah, wishful thinking at its finest.

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One of the film’s biggest problems, is that when we finally get the attack on the harbor, we see all sorts of men blown in the air, falling into the water, clinging to the decks of overturning ships…but these men are just unnamed soldiers. We see it’s a terrible tragedy, but we haven’t been among them long enough, or gotten to know much about the naval base, to truly feel the weight of the tragedy.

That was where Cameron’s film succeeded, and where Bay’s film fails.

In Titanic, the majority of our time is spent aboard “the floating city.” Sure there’s a love story involving fictional characters, but Jack and Rose actual mingle and interact with numerous persons all over the ship, even across its different classes.

This was a clever narrative device that Cameron used, and it helped to get us better acclimated with this world. When the ship starts to go down, and you see all manner of persons in peril, the visceral sense of death feels more tangible and real.

It also helped that Cameron’s film takes place largely in one location.

When it came to Harbor, Bay’s story jumps across multiple locations, but fails to spend as much time where we need it the most.

One almost feels that if the story had simply focused on Affleck and Beckinsale’s characters meeting at Pearl Harbor, and intertwining them within that world, the peril and emotion might have been more impactful.

There is a small attempt to intertwine fictional characters with real-life ones, such as in the case of Doris Miller, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.

Though he has a minor role, Gooding’s character portrayal feels like it is one of the strongest in the film, and he seems to do plenty with the small amount of screen time he is given.

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There isn’t much “Pearl Harbor” in Pearl Harbor

One would assume that with a title like this, we’d be spending quite a bit of time around the naval base on Hawaii.

As it happens, we only get small glimpses of what goes on around the base, as if Bay feels that by just showing us small images prior to the attacks, it will get us to care.

Unfortunately, the editing of the film keeps bouncing back-and-forth across a number of locations, never really seeming to give us enough time or pacing to care about the ‘set-dressing,’ or at times, the characters (who often seem to be little more than set-dressing themselves).

Of course, Pearl Harbor isn’t the only film to use the title of a place for a film, that doesn’t full involve said place.

Take Steven Spielberg’s Munich, released 4 years later. Munich’s location figures largely into the opening moments of the 1972 Olympic Massacre, but its ghost lingers on throughout the film. It’s an event and a name, that signifies a point in time, where tragedy at a specific place, affected a number of persons and their future actions.

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One more…for America!

One of the most famous films about the attack, was Tora Tora Tora. Unlike Bay’s film, this one takes place largely at the harbor, with the enemy as largely faceless entities. Though one of the biggest surprises, is its ending.

Instead of a happy one, we see numerous ships on fire in the harbor, as the credits roll, almost making the audience wonder, “what happened next?”

With Bay’s film, there is no room for thought or contemplation…just action!

With an additional hour of time to go after the film’s centerpiece, Affleck and Hartnett’s characters volunteer to become part of The Doolittle Raid, which took place 4 months after the attack.

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The raid itself feels severely shoehorned in, as if the studio mandated that they needed some form of retaliatory ending in order to show that America doesn’t back down when attacked.

The Doolittle Raid was even brought to film, a few years after the event,  with the film 30 Seconds Over Tokyo.

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What are your thoughts?

It’s one of my minor nitpicks out of the entire film, but I still recall a scene where a number of Japanese men are preparing for the attack.

As we focus on one young man, we hear his thoughts…spoken in English.

Up until this point, all the dialogue from Japanese characters have been spoken in their native language, so to suddenly have their thoughts in English, felt jarring for me.

One wonders why we couldn’t have had the young man’s thoughts translated on-screen instead. It might have made the scene of the many other men around him, a little more impactful.

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As much as I dislike the film, I will admit there is one moment that just works for me (yes, I am going to say something positive about the film).

As the battle rages on, Affleck and Josh Hartnett’s characters make their way onto the base, and meet up with several of their cohorts.

