Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I'm spending this week recuperating from Christmas and whatever illness has hit me and my husband. Hope the holidays were kind to all of you. Check back next week for a new article.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Upcoming Animation - Shrek Forever After

The trailer for DreamWorks' fourth Shrek film is up. Shrek Forever After (Get it? Four-ever After?) is said to be the last film in the series. Judging from the trailer, it looks like Shrek's latest adventure could have been called "It's An Ogreful Life":


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thoughts on "Fantastic Mr. Fox"


This is a film I’d been waiting for see for a long time. I don’t have and particular attachment to the Roald Dahl book it’s based on, which I vaguely remember as being mostly lengthy descriptions of how Mr. Fox goes about outwitting the farmers. But my husband loves the films of Wes Anderson, who was attached to Fantastic Mr. Fox early on. I was curious to see how Anderson would handle his first animated film and was looking forward to more puppet animation from Henry Selick, director of The Nightmare Before Christmas. The movie spent several years in development, surviving both the closing of its production company and Selick leaving to direct Coraline. For a while, I worried that it would be permanently stuck in development hell. But now its out in theaters and I’ve had a chance to see it.

As the film opens, the title character and his wife are stealing chickens from a farmer’s henhouse. During the heist, Mrs. Fox tells her husband that she’s pregnant and, like many a movie wife, insists that her husband find a safer line of work. Like so many movie husbands, Mr. Fox acquiesces, but later finds himself dissatisfied with his new life. He writes a newspaper column that no one reads and his meager income has his family living in a hole, acceptable by animal standards, but far from the good life. Mr. Fox purchases an upscale tree home, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the fact that it’s located near the factories of the notoriously nasty farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Once settled, he starts planning his final heist, setting in motion events that will lead to the farmers declaring all-out war on Mr. Fox, his family, and the whole animal community.

The movie doesn’t go out of its way to be a movie for kids, which is fine by me. It isn’t that it’s horribly inappropriate for kids, or even that kids wouldn’t like it. But the movie is a Wes Anderson film first and foremost. If you’re already familiar with his work, you’ll find his signature all over this movie, from the Wes Anderson regulars in the cast (Rushmore star Jason Schwartzman as Mr. Fox’s son Ash, Owen Wilson as the school coach, and Bill Murray as Fox’s lawyer Badger) to the way the characters interact with one another to the movie’s overall quirkiness. This combines with the darkness that is present in most Roald Dahl stories to create a movie that doesn’t make a whole lot of concessions to a younger audience. There is no ambiguity about the fact that the farmers intend to kill the Fox family, a fact made more disturbing when it becomes clear that the farmers know the animals can speak, write, and paint landscapes. During the movie’s emotional low point, Mrs. Fox tells her husband that she does love him, but sadly admits that she now believes she should never have married him, a far cry from the traditional animated romances where love is all you really need.

I’m glad to see puppet animation still being made. The argument that it could be done equally well with computers is always there and will probably get more and more persuasive as the cost of computer animation goes down. But there is still something about the look of puppet animation that I have yet to see computers accurately replicate. This quality is on full display in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Henry Selick’s puppet animation films tend to be so smoothly animated that they almost lose the little nuances that separate puppet animation from computer animation. So I was happy to see the characters in Fantastic Mr. Fox moving in the rough, fluttery, almost choppy way that is particular to puppet animation. I wish I had a better description for how this movement looks, since the words I use make it sound inferior. But it isn’t inferior, just different. I find it very appealing and an excellent fit for the story.

Part of what makes the movie feel less like the average kids’ film is the fact that it doesn’t beat the audience over the head with every single concept and theme. Mr. Fox’s desires are not as simple as “a better house” or “more danger and excitement.” As he admits later in the film, what he wants is to be the fantastic individual the film’s title suggest that he is, someone who amazes everyone by accomplishing the impossible. This idea does get explained outright, but Mr. Fox’s realization that what he wants may not be what he needs is played more subtly. There are a couple of big speeches, but they are much less direct than “Now I know I can be fantastic by just leading a normal life.”

