Though Roald Dahl’s The Witches was adapted into a feature-length film in 1989, the famed author was heard to have greatly hated the direction the adaptation took (word was, he even found fault with the 1971 adaptation of his book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). One has to wonder if director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the author wouldn’t be slipping him notes on this latest adaptation.
Moving the story’s setting to the American south in the late 60’s, the film’s lead boy (played by Jahzir Bruno) ends up in the care of his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after losing his parents. When the boy encounters a strange woman one day, grandma claims he encountered a witch, and takes him into hiding at a fancy resort hotel…not realizing it is the planned meeting place of numerous witches, and their leader: The Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway).
Bruno plays his role of the unnamed lead pretty well, showing a traumatized young boy who is coaxed back to life by his Grandma, but then must deal with a new problem in his life. Unfortunately, there seems to be a strange difference in attitude and energy once he becomes a mouse, as if he’s gotten an adrenaline rush from the change. Maybe if the film had shown him at these same energy levels as a boy, it might have worked better for me.
Octavia Spencer was one of the highlights of Pixar’s Onward earlier this year, and she does well playing a grandma that can be caring, but also doesn’t put up with much guff. There also is a strange malady the story afflicts her with that never feels like we fully get a payoff on, let alone her being referred to as a healer almost as an afterthought.
One role that I think many will be most curious about, is the latest iteration of The Grand High Witch. Unlike the more serious take in the 1989 adaptation, Hathaway’s characterization ping-pongs from creepy to campy at times, with enhancements that rely a little too heavily on Zemeckis’ computer-generated imagery. Even so, there are some images shown that I could see terrifying little kids (in much the same way Zemeckis terrorized us with Judge Doom in Roger Rabbit), let-alone some close-up shots that I feel were indicative of a possible 3-D theatrical release before COVID-19 happened.
The screenplay crafts a much different world than the book, one where the main target of witches are out-of-the-way minority children, while under the guise of wealthy, beautiful women. It feels like the story could have explored this social topic a little further, but the film seems to be in a rush to get us to the more memorable parts of the story. Throughout the film, “the bones” of Dahl’s story are pretty much intact, and I even saw a few things from the book that surprised me.
One of the things that the viewer may find rather annoying, is that the story is largely told with a narrator. It almost feels like the story was forced down this path to help along younger viewers, but it is probably the most “overkill” thing in the entire film.
There also is an over-reliance of computer-generated effects at times that can take the audience out of some scenes (did we need a CG cat, Bob?), let alone some effects scenes that feel like they needed a little more time to be perfected. It does seem odd that we have what seems like a real-looking mouse, and yet when the lead is turned into a mouse, he becomes a bit more, “cartoony” in appearance.
Much like with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one can just imagine a bunch of “1989 vs 2020” debates regarding which of the adaptations of this work is better. While I had my trepidations about Zemeckis making this film (his 2018 release Welcome to Marwen left me very nervous about his future), I was surprised by how entertaining it was for most of the time. It does manage to stick to the basics of the story, while never straying too far. And for those who are fans of Dahl’s work, don’t be surprised if you find a few little ‘easter eggs’ hidden within the film.
Even with the film being passable however, I still will wonder what the film could have been like, when Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, The Shape of Water) was attached to direct it as a stop-motion project over a decade ago.
Final Grade: B-
Growing up in the 1980’s, one director who rose to prominence in my eyes was Robert Zemeckis. After entrancing me with Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit in my youth, I soon considered him to be one of my favorite directors beyond the norms of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Over the course of his film career, Zemeckis has never shied away from wanting to push the boundaries of storytelling and technology. This was evident in several of his films like Forrest Gump, Contact, and The Polar Express.
In recent years, Zemeckis has pushed into biographical territory, notably with his 2015 film, The Walk. With Welcome to Marwen, he is attempting to once again tell the story of a real-life figure, with special effects to enhance the tale.
Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carrell)’s life changed one evening, when he became the victim of a hate-crime. The results of these brutal events left him with memory loss, post-traumatic stress, and the inability to walk.
After regaining most of his faculties, Mark took refuge in the construction of a miniature village that he named Marwen. The village is the residence of a WWII pilot named Hogie (Mark’s alter-ego), and five women (each one based on a woman in Mark’s own life who inspired him). However, the quiet of the village (and Hogie’s life), is often disrupted by a small group of Nazi’s (based on the men who victimized Mark), leading Mark to take photographs detailing the stories of how Hogie and the women of Marwen fight back against their tormentors.
Mark finds unexpected fame when interest in his photography, leads to a number of requested exhibitions of his work. However, as his latest exhibition is about to begin, he is faced with two daunting situations.
The first is the upcoming sentencing of the men who assaulted him, leading Mark to grapple with the ghosts of his past.
The other situation concerns a new neighbor named Nicol (Leslie Mann), who has moved in across the street. As she grows interested in Marwen, Mark soon believes a new “recruit” may be moving in to the village.
With his latest film, Zemeckis was given the opportunity to show a man struggling to emerge from a terrible event, through the powers of creativity. Stories like this I am often willing to get behind if done properly. Unfortunately, Marwen’s story seems unsure of just how to tell itself.
At times, it feels like we are meant to see the world in a disjointed way, as if we were inside Hogancamp’s head as he struggles to keep himself functioning. A few times, we get jarring scenes revolving around Mark’s PTSD, and are left to figure out just what happened.
Zemeckis has done films before where he trusts his audience to piece together what’s happening, but it feels like some important pieces to the story are missing.
Most notable is in regards to the women who inspired the dolls living in Marwen. One would assume that we’d get a little more backstory about them and how they helped Mark, but only a few of their real-world counterparts even get the chance to be on-screen.
Speaking of the dolls, this seems to be where the film spends most of it’s time, as a number of imaginary scenarios that play out in Mark’s head, are animated through motion-capture technology. Zemeckis tries to weave seriousness and whimsy together in some of these scenes, but the numerous attempts to animate what Hogancamp envisions, feels a bit like CGI-overkill.
For most of the film, Steve Carell is front-and-center as Hogancamp (and his alter-ego, Hogie). He does his best to try and make us believe in Mark’s plight, but the story zig-zags so much that by the time it all ends, it feels more like we’ve been on a long car trip, rather than actually learned something from the experience.
Aside from Hogancamp, his neighbor Nicol feels like the only other “real” character that is given much screen-time. She seems to be our window into understanding Mark and his world, but there are some times she seems a bit too innocent. A good example is when she doesn’t see anything strange when Mark suddenly claims he’s added a new doll to Marwen…a redhead named Nicol.
That also is a fine line that the film seems hard-pressed to balance along. We’re meant to find some of Mark’s actions to be endearing and believe that it is okay to be different, but it feels like we’re never given enough time to be comfortable understanding him. This seems to be a major hump the film is unable to get over, and makes some scenes that are meant to be emotional, come off as a little unsettling or questionable.
I went into this film hoping to see beyond a lot of the negative talk I was hearing, but it feels like Welcome to Marwen falls into the lower areas of Robert Zemeckis’ filmography. He’s shown himself many times to be a competent and capable storyteller, but many of the decisions he makes regarding Mark Hogancamp’s story, makes the whole experience feel incredibly disjointed.
I think when it comes to learning more about Hogancamp and his work, it might be best to consider the 2010 documentary Marwencol. I know after I saw Zemeckis’ film, I did wonder if that documentary could shed some more light on helping me understand more about who this man (really) is.
Final Grade: C-
I think for many people, there are some films they saw in theaters, that just make them unable to forget ‘their first time.’
I was not of age to see Star Wars when it was released in 1977, but a decade later, there was one film I saw on the big-screen, that just blew my 8-year-old mind.
At the time, Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s creation was a risky venture between Walt Disney Pictures and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment company, that combined animated characters within a live-action film-noir story.
The production was a neverending headache for director Robert Zemeckis. Having just come off of the whirlwind production of Back to the Future, Roger would be a production that would take several years, and be made in a number of different locales around the world.