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There are a few planes that haven’t been hit, and several of the men attempt to get into the air with them (guess which ones?).

The scene lasts probably 10 minutes, but it feels like the one area that just seems to work for me, with Hans Zimmer’s score pumping away, and a handful of men on the ground attempting to get into the air to combat the enemy forces.

This moment actually feels like the most well-edited, and concentrated part of the film…before we then start hopping around again from place-to-place, Bay once again unwilling to just chill in one spot for a bit, and trying to make us feel the impact that the attack has had in different places.

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I still remember reading all sorts of reviews about the film in May of 2001, with the only thing almost all of the critics seemed to agree on, was that the 45 minutes Bay spent destroying the harbor, was the only good thing to write home about.

The film quickly sank in the box-office over the next few weeks, and while it wasn’t a bomb per se, its worldwide take didn’t come close to justifying its $175 million budget (let alone its multimillion dollar advertising campaign).

The studio attempted a last-minute cash grab in September of 2001 as well, releasing the film around the time of the Labor Day weekend, though the limited run didn’t add much to its box-office tally.

As for me, after walking out of the theater after seeing Pearl Harbor, I felt that I had seen my last Michael Bay film…or so I thought.

While I passed on Bad Boys II and The Island over the next several years (and I was working in a theater at the time those films came out), there was soon one word that trilled like a siren song, to that toyetic child inside of me. The word, was Transformers.

In-between the Transformers film series, Bay continued to try and direct ‘smaller’ films based on real-world events, such as Pain and Gain, and 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.

Though the two films boast big-name stars (and show that Bay can make films that cost less than $50,000,000), word is that just like Harbor, they seem to be hyper-stylized variations on their actual events (and both have resulted in several persons raking Bay across the coals, on how some people or situations were portrayed).

15 years after Pearl Harbor, as Michael Bay gears up to film Transformers: The Last Knight (aka Transformers 5), one has to wonder if he will ever grow up.

He has a small penchant for wanting to do more real-world stories, but he still seems trapped in his “Neverland” of fast cars, hot women, big explosions, and teenage levels of comedy…which I guess to some out there, is just enough to get them coming back for more.

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Movie Musings: Thoughts on Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Willy Wonka

It seems there are some things that will never die, largely thanks to the internet.

One controversy that started in 2004 and has never truly abated, came about with the first previews and information regarding Tim Burton’s film adaptation, of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

(Note: I mention the above as a footnote to much of the internet, that claims that Burton was remaking the 1971 film. I once again remind any who think this, that the 1971 film is not the be-all/end-all starting point for this story).

DeppWonka1While many were more used to their Willy Wonka being a small, squiggly-bearded man with a cane, or a tall, wild-haired eccentric who seemed to waffle on just what he meant, many were shocked at the first images of Johnny Depp as the fabled chocolatier.

Clad in red and black, this Wonka sported a pale complexion, a ‘Prince Valiant’ haircut, and a slightly high voice.

No sooner had the images been made available, then many quickly started spouting vitriol at Burton’s “bastardization”of the character.

The biggest claim? That this Wonka, a pale-faced weirdo, inviting a group of children to his factory, was 2 degrees shy of being a film version, of popstar Michael Jackson.

I read that almost everywhere when the film was released, and even a decade later, many largely claim the film is ‘terrible’ for remaking the 1971 film, little realizing the true intent of what Tim Burton and Johnny Depp set out to do.

In looking around online, I was surprised that noone had looked into Depp’s take on the character, and tried to decipher just what was being conveyed in his quirks and vocals.

So, like many of my little diatribes, I felt I would shed a little light on a character most seemed to write off as a child-obsessed, pale weirdo.

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-Pale Rider-

First, let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room: Depp’s pale appearance. It was this light pigmentation that caused many to point and proclaim “Depp is playing Michael Jackson.” However, it should be noted that Wonka was not always this pale.

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In several brief scenes in the beginning, as well as a small flashback, we’re shown that Willy Wonka was not always as pale as he appeared on promotional images.