The secondary plot of the film revolves around the Foxes’ son Ask. While Mr. Fox is worrying that his glory days are gone forever, the adolescent Ash is experiencing more than the normal amount of youthful angst trying to live up to his father’s legacy. His problem is further emphasized by the arrival of Ash’s cousin Kristofferson, who has come to stay with the family while his father battles a serious bout of double pneumonia. Kristofferson is a natural athlete, everything that Ash wants to be. Making matters worse, Mr. Fox is greatly impressed with Kristofferson’s skills and Ask only looks worse by comparison. Ash’s character is a careful balancing act. He remains sympathetic because of his relatable desire to win his father’s approval, despite the fact that he never actually say “I want my dad to say the things that he says about Kristofferson about me.” But he spend much of the movie taking out his frustrations on Kristofferson, even going so far as to tease him about his father’s illness. Part of what keeps Ash from being totally unlikable is that his relationship with Kristofferson gets better and worse throughout the course of the movie as Ash tries to figure out how to deal with his feelings of inadequacy. One of my favorite scenes comes early on, when Ash has to share hi room with Kristofferson. Ash continues to be nasty to his cousin, calling his sadness an act and refusing to give him a reasonable bed. Ash hears Kristofferson crying. He’s not so heartless as to continue being mean, but he doesn’t apologize or have a heart to heart with his cousin. It’s too early in the narrative for that. What he does instead is climb out of bed and turn on his toy train set. Without saying anything, the two foxes sit together and watch the train go around and around.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Fantastic Mr. Fox completely breaks the mold for animated films. It has talking animals. It’s based on a children’s book by a beloved author. It’s not even the triumphant return of puppet animation that Nightmare Before Christmas was back in the day. What it does do is remind viewers that animation can tell all kinds of stories, or at least provide fresh perspectives on the typical animated film subjects. It’s not quite like any other movie out there, animated or otherwise. Whether you’re like me and get excited by the possibility of animated film tackling every that live-action does, or you’re just looking for a fun, entertaining film that’s a little bit different, check out Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Trivia Time! This is a new idea I’m trying out to encourage you, dear readers, to participate. I’m going to ask you a question about the movie being discussed and you post your answers in the comments. If you don’t know the answer right away, you can search the internet. I won’t mind; you’ll still be learning something. The first person to respond with the correct answer will get a shout-out in the next article, along with a link to your personal website if you’d like. And of course, you’re welcome to comment whether or not you want to play the trivia game.

So here’s the question: There’s a song Fantastic Mr. Fox that’s a nod to another animated movie starring foxes. What’s the other movie and what’s the song?

Image in this article copyright Twentieth Century Fox.

Friday, December 18, 2009

R.I.P. Roy E. Disney

You've probably heard by now that Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt, passed away on December 16 at age 79. He is best remembered by animation fans as a champion of the art form who fought to keep traditional hand-drawn animation alive at Disney. I am glad to know that he lived long enough to see hand-drawn features return to Disney, a sentiment that has been expressed in many tributes to the man.

The obituary from the Los Angeles Times has a good overview of Roy Disney's life and accomplishments.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Book Review - June Foray's Autobiography


The title of the new autobiography of legendary voice actress June Foray is Did You Grow Up With Me, Too?, a question that I can readily answer “yes” to. Ms. Foray’s numerous voices are so ubiquitous throughout animation that I can’t say for certain where I first heard her. My parents tell me that the first movie I ever saw in theaters was Cinderella in which she provided the hisses and yowls for Lucifer the cat, so maybe that was it. But some of my clearest memories involving June Foray’s voice are of enjoying the adventures of Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose while visiting my grandparents. The first two words in the first chapter of Ms. Foray’s autobiography are “Springfield Massachusetts,” which is not only where June Foray grew up, but the location of my grandparent’s home where I curled up on the couch next to my grandma and watched Bullwinkle fail to pull a rabbit out of a hat. It was on that same couch that I watched a PBS special about Rocky and Bullwinkle and learned that there was a lady named June Foray who provided the voices for Rocky, the villainous Natasha Fatale, Dudley do-Right’s lady love Nell Fenwick a plethora of fairy godmothers, wicked witches, princesses, and countless other characters.