When it was all over, many breathed a sigh of relief when the film came out in 1988, and became one of that year’s biggest hits.
Growing up, I was often on the lookout for anything associated with the film’s production. While a making-of book was never released, there were some other items that filled me in. From a making-of article in the special effects magazine Cinefex, to the DVD release in 2003. This release not only gave images and a making-of special, but something I am always game for: an audio commentary!
The commentary featured Robert Zemeckis (director), Frank Marshall (producer), Steve Starkey (associate producer), Jeff Price (screenwriter), Peter Seaman (screenwriter), and Ken Ralston (the film’s visual effects supervisor). Each of the men in the special audio track, talks about their experience on the film, and given the film is over 30 years old this year, I thought I’d highlight a few of the things they talked about.
Though it isn’t a facet of all of his films, director Robert Zemeckis seems to enjoy playing around in the past, and sometimes having his film’s characters influence what was happening, or encounter past historical events.
His debut film I Wanna Hold Your Hand had a number of fictional teen characters trying to see the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. For the film 1941 (which he and his friend Bob Gale wrote for Steven Spielberg), their fictional characters encountered real-life figures in a panic on the streets of Los Angeles.
Some may assume the encounter with animated characters in 1947 Hollywood was the big connection to the past, but buried within the film, was a connection to a real-life event that affected the city of Los Angeles’ transportation system:
Peter Seaman: Actually, the Red Car (Trolley) part of the movie came from-I don’t know if you remember Bob (Zemeckis), but a meeting with you and (Steven) Spielberg. Jeff (Price) and I were in there, and Spielberg said there was no reason to make this movie just to match animation/live-action. There had to be a real story so, we came up with the Red Car plot, which is a real one, where the tire companies and auto companies conspired to get rid of the trolley cars in Los Angeles, because the car was the future.
Robert Zemeckis: That’s right, and all the freeways in Los Angeles run right along the same routes as the Red Car tracks.
When it comes to the film’s plot, most people remember Judge Doom’s plan to destroy Toontown so he could open up new land for a freeway and commercial growth, but the Red Car plot almost gets buried within the film.
It’s briefly mentioned in regards to the Cloverleaf Industries billboard (the company Doom owns) being hoisted above the Red Car depot across from Eddie’s office, to the judge admitting to Valiant that he purchased the trolley system, to ‘dismantle it.’
To some that saw the film, there probably was some confusion over it’s title. It seemed to be asking a question, and yet the title did not have a proper punctuation mark at the end.
Naturally, one of the filmmakers brought this up in conversation.
Steve Starkey: Why was there no question mark after the title of this movie, Bob (Zemeckis)?
Robert Zemeckis: Because everyone said that you don’t put question marks at-I mean, we looked at it. Yeah, it didn’t look right.
Peter Seaman: That was the most-asked question in our press interview.
Robert Zemeckis: Yeah, interesting.
Peter Seaman: Made ‘us’ look bad…”the writers.”
Seaman is only joking of course. Throughout the commentary, the writers and the production crew have plenty of laughs together, and this bit gave them a chuckle.
Like some comedians doing stand-up, the film had a number of jokes and gags that just flew over the heads of the viewers.
In one scene, Eddie tells his girlfriend Dolores to go downtown, and check on the probate regarding Marvin Acme’s will. Co-writers Price and Seaman actually found a crazy way to give the explanation, a little life:
Peter Seaman: Here was the ‘semi-splainer’ scene where we had to describe the probate of the will and all that stuff. It was really dry and everything, so, we were just joking around in the office, and Steven Spielberg was in the office with us.
And he said, “Yeah, you got to explain that probate so people understand it.”
So, that’s when we said, “well, how about we say, ‘yeah, probate, my Uncle Thumper used to take big pills for his probate.’ ‘No, prostate, you idiot!'”
We were just joking around, but he said, “No, you gotta put that in the movie!”
While the joke gave Spielberg a good laugh, it got just a few chuckles at the film’s premiere. However, co-writer Jeff Price laughs on the commentary, claiming that now that everyone who saw the film has gotten older, they’d probably understand it better.
When the film wasn’t being about Eddie Valiant trying to clear Roger’s name, it would often get very rowdy and very noisy, given the toons and what they were doing.
Much of the film showed Valiant being very annoyed with Roger’s antics, with only a scant few moments where the rabbit seemed willing to slow down, and be a little more serious.
One such moment came right after the madcap chase in Benny the Cab, where Roger and Eddie hide out in a movie theater:
Robert Zemeckis: Now this is-I think this is just really great lighting, on the toon here. This is great, and great animation and-Simon Wells animated this and I think, if I’m not mistaken, it’s the longest continuous animation scene in the movie. This shot here with Roger, and what’s nice about the animation in this is it’s just so subtle, and restrained-
Frank Marshall: And always ‘alive.’
Robert Zemeckis: And alive, yeah.
Ken Ralston: Remember this-Steven Spielberg came in and said, “I don’t care what you have to do, stop the movie if you have to, but put the rabbit and the detective in the same scene, and let them talk to each other.”
It’s notable that Zemeckis shoots this scene all in one long take, pushing in on Eddie as he tells Roger what happened to his brother, Teddy Valiant.
This is often a signature of Zemeckis’ directing, where he will often do a long camera-take, without cutting away. One can see this in the opening scene of Back to the Future, when the camera shows us all of Doc Brown’s garage-laboratory, without cutting away.
Looking back at Zemeckis’ filmography, one can see that in several of his works, he likes to mash together a number of genres. This was notably with Back to the Future, given it wasn’t just a science fiction film, but a comedy, a drama, and much more.
Near the end of the film as the commentators watch a complex scene, Zemeckis sums up just what he and the film crew were up against in putting the film together:
Robert Zemeckis: It’s three gigantic movies in one. You had a 48-minute animation movie which is, just a little under what an animated feature runs. You had a live-action period movie, with giant stunts and giant sets and vehicles and guns and all that stuff, and you had this huge special effects movie where there were, 1500 composite shots.
This same sentiment of combining things is mentioned throughout the commentary. Another notable moment is in regards to Alan Silvestri’s score, which managed to be a mixture of period-piece film noir musical cues, and the kind of crazy music as seen in animated cartoons of the time. Oftentimes, the tempo changes of the music would be too much for the film’s orchestra.
The commentary at times does have a lot of people talking over each other, but the information gleaned from it is still something I enjoy coming back to.
Notable are some areas where the commentators discuss a number of ideas that came up during production, that were ultimately dropped.
At one point, Baby Herman was considered to be the bad guy, and another time, Judge Doom was to have an animated pet vulture (named Voltaire), that was dropped when the filmmakers had to make cuts due to time and money.
The fact that Voltaire was part of the early drafts, could explain why when a line of Roger Rabbit “bendy” figures were released in 1988, Doom came with a vulture in his packaging.
There is even talk about the first, early test-screening of the film. Because much of the film was unfinished at the time, and since the audience had no clue just how the film was supposed to ‘work,’ the test-screening ended horribly.
Of course, looking back on the film all these years later, Roger Rabbit is still surprisingly well-done, given the time-crunch and mad dash to finish it. It ended up being director Robert Zemeckis’ third hit in a row (following Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future), and paved the way for a few Roger Rabbit cartoon shorts. However, licensing snafus between Disney and Amblin Entertainment (Spielberg’s production company) soon sidelined Roger’s career. Talk of a sequel or prequel has come up over the years (and test-footage of a CG-animation test was leaked some time ago), but it seems that it will forever be a remnant from our past.
However, bits of the film are still alive in the Disney theme parks. Several of the film’s props are still sitting around Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World, and on special occasions, Roger (and sometimes Jessica) can be seen in the various theme parks as meet-and-greet characters. Plus, the film’s characters live on in Roger Rabbit’s Car-toon Spin, a “dark ride” attraction located in Mickey’s Toontown at Disneyland.