His early days running a small chocolate shop, and up through his going to the fabled Loompaland, show his complexion seeming to be pretty regular.

If one looks at this evidence, they can surmise that the pale complexion largely came about, after he closed off his factory when spies were found in his workforce.

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It’s never stated exactly when Wonka went to Loompaland, but one has to figure that maybe once he stopped production, the candymaking itch got to him, and that eventually led him to his current workers.

With little need for contact, and having the aboriginal Oompas to work and do things for him, Wonka was able to pretty much continue to work sight-unseen, doing what he loved best. This also kept him out of the sun, accounting for the paleness of his skintone, when we see him on the tour.

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-Talking funny-

Tying into Wonka’s complexion, is also the way in which he talks to, and addresses people.

Early on when we seen him in the film, he only says a few sentences, but upon meeting the winners and their parents, his speech patterns get a little odd.

It is left rather vague as to when Willy cut himself off from human interaction, but it feels like the script gives us little clues, from the following lines of dialogue:

“Good morning, starshine! The earth, says, hello!”

“It’s in the fridge, daddy-o! Are you hip to the jive, can you dig what I’m layin’ down, I knew that you could, slide me some skin, soul brother!”

“Well, let’s keep on truckin!”

Most of these phrases sound like gibberish to most young people, but much of what Willy is saying, comes from phrases from the late 60’s/early 70’s.

My feelings were that it was sometime around the mid-70’s, when Wonka finally shut down his factory to the outside world. Most likely, he had not been seen for some 30 years, if we take the 2005 year of the film’s release to be the modern day (of course, this is also speculative, since the film never really gives us a clear year/date of when it takes place).

One feature some will be quick to notice about Wonka, is that he often has little cards that he reads from at certain areas of the tour. Also, most of what he mentions regarding parts of his factory, is very to-the-point.

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In several interviews, Burton and Depp claimed they found inspiration for their Wonka, in thinking back on old TV shows, and their live-action hosts.

Most people in this day and age don’t recall, but long ago, there would often be children’s shows run by local networks all across the country. These adult hosts would maybe have puppets to interact with, run cartoons, or even have a live studio audience to interact with.

Oftentimes, when one looked back on those hosts, they often seemed really crazy and a little off-kilter, and that seemed to be what Depp was trying to put into his performance.

One can definitely see a few traces of the informative children’s show host, in how Wonka would often try to intersperse little bits of knowledge and information here and there.

As to the cards he carries around, my theory is that not really having had to worry about showing people around his factory, Wonka had a number of cards prepared for certain occasions, to help him interact with his guests.

Though even at times around his guests, he almost isn’t sure just how to react.

When some of his words are contradicted, Wonka is seen to “lash out” in a rather immature way.

When Veruca Salt points out he is repeating something he already said, he grows quiet for a few moments, before making fun of how short the children are.

When Mike TeeVee tries to find fault with his reasoning, Wonka just mentions how he can’t understand Mike because of his “mumbling.”

If one considers it, this could be a side-effect of not really having persons to converse with for several decades. When one has the full-run of their own empire without anyone contradicting their ideas, it can definitely push one to get a bit egotistical.

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“You’re really weird!”

In one interview, Burton did compare Wonka’s isolationist attitude, to the likes of Howard Hughes, and Charles Foster Kane, the antagonist of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane film.

Hughes was known for having germaphobic tendencies, and would often be exacting about certain processes, and making contact with others.

Wonka from the start, is seen largely covered up, with only his face and neck exposed. His hands are clad in purple latex gloves, and several times when it comes to human contact, he doesn’t seem at all willing to return the favor.

Citizen Kane’s influence can be seen in the way that Wonka isolated himself within his candy palace, not that different than what Kane did with his unfinished estate, known as Xanadu.

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-Family Matters-

One of the strangest moments for some viewers, was Wonka being unable to say the word “parents,” stumbling through its pronunciation as if he is tongue-tied.