Chances are that you grew up with June Foray too, even if you don’t know it. Even if you somehow missed both Cinderella and the various incarnations of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s televised doings (Rocky and His Friends, The Bullwinkle Show, Adventures of Bullwinkle and Rocky, Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends), you have almost certainly encountered her voice before. Did you ever see virtually any Looney Tunes short, movie, or TV show where Tweety’s Granny was in the cast? That’s June. Ever watch Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck get menaced by one of two very different looking witches who are both, surprisingly, named Witch Hazel? June voiced them both. Did you spend Saturday mornings in the 80s watching Adventures of the Gummi Bears and DuckTales? June was Grammi Gummi and Magica DeSpell, among others. Did you play with Chatty Cathy, Mattel’s popular pull-string talking doll? June was the original voice. Were you seriously creeped out by Chatty Cathy after seeing the very similar Talky Tina on an episode of The Twilight Zone? June also. Ever go on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride? She’s in there too. I could easily go on, but you’d be reading credits all day and there’s still the book to get to.

My idea of what makes a good autobiography is much the same as my idea of what makes a good audio commentary on a DVD. I want to feel like I’m sitting down with someone and listening to that person’s first hand account of her or his life or work. The great strength of both autobiography and audio commentary is that the stories are coming directly from the people who lived them and, ideally, there’s no filter. They are free to talk about almost anything they wish to. Ms. Foray’s autobiography takes full advantage of this. Because the book is her story in her own words, she is able to relate whatever memories she feels are important for whatever reason, including moments that a biographer may have omitted because they seemed unimportant in the narrative of June Foray, voice actress. Her charm and personality come through in the writing, making the book a fun and engaging read.

The book starts off going chronologically, describing Foray’s childhood in Springfield, her family’s move to Los Angeles, and her early work in radio. But as Foray’s career starts to take shape, the chapters focus around her employment with different studios in various media: comedy records, dialogue looping for live-action films, and of course voice acting for animation, with whole sections devoted to her work and friendships with Chuck Jones and Jay Ward. (Foray is probably one of the only people – aside from maybe Sylvester Stallone – who can have a chapter in her autobiography called “My Rocky Life” that is about positive thing happening for her.) The format makes sense and plays well into the conversational feel of the book, but it can lead to some momentary confusion when Foray describes her first encounter with a fellow actor, then later recounts a story from before she had met him. But the confusion is fleeting and the separate focus on each stage of Foray’s career, even when they overlap in years, helps to put them in a much better context than time. Foray’s first meeting with Chuck Jones means much more when told as part of the story of their lifelong friendship than it would sandwiched in between all of the other work she was doing at the time she first met the legendary director.

I had plenty of reason to admire June Foray as a kid with an interest in animation and the people who make it happen. As an adult, I’ve found that I have even more reason to sing her praises. June Foray has long been a vocal champion of animation and had done much to increase the respect for the medium and recognition of the writers, artists, and actors who create animation in this country. I was very happy to find a chapter towards the end of the book that increased my knowledge of her work on this front. Foray was instrumental in making ASIFA-Hollywood into an organization active in encouraging and promoting the art of animation. The annual Annie Awards were her concept. While serving on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she has fought to keep both animated and live-action short films from being bumped from Oscar broadcast and campaigned for a Best Animated Feature Award, a dream that became reality in 2005. Her voice acting credits alone make Foray a bona fide star, but her dedication to animation and to shining the spotlight on its often unsung talents make her a true hero of the industry.

I guess my biggest problem with the book is that there isn’t more of it. I know that sounds like the lamest possible criticism, but that was my reaction. I started reading the book wondering how such a slim volume could possibly tell me everything about June Foray’s life that I could ever want to know. While the book is packed with all sorts of fascinating stories and does not suffer from any glaring omissions that I noticed, I still could have easily read many pages more about Foray and her work, about how she crafts a voice for a character, about the many amazing people she’s met who had such an influence on animation, and the kind of jokes that were cracked when the microphones were off. More specifically, I’d love to know if Foray ever got in hot water with Mattel for giving voice to The Twilight Zone’s considerably less benign version of the doll. I do know more about June Foray now than I did before reading the book, but I still wonder what more I might have learned had the book been two hundred, even three hundred pages long instead of just over one hundred sixty.