In the thirty years since the film was released, we’ve seen a number of live-action/animation films like Cool World and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, attempt to do what Robert Zemeckis’ film did. However, none of the attempts I’ve seen, even comes close to topping Roger. Today, it would be ‘easy’ to make a film like this, but the blood, sweat and tears that went into making that 1988 film, helps make it a true work of art in my opinion.
Growing up in suburbia, I wasn’t schooled much in the ways of “dark comedies.” Most of my entertainment either came from the world of animation, or family-friendly blockbusters like Star Wars, or Back to the Future.
Probably my first encounter with a dark comedy, was when previews for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice enticed me to want to see it…only for my 8-year-old mind to wonder what I had wandered into, seeing people tear their faces off, and pin-toothed snakes terrorize a wealthy family.
It would be some years before I could really get into, or understand dark comedies (such as Dr Strangelove!). One of the earliest I saw, happened to be by director Robert Zemeckis, who had captured my youthful attentions with The Back to the Future Trilogy, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
I can’t recall exactly when I finally saw Death Becomes Her, but its imagery and storyline was one that just plopped right down inside my head, and never left.
Around the film’s 20 year anniversary in 2012, I lamented in a blog posting, how a proper Blu-Ray release, was still out of the grasp of the average American. As it stood, Universal Studios had only released a bare-bones, pan-and-scan version on DVD, that cropped off the sides of the main imagery. The only way to view it on widescreen, was with the film’s laserdisc release.
Fortunately, help came in the form of distributor Shout Factory in 2015. Under their Scream Factory horror- release banner, we finally have the film for the 21st century!
The film follows three people: Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) , Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), and Ernest Mennville (Bruce Willis).
Madeline has been an egocentric ‘friend’ to Helen ever since they were young, and also stole several of her childhood friend’s boyfriends…including Ernest, who eventually became Madeline’s husband.
However, as time has gone by, Madeline’s acting career has fizzled, along with her looks. Ernest, who once held potential to be a surgeon, is now little more than an alcoholic undertaker.
Madeline falls into further depression when she finds out that Helen has written a book, and seems to have regained her youthful appearance!
Pretty much at the end of her rope, Madeline takes the advice of a doctor, and visits a mysterious woman named Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini), who is willing to give her a special potion…for a price…
Thoughts on the Film
Following a successful (if exhausting) directing run from 1985-1990 (in which he directed The Back to the Future Trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit), Robert Zemeckis’ first film of the 1990’s, plays with its dark comedy storyline, by touching on the culture that most likely was within walking distance of the studio that produced it!
Martin Donovan and David Koepp’s script takes the rather vapid and superficial world of beauty and Hollywood, and just relishes roasting those who struggle to hold on to their beauty, in some of the most shocking ways.
Streep’s turn as a harpy-ish diva, is probably one of the film’s highlights. Meryl seems to have some fun with the part, and I think it’s one of her more unusual roles in her filmography.
Hawn’s character is one who has harbored a grudge against Madeline for years, and is finally at a point where she is in a mental state of mind to ‘put Madeline Ashton out of her life.’ Hawn’s portrayal of the character from meek-to-vengeful, never feels as solid as what Streep brings to her character…but then again, maybe it’s to show how the character of Helen has never been able to put herself back together properly, after Madeline stole Ernest away.
Speaking Ernest, Bruce Willis’ turn as the hen-pecked undertaker, is a nice change-of-pace, from the more action-oriented roles we’ve seen him do. Willis seems to have fun playing with his character’s vocals, ratcheting them up and down depending on the craziness of the scene. But even so, one can definitely get a sense of Ernest’s frustrations, that his life seems to have reached a dead-end in a number of places, making him yearn for some meaning.
The film also seems to have the pacing of several of Zemeckis’ films (like the first Back to the Future), in which the first act slowly sets up the pins, but in the second act, he knocks them down, and grabs our attention…in this case, with a cadre of mind-blowing effects (well, for 1992, anyways).
Watching the film’s centerpiece in which Madeline and Helen just go at each other in a special-effects-heavy fight, has made me wonder what the audience was thinking back in 1992. It feels like the effects were largely the crux of the film’s marketing campaign (just look at the DVD cover art!), and left little for the audience to expect.
While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think that it almost feels like an extended episode of the television series, Tales From the Crypt (of which Zemeckis would be an executive producer on!). Koepp also has fun with playing around with the character’s names (the lead’s nicknames for each other are ‘Mad,’ and ‘Hel’).
That seems to be what Death Becomes Her mainly wants to be: a funny black comedy, with the added bonus of continuing Zemeckis’ penchant to keep dabbling in advancing effects technology. This also feels like the director taking a breather after Back to the Future and Roger Rabbit, and falling back on the kinds of slapstick comedy that one recalls him and Bob Gale writing/working on almost a decade before (I Wanna Hold Your Hand, 1941, Used Cars). It’s basically a $55 million ‘vacation’ for the director, with him getting to continue playing with his new visual effects toys.
The Special Features
While a dream release for me would have delved into the film’s visual effects with a feature-length audio commentary over the film, Scream Factory actually plays nice, and gives us a brand-new, 25-minute retrospective. The featurette includes new interviews from director Robert Zemeckis, writer David Koepp, director of photography Dean Cundey, and many more.
Sadly, the cast is nowhere to be seen, except in a making-of featurette, that was created during the film’s production. They sit for the typical candid ‘talking head’ bits, and we even get to see some of the behind-the-scenes material, showing how they shot one of the film’s more memorable scenes.
We also have a photo gallery, and a theatrical trailer thrown in.
Menu-wise, Shout Factory shows a commitment to making the menu screen ‘pop,’ and we get some of Alan Silvestri’s music, along with full-motion clips from the film.
Probably one of the most fun ‘easter eggs’ I encountered, was when I opened up the clamshell case…only to find that the paper cover for the movie, contained a reversible, alternate cover!
This allows you to wrap the case in its more conventional DVD cover (also seen on the cardboard sleeve), or one featuring an unknown woman, holding the vial of pink elixir. Unknown to some, this was the original poster art image used to promote the film, in 1992.
If there is a big area of disappointment for me, it is that there’s no acknowledgement of the ‘original cut’ that was altered into the final product, after a poor test-screening. One would have assumed that maybe in the 25-minute special, Koepp might have shed some light on where he had wanted to take the film originally.
Supposedly, Ernest actually had a confidante, in the form of a bartender named Toni, played by Traci Ullman. Though she showed up in some of the movie trailers, nothing of Ullman’s performance is left on the final print, making Ernest lonely and frustrated with his life, with seemingly noone to confide in.
With the release of Death Becomes Her, we are now only two films away from having all of Zemeckis’ filmography on Blu-Ray format (the films I Wanna Hold Your Hand and What Lies Beneath, are still DVD-only).
While the release didn’t blow me out of the water, I was at least glad to see that Shout Factory
was willing to put some time and effort into not only releasing the film in a decent quality widescreen release, but even threw in the brief retrospective and a few other features.
As many have seen over the years, Hollywood has pulled back from the special features idea of the digital video disc. One assumes that if Universal Studios had released this film, it would have been just the film by itself.
While not one of the best lost gems of the 1990’s, if you’ve got a soft-spot for dark comedy, or are a fan of Robert Zemeckis (or want to simply vent on the vapidness of the media fawning over how youthful and beautiful a celebrity looks), this is definitely the release for you!
Book Review: Back to the Future – The Ultimate Visual History (by Michael Klastorin, with Randal Atamaniuk)
Throughout the years, my fascination with the making of films and animation, has led me to seek out some large and thorough tomes.
In the summer of 1995, one making-of book that I never knew existed, caught my eye when my family visited Universal Studios Hollywood.
This was the first time we’d been back since Universal had opened Back to the Future: The Ride. Our family rode it 3 times over the course of the trip, I geeked out over the Time Machine displayed next to the ride, and of course, we made a stop at The Time Traveler’s Depot, a short walk away.
I recall products from a miniature diecast toy of the Time Machine, to notebooks with the Gray’s Sports Almanac cover on them…but there was one item that made me take notice.