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Unlike the original book or 1971 film, the 2005 film included a small backstory regarding Wonka.

Most film adaptations in this day and age, tend to embellish some children’s stories, with added backstory.

In Ron Howard’s The Grinch, a backstory is given as to just how the Grinch ended up as he did (throwing the book’s line noone quite knows the reason for a loop).

In the film adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are, more information is given regarding Max’s family/home-life, and what leads him to sail to the land of the Wild Things.

In the case of this film, the backstory of Willy’s father Wilbur Wonka being a dentist who shunned candy, seemed a good foil for a man who could cause Willy to shun the notion of family.

At the end of the film, Willy offers Charlie the chance to run his factory, but (unlike the book or the 1971 film), Wonka’s offer comes with the caveat, that Charlie has to leave his family behind.

“A chocolatier has to run free, and solo,” says Willy. “He has to follow his dreams, gosh-darn the consequences. Look at me: I had no family, and I’m a giant success!”

Of course, Charlie’s family unit was much different from Wonka’s. Though the Buckets have nothing, they still stick together through thick-and-thin. Even with the promise to inherit one of the most famous factories in the world, Charlie’s morals and ethics allow him to rescind Wonka’s offer.

Here, the best laid plans of Oompas and Men, goes awry. Wonka’s thinking that finding an heir would be simple, is cut down, and he grows quiet, calling what has happened, “unexpected, and …weird.”

He leaves in a quiet mood, and afterwards, hits a block in his usual candymaking.

Apparently, Charlie’s refusal has driven a wedge into his thought-process, and in a weird scene (to most audiences), he goes out as an average person getting a shoe-shine, to talk to Charlie.

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It may seem odd that someone like Wonka would address Charlie, but maybe it’s the thought process that because Charlie somehow caused these emotions to surface…maybe he can solve the problem.

Of course, Charlie’s solution to when he feels terrible, is to go to his family, which is given an eye-rolling sigh by Wonka, causing Charlie to get a little upset.

“What do you have against my family?” he asks, most likely thinking of the stipulation, and the sigh meaning Willy is singling out the Buckets.

Willy then claims that it isn’t about the Buckets, but the whole idea of parents, claiming that they hinder creativity, by telling you what to do, and what not to do.

Being an obedient child with decent parents, Charlie’s point-of-view is that parents mainly do those things because they care about their children. When Wonka doesn’t seem to believe this, Charlie suggests he should talk to his Father about it.

Wonka at first claims he doesn’t want to, but when Charlie offers to go with him for support, he sparks to the idea.

The two then take the Great Glass Elevator to Wilbur’s home. One has to wonder just how/where Wonka knew where his Father was. My guess in his off-time, he had someone seek out the information, but never acted on it (but then again, we never know where Loompaland is, so this could be another bit of Dahl-ish storytelling, left to our imagination).

Charlie also is able to get Willy into the house, claiming he is bringing him for a dentist appointment.

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Though once inside, we also see that Wilbur has been following his son’s career, though maybe also out of a sense of pride, he never reached out.

Some would probably claim it seems ridiculous that Wilbur wouldn’t recognize his own son, but I feel it works.

The last time the two were face-to-face was when Willy was a little boy. Plus, of the few pictures that are seen in some of the news articles, most of Willy’s face is covered up.

Of course, the one thing Wilbur knows is teeth, and this is how he realizes the strange man in his chair, is his son.

Though both are men of few words when it cones to emotions, they quietly reconcile.

Willy Wonka then offers the factory to Charlie a second time, and rescinds his “no family” clause. This time, Charlie accepts.

The final scene we see of the family allowing Willy in for dinner, shows a little growth in pushing the character forward.

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Wonka decides to stay for dinner, and talks to a few members of the household. The Buckets have usually been a very positive family, and it feels like here, they have accepted Willy as an additional member of the Bucket family.