The last chapter before the epilogue is a collection of eulogies that Foray has given over the years, some for people she only met briefly, others for longtime friends. Reading through them, I was reminded of how every year we say goodbye to more people whose impact on animation will outlive them and more stories, more tricks of the trade, and more seemingly trivial little anecdotes go with them. Foray never mentions her own age (which you can look up for yourself if you want to, because I’m not risking her wrath), but Rocky first took flight fifty years ago and he was far from the first character June Foray gave voice to. So many of the original voices of Rocky's friends and foes have gone silent and I can only imagine what tales and memories they took with them. It's comforting to know that fans of June Foray who can't meet her in person for whatever reason will always have a way of knowing her better. Did You Grow Up With Me, Too? will be there for people who grew up with June Foray and kids who have yet to put a name to the voices in their favorite cartoons.

Did You Grow Up With Me, Too? is available at many fine bookstores and online retailers. But if you want an autographed copy like mine above, you'll want to order the book directly from her website.

UPDATE: Mark Evanier, who assisted Ms. Foray in writing her autobiography, has just stated on his website that time is running out to order and autographed copy of the book. The book will still be available to purchase, but once the last of the current stock of signed copies sell, you will have to track Ms. Foray down at a public appearance to get her autograph. So if you're thinking you'd like a signed copy of the book, now's the time to order.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Bluth Factor: The Land Before Time


After reviewing both Rock-A-Doodle and All Dogs Go To Heaven, I thought I kind of owed it to the Sullivan Bluth Studios to take a look at one of their more successful films. The Land Before Time, a tale of five young dinosaurs who set out in search of greener valleys, was one of Bluth’s biggest commercial successes. Despite mixed reaction from the critics, the movie performed well at the box office and furthered Bluth’s goal of providing meaningful competition for Disney. The Land Before Time was released the same weekend as Disney’s Oliver and Company and although the Disney film ultimately won the battle for gross domestic earnings, the Bluth movie had the more successful opening weekend and a higher worldwide gross. Over the years, the movie’s legacy has become somewhat muddied; it is the current reigning champion of direct to home market sequels with no less than twelve to its name, none of which had any involvement from the Sullivan Bluth crew. So twenty-one years after its original release, how does the original film hold up? Surprisingly well.

Littlefoot is a baby brontosaurus*. His family consists of two grandparents and his mother. With no father in sight and the elder dinos presumably past egg-laying age, Littlefoot is introduced by the narration as the tiny herd’s only hope for the future. (He is not the last of his kind, as Roger Ebert has mistakenly stated in both print and television reviews of the film, then pointing out the supposed inconsistency of the narration later claiming that many generations of descendants of all five dinos continued to thrive for years to come. The movie doesn’t go out of its way to make the distinction, but it’s bugged me for years that a famous film critic – for whom I otherwise have nothing but respect – somehow got this wrong when I understood it at age ten.) A food shortage has forced all of the dinosaur herds to travel in search of the legendary Great Valley, a place of abundant vegetation where no dino will ever go hungry again. Life soon becomes even more difficult for Littlefoot when an earthquake separates him from his grandparents and his mother is fatally injured (either by the earthquake or in protecting her son from the rampaging tyrannosaurus “Sharptooth;” the movie doesn’t make it clear which). The newly orphaned Littlefoot must lead his newfound friends – Cera, Ducky, Petrie, and Spike - to the Great Valley or face starvation as food grows more and more scarce,

Littlefoot may not be the most compelling protagonist ever, but he works for the purposes of this story. His plight is sympathetic and his performance – both vocal and visual – is convincingly childlike and appealing. His biggest heroic quality is his concern for the other dinosaurs, which is what keeps him going after he loses his mother and spurs on his progression not only towards the Great Valley, but also towards adulthood, the transition from being taken care of to taking care of others. He is persistent, good at coming up with a plan, and the only one of the dinosaurs who knows the way to the Great Valley, the last fact being chiefly responsible for his status as the group’s leader. The narration outright says at one point that the main reason that the other dinosaurs continue to follow Littlefoot after he is proven very wrong in his belief that Sharptooth is dead is that he is the only one who knows how to get to the Great Valley. This is odd, since the directions for reaching the Great Valley are essentially “go in one direction past two landmarks.” So if the other dinos really thought that Littlefoot was an incompetent leader, they could probably have learned the path to the valley for themselves and ditched him. But Littlefoot is a good leader, even if those qualities don’t come out until later on.