It was a book, titled Back to the Future: The Official Book of the Complete Movie Trilogy. Though only 80 pages, the book instantly caught my interest, with the myriad behind-the-scenes pictures inside. Once I started reading it, it also provided commentary, and revealed to me information on how the film series got started.
Over the years, larger and more thorough making-of books would catch my eye. They included J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars, as well as The Complete Making of Indiana Jones (also by Rinzler).
But I and many fans of Back to the Future wondered, if such a 100+ page book could ever be in our future. Many of us had seen and heard numerous making-of materials on DVD, and seen countless interviews in various media, and knew this information could fill more than just the 80 pages of the official book. It also turns out, someone who worked on the trilogy, thought the same.
That person was Michael Klastorin. Not only was he a unit publicist on Back to the Future Parts II & III, but he had also wrote the included information for the Official Book I had picked up at Universal, in 1995.
Michael’s attempts to have a thorough making-of book didn’t catch much attention when he pitched it around the time of the first film’s 25th anniversary, but as the 30th anniversary approached, the publishing house was intrigued, and told him to go for it!
With help from Randal Atamaniak, and the blessing of the series’ co-creator/co-writer Bob Gale, Michael combed through his collection of information, scoured the Universal archives, and conducted new interviews with many of the cast and crew.
The result, is the 224-page Ultimate Visual History…and it is one of those books that will provide you with Back to the Future trilogy information, the likes of which you never dreamed of!
The shooting schedule for the films? It’s laid out for us to know what went on, and when. Abandoned concept art? We get plenty of that. Summaries of the early drafts of the screenplays? It’s there for you to see how the stories evolved!…and, a whole lot more!
Over the years, one bit of lore regarding the first film, has fascinated many fans: the original casting of Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly, when Michael J Fox was unavailable. Imagery of Stoltz has often been hard to come by, but here, Klastorin provides plenty of pictures, not to mention information on the first 6 weeks of shooting with Eric on the set.
One of the fun things I like about the book, has been seeing some art and information, that I’ve come to wonder about as the years have gone by.
In one interview on the Blu-Ray release 5 years ago, concept designer Michael Scheffe made mention that he was tasked with coming up with a futuristic, amphibious flying vehicle for Doc Brown in the year 2015. Those words intrigued me, and in Klastorin’s book, Scheffe’s concept (as well as many more for the trilogy), are on display for all to see!
Of course, Michael also goes a little into the future, beyond the three films. The final pages tell about the development of Back to the Future: The Ride, and the Saturday Morning Cartoon, Back to the Future: The Animated Series.
You’ll learn more about what the first iteration of the ride was to be, as well as some strange changes some at CBS wanted to include in the animated series’ second season (fortunately, Bob Gale didn’t take their advice).
But, that’s not all!
Much like hardcover books in recent years that have included goodies and reproductions of props or related material, The Ultimate Visual History provides Back to the Future fans with quite a few items!
A few of these items, include Doc’s drawing of the Flux Capacitor, a lenticular picture that shows Marty and his siblings disappearing (similar to the effect in the first film), and even a fold-out poster for Jaws 19 (pulled from the same art that was used on the posters outside the Holomax theater in Hill Valley, in 2015).
If there’s a downside to the book, it’s that some of these items are glued onto some pages, and may require some extra care to remove. Personally, I think it would have been more interesting to include them in a large envelope at the back (maybe with a note from Doc Brown telling how these valuable items could disrupt the space-time continuum, if they fall into the wrong hands!).
Despite being a popular film, Back to the Future has not garnered as huge a fanbase as the likes of Star Wars or Marvel’s films have. In the 25 years since the trilogy was released, we saw the animated series only last two seasons, and the iconic rides at the Universal theme parks be replaced by other rides (the last one still functioning is in Universal Studios Japan, and word right now, is that it will have its final ride in February of 2016).
Even so, Back to the Future still has a pretty dedicated fanbase, and oftentimes, when something big is coming down the pike, it is usually at the behest of co-writer Bob Gale, to ensure that what is being done, isn’t going to turn the dedicated fanbase upside-down.
In a Q&A at the We’re Going Back fan event during the second-to-last week in October of 2015, Michael Klastorin mentioned how when the Official Book came out almost 25 years ago, he was stuck with a locked-in page count and imagery, and was just allowed to put words to the pictures. With his latest work, Michael gets to create a through line through the timeline of the trilogy, along with a small bit of information about the Ride and Animated Series.
As much as I’d love a book twice as thick as what we have here, Michael Klastorin has fulfilled my wish and that of many other fans of the trilogy, by giving us an educational history lesson, in the evolution of a film that noone in Hollywood wanted to make (other than Steven Spielberg), into a series that is still finding fans almost 30 years later!
As mentioned above, Michael Klastorin attended the We’re Going Back fan event in October of 2015. This event celebrated 30 years of the film trilogy, as well as brought many fans (including myself) out from all around the world. We got to walk on Courthouse Square at Universal, visit actual locations from the films, and even get the chance to meet various people who had worked on the trilogy.
Michael was in attendance with his latest book release, and I knew for sure I’d be going home with a copy of The Ultimate Visual History, to read on the plane home.
When I got the chance to speak to Michael, he thanked me for my kind words regarding the Official Companion book that had intrigued me as a 15-year-old from Iowa.
He did get a chuckle when he found out what my name was (seriously, there seem to be a lot of Michael’s connected around the film Back to the Future, as well as the 1980’s time period!), and added a little note to me in the front of the copy that I purchased from him.
After all is said and done, I can’t help but wonder what-if…what if in 1995, my 15-year-old self had come across the Ultimate Visual History?…if only I had a time machine…
By the time you are reading this, I’ll have been in Los Angeles, CA, for several days.
I’m here in The Golden State partaking in one of the biggest events of my life: We’re Going Back – The 30th Anniversary Fan Celebration of Back to the Future.
I almost decided to do the Fan Celebration event 5 years ago in 2010, but as many of us weirdos know, 2015 is a really notable year for the film’s fans.
In fact, the year 2015 has a significance across all 3 of the Back to the Future Trilogy of films:
- It’s 30 years since the release of the first Back to the Future film
- It’s the year that Marty, Doc, and Jennifer travel to in Part II
- it’s the 25th anniversary year for Part III
With this collusion of the trilogy’s events swirling around this time and date, I felt it’d be a great time to release my Top 10 list, regarding why I believe the Back to the Future Trilogy is one of the greatest trilogies of all time.
Back to the Future’s films, notably the first one, have been quite clever in setting up story points in the beginning, that you then don’t quite see coming down the line. This makes the audience actually sit up and take note. That story Lorraine was telling about how her father hit George with the car? The flier lady telling the history of Hill Valley’s Clocktower? Doc’s explaining about how he came up with the idea for the Flux Capacitor?…they all end up becoming story points later on!
In commentary during Back to the Future, co-creator/co-writer Bob Gale claimed that he and Robert Zemeckis are big believers in this formula, and you can also see it in their other works…though here, it really feels like they put it to good use!
Though this was originally going to be about Industrial Light & Magic, I widened the scope, to also include the physical effects, notably those overseen by Kevin Pike, and Michael Lantieri.
The trilogy takes advantage of animation, optical effects, miniatures, wire work, and much more, with no computer finessing at all!
Much like films such as Terminator 2, many effects are accomplished by multiple means, oftentimes making us wonder just how they achieved certain scenes.
A perfect example is the hoverboard effects, which were accomplished with wire rigs, actual skateboards, optical effects, and more. All these different techniques combined to make those of us believe that Robert Zemeckis and his crew had gotten ahold of the ultimate Christmas gift.
In a commentary at The University of Southern California, Zemeckis mentioned how oftentimes, audiences want to experience the same stuff in a sequel, as they experienced in the first film.
With the plot of Back to the Future Part II, Zemeckis realized the film afforded them the chance to do something that no other film could: go back into your first film, and see it from a different point-of-view.
