Category Archives: Family

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2019, Richard Phelan and Will Becher)

Farmageddon has so many sci-fi TV and movie references it’s hard to keep track. The whole thing feels like an homage to E.T. as far as the story—an alien (“voiced” by Amalia Vitale; voicing means making noises in Farmageddon, there’s no dialogue) gets stranded on Earth and makes friends with a local who helps them try to get home. In this case, that local is Shaun. The Sheep. He and the alien bond over pizza, which is a totally natural thing for a British sheep and a space alien to bond over, especially since the pizza allows for a lot of sight gags.

Since there’s no dialogue and since the noises the characters make rarely imply exposition—there are occasional newspaper headlines to get across the most impactful events (the nearby town, having sighted the alien spacecraft, is going alien-happy)—the film’s got to do everything visually. Yes, they get away with a lot of infographics. The opening has Shaun and the other sheep running afoul of their sheep dog, Bitzer, who has to put up signs forbidding their various modes of play. They can’t frisbee, they can’t suction cup bow and arrow, they can’t shoot each other out of cannons—Bitzer’s really pushing for no nonsense and it provides the film with its most antagonistic relationship—Bitzer is getting a little tired of Shaun.

Of course, Shaun could care less and thank goodness, because if he were worried about getting in trouble he and the alien wouldn’t set out on an odyssey to find the missing spacecraft and then the movie would be a lot less entertaining. Though, who knows. It’s entirely possible directors Phelan and Becher—and screenwriters Mark Burton and Jon Brown—could come up with enough fun around the farm, but then we wouldn’t get to go to the alien hunters’ secret base. With the exception of the boss, all of the (presumably) government alien hunters are in their yellow hazmat suits, which makes them entirely indistinguishable from one another and perfect for anonymous physical comedy. If it weren’t moving so briskly, one could slow and marvel at the artistry on display in Farmageddon’s stop-motion, but also how the filmmakers are able to so deftly toggle between popular sci-fi references and the physicality of the characters. The story itself is fairly simple. Once Shaun and the alien leave the farm, they’re simultaneously in danger from Bitzer—who’s in a middle of new mission of the Farmer (Farmer runs the farm, Bitzer is the good dog who manages the sheep, Shaun is one of the sheep, there I explained it) when he discovers his escaped charge in the wild—and the alien hunters. Only thanks to the Farmer’s scheme, which involves turning the farm into an amusement park with an alien theme (“Farmageddon,” they’re able to get away with the title because the Farmer obviously wouldn’t give it a good name), Bitzer’s in a spacesuit outfit and the alien hunters go after him too.

Burton and Brown introduce the eventual resolution about midway through the second act and keep reminding the audience. Farmageddon’s a family film without ever pandering to the kids or getting too dumb for the adults—they take such deep dives on the sci-fi references, it’s hard to imagine anyone, child or adult, getting all the references at first glance—it’s a simple narrative, smartly executed. The second act, which takes the heroes back to the alien hunters’ lair, does drag a little. The first act is all about entertaining, the third act is all about entertaining. The second act, which puts Shaun and the alien through various physical and emotional hardships—not to mention the alien hunter boss has got a very affecting origin story and one of the film’s bigger missteps is not addressing its treatment of her better. It does a little work at it, which, sure, can be enough, but there are definite missed opportunities and making the film’s only truly malevolent villain a career-minded woman has some optics to it.

Alien hunter boss has this little robot assistant who’s almost a significant supporting player then isn’t. It’s just a frequently utilized sight gag, though it does eventually serve to lighten the boss a little, which is good.

Farmageddon is always good. Even taking the difficult to describe with a pithy adjective second act and the alien hunter boss into account, it’s never like it’s not good. It’s always inventive, always imaginative. Seeing how they integrate digital effects with the stop-motion is cool; Sim Evan-Jones’s editing and Charles Copping’s photography are exquisite. They need to be to work with the stop-motion. Excellent direction.

The soundtrack could be better. It’s… too pragmatic. Likable but never charming and Shaun is nothing if not charming.

It’s a delight. Not a “insert well-chosen superlative” delight here, but a delight nonetheless. How can it not be. It’s Shaun the Sheep on an adventure with someone who cannot bleat (actually, the alien can; its mimicry power is constantly amusing), doesn’t miss a trick, doesn’t miss a beat.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Phelan and Will Becher; screenplay by Mark Burton and Jon Brown, based on an idea by Richard Starzak and the character created by Nick Park; director of photography, Charles Copping; edited by Sim Evan-Jones; music by Tom Howe; production designer, Matt Perry; produced by Paul Kewley; released by StudioCanal.