The dinosaurs who follow Littlefoot to the Great Valley mostly fall into the category of “comic relief,” with one exception. Duck the parasaurolophus and Petrie the pteranadon are both intended to provide lighter moments in the story. They are kind of the same character, both very high energy and very small. Ducky is more enthusiastic, ending a lot of her sentences with a happy “Yup, yup, yup.” She is the one character who occasionally becomes more irritating than adorable. Petrie is the more neurotic of the two, due largely to the fact that he cannot fly. Rounding out the comic characters is Spike the stegosaurus. Spike is basically a big puppy dog, mainly concerned with eating and sleeping. He is loyal and capable of helping out when the group needs some muscle, but he doesn’t speak and mostly does what the others tell him to do. The depiction of one of the little dinosaurs as more of a pet than a child doesn’t bother me as much as the same situation with a very similar character did in Disney’s Dinosaur, mostly because Spike is a newborn baby. Ducky discovers him as an egg about to hatch with no other dinosaurs around. So Spike’s limitations could be due to his extremely young age rather than his whole species operating on a lower level than most other dinosaurs.


Little Cera the triceratops is the remaining character in Littlefoot’s tiny herd. She is the “Grumpy” of the film and it’s not just because of her bad attitude. She has the strongest personality of any character in the movie and it gets her into nothing but trouble. She is proud, self-centered, overconfident, and even downright mean to Littlefoot, going so far as to insult his dead mother. Because of this, Cera is the only character who undergoes real change over the course of the film. Littlefoot may have to learn to survive without his mother and Petrie may need to figure out how to fly, but Cera must undergo an alteration of her personality, which includes one or two blows to her sizeable ego. Cera also serves as a good counterexample to Littlefoot’s good leadership. When she convinces the other dinosaurs to follow her down an easier path that Littlefoot insists is the wrong way, she fails to even notice when first Petrie, then Ducky and Spike fall behind and soon all find themselves in dire peril. This allows Littlefoot to be the hero and come to their rescue and Cera’s as well, after she runs into some unfriendly dinosaurs.

The rest of the cast is made up of very secondary characters. Littlefoot’s mother is exactly what you would expect her to be: loving, protective, and self-sacrificing. His grandparents barely have any lines and serve almost no purpose in the story beyond ensuring that Littlefoot will have someone waiting for him when he reaches the Great Valley. The menacing tyrannosaurus Sharptooth is less of a character than a monster. He never talks or shows any interest in anything besides attacking and devouring other dinosaurs.

Part of what keeps The Land Before Time on the right track is its simple, straightforward plot. Littlefoot’s goal is always to get to the Great Valley. He may have to accomplish additional tasks along the way: get his friends out of trouble, escape from Sharptooth, figure out how to go on without his mother, and so on. But from the minute that the food shortage is first mentioned, it’s completely clear that Littlefoot’s main job is to get from point A to point B. He and his friends may have a number of reasons for wanting to get to the Great Valley, reuniting with their families being a big one. But the main motivation for their journey remains as clear as their destination: if they do not make it to the Great Valley, they will die of starvation.


This may sound pretty grim, but the film actually does a good job of keeping its tone from becoming either too bleak or too light. The life or death nature of the dinosaurs’ plight is mostly confined to the narration. The characters talk about being hungry from time to time, but we never see them grow thin or weak from lack of food. On the flip side, the comedy of the movie is kept secondary to the main drama and the more comedic characters all have some part in the story beyond just providing laughs. The emotional touchstone of the film is, of course, the death of Littlefoot’s mother and aside from one cheeseball line of dialogue that threatens to break the mood (“Let your heart guide you. It whispers, so listen closely.”), it’s pretty effecting. Much of this is due to a very understated and sincere performance by then child actor Gabriel Damon. Littlefoot’s lines are appropriately childlike and his grief never becomes over the top. He insists to his mother that she can get up, but his tears and breaking voice suggest that deep down, he knows that she can’t and never will again.

