Sunday, December 05, 2010

Animated: The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Fantasia, Fantasia 2000

I was originally going to review Prince Achmed either on its own or alongside some of the other Weimar Germany films, but fate stepped in, inasmuch as there is anything to "fate" beyond "coincidences ascribed a higher purpose after the fact". I was going to return to the Harvard Film Archive the next night in order to watch the original 1952 version of The Narrow Margin, since the 1990 remake with Gene Hackman is a minor favorite of mine. When I got there, though, there was a note on the door stating that the film had proved unavailable, and they were showing the first two episodes of Godard's Histoires de Cinema. I didn't feel much like that, and instead of going directly home, I made a pit stop at Mr. Bartley's for a Mumbles Menino cheeseburger (7 oz. beef, cheddar, bacon, and a fried egg; as much as I've scratched my head about the egg when told that was how burgers were done in France, it is in fact delicious) and a "Cherry Bomb" frappe (vanilla ice cream, chocolate chip cookies, and, of course, cherries). Stuffed full of food, I headed back home just in time to see a UPS delivery guy walking away from my door and a package from Amazon there. The package contained, you got it, the 2 Blu-ray/2 DVD set of Fantasia and Fantasia 2000, and I opted to watch them then and there.

Maybe if I hadn't stopped for that burger, I would have got home, got busy doing or watching something else, and set the movies aside in my "too be watched, but not necessarily soon, because I've seen them before" pile. And by "pile", I mean "80% of my media shelving". But, that's not how it worked out, so, thanks, Bartley's, for being nearby and delicious.

It's a silly bit of narrative, but worth mentioning because watching Fantasia did trigger another memory. I don't remember many specific moviegoing experiences - that's why I've been keeping the scrapbook for the past couple years, for that tangible reminder - but my first time seeing Fantasia is one of them. It was probably during the 1982 re-release, when I would have been eight or nine (1977 is possible, but then I would only have been four, and my brother Dan just one, and I'm pretty sure he was there). Though it was probably playing in one of the Portland-area theaters, we went to see it at a theater in New Hampshire. Probably North Conway; my parents liked that town. Maybe this place. The point is, while the local theaters were all those unimpressive multiplexes, with about six screens and none of them, in retrospect, very good, this was a single-screen theater, with a silver screen that was so big I had to turn my head to see everything once the curtain had opened. And on that screen, well, wow; I'd never seen the like not just because I was eight and hadn't seen much, but because there's nothing else like Fantasia, and I can remember the "Rite of Spring" segment and its ambition blowing my little mind.

I was reminded of that when I hit that segment on the Blu-ray Tuesday night, mumbling that I had to get a new BD player so that I could jump to that scene whenever I wanted without it taking ten minutes to start up (to this day, I wonder why we're using Blu-ray instead of HD-DVD when the Toshiba HD-1 cost half as much and didn't suck like the Samsung BDP-1000). Again, it's probably a case of ascribing too much significance to something that seems to form a pattern after the fact, but that day may be part of why I love movies and great theaters so much. A large part comes from working in a