Starring Justin Fletcher (Shaun), John Sparkes (Bitzer), Amalia Vitale (Lu-La) and John Sparkes (The Farmer).


The Mighty Kong (1998, Art Scott)

The Mighty Kong is fairly awful. It’d be nice to say there’s some kind of charm to it, given it’s an animated, family-targeted, period King Kong adaptation, it’s got Dudley Moore’s final performance, and Jodi Benson’s a lot more professional than the production deserves. But it doesn’t have any consistent charm. Not even Benson, who’s the only potential anywhere in the picture; for a while it seems like Benson’s going to be the protagonist.

Okay, let me set it up a little. Moore is the Robert Armstrong character, the movie director. In Mighty Kong he has a nerdy sidekick who’s his cameraman and assistant only the nerdy sidekick (voiced by William Sage). Moore and Sage make musicals of wild animals appearing silly, which is rather imaginative for William J. Keenan’s script. At some point Mighty Kong gives up on having a script—to the point you can forget the movie has a fairly standard first act introducing the characters and situation. Sure, it’s peculiar because Moore’s never it enough to be the lead, even though he’s the lead of that part of the story no question, and the scale of the production is always lacking. Mighty Kong really doesn’t have the animation budget it needs and what the animators end up doing… I mean, it’s bad. There are times when director Scott seems to have a good idea and the animators butcher it.

Except in the finale, which I’ll get to in a bit.

First, back to the characters. So Benson is Fay Wray and Randy Hamilton is Bruce Cabot. Hamilton’s only character trait is he hates women being on ships and is generally a dick. He falls for Benson after the natives on Skull Island threaten her. We know he falls for her because their next scene together is a heavily stylized, including 1998 CGI stars, musical duet where you don’t believe Hamilton or Benson ever met much less sing the duet in the same studio at the same time. Heck, their animated characters don’t even appear on screen together for the duet. It’s godawful and in no way amusing.

Immediately after that duet, it’s time for the giant ape to get introduced—they call him a “Monkey God” in Mighty Kong, never ape. Maybe apes are too big a concept for the target audience, but there isn’t a target audience because it’s such a weird movie. But anyway.

The Kong grabbing Benson and fighting dinosaur after dinosaur section is brief and at least not good in a different way than the first forty-five or so minutes have been not good. Once they get to New York, there’s the absurd Kong breakout sequence where Hamilton and Benson just walk away and ignore the destruction behind them. Even when they should be running. They just walk. Because bad animation.

Though Hamilton looks just like John Cassavetes most of the time, which would be cool if Hamilton were any good. He’s not, though it’s also a terribly written part. Moore gets bad one-liners. The script at least tries for him. Benson does get the “concern for Monkey God” subplot, but very little dialogue in the third act.

The only good part of the movie is when Kong gets into comic hijinks destroying New York. Even when he apparently kills two teens necking in a car. The animation is hilariously executed. Even if Kong’s rarely the same size.

The Mighty Kong is (mostly) harmlessly bad; it’s clearly being done way too cheap. It’s got bad music, bad songs, bad performances of bad lines, bad animation—occasionally excellent editing from Tony Hayman—and it’s not even worth it as a curiosity, which is a shame. An animated musical kids version of King Kong ought to at least be a curiosity.

Though it could qualify as an icky curiosity for the occasional objectification of Benson’s cartoon character in a kids’ movie but… a good curiosity would be nice.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Art Scott; screenplay by William J. Keenan, based on the story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace; edited by Tony Hayman; production designers, Brendan deVallance and Lyn Henderson; produced by Denis deVallance and Henderson; released by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.

Starring Dudley Moore (Denham), Jodi Benson (Ann), Randy Hamilton (Driscoll), William Sage (Roscoe), Jason Gray-Stanford (Ricky), and Richard Newman (Captain).


A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969, Bill Melendez)

A Boy Named Charlie Brown gets by on a lot of charm. It takes writer and creator Charles M. Schulz forever to get to the story. It takes Schulz so long to get to the story–Charlie Brown, spelling bee champ–it seems like there isn’t going to be a story.

Schulz lays the groundwork for the story, sure; Charlie Brown enters the spelling bee as an attempt to bolster his self-confidence. Nothing else has worked. He’s lost a baseball game, he’s had a lousy–not just for him–therapy session with Lucy. He even losses at tic-tac-toe.