I can remember print ads from when this movie was in theaters quoting a critic who dubbed the film “a prehistoric Bambi.” This wasn’t surprising; most animated films that feature a young animal whose mother dies are going to get compared to Bambi. What did surprise me seeing the film for the first time in years is just how much of the film is an homage to Bambi. While it doesn’t follow the exact same plot as the other film and there are also nods to other classic Disney movies – most obviously the “Rite of Spring” sequence from Fantasia, Bambi was clearly a big inspiration for the artists working on The Land Before Time. There are obvious echoes of big moments, like the death of Littlefoot’s mother and the shot moments before where Littlefoot is searching for her and calls out with dialogue very similar to Bambi’s in the analogous scene from that movie. There are smaller bits that feel very familiar, like the prehistoric creatures that crowd around to observe Littlefoot’s birth the way the woodland animals gathered to meet the newborn prince of the forest, the one visiting beast that looks into Littlefoot’s mouth as he yawns just like Thumper stole a glimpse at baby Bambi’s tonsils, and even the tiny pteradactyls fighting over a berry, which is reminiscent of two baby birds doing the same thing in Bambi. From time to time, a caught a subtle staging device that also seemed to be pulled from Bambi. When Littlefoot and Cera fight while the other dinosaurs watch, the shadows of the two combatants pass over the onlookers, much as the shadows of Bambi and rival buck Ronno fall over Faline while she watched them compete for her. Keep in mind that many of the artists working at Sullivan Bluth Studios at the time were people with a huge amount of respect for the older Disney films and in some cases, people who had left the Disney studio because they felt Disney was no longer making movies of that kind. In this case, the imitation of Bambi is definitely a very sincere form of flattery.


Since all of its protagonists are juvenile dinosaurs, the movie features a high level of cute. Littlefoot and his friends all have eyelashes and cute little round ears, which I kind of doubt are accurate to paleontologist’s view of what infant dinosaurs looked like. Cute is usually a matter of personal taste and in this case, I think the character designs generally stay on the right side of the line between “awww” inspiring and nausea inducing. What bugs me more than the characters’ eyelashes, rosy cheeks, and baby faces is their size. I’ve seen enough artist’s renderings, pseudo-documentaries, and actual fossils to know that baby dinosaurs were tiny in comparison to their gigantic parents. But Petrie is small enough to walk around atop Littlefoot’s head, Ducky is barely half his size, and Littlefoot himself is usually no bigger than his mother’s head. I say usually because there is some inconsistency in the film regarding the characters’ size relative to each other, other dinosaurs, and certain objects. I can understand the desire to make the main characters small to emphasize their vulnerability in the big savage world they must journey through. But all of them are so miniscule that I started to wonder whether the real reason the dinosaurs died out was because they kept accidentally stepping on their own young. Regardless, the artists at Sullivan Bluth Studios did some of their best work on this film, from the appealing scampering of the baby dinos to the huge and majestic adult dinosaurs to the world they all inhabit, at turns harsh and beautiful.


There’s an odd subplot to the film about the rather racist attitude the dinosaurs have towards each other. They tend to keep to their own kind, so much so that shortly after Littlefoot meets Cera for the first time, her father steps in and sternly informs the both of them that “three-horns don’t play with longnecks.” (The films has the dinos use cutesy descriptive terms to identify the various species.) It’s a message that Cera takes very much to heart. The weird thing is that Littlefoot’s own mother is equally in favor of this separation of the species, for no reason other than that it has always been that way. I’m not suggesting that the film implies that this is a good thing; far from it. Part of the point of the film is that Littlefoot bands together with four different dinos, all of different species, in order to find the Great Valley. But I feel like there’s a scene missing towards the end where the adult dinosaurs realize the error of their ways. I’m not asking for a big speech about the importance of dino diversity. I just think Cera’s father in particular should have a moment where he looks at his daughter happily playing with her new friends and realizes that she never could have made it back to her family if she hadn’t joined up with these four other dinosaurs with their various abilities that helped all of them to survive. Ducky’s parents do seem cool with the idea of adopting the evidently orphaned Spike, but since Daddy Topps was the big proponent of this faulty notion, I think he should have been made to see that he was wrong in the end. This part of the story was evidently more prominent in earlier drafts, to the point where the kid dinos initially didn’t get along and had to learn to do so. But in the final film, Cera is the only one who has this problem. The rest of the young dinosaurs are fast friends almost from the moment they meet.

