‘Gulliver’s Travels’ on TCM

teaser Max Fleischer was the only real challenger to Walt Disney’s supremacy in the field of animation in the 1930s. As the head of Fleischer Studios, Max had (with his brother Dave, the director) created Ko-Ko the Clown and Betty Boop, incorporated the music and personalities of Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong into their cartoons, and brought Popeye to life in some of the most popular animated shorts of the era (vying with Mickey as the most popular animated character of the day). With an exclusive contract with Paramount Pictures, one of the powerhouse studios in Hollywood, to distribute their shorts, they were seen everywhere.

Max Fleischer had long wanted to make an animated feature — he was already making extended animated shorts with Popeye and Betty Boop and saw great potential in a Popeye feature — but Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures, didn’t see any future in feature-length cartoons. The remarkable success of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 changed his mind and he gave the green light to Fleischer to begin developing a feature for Paramount. He also gave him a deadline: Christmas 1939. A mere year and a half to develop, write, animate, and finish his first ever feature (Disney worked for over three years on Snow White).

Fleischer turned to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the Lilliputian section in particular, for his story. “I knew it was my father’s favorite book since he used to read it to me as a bedtime story when I was a child,” remembers Richard Fleischer, Max’s son, in his 2005 book Out of the Inkwell. He even briefly considered using Popeye as his Gulliver before rejecting the idea in pre-production.

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Plays on TCM on Sunday, October 21

Blu-ray: More ‘Looney Tunes’ with Bugs, Daffy, and friends

“Be vewy, vewy quiet… I’m hunting wabbits!”

Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Volume Two (Warner) follows up Volume One with the HD debut some of the best Warner Bros. cartoons in a creatively curated set.

Disc One is dedicated to the Looney Tunes stars — Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Pepe Le Pew, Foghorn Leghorn, Speedy Gonzales — with some of their earliest and most memorable appearances, including the 1940 Tex Avery-directed “A Wild Hare” (the film that really established the personality of Bugs Bunny), the 1938 Fleischer-esque “Porky in Wackyland” from Bob Clampett, and the Chuck Jones classics “Long-Haired Hare” (going to war with opera tenor Giovanni Jones). “Ali Baba Bunny,” and “Show Biz Bugs” (with Daffy).

Disc Two features fan favorites, off-beat co-stars, and one-shots. “Wabbit Twouble” (1941) was voted the favorite cartoon in an online poll, but my personal favorites are also included as “The Hunting Trilogy” – three cartoons with Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, verbal gymnastics, and surreal zigzags, all written by Michael Maltese (the wordplay champ of the Looney Tunes staff) and directed by Chuck Jones. The verbal byplay of these three films, combined with Jones’ facility for whiplash turns and quick-change role-playing gags, make them among my all-time favorite cartoons. Also includes every appearance of western bad guy Nasty Canasta, sleepy Beaky Buzzard, and hillbilly hobo A. Flea, the complete “Bug Bunny vs. Cecil Turtle” trilogy, and five stand-out one-shots, including the celebrity caricature-stuffed “Hollywood Steps Out” and Chukc Jones’ sweetly surreal “Rocket-Bye Baby” with human parents raising a miss-delivered Martian Baby.

The Blu-ray and DVD editions both feature 25 cartoons per disc. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the collection of commentary tracks on many of the animated shorts and featurettes on the creators, characters, and genres represented in the collection, plus a third disc devoted to special content and rarities from the vault, including 11 of the best cartoons Tex Avery made for MGM after leaving Warner Bros. This collection includes the Oscar-winning “Blitz Wolf” (a wartime reworking of “The Three Little Pigs”), “Red Hot Riding Hood,” “Swing Shift Cinderella” (all with Avery’s magnificent, eyes-a-popping, woman-hungry Wolf), “Screwball Squirrel” and “King-Size Canary” (two of his most wild and crazy cartoons).

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Cool and Classic: ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’

Batman: The Dark Night Returns, Part 1 (Warner), the latest DC Universe animated original movie, tackles Frank Miller’s landmark Batman graphic novel. It’s their most ambitious project to date and if you accept the fact that no conventional animated film could ever really capture the graphic edge of Frank Miller’s dystopian vision or the psychotic intensity of his vigilante fantasy, then you can appreciate how much this direct-to-disc animated feature got right in its translation to a more mainstream audience.