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Unlike many who grew up watching live-action musicals in their childhood, my family was not as attuned to them. So while most people I know have fond memories of growing up with films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Wizard of Oz, or The Sound of Music, I just don’t have the same connection.

My early childhood was moreso encompassing regarding animated films by Disney, with only a select few live action films introduced at an early age, like Star Wars, and The Neverending Story.

While many who grew up with the 1971 film just claimed the 2005 was remaking that film, I knew enough from the start of production, that Tim Burton and writer John August, were going back to the source material of Roald Dahl’s book.

In the last 10 years, I hear a lot of people just throw words around like “horrible,” “insulting,” and “terrible” when it comes to this film. It seems every other post on IMDB.com includes one of those words for every other new post that is made.

Maybe if one is measuring the 2005 film against the 1971 film as their Holy Bible, I could see that line of thought, but I feel if people call Burton’s film terrible, they clearly have never seen terrible films like Monster-a-Go-G0, or The Beast of Yucca Flats.

However, I’m of the opinion that the 2005 film is probably one of Burton’s most entertaining films in the last decade.

DeppWonka10Yes, Depp’s take isn’t at all like what Wilder’s was, but Burton’s take on adapted material, can often steer a character down different paths.

Another example of this, is 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, in which the character of Ichabod Crane was changed from a school teacher, to that of a forensics scientist trying to factually explain several murders in the town, using science, to combat local superstition.

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Of course, this post will probably change nothing regarding how people see Depp’s portrayal of Wonka.

But even so, I’ve always found the internet to be a place where people could find information on almost everything. And oftentimes, when I don’t find said information, and if I feel I have something to say that noone else has, it usually ends up in these posts.

Well, let’s keep on truckin’!

Movie Musings: Remembering ‘Chicken Little,’ 10 Years Later

In 1985, The Walt Disney Studios were poised to usher in a new era of filmmaking. The studio was pushing the next generation of Disney animators into more grown-up territory,, with the PG-rated feature film, The Black Cauldron, based on the second of five books in the Chronicles of Prydain series, by Lloyd Alexander.

However, instead of attracting an older crowd that was into the likes of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, the film crashed and burned upon release. To add insult to injury, the studios’ first PG-rated animated feature, was beaten at the 1985 box-office, by a G-rated animated feature: The Care Bears Movie!

Fortunately, the studio’s fortunes soon turned around after Cauldron. The Great Mouse Detective was released in 1986 to favorable reviews, and has been considered by some, to be the start of the studio’s animation Renaissance, that went on for almost 15 years.

Of course, the good times couldn’t last for long.

As animated features became more lucrative and successful than even during Walt Disney’s time, much of the studio’s upper management began to throw in their own ideas. Pretty soon, it wasn’t so much the people working in Feature Animation that were calling the shots, but men-in-suits…men-in-suits who had never animated a character, or tried to storyboard an emotional scene. All they had on their side, were fancy degrees, and facts and figures on how to run a business.

Pricey animated films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet fizzled at the box-office, and attention began to turn to other studios that were raking in the cash.

Box-office grosses from the likes of Dreamworks’ Shrek and Blue Sky Studios’ Ice Age films, were in the eyes of “the suits” in Burbank, California…and that meant some changes were in store for the studio.

And so, it was soon declared by the higher-ups, that hand-drawn (aka “2-D”) animation…was dead! According to them, the public was tired of 2-D, and 3-D was the future…and the company had to ‘modernize.’

And so, studios the company owned in Paris, France, and Orlando, Florida, were shut down. After completion on films like Brother Bear and Home on the Range, a large number of hand-drawn animators were shown the door…with a select few kept on board, that could then turn their skills to the computer-generated frontier.

To those of us in-the-know, the hand-drawn legacy went out with a whimper, when the animated feature Home on the Range came out in the Spring of 2004…with a measly $13 million opening weekend, and quickly sank from sight.