The Land Before Time is not a musical. It’s a surprising choice given the success of Bluth’s previous feature An American Tail and its hit song “Somewhere Out There.” It may have been a decision by Bluth, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas – the last two being two of the film’s executive producers – or some combination of the three that singing dinosaurs would tax the audience’s suspension of disbelief a little too much. Or maybe Bluth, his co-producers Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, or some other member of Bluth’s team wanted to break out of the musical mold. Whatever the reasoning, the film features just one song. “If We Hold On Together” plays in instrumental form throughout the film, but is only heard with lyrics over the end credits, sung by none other than Diana Ross. It is a very pretty song, though it never achieved quite the success that “Somewhere Out There” did. The film’s score is by prolific composer James Horner, whose other screen credits include everything from Titanic to two of the Star Trek movies to Balto, and creates the right balance of emotion and whimsy.


If there’s one main problem that The Land Before Time suffers from, it’s the oddly disjointed feeling of the narrative. Some parts of the film feel more like isolated incidents that don’t quite connect up with the whole. The biggest comes towards the end when Littlefoot, just after leading his friends to a major victory, despairs of ever finding the Great Valley. There’s no transition between these two scenes to suggest why Littlefoot would feel this way after one of his biggest successes and as a result, the events seem strangely unconnected. This could possibly be the result of some of the scenes that were cut from the film. Bluth and Spielberg reportedly had some very different ideas about what this movie should be, some of which resulted in late changes to the film. About ten minutes of footage – mostly featuring the young heroes in danger and Sharptooth being scary – were cut to make the film less frightening for young viewers, leaving the film’s final running time at just over an hour. Including these missing scenes might have made for a smoother storyline, but since those scenes have never been shown to the public, I can only say that the end product has parts that never quite connect up.

The Land Before Time never reinvents the wheel, but perhaps that’s part of the reason why it was successful. The simplicity of the story actually becomes one of its strengths, helping the film to avoid the convoluted plots that caused trouble for many of Bluth’s later movie. By combining the talents of the studio’s artists with inspiration from classic animated films and tying it all to the kid-friendly hook of dinosaurs, Bluth succeeded in making a crowd-pleasing movie that, while not perfect, remains entertaining to watch.

*Yes, I know that technically he's an apatosaurus, but "brontosaurus" is still considered a legitimate generic term for any sauropod dinosaurs. And I just plain like it better. "Brontosarus" means "thunder lizard," which conjures up images of creatures so massive that their footfalls sounded like thunder. That is cool. Aside from lacking many of the hard consonants that make "brontosaurus" just plain sound cool, "Apatosaurus" means "deceptive lizard," a name derived from the fact that it's bones were easy to confuse with those of other dinosaurs. That is lame. So even if it's not technically correct, the ten year old in me is sticking with "brontosaurus."

All images in this article are copyright Universal Pictures.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Short, Of Sorts - Pixar's "George and A.J."

The week of Thanksgiving, with its feasts, visits from friends and relatives, and vacation time for my husband, has left me behind in my writing. I have a film review and a book review in the works, but for now, please enjoy my short comments on this short piece of animation.

Pixar’s George and A.J. was originally available as a special feature for customers who purchased Up through iTunes and has been making the rounds on the internet for about a week now, so perhaps you’ve already seen it. It’s a short cartoon about the two nurses who were supposed to take Up protagonist Carl Fredrickson to the Shady Oaks Retirement Village, only to be thwarted by Carl taking to the skies, house and all. The story shows the impact of Carl’s departure on George, A.J., and the local seniors.