Peter Weller voices old man Bat as an angry, bitter, seventy-something resurrection of the once-retired hero who comes back by sheer force of will in a Gotham City spiraling into chaos, and Ariel Winter (of “Modern Family) is Carrie, the girl who becomes his Robin. Streamlined to a more conventional narrative, the animated film loses the power of Miller’s defining graphic design but is accurate to the story, which becomes more of cartoon of weak-willed liberals in a savage world right out of an Ayn Rand fantasy. But the blocky, square-jawed Batman has the same hard, etched lines and graphic presence of the comic book page and the fight scenes deliver a different kind of action:  the sheer force of will and physical endurance of the old man Bats pushing his body past its limits. The deliberate pacing and pounding action is more about the force of the blows than the grace and spectacle of the choreography. It would take a far more daring approach to really do justice to Miller’s groundbreaking work, which is defined as much by his graphic design as by his writing, but this is at the very least interesting and at best unexpected. The second part of the story is set for release in 2013.

Blu-ray and DVD, with the featurettes “Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story,” previews of upcoming DC Universe animated original movies, and two bonus “Batman” cartoons from the animated series. Exclusive  to the Blu-ray is the featurette “Her Name is Carrie… Her Role is Robin” and a digital comic.

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Animation Original: ‘Superman vs. The Elite’

Superman vs. The Elite (Warner), the latest DC Universe Animated Original Movie, opens with a lively op-art credits sequence that tosses nostalgia and modernity together. It’s a nice introduction to the collision of Superman’s old-school idealism with the ferocious approach by a new group of powerful heroes called The Elite, who take it upon themselves to execute the supervillains and criminals and terrorists they defeat.

Adapted by Joe Kelly from the comic book he created in 2001 and directed by Michael Chang, it’s a morality take for the post-September 11, 2001 world, with The Elite declaring war on bad guys. Sounds good, until they choose to play executioner without trial, and come close to genocide when they wipe out the military of a terrorist country with a fair amount of collateral damage.

So yes, there’s plenty of debate about justice and moral responsibility. These new heroes, led by the flamboyant Manchester Black (who can control matter with his mind on molecular level), are cheered by a fearful population that wants retribution as much as it wants protection. Superman sounds increasingly like a boy scout as he debates the new superstars of the superhero constellation, but he refuses to shirk his responsibility to the adopted planet. And the epic displays of animated action spectacle culminate in a very effective object lesson in power and restraint from the Man of Steel. It’s actually pretty scary (in a fun way) to see him off the leash, and the PG-13 in part comes from the finale.

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DVD/Blu-ray: ‘The Secret World of Arrietty” and other Hayao Miyazaki wonders

The Secret World of Arrietty (Disney), the latest animated film from Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, adapts Mary Norton’s classic children’s book “The Borrowers” in the old school art of hand-drawn animation. Hiromasa Yonebayashi is the director but the sensibility is very much Miyazaki, who produced, co-scripted, and planned the production.

The Secret World of Arrietty

Miyazaki is a living treasure in Japan, a revered storyteller and beloved filmmaker whose work is treated with the same respect as Disney classics in the U.S., and he has long offered strong, brave girls as the protagonists of his stories. Arrietty is yet another dynamic heroine, a teenage girl only a few inches tall who lives hidden in the floorboards of a human home with her father and mother.

She knows of no other Borrowers (as these little people are called, because they “borrow” things the humans won’t notice missing in their nighttime forages) so, despite her own instincts, she befriends the sickly boy who has moved into the house and quietly observed her presence.

The images are marvelous, a lovely example of Ghibli hand-drawn animation and a reminder of the kind of personality that comes through this kind of art, but it is the compassion and depth of character that makes it such a moving film. So rarely do films for kids explore themes of mortality and isolation with such delicacy and depth.

Also new this week is the Blu-ray debut of two classic animated features from Studio Ghibli. Castle in the Sky (Disney) and Whisper of the Heart (Disney), written and produced by Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo.

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The Best of ‘Looney Tunes’ on Blu-ray

Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 1 (Warner) promises “50 of the greatest shorts the studio has ever made” and I while I may quibble over specific choices, I can’t fault the overall curation of the collection, which leans toward the diversity of artists, characters and styles through the golden age of the Warner animation unit.