The plot to get the Sports Almanac from Biff in the past, soon had Marty and Doc tip-toeing around Hill Valley, 1955, trying to avoid their ‘other-selves.’ This led to some intriguing camerawork, and played up the concept of what could possibly happen if you interfered with your past self…creating a paradox!
When it comes to most trilogies, the third film is often the most derided. While many consider The Godfather to be a trilogy, so many then mumble that they watch or even enjoy Part III of that series.
Though not as aloof in time as Part II, Part III does bring back the idea of a major time-revelation, placing Marty and Doc in a specific time-and-place for the majority of the running time, and leaving them with the problem of getting Back to the Future.
Part III also ends up flipping Marty and Doc’s roles, with Marty taking the more serious tact as Doc loses himself in a romance with Clara Clayton…something that Doc’s scientific knowledge never counted on.
It’s not very often that a certain place can become as iconic over the course of a film series. When deciding how to stage Hill Valley’s downtown area over the course of several timelines, the decision was made to utilize a location on Universal Studios’ backlot. The creative freedom could afford the crew to change out a lot of things without interfering with real-life businesses, which would have happened if they filmed on a real city square.
The set would also be transformed in Part II to a future vision of what the square would look like, along with a portion meant to represent an alternate 1985, in which Biff Tannen has altered the timeline. Much of that set was shrouded in darkness, with plenty of un-PC buildings and services.
For 1885, the production moved up to gold country in Sonora, in order to showcase a town that sprang up along the railroads, which would have been impossible to make convincing on the Universal backlot.
Much like John Williams became a household name with his scores, I think the name Alan Silvestri would not have been as popular, if he had not done the score to the Trilogy, let alone the first film.
Silvestri manages to hit the sweet-spot, of giving us a low-key, emotional score, but ready to burst forth from that, is a bombastically fun and energetic theme. The theme has been one of my favorites ever since I first heard it at the age of 6, and ranks up there with the themes to Star Wars, and Indiana Jones (in my mind, at least).
Silvestri’s score for Part II explores some darker and more bombastic themes, while Part III’s score mixes between ‘westernizing’ the film’s themes, and actually delving into some softer tones for Doc and Clara’s romance.
What’s also notable, is that unlike some other themes that get recycled into other movie commercials or promotions for other properties, the Back to the Future theme has remained exclusive to its series.
By now, Marty’s breathless question about his friend making “a time machine out of a DeLorean,” has probably become one of the Top 5 lines from the film series.
I had never seen a DeLorean at the time I saw the first film, but after I did, suddenly it was another vehicle to add to my mental database regarding cool-looking cars…though for me, it was the added accoutrements that Kevin Pike and his guys added to it, that made it impressive.
Past interviews have said that the design was meant to evoke the work of someone who had put the machine together in their garage, and I think that’s why it looks so cool. It’s got that ‘used-universe’ feel like I had seen on the ships in Star Wars, and maybe that’s part of the appeal, as well as the fact that the cooling vents on the back seem to almost turn the vehicle’s shape into an arrow, looking like it’s ready to pierce the Space-Time Continuum.
As well, even its various transformations across the trilogy have all seemed memorable…even its tragic demise into a pile of scrap.
I have to this day, not been able to think of another series/trilogy, where its movies lined up in a straight line. Whereas most sequels take place months or years after the previous ones, the Back to the Future Trilogy can amazingly be lined up, as the sequels start mere minutes/hours after each other.
This also makes Back to the Future one of the first trilogies that could be cut together in a seamless way…though I still haven’t found the uninterrupted “Fan-edit” online, I’m sure it’s out there somewhere.
These days in most films, there’s usually a few characters in each one that just get so annoying, but even with the likes of Biff Tannen in the trilogy, almost all the characters are enjoyable, even the background ones. Though of course, Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd have excellent chemistry as Marty McFly and Doc Brown, making their friendship so believable in just a little amount of time.
Growing up, Marty McFly was one of the coolest teenagers I ever saw on screen, yet in truth, his character is not super-cool, but even so, he is relatable in being an average kid who wants to dream big, but also has some character flaws to deal with.
Even Crispin Glover for being rather strange in his mannerisms, brings an interesting chemistry to his character, where you can see him as a 50’s dweeb, but you also can relate to him in some ways.
Of course, actors like Thomas F Wilson, and Lea Thompson, got the chance to really stretch their acting chops, playing different versions of certain characters, as well as past and future relations of those characters.
I could easily go on-and-on, but I think it shows how much the cast of the film works for the series.
Yep, just think about that for a moment: there’s no film prequels, or 4th films…the Trilogy is just that…A TRILOGY!! You can deny all you want, but The Phantom Menace, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and The Hobbit Trilogy exist.
In the more than 30 years since we saw The End in Back to the Future Part III, many have pleaded and begged Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale for another story. Given their contracts, both Zemeckis and Gale would need to give approval for any continued adventures, and so far, neither is willing to budge, even with 80’s films like Ghostbusters, and The Goonies getting a second lease on life almost 3 decades later.
I know some will say that Back to the Future did live on in things such as Universal Studios’ Back to the Future: The Ride, the Back to the Future: Animated Series, and the Telltale Games‘ release of Back to the Future: The Game (which could almost function as a Part 4). However, my main area is in regards to films. Anything outside of the films I consider Expanded Universe, or Fanfiction.
Okay, I know I didn’t expound a whole lot, but those are my Top 10 reasons in a nutshell. I largely stand by my number one choice, and it’s been fun to hear Zemeckis say that he feels that three is the perfect number for the films to end on.
As well, he and the other actors and crew members have moved on. It was a lightning-in-a-bottle moment, but the biggest issue is that the adventures wouldn’t work with new characters. I likened the whole thing to being like most Amblin Entertainment films like E.T. or even The Goonies: it was a major experience in your life that you can’t relive, and trust me…you never forget your first time.
Well, that’s all for this little movie musing. Because plenty of places chose to just drop their stockpile of Back to the Future merchandise on me and many fans this week, November is going to be wall-to-wall reviews, as we dig into the Visual Dictionary, take a look at some Hot Wheels Retro Entertainment vehicles…and see how perfect, Pepsi Perfect really is!
(Rated PG for thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking)
For the last 30 years, director Robert Zemeckis has been one of the less-talked-of filmmakers who has helped push the boundaries of visual effects in film.
Michael J Fox had dinner with himself several times in the Back to the Future films, the film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact moved its camera into places and realms many could only imagine, and even motion-capture’s progress owes some gratitude to the three mo-cap productions Zemeckis directed (The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol).
Following his return to live-action filmmaking with 2012’s film Flight, some wondered just where the director would go…and like some of his film’s subjects, he’s chosen to dash back to the past…and to a rather astounding feat of daring.
After the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in 2001, many often thought back on the times when they dominated the skyline at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. However, months before they were completed in 1974, a foreigner had his eye on them, as they were going up…his name, was Philippe Petit.
A street performer and high-wire walker from France, Philippe had gained notoriety for performing non-sanctioned tight-rope walks above Notre-Dame Cathedral, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but his dream was to perform the same feat, between the Twin Towers in New York.
One theme of Zemeckis’ works that has often matched up with those of his friend and mentor, Steven Spielberg, is that many of their films are grounded in the stories of ordinary people, thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The Walk seems to fit the bill, also becoming the first adaptation of real-life events the director has put to film. Even in the naming convention, his lead character is rather interesting. Much like the strangely-prophetic last names of the characters Ellie Arroway and Chuck Noland, Philippe Petit’s name almost seems to foretell of his scale amidst this enormous undertaking.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Philippe, who serves double-duty, by also being a narrator for the film. Throughout the piece, we see Philippe narrating from atop the Statue of Liberty’s torch, with the New York City skyline in the background, reflecting different moods as he tells his story.
Along for “The Coup,” are Philippe’s friends Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony), Jean-Francois (Cesar Domboy), and Americans J.P. (James Badge-Dale), Albert, (Ben Schwartz), David (Benedict Samuel), and inside-man, Barry Greenwood (Steve Valentine).
