‘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

DVDs for 3/10/09 – ‘Milk,’ ‘Rachel Getting Married,’ ‘Let the Right One In,’ ‘Pinocchio’ and more

I suppose that the studios have reasons for their releasing patterns, but it’s beyond me why so many major New Releases – from Oscar nominees and critical favorites to mainstream successes to notable foreign dramas – are getting poured into the DVD marketplace on March 10. It’s so busy that I bumped two of the foreign releases – Ben X and Claude Miller’s A Secret – to my March 17 column on MSN just so they wouldn’t get swamped in the deluge. And still there were so many that I was unable to fit in reviews of many interesting film that deserved coverage. I didn’t even get a chance to see Cadillac Records, the dramatized story of Chess Records starring Adrian Brody as Leonard Chess and a great supporting cast playing R&B legends (Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf, Mos Def as Chuck Berry and Beyoncé Knowles as Etta James), which I missed in the theaters. And Synecdoche, New York and Battle in Seattle have been relegated to mere listings under the reviews.

So that’s what isn’t covered this week at MSN. What is? Gus Van Sant’s Milk, which won Oscars for Sean Penn’s inspiring performance as Harvey Milk and for Dustin Lance Black’s (for more conventional) screenplay. Their Harvey Milk is not a crucified messiah but a flesh-and-blood human being who rediscovers himself and his potential when he moves to San Francisco and comes out as a proud gay man. Penn plays Milk as a goofy, gay nerd who wins folks over with his sincerity, his passion and his complete lack of self-consciousness and the film focuses less on Milk’s triumphs than on his activism, how he shaped a movement and showed gay men and lesbian women all over the country that they could stand up for their rights as a political force.

Jonathan Demme’s marvelous Rachel Getting Married, which earned an Oscar nomination for Anne Hathaway and delivers one of the great ensemble performances of the year – Demme creates an incredible community/extended family and pulls it together with a great use of music. (I reviewed the film for the Seattle P-I here.)

Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, which earned star Sally Hawkins a basket full of awards but no Oscar nomination, and stands out as gloomy Leigh’s most genuinely and honestly optimistic film ever.

And my personal favorite of the New Releases this week: Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish vampire film / young love horror piece Let the Right One In, which was on my Top Ten list for 2008. (I review the film on my blog here and for Parallax View here.)
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