Disc One features the best of the defining characters: Bug Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, plus Sylvester and Tweety, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, Pepe le Pew and Speedy Gonzales. Among the 25 cartoons collected here are Chuck Jones’ two brilliant opera spoofs “Rabbit of Seville” and “What’s Opera, Doc,” Daffy in “The Scarlet Pumpernickel” and “Robin Hood Daffy,” the Oscar-winning “Tweetie Pie” (the debut of Tweety Bird), two definitive Road Runner classics and one of the greatest cartoons every made: “Duck Amuck,” where Daffy goes to war against a prankster animator.

Disc Two is a treasure trove of the studio’s greatest one-shots and minor creations. Along with such one-offs as “One Froggy Evening” (the wordless masterpiece with the all-singing, all dancing frog) “The Three Little Bops” (a jazzbo rendition of The Three Little Pigs with Stan Freberg doing voice duty) and “The Dover Boys at Pimento University” (Chuck Jones’ wonderfully surreal parody of 19th century dime novels with Tom, Dick and Larry and not-so-helpless damsel Dora) are the complete golden age appearance of Marvin the Martian (five cartoons, including “Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century”), the Tasmanian Devil (five cartoons), Witch Hazel (four), kitten-loving canine Marc Antony (three) and Ralph Richards, the boy daydreamer whose flights of fantasy take him through the most delightful of boy’s own adventures (two cartoons, both directed by Chuck Jones).

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“Gnomeo and Juliet” – Love Among the Lawn Ornaments

The Combo Pack

Gnomeo and Juliet (Disney)

The Shakespeare romantic drama gets played out by rival families (gangs? herds? colonies?) of garden gnomes from neighboring English garden yards, a feud that’s been going on for… well, as long as any of these lawn ornaments can remember. These guys are color coded for easy identification—red hats and blue hats, matching the garish design themes of their dotty old homeowners (the Montagues and Capulets, naturally)—and their shenanigans play out to a score of classic Elton John songs (and two new ones) and a script crammed full of pop-culture references and Shakespeare puns (their address: 2B and Not 2B Verona Drive, Stratford-Upon-Avon)​.

Directed by Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2) and produced by Elton John through his company, Rocket Productions (which gets him his own gnome figure), Gnomeo and Juliet riffs off the Toy Story conceit that these inanimate objects get very animated indeed when people aren’t looking, and of course two rivals fall in love as the rivalry escalates into acts of ceramic destruction.

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“The Illusionist” – The Theater of Magic, The Magic of Theater

Bluy-ray+DVD Combo

The Illusionist (Sony)

Sylvain Chomet (of the delirious The Triplets of Belleville) transforms an unproduced script by French auteur Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle) into a tender tale of a French magician and a Scottish girl in the theater-folk society of London as the old world of stage performance gives way to the new theater of rock and roll. They don’t even speak the same language, not that words are the currency of communication in this film, a delicate and delightful piece of old-fashioned hand-drawn animation where character is in body language and personality in the “performance.”

Chomet doesn’t just adapt Tati’s script, he models his lanky magician Tatischeff on Tati’s own distinctive screen character and performance style. And while he has his own approach to staging screen comedy, Chomet shares Tati’s preference to playing scenes out in full shots and long takes where his characters can fill the world with their presence. His screen Tati evokes the original beautifully while creating a unique animated character in its right. As the title suggests, the magic here is all illusion, a matter of sleight of hand and stagecraft, but Chomet reminds us that theater and art creates its own brand of magic. Chomet’s brand of animated magic earned the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature.

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That’s Incredible(s)!

Four discs is Pixar genius

The Incredibles (Disney)

The digital debut of modern animation great Brad Bird (The Iron Giant) makes its Blu-ray debut.

Working with the computer animation pros at Pixar for the first (but not the last) time, Bird drops cartoonishly exaggerated super-heroics into the typical (by all outside appearances) suburban nuclear family, creating a super-powered dynamo of dysfunction and frustration in hiding (they’re in witness protection from years of personal injury lawsuits against the crime-fighting hero types). Dad, aka Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), is a walking house stuck behind an insurance adjuster’s desk who secretly sets up his neighborhood watch for a taste of the old thrill and Mom, aka Elasti-Girl (Holly Hunter), stays at home to raise a shy teenage girl prone to turning invisible and a rambunctious speed demon son with a penchant for pranks, until a secret organization recruits Mr. Incredible for a return to duty.

Bird gets in plenty of digs about cultural coddling and conformity while creating a familiar family dynamic and then transforms it into a spandex suit version of a seventies James Bond thriller. True to form, Bird doesn’t coddle the audience when it comes to the danger faced by the family when megalomaniac supervillain Syndrome (a young punk who looks like the Heatmiser and is voiced by Jason Lee as a cruel, cocky brat) targets the Incredibles: “They will kill you if they get the chance,” Elasti-Girl cautions her kids in utterly grave tones. “Do not give them that chance.” The brassy score by Michael Giaccino is a perfect Bond-ian pastiche.