With a line-up like this, The Walk could definitely be considered a heist film (and there are certain tense moments where it feels like one), but there’s no malicious intent or blackmail to be found: just a crazy Frenchman with an even crazier dream.
Most of the cast is largely given a task (or personality trait), and sticks to it. Though much like her real-life counterpart, Le Bon’s Annie is a bit of an enigma. Even in the Man on Wire documentary that told of the event, she just seems to be a presence that comes and goes into Petit’s life. Whether she had romantic feelings or felt something more for him, is largely left up to our own speculation.
Gordon-Levitt’s role as Petit can be a little trying, as he often seems to only answer to himself, and expects others around him to respect him, let alone listen and agree with what he says. I feel the audience may find themselves walking a tightrope as well regarding this character. Though the filmmakers strive to find some humor in his madness, it rarely felt that one could ever feel fully comfortable with his mindset a lot of times.
The film also attempts to ‘ground’ Philippe a bit, by creating the fictional character of Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), a Czech circus performer who allows him to learn some of his secrets. Though Petit in some interviews claimed he self-taught himself wire-walking, Papa Rudy feels moreso like a character to make the rather brash young man seem humbled, as well as walk the audience through some of the intricacies of wire-walking.
Of course, what will mostly be talked about afterwards, will probably be the towers themselves. Much like how James Cameron resurrected the Titanic, Zemeckis has made the structures live and breathe once again. People come through its revolving doors, head up into its structure via wood-paneled elevator cars, drive delivery vans into its sub-basements, and much more. Though unlike the Titanic, the film doesn’t take us all over the structure, but just where we need to tell the story.
Though footage was shot of Philippe from both of the towers, and from the ground, there was nothing Petit shot himself, perched 1,350 ft above the ground (GoPro cameras were not an option in 1974).
In this way, The Walk seems to base its existence on what visual effects could bring to Philippe’s stunt: what if the camera could be out there with him, peering down over the wire, experiencing what he did, during his 8 walks across the span?
This is the area where the film really shines. We get the visuals of clouds slightly obscuring Philippe’s view, the sunrise bathing the city in an orange glow, and much more that could only be experienced by few so early in those mornings, so high up.
The film also takes advantage of the “in-your-face” technique of 3-D a few times as well, though I think it works decently here, as I and several around me reacted to the mood the filmmakers were trying to convey.
Only a handful of films formatted into IMAX 3D have made me want to put down money for the experience, and The Walk was one of them. Though sadly, my hope for total immersion on the IMAX screen, did not come to pass with the film’s formatting, which only filled 2/3 of of its square-ish shape.
Even at 2 hours and 3 minutes, it feels like there’s about 15 minutes of scenes that could have been excised, mostly some with some rather saccharine lines of dialogue (notably in the aftermath of the walk). As well, the characters often tell the others to ‘speak in English,’ saying the purpose is to get accustomed to speaking properly when they get to America, but I feel moreso for the slower members of the audience to not have to deal with reading subtitles too often.
Make no mistake: The Walk is a film that was meant to be seen on a large-screen, just like films such as Titanic, Interstellar, and many others. However, its overall story may feel like a slog, to get to the money-shots that its publicity materials drew you in with.
Final Grade: B- (Final Thoughts: Robert Zemeckis shows us that his talents to recreate the past and delve into the visual effects toolbox are still alive and well with “The Walk.” Its story about a man who ‘dared to dream’ is definitely a spectacle once the the film gets to its third act, though the audience may grow weary on the pacing of Philippe Petit’s story, as it seems the talkative narrator wants to be sure he doesn’t leave out any little detail in the tale of his daring “coup.”)
Sometimes, I pine for the olden days of making-of stories in books. It used to be that a couple hundred pages would be devoted to telling us about behind-the-scenes material in some of the hardcover tomes I’d come across.
Sadly, in this day and age, much of that material is truncated to make it seem that everything during the production went smoothly. In place of large quantities of descriptive dialogue and cast/crew quotes, we’re left with little info “nuggets,” and lots of color imagery.
Growing up, I became enamored with behind-the-scenes material, which made me want to move either into the world of special effects, or animation (I chose animation, receiving my BFA in 2003). I often think my interest in these materials, stems from my Dad. He was an engineer, and was also fascinated by how things worked.
Back to the Future was one of those films we often connected over when I was growing up. I recall wondering about the 50’s, and we’d go down to the library, looking through microfiche of old newspapers from that era. My parents had fond memories of those times, when department stores would take up whole city blocks, street cars ran through downtown, and a world where my Dad and his friends would wander for miles without parental concern.
Over the years, those of us who know Back to the Future, have often stored away in our heads, some of the big stories on the making of the film. There have been several documentaries made for the DVD/Blu-Ray releases, and a movie tie-in book released in 1990 (see left) was one of the first items I recall picking up and reading that had additional insight. But to some out there, it felt like there was still more material to be revealed.
That was what Caseen Gaines felt. Though far removed from the the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, the English teacher from New Jersey, parlayed his love of popular culture into several books on the topics of Pee-Wee Herman, and the 1983 film, A Christmas Story. Though like myself and thousands more, he harbors an affinity towards one of the 1980’s most-remembered films.
We Don’t Need Roads – The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy could easily have been an 800 page “brick” of a book, but Gaines’ final page count keeps it “light” at 268 pages. There is plenty of rehashed material that could have been thrown in, but much of that is kept to a minimum. Instead, Caseen’s goal was to find information, that hadn’t been brought to light in the 25-30 years of the trilogy’s existence.
Over the course of several years, Gaines was able to interview dozens of people who had worked on the Back to the Future trilogy, including its director Robert Zemeckis, co-creator/writer Bob Gale, and even actors like Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown), and Lea Thompson (Lorraine Baines McFly).
Much like how I like to structure my blog posts, Caseen has a way of giving you a story that sounds like you’re in the moment he’s describing. One that he focuses on in the first chapters, involves a moment where Robert Zemeckis, and editors Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas, reviewed some of the first footage shot with Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly. It’s meant to be a pivotal moment in the film’s history, and not one that I’ve heard recounted before now.
Stoltz’s involvement in the first Back to the Future has often been part of its lore. When first-pick Michael J Fox was unavailable (due to his commitment with the TV show Family Ties), Eric was recommended by the head of Universal Pictures to fill Marty’s Nikes. However, after several weeks, it was decided that Eric’s characterization wasn’t working, and the filmmakers were able to get Michael, letting Eric go on his way.
Though the book doesn’t get candid interviews with Stoltz, there’s plenty of material that seems to suggest that his method acting may have been a little too serious for the film. One example is that Eric insisted that everyone call him Marty on set. This type of method acting worked so well, that Christopher Lloyd didn’t know Eric’s real name until word came that he had been dropped from the picture.
This material is one of several stories that Caseen delves into, but he also gives some additional insight into 2 incidents from Part II’s filming that weren’t widely known:
– The story of how Crispin Glover sued Universal for using his likeness in the sequel, as well as the casting of Jeffrey Weissman to “stand-in” for Crispin’s 1955 scenes in Part II.
– Stunt woman Cheryl Weaver’s near-death experience when a stunt went horribly wrong, and her subsequent lawsuit for compensation.
These stories along with Stoltz’s termination, feel like the major tent poles of the book, but he also peppers the book with plenty of material from his interviews, to keep you turning pages.
One that was particularly interesting, was some backstory on Harry Waters, Jr, who played Marvin Berry, the lead crooner of The Enchantment Under The Sea dance’s live band (and cousin to a Mr Chuck Berry, in the film’s universe). Waters explains about his casting process, as well as his surprise when he was asked to actually record/perform the vocal tracks for the big Earth Angel dance number for the film.
My original thought regarding the book when I first heard about it, was that it was only going to cover the first film, but I was surprised to read that It also covers topics from the film’s sequels, let alone provides information beyond 1990, sharing stories of others who took their love of the film,and turned it into something more.