So, right after Lucy and two other girls sing a song to Charlie Brown about him being a “failure face.” Not a great song. Rod McKuen writes the melancholy Charlie Brown songs, John Scott Trotter writes the didactic spelling song.

Even with director Melendez’s suburban Expressionist visuals and the fantastic montaging courteosy Robert T. Gillis, Chuck McCann, and Steven Cuitlahuac Melendez’s expert cutting, Failure Face is a low point. It’s the meanest the girls ever get to Charlie Brown. Sure, maybe it’s the inciting incident for the spelling bee plot development, but Melendez doesn’t change tone with it. Just because Schulz is finally ready to go, Melendez isn’t speeding up Boy. It’s still going to be slow and deliberate, with visually outrageous montages, interludes, and asides.

Schulz’s spelling bee plot works out. Linus gave Charlie Brown his blanket to keep him comfort at the nationals. Linus didn’t know he’d go into fainting spellings without the blanket, he and Snoopy go to nationals.

Nationals appear to be in a beautiful and empty New York City. Why Linus gets the excursion to the New York Public Library and Rockefeller Center while Charlie Brown is literally studying in a movie called A Boy Named Charlie Brown doesn’t even matter. Snoopy goes with Linus. And has his own daydream about playing hockey.

It’s the last daydream–or aside or iunterlude–and it’s the worst. It’s cartoon Snoopy in front of silhouetted hockey footage. Boy Named Charlie Brown has this Beethoven “music video” full of Eastern Orthodox imagery (I think, I saw eggs) and all sorts of other amazing stuff. It’s wondrous. And everything else is good if not excellent. To end on a blah daydream?

Maybe if Schulz’s lesson came through, it’d work. Schulz has a lesson in A Boy Named Charlie Brown for Charlie Brown and it’s eighty-five minutes coming so maybe it should be good. It’s not a good lesson. It’s a “movie’s over in two minutes” lesson. The film’s just shown it can do New York City and scale and then it’s got a bad lesson for Charlie Brown, who spent the last third of the movie offscreen.

Even the spelling bee is from the perspective of the other kids. Charlie Brown narrates Boy for a while, yet Schulz doesn’t want to spend the time with him. Schulz is sympathetic to Charlie Brown, empathetic to him, but he never seems to like him. All of Charlie Brown’s details are jokes at his expense. Or at least Schulz goes that route in A Boy Named Charlie Brown. The eventual story arc starts with lengthy depression monologue thirteen year-old Peter Robbins gets to do as Charlie Brown. Schulz gets intense when he’s not trying to be funny.

And then sometimes he’s not funny. Like Lucy. Not funny. Pamelyn Ferdin’s never particularly likable as Lucy here because all she’s ever doing is being mean to Charlie Brown. She’s invested in it, nothing else. She and Schroeder only have the one scene–kicking off the great Beethoven music video–but Schulz gives Lucy almost nothing other than being mean.

Glenn Gilger’s the best performance. He’s Linus. Robbins’s is good as Charlie Brown. But Schulz doesn’t give him anything good. Gilger’s best because he gets the best material.

Excellent score from Vince Guarladi. Fantastic animation. A Boy Named Charlie Brown has all the parts it needs to be great–not McKuen, sorry, forgot about him; but it doesn’t work out. Schulz’s plotting is too cumbersome.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bill Melendez; written by Charles M. Schulz; edited by Robert T. Gillis, Chuck McCann, and Steven Cuitlahuac Melendez; music by Vince Guaraldi; produced by Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson; released by National General Pictures.

Starring Peter Robbins (Charlie Brown), Pamelyn Ferdin (Lucy Van Pelt), Glenn Gilger (Linus Van Pelt), Andy Pforsich (Schroeder), Sally Dryer (Patty), Ann Altieri (Violet), Erin Sullivan (Sally), Lynda Mendelson (Frieda), and Christopher DeFaria (Pig Pen).


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Sleeping Beauty (1959, Clyde Geronimi)

Seven credited writers on Sleeping Beauty and none of them could figure out any dialogue to give the prince. Though, notwithstanding some cute banter between the three fairies, there’s not much good dialogue in Sleeping Beauty anyway. Villain Maleficent doesn’t even get any. Eleanor Audley’s great in the part, but it’s not because of the dialogue, it’s because of the visuals. Sleeping Beauty is all about the visuals, which is why it can usually get away with not having great–or any–dialogue.