Of course, the executives at The Mouse House were already on board their own ship, charting a course to big-time profits. We’ll just slap the Disney name on a 3D animated feature, and the cash will flow in, must have been the first thing on their minds.

But where to begin? Animating humans in the computer would not be easy, so why not go with animals? And, how about a familiar story that everyone knows…or at least, they think they know.

And so, the fable of Chicken Little was modernized, and would become the studios’ first step into playing the 21st century game that Dreamworks, and Blue Sky Studios, and PIXAR were already involved in.

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As the story begins, Chicken Little throws his hometown of Pokey Oaks into a panic, when he claims a piece of the sky “shaped like a stop-sign,” hit him on the head. His father, Buck Cluck, assumes it to be an acorn, and Chicken Little is ridiculed and ostracized by the town following the events.

His best friends Runt of the Litter, Abbey “Ugly Duckling” Mallard, and Fish Out of Water, still believe in him, but Chicken Little finds himself trying to prove himself to the rest of the town, as well as win back the lost respect of his father…until, the sky falls, again!

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Once upon a time, Disney was the leader of animated features. 95% of the Hollywood studios, when making an animated film, would never make a move outside-the-box, but just look at what Disney had done, and try to copy them. Prince and Princess stories? we can do that. A sidekick that cracks pop-culture shtick? check. A musical? double-check!

But when it came to Chicken Little, it was clearly obvious that the leader, had now become a (desperate) follower, thanks to management and executive oversight.

Watching the film, one can’t help but get a huge Shrek vibe from the entire thing: a story you think you know…but with a twist!

The biggest problem with the film I feel, is that it’s missing a heart. The entire thing is strung together on pop-culture references, and oftentimes, is a pretty mean-spirited production.

Every other character just seems to serve a small purpose, and it feels that meaningful character development, has been replaced by making everyone loud and obnoxious.

It’s true that we can find sympathy in a downtrodden character (like Dumbo), but the slings and arrows just never seem to let up for Chicken Little. It’s not just a select few, but the entire town that pretty much blames him after a year’s time, even to the point that a movie was made over the incident. In a way, Pokey Oaks almost feels like an entire town of bullies.

Chicken Little’s misfit friends serve to try and give him a cushion against what’s happening, but it never really feels like they ever move beyond being one-note. Runt freaks out so many times, I think you could make a drinking game out of it. Abbey keeps trying to be the logical friend most of the time, but it feels that once her purpose is done 3/4 of the way through the film, she just becomes as two-dimensional as Trinity in the Matrix sequels. There’s also Fish Out of Water, who just seems to be the weird kid that tags along, but oftentimes, seems to be off in his own little world.

Also hard to find much sympathy towards, is Buck Cluck, Chicken Little’s father. Disney goes back to the well with the widowed-parent cliche, but even so, Buck becomes a father-figure that makes you more upset that he is willing throw his son under the bus regarding the town’s ire. It also doesn’t help his character that in the aftermath of the sky-falling incident, he also seems to shun his own son, and be unwilling to listen to half of what he says most of the time.

The film tries to be snappy and quick, which is one of director Mark Dindal’s trademarks. The director of Cats Don’t Dance and The Emperor’s New Groove, Dindal was able to make entertaining and even likable characters out of such irascible characters like Darla Dimples, and Emperor Kuzco. However, in Chicken Little, there’s little charm to be found.

The film also utilizes a number of popular songs, to the point where during an alien invasion (yes, and you thought Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was the first film to be ruined by aliens), R.E.M.’s song End of the World as We Know It plays…as if some executive thought, “hey, this song played in Independence Day, that’s pop-cultural! This will get lots of laughs!”