Those who come to the book expecting lots of dirty laundry and mud-slinging, may not be the appropriate readers for Mr Gaines’ book. We Don’t Need Roads reads like a book written by a fan, who knows that there are others out there like him, who always want a little more. As well, it won’t leave newcomers to the Back to the Future behind-the-scenes world in the dust. They’ll be just as entertained by what they find, and it may open them up to explore the myriad other behind-the-scenes materials that many of us fans have known about for years.
As a self-proclaimed Entertainment Nut, I am often incensed and a little sad that most of the cool stuff that I’d love to see, rarely ever makes its way to my neck of the woods. However, I jumped into action when I found out Caseen Gaines would be talking about, and signing his new book at Quimby’s Bookstore nearby.
Caseen had visited here before, and told us that when coming, he liked to bring “toys” to the event. This time, his items included a replica of Marty Jr’s hat from Back to the Future Pt II, as well as a costume-pair of Marty’s 2015 Nike shoes.
Hearing him express his candid thoughts on what he experienced, as well as his recollections about writing his other books, I quickly found myself being put at ease with his stories. I think it helps that Caseen is a theatrical person as well (he also works for a theatre company in New Jersey), and therefore, has a penchant for storytelling to groups of people.
Though it was a small crowd that showed up for his appearance, he definitely kept our attention, and at one point, pulled me out of the audience to help explain something that happened during filming of some scenes (probably helped that I was dressed as Doc Brown, though circa 2015).
As far back as I can remember, I’ve often been a sucker for cool vehicles in television and film.
I wasn’t taken to many movies as a child, so most of the cool vehicles I saw were on television. I soon had 1:64-scale versions of the vehicles from The Dukes of Hazzard, and The A-Team. I’m also pretty sure the reason I got a Matchbox Cars Ferrari, was due to the one Tom Selleck drove on Magnum P.I.
But then came that moment in 1986, that changed my life, forever.
Watching Back to the Future in my Grandma’s living room in 1986, I wasn’t completely sure what was going on. The film gained my attention when Marty McFly (Michael J Fox), was drawn to a strange sound, emanating from his friend Doc Browns’ (Christopher Lloyd) truck.
Slowly, a ramp lowered, and through a thick smoke-screen, out rolled a vehicle I had never seen before. It was shiny, and had all sorts of strange paraphernelia on it.
After that Summer, The Delorean Time Machine was firmly planted in my brain. I eagerly begged my parents to take me to the sequels, marveled as it flew through the air, and looked on in horror as it was crumpled to bits by an oncoming train.
I had numerous versions of the Time Machine, which included a plastic ERTL model kit, an R/C version made by JRL, and a 1:18-scale Sunstar Die-Cast model.
Despite all the publicity regarding John DeLorean’s business dealings, Back to the Future made many people like myself fascinated by this rarely-seen vehicle. When my Dad and Uncle saw a used one at a Porsche dealership, they brought me along on their next outing to take a look at it. Needless to say, I was a little disappointed that it didn’t have all of Doc Brown’s additions.
I had all manner of die-cast cars (and still do: over 6 cases full!) as a child. While Hot Wheels and Matchbox were churning out sporty cars like the Corvette, the DeLorean was nowhere to be found on store shelves.
And then, one day, I got lucky.
My family stopped into a small drug store at Grossmont Shopping Center in La Mesa, CA. I was able to convince my Dad to let me go inside with my Mom, and like any young child, requested a stop down the toy aisle. And that was when I saw it:
The packaging it came in is long gone now, but even with its not-so-perfect looks, I had to have it! Sure, the interior was white plastic, and the metal on the body was far from perfect, but in those days, it was take-it-or-leave-it when it came to some products. Plus, Zylmex’s wheels looked very similar to those on the actual DeLorean.
This DeLorean was made by a company called Zylmex. If you never heard of them, don’t worry: many people out there haven’t. Zylmex (or Zee Toys in some circles), seemed to be that generic brand of toy you often saw in smaller shops. You probably had one or two toys from this company growing up, but were often at a loss as to who actually made those toys.
What was note-worthy about the Zylmex DeLorean, is that it sported working gull-wing doors! However, the mechanism wasn’t too reliable, and I’m sure some other owners of this little car, had doors that did the following:
This would be the only (known) 1:64th scale DeLorean for probably 25 years, until one of the big players decided to do something about it.
In 2010, Hot Wheels finally brought the DeLorean into their vehicle lineup. The original release contained a unibody Die-Cast design, with the only moving piece, being a snap-up plastic rear deck, that showed the area where the DeLorean’s rear-engine was.
This mold would be used 4 more times, 3 of which showcased the DeLorean body in gold and black, along with a variation of the silver body-type.
In 2012, the Hot Wheels Red Line Club released a special retooled mold of the DeLorean. With a shinier exterior, and limited to 4000 pieces, it also is the only use of a newer Hot Wheels DeLorean mold, that features opening gullwing doors.
It seems that 25 years after the DeLorean was immortalized on film as the coolest time machine of all time, we finally got our Die-Cast dream vehicle (mainstream, anyways). But…What about that Time Machine?
In Part 2, we take a look at several iterations of “Back to the Future’s” DeLorean Time Machine, including a version you may never have seen before.
“Hoverboards have been around for years, but parents groups have not let the toy manufacturers make them. We got our hands on some” – Robert Zemeckis, Director of the Back to the Future Trilogy
Like many young children out there, when I heard Robert Zemeckis say those words, and saw the film Back to the Future Part II in theaters in 1989, I believed it, and wondered how soon we’d see them in stores given how popular the Back to the Future sequel was. I remember playing with my LEGO sets as a kid, and crafting a Hoverboard out of scotch tape, paper, and colored pencils that a LEGO person could ride.
Of course, just before Back to the Future Part III was released, Kirk Cameron blew the lid off our childhood fantasies in the television special, The Secrets of the Back to the Future Trilogy, in which he admitted that Robert Zemeckis was only kidding. The film’s co-writer/co-producer Bob Gale even backed this up recently, saying that at the time, Mattel got upset by all the letters and requests they got from kids wanting their own Hoverboard. To me, that anger seems misplaced. I mean, if there’s demand for a product, why not get started trying to make it a reality?
In recent years, the toy company Mattel acquired the rights to make action figures and other products based around one of the least-merchandised trilogies in film history (seriously, 25 years later and no action figures? Even The Goonies got action figures made!).
After having released prop replicas of items such as the ghost trap and PKE meter from Ghostbusters, Mattel has decided to tackle the one Back to the Future prop that had their name written all over it (no seriously, in the film, their logo was on this thing in two places). Through their website, MattyCollector.com, a special pre-order (featuring limited quantities) went up in March of 2012. I placed my order, and waited the required 8-9 months before my credit card was charged, and a large package arrived at my apartment!
Like many of MattyCollector.com‘s releases, the Hoverboard comes packaged in an all-white box with minimal markings:
Once you cut the tape, flip up the tab, and pull out the inner-box, you get an example of what the board’s future packaging might look like:
I was a little surprised that they didn’t try to photograph a real little girl riding a hoverboard. Then again, maybe marketing in a couple years will start to shift back to more artistic-based imagery. A fun little nod to the film, is that a majority of the girl’s fashion stylings are modeled after clothing the hoverboard girl (Lindsey Whitney Barry) wore in Back to the Future Part II.
A downside to this packaging, is that unlike the tabbed outer-box, or some of their resealable packaging for some MattyCollector action figures, the top and bottom of the official box can be ripped with none of the collector-friendly convenience one would hope for something of this caliber.
Turning the box around, it gives a layout of the board, both top and bottom, outlining several of the features of the board. They even include the future-slang term, ‘bojo.’ If you notice, there’s a little asterisk after lettering on the top left. What is that for? Well…
Yes, just in case by now, if you hadn’t read the disclaimer when ordering your board from MattyCollector.