The film opens in prologue. There’s a new royal baby and she’s about to be blessed by three fairies–Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, and Barbara Luddy contribute the voices–only then Audley shows up, a magnificent, malevolent “mistress of all evil.” She curses the baby then disappears. It’s up to Luddy to cast a spell to save the baby best as possible (Audley’s too powerful a mistress of all evil to just invalidate the curse).

The story jumps forward sixteen years, to when the curse is supposed to take effect. Mary Costa is voices the grown baby–though, frankly, Costa’s semi-sultry voice is a bit off for a teenage girl. Well, maybe not for Sleeping Beauty since the other part of turning sixteen is her parents to get marry her off to a prince, thereby bringing peace or something.

The only visible clash between Costa’s father (Taylor Holmes) and the prince’s father (Bill Thompson) is Thompson wants Holmes to get drunker than Holmes wants to get. Sleeping Beauty isn’t great on logic. When a movie looks like Sleeping Beauty, it doesn’t need to be great on much else.

The film starts in live action, a dolly into a storybook (Sleeping Beauty), which opens and the illustrations become the animation, the book’s text becomes the narration, and so on. But from the start, the animation is lush and wide. Sleeping Beauty is “Technirama,” a widescreen frame, and Technicolor. Supervising director Geronimi plays a lot with depth, as the fairies are raising Costa in hiding. The great palace is only visible in the background, something Costa has no interest in. Instead, she sings with the adorable forest wildlife and meets a dashing young man.

Sadly, she’s promised to a prince. There’s some drama, but not a lot. A lot of drama would mean less songs and more dialogue. I’m not sure Costa has any dialogue after she gets to the palace to celebrate not having fallen victim to Audley’s curse. Except Audley’s smarter than everyone else, maybe because the fairies are more adorable than they are smart, and the royals are all idiots.

Sorry, back to the visuals. The depth is amazing. The forest goes on and on, filling the frame, with jagged plateaus and endless trees. Geography doesn’t really matter in Sleeping Beauty. There’s apparently only one house in the whole forest, because when Costa’s young man comes calling, he finds the place right away. Too bad she’s off at the castle to meet her prince and Audley’s waiting to capture… someone. It’s never clear. Logic, like I said, isn’t Beauty’s strong point.

The evil stuff is evil, even when it’s amusing–Audley’s got some Gamorrean guards she zaps with force lightning when they’re dumb, which is all of the time. In her first scene to herself, it turns out the only reason Audley’s in such a pickle trying to get her curse to work is because her lackies are all complete idiots. No one’s very smart in Sleeping Beauty, except Audley some of the time and Costa’s young man’s horse more of the time.

But it doesn’t matter. It’s beautiful. The character designs are exquisite. When Costa and the prince stop talking, their expressions are still phemonenal. The animation’s not incredibly detailed on the faces–the fairies get expressions, Audley sort of gets them, no one else–but there’s so much visible emotion. The music, which has its ups and downs (just like the songs), gives the film its progression. It all takes place in a day and a half so there needs to be something to soothe the halty plotting. The music, often adapted from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet, does the trick. George Bruns handles that adaptation.

There are some okay songs. The one with Costa in the forest with her animal friends and then the young man is great. But because of the way the young couple dance their way through the frame–Sleeping Beauty loves to play with reflections and there’re lakes in the forest. The fairies don’t get songs, they get banter. Luddy gives the best performance, mostly because she’s the only one to get any characterization.

The third act, which is a narrative mess, is also a breathtaking action sequence. Geronimi and editors Roy M. Brewer Jr. and Donald Halliday create this phenomenal sequence. It’s not entirely successful–it’s a little rushed and there’s not really any nailbiting–but it’s breathtaking. Even when Sleeping Beauty is uneven, it’s gorgeous to behold.

It’s a beautiful film. Also one with a lot of problems.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clyde Geronimi; screenplay by Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright, and Milt Banta and based on a story by Charles Perrault; edited by Roy M. Brewer Jr. and Donald Halliday; production designers, Ken Anderson and Don DaGradi; released by Buena Vista Film Distribution Co.

Starring Verna Felton (Flora), Barbara Jo Allen (Fauna), Barbara Luddy (Merryweather), Eleanor Audley (Maleficent), Mary Costa (Princess Aurora), Taylor Holmes (King Stefan), Bill Shirley (Prince Phillip), and Bill Thompson (King Hubert).


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