Even the amount of pop-culture references made me cease laughing pretty quickly. Whether it be Runt of the Litter singing to showtunes constantly, or the animals watching Raiders of the Lost Ark in their local theater (yes, animated characters watching a live-action Harrison Ford film. That image above is not Photoshopped). I like to think pop-culture overload began around 1992, when everyone became entranced with Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin. After that, it seemed every film had them built into the story in some way. When used sparingly it can work fine, but when it never lets up, it grates on you (If any of you saw the dub of the Magic Roundabout animated feature into the Americanized Doogal, you witnessed something that out-pop-cultured even Chicken Little!).

The advertising campaign also toyed with its audience, tending to rely on mis-direction. The advertising was erratic, loud, and oftentimes, just seemed to rely on ‘cool-and-hip’ animation. They even touted such background characters as Morcupine Porcupine, who in the film, only garnered less than a minute of screentime.

The posters made for the advertising campaign, also showed little creativity, with bad puns galore. Most notable, is this image of Chicken Little sitting in an egg-chair, and wearing shades much like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in the Men in Black II poster. At least in the MIB films, we saw the egg-chairs referenced in the poster, but in this case, noone in the film sits in a cracked egg, or wears a suit like this.

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In the end, Chicken Little’s final US box-office grosses tallied up to $135 million, just a little shy of its $150 million production budget.

Even so, the studio was still planning to go forward with other, hip-and-edgy films. The next feature film A Day in The Life of Wilbur Robinson, was re-branded with the more hip title of Meet the Robinsons, and Chris Sanders (creator of Lilo & Stitch), was working on a production dubbed American Dog. There was even word that the company’s CEO Michael Eisner, wanted to take the earlier hand-drawn features made by the studio, and redo them, in CGI!

That all changed, once Disney kicked Eisner out, and Bob Iger became the company’s new CEO. Iger’s first order of business was to end the stalemate between Disney and PIXAR, and orchestrated a $7.4 billion acquisition deal, keeping the Emeryville studio on board.

PIXAR’s top brass John Lasseter, and Ed Catmull, soon came to take prominent positions within Feature Animation (a place Lasseter had worked for and been released from in the early 80’s), and began to clean house.

A number of projects were re-worked or scrapped (Robinsons was overhauled, and American Dog became Bolt, at which point Sanders left Disney for Dreamworks). The direct-to-video productions were scrapped, which also meant the end of sequels like Dumbo 2, and even a Chicken Little 2.

To this day, I still feel Chicken Little was the equivalent to The Black Cauldron: something that upper-management said would be good for the company, but had too many hands in the pot, to even make it boil to a proper conclusion. It just reeks of desperation, trying to be all things for all audiences, but its attempts to get your attention, just feel lackluster.

I can’t fully fault some of the animation done on the show, though. They tried their darnedest to get some squash-and-stretch into what would normally be rigid computer models…though there are a few times one can tell they may get a little carried away, trying to figure out how everything works. in one scene, Abbey Mallard’s face and mannerisms almost seem to move a little too much, to the point I thought I might get motion sickness.

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Of course, from this film, began the climb back to prominence. John Lasseter and Ed Catmull had some say in the upcoming Meet the Robinsons, and the story changes I feel, helped steer that film back into the realms of emotional storytelling, that I and many others had longed for.

From there, they continued climbing the ladder, their efforts continuing to improve from film-to-film. And though Lasseter did renege on the ‘2-D is dead’ campaign, the studio only put out two hand-drawn features: The Princess and the Frog, and 2011’s Winnie the Pooh. Sadly, while both had some good storytelling, they were at the mercy of bad titling (according to the analysis on Frog’s lower box-office take), or being put up against bigger films (seriously, what executive said “let’s release Winnie the Pooh on the same weekend as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2?”).

In the last 5 years, the studio has had a number of big successes, with Tangled, Frozen, and Big Hero 6. Next year, they’ll return to a world of anthropomorphic animals, with Zootopia, a buddy-cop movie in a world where animals of all shapes and sizes exist. I’m actually excited to see what they come up with character and concept-wise for the film, and hope it will continue to be a crowd-pleaser for audiences.