In the lower-right of the back of the box, they even show an example of the Hoverboard coming in different colors. One has to wonder if maybe they’ll try to make a ‘boys’ Hoverboard in the future, or the orange (unseen) one the hoverboard girl’s friend was using in the film. Speaking of the Hoverboard:
A small users manual is inserted with the board, giving plenty of information about the board, and also cautioning about disassembling the Hoverboard, claiming ‘the anti-gravity lift cushion inside may launch you into orbit.’ It’s a nice little booklet, but only a few pages long, in black-and-white, and about the size of a smartphone. One would almost wish they’d do something a bit more futuristic, maybe printed on a transparency, like the Sports Almanac receipt from the Blast From The Past store in the second film.
When it came to the films in which the Hoverboard appeared, we rarely got a lot of time to look at it in super-fine detail. Throughout the production of Back to the Future Part II, different versions of the Hoverboard were made, given the needs of the various scenes. What Mattel has given us, is a prop replica that attempts to combine the best traits of the various boards that were used during the film’s production (over 30 in total, according to the information on the Matty website), and find a ‘happy medium.’
By the way, one would assume a Hoverboard to be light considering how easily Marty McFly was whipping that thing around all over the place, but you’re in for a surprise. This prop replica has a little weight to it, and definitely will keep some from wanting to chuck it onto the ground like Marty did.
The construction of this board is largely plastic, along with stickers/decals, and velcro. Yes, velcro. The rear strap on the board and the green area underneath were velcro, and are the same on this board. Unknown to some, velcro was also used on an area one would probably never have considered:
The two pink angles at the front of the board. The box and users manual claim that these are “velocity control pads.”
The majority of the surface designs of the board are made up of large decals. In several places, one can see that the decals consist of several layered together:
Of course, Mattel wanted to include some extra ‘bells and whistles,’ and they did that by inserting a chip and sensors inside the board, that would sense when it was placed horizontally, or when it moved. Requiring 3 AA batteries (not included), one simply turns over the Hoverboard, and can find the battery compartment in the futuristic-looking box underneath:
Using the same sound effects from the film, the board makes an activation sound when placed horizontally (causing the board to vibrate slightly), and shuts off when tilted vertically. As well, sending it gliding along some carpeting (seriously, do not glide this thing on concrete or any other hard surface!) will cause it to make a ‘whooshing’ motion sound. It’s a cool feature, but isn’t 100% accurate a majority of the time when I was testing it. While it is a touted feature, I think I’ll be fine with leaving the batteries out of my Hoverboard.
Of course, there are many of us who will not be spending a lot of time sliding their prop replica across carpeting, and Mattel has included a clear-plastic, hinged stand. Using the design of the central battery compartment and a few well-placed peg-holes, the stand allows the board to be displayed, angled at 45 degrees. It isn’t easy to put together, and the stand clattered to the ground several times as I tried to get it placed properly.
By now, some of you may be asking, “Well, what do you think? Was it worth it?”
Having seen numerous pictures of the Hoverboard over the years, and wanting one myself, it’s a good piece, but not great.
For the last several months, the web has been filled with many die-hard fans, scrutinizing any information out of Mattel, regarding the release of the prop replica. Early concepts, convention displays, and even early reviews of this board have criticized everything from the spacing and size of the ‘magnets’ on the bottom of the board, to the lack of lenticular graphics regarding the board’s decals. Even the pink strap on the rear is not the right size/material.
On December 10th, on the fan-run Back To The Future website, BTTF.com, co-creator/co-screenwriter/co-producer Bob Gale expressed some of his own thoughts. He recalled the enthusiasm that the crew at Mattel had when they sat down to talk with him and visual effects supervisor Michael Lantieri, but was surprised at several ‘quality’ points that were missing from the final production Hoverboard. Notably the lenticular graphics, which according to a letter he received from Scott Neitlich at Mattel, was due to them being unable to replicate the effect, finally settling on the simpler decals. Bob does make an interesting point in his letter: if visual effects supervisor Michael Lantieri and his crew were able to make lenticular decals for the prop boards made in 1989, how can it be so hard for Mattel to replicate the effect all these years later? You can read Mr Gale’s full letter here: Bob Gale says Mattel’s Hoverboard did not live up to his expectations; okay to throw eggs at him
In that respect, it’s a good prop replica, but it is not the greatest. Then again, what keeps it passable in my mind is that it’s an item made by the same company as in the film. And what does Mattel mainly produce? Toys! So, not every toy company is going to give you top-of-the-line stuff. That is also part of my thinking regarding toys in the world of 2015 in the Back to the Future universe. I would assume that the board Marty handled in the film was plastic as well, seeing as it’s a kid’s toy Hoverboard. One would assume the Hoverboards used by Griff and his gang are more technologically advanced (and more expensive).
Another question some may have is: is this a toy, or a collectible? To me, it’s a collectible piece, given its price-point. You’d need to have a pretty good-sized bank account to give this to a child to play with. I can only imagine what one of these would look like after being handled by children.
The final total (not including taxes and shipping and handling), was $130. While a lot of people balked at this price for the Hoverboard, I was a lot more willing to pay that than $4-6000 on the special-edition 2015 Nike shoes that came out last fall. Even a prop replica of the Flux Capacitor (i.e. the thing that makes time-travel possible!) will run you upwards of $300!
These days, almost any collectible item released will have someone say, ‘It costs this much? I’d think it would have cost that much.’ When I first heard about the Hoverboard being made, I told myself one thing: ‘unless it’s priced under $150, I won’t buy one.’ Though with the final product, I could see some saying it would could be priced in the $100 range.
Because I pre-ordered my Hoverboard in March of 2012, this entitled me to get a special bonus: a miniature Hoverboard & the handlebar attachment like we saw in the film.
Promotional information tells that this board will fit most 6-inch figures. Since I don’t have any 6-inch figures from Mattel, I decided to have a couple of my other 6-inch figures help show off this additional item:
The handlebars are on a small pivot, so they can be turned outwards or in, depending on the arms of the figure using them. It can also be snapped into the hole in the board, and removed. The rear safety strap can also be rotated. One has to wonder if this is some sort of small promotional hint that Mattel just might be bringing us those Back to the Future action figures many have been wondering about for some time.
For December of 2012, Mattel has re-opened ordering of the Hoverboard prop replica. Unlike the March pre-orders, these will not come with the 6-inch Hoverboard ‘freebie.’ Mattycollector.com has been Mattel’s place to sell higher-priced, more collectible-based material, and by the sounds of things, obtaining one of these may be easier than some of their exclusive figures.
There are fan-made Hoverboard replicas out there (some made out of wood), which I’ve seen often run for more than what Mattel is offering for their prop replica. That might be the deal-breaker for some. Some people out there can make a board that more closely resembles the screen-used props, but these can often run upwards of $150+. If you’re looking for one that seems kind of close to the film prop, and you have some extra money left over for (or after) Christmas, you may want to get yourself one. Unless you’re a perfectionist regarding props, many would be hard-pressed to find all the differences.
Once I received my Hoverboard, I decided to take it for a small photoshoot at the one place that screamed for it: The Wormhole. This humble coffeeshop in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago has gained a small following for its nostalgic theme. An old television in the back has a Nintendo Entertainment System hooked up to it, and metal lunchboxes line the overhead ducts. Though what first caught my attention, was this:
Yes, that’s a flying DeLorean hovering over the rear of the building. The guy who owns the shop is a pretty big Back to the Future fan. So big in fact, that one of the replica Flux Capacitors that was made a few years ago, is mounted on a wall behind the counter. Word was, when Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis was in town, he actually stopped by to check out the DeLorean.
The Wormhole even has its own merchandise, from T-shirts to bumper stickers, with many of them tying into the Back to the Future theme.
If you’re ever in the Wicker Park neighborhood and want a non-Starbucks cup of coffee, The Wormhole has plenty of choices, and is usually a popular hangout for many nearby college students. You can find out more about The Wormhole by clicking Here.