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Family Release of the Week: Tangled

Tangled up in a Combo Pack

Tangled” (Disney)

After stumbling through their own in-house CGI animated features, Disney (with a little guidance from Pixar’s creative leader and new Disney animation czar John Lasseter) finally finds the right balance of classic animation magic and contemporary sensibility with this comic musical adventure version of the “Rapunzel” fairy tale. And it does so without superstar casting or a surfeit of pop-culture references. This one features a plucky little girl with an epic mane of magic hair that glows when she sings (Mandy Moore), a dashing rogue of an outlaw who ends up a partner on her quest (Zachary Levi), a stepmom who walks all over her self-esteem (Donna Murphy), a chameleon with a wry sense of humor, a horse that thinks he’s a dog and a rogues gallery of hard-bitten thugs with a dream in their hearts.

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The Miyazaki Animation Legacy in “Earthsea” and “Nausicaa”

“Tales From Earthsea” DVD (Disney)
“Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind” Blu-ray+DVD Combo (Disney)

Like father, like son?

Hayao Miyazaki is a household name in Japan, thanks to such films as “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away” and “Ponyo.” Stateside, however, he’s too often been described as Japan’s Walt Disney, a comparison that captures the director’s dedication to animated films of wonder and imagination (which extends to all the films from his Studio Ghibli), but misses his distinctive sensibility. Miyazaki is an original with an epic vision, an animist mythology, an environmentally-cons​cious subtext and a dedication to the art of hand-drawn animation that he maintains even in the face of the digital revolution. Disney, fittingly enough, releases two features from his Studio Ghibli this week.

“Tales From Earthsea,” based on the “Earthsea” novels by Ursula Le Guin and a concept developed by Hayao Miyazaki, marks the directorial debut of his son, Goro Miyazaki. Miyazaki Pere’s influence is very apparent in the themes of nature in balance and the greed of mankind tipping the scales, and the character designs and types are also familiar, with dragons out of Asian culture dropped into a medieval European world of castles and towers. Yet he lacks his father’s storytelling richness and narrative sweep, and for all the gorgeous detail of the animation he fails to create much tension or energy. Fans of Ursula Le Guin will have their own problems with the way the film boils down her mythology to a generic fantasy odyssey tale. But there is a visual grace unique to the Studio Ghibli brand, and the dark powers manifest themselves in a weirdness that bends the natural world in unnatural ways.

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Blu-ray of the Week: Bambi – Diamond Edition

Blu Bambi

Bambi: Diamond Edition” (Disney)

Graceful and gorgeous, gentle and fierce, delicate and majestic, Walt Disney’s “Bambi” is often cited as the greatest animated film ever made and the crown jewel from the golden years of Disney animation. Agree or not, the fifth full-length animated feature from Disney is a magnificent piece of animated storytelling and a cinematic landmark that has lost none of its wonder or power over the years. Adapted from the novel by Felix Salter and directed by David Hand (under the close supervision of Walt Disney), the story follows the life of a small fawn over the course of four seasons as he develops from childhood innocence (with a menagerie of delightful animal friends) through adult responsibility. Like the best of Disney, the animal characters burst with personality with every perfectly animated every movement and the colors are painted with a delicacy unseen in contemporary animated feature filmmaking. AV Club critic Noel Murray wrote in 2005 that the film “isn’t so much animated as illustrated like a vintage children’s book, with elegant painted backgrounds occupied by simplified faces.” The multi-plane photography is amazing, giving the painted cels a sense of depth and the camerawork a graceful fluidity. And it is the rare children’s movie that broaches the subject of death in a meaningful and profound way.

Film Archivist and Home Theater Forum guru Robert Harris likes the new Blu-ray, but as you can read in the comments thread of this forum, Disney’s decision to rejigger the colors for a brighter, more modern palette is still the subject of much debate and criticism. As Harris writes, “The re-imagining of the Disney classics has taken its toll, frustrated many who love the originals, and will continue to stir controversy.” But home theater critics across the board have given this their seal of approval, including Gary Tooze at DVD Beaver. And, to add my voice to the choir, me. This is a gorgeous and lush Blu-ray presentation.

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