As you may have noticed, this cartoon is pretty different from most of the other Pixar shorts like Partly Cloudy - the short that ran alongside Up in theaters, or Dug’s Special Mission - the short that debuted on the film’s DVD and Blu-ray release. It’s hand-drawn rather than computer animated. There is very little actual animation and no real lip-synch. And the voice cast is different. What’s going on here?

My theory, which a lot of animation fans seem to share, is that this “short” wasn’t really intended as a fully animated short, but an animatic. An animatic, also called a story reel or a Leica reel (after the German camera brand “Leica”), is a version of an animated film, short, TV show, or other project in which the storyboards are filmed and edited together to make a simple “rough draft” version of the final film. A “scratch” dialogue track will usually be recorded as well. This is a temporary version of all the dialogue in the film, usually acted by story artists or other people around the studio. The animatic is useful for showing interested parties how the film is shaping up and for checking to see how the story reads on film. Storyboards on their own can give the filmmakers some idea of what’s working and what isn’t, but an animatic can provide additional insight into how well the various ideas are working without the benefit of the story artist being there to pitch and explain them. Are the characters interesting? Is the story clear and easy to follow? Do the camera angles help to explain the action and emotion of the scene? Does he pacing of each scene work? Do some scenes go on too long or end too quickly? With the help of the animatic, these questions can be answered and chances can be made before the costly and time-consuming process of animation begins.

If George and A.J. is an animatic, it’s a very polished one. Most animatics are not in color, except for some special cases, such as when they are being used to pitch the idea to studio higher-ups. Computers have made it easier to depict important movements in animatics, allowing artists to move characters and objects around over a background or even create simple animations – usually just two or three drawings, without having to redraw the entire scene. Even so, George and A.J. features a lot more detailed motion than the average animatic, such as the way George and A.J.’s car tilts slightly as it comes to a stop or the motion graphics that lead in to the news story about Carl’s great escape. While I don’t know for certain, I suspect that some version of this animatic was used to pitch the idea for a short, but never got approved for full animation. Then when a bonus feature was needed for the iTunes release of Up, the animatic was pulled out, possibly reworked a little, and presented as a short cartoon.


Why wasn’t George and A.J. made into a fully animated short? I don’t really know. One possible reason is that the characters were thought to be too obscure. George and A.J. have just one brief scene in Up, while Dug – who stars in the short that was made for the film’s home release - is a very important character, as well as the most merchandised one from the film. It’s not clear whether George and A.J. would have been hand-drawn or computer animated had it been made as a full-fledged short. If computer animation was the ultimate goal, then maybe it would have been too expensive. Dug’s Special Mission uses existing character models and sets from Up. While some of the characters, props, and sets in George and A.J. could have been reused from up, the reporter, the various old folks, their houses, the cat lady’s cats, and all of their various methods of escape would have to be designed and built, costing both additional money and additional time that may not have been available. The Wikipedia article about the short points out a couple of inconsistencies between the short and the movie, though none of them are so crucial to the plot of the short that they could not have been altered. There could be any number of reasons why the short didn’t get further along in production, and unless Pixar decides to tell us, we may never know.

So now that we have an idea of why George and A.J. looks the way it does, the remaining question is “Does it hold up?” Can the appeal of the story and characters overcome the lack of Ed Asner and full animation? I think so. I really like the idea of Carl’s example inspiring other seniors to figure out ways to make their homes mobile and take off. It may not be very profound or even the best short Pixar has ever produced, but it has enough fun ideas to fill out its allotted time. My one wish is that there was some kind of clip of the director before the short explaining why it looks the way it does. I can make an educated guess, but I can’t help but worry that some people might be led to believe that Pixar just doesn’t know how to do hand-drawn animation or that this is an example of what it looks like when they “use their computers” to make traditional animation. That one gripe aside, George and A.J. is worth a look. It’s both and entertaining short film and an interesting look into one part of the animation process.

All images in this article are copyright Disney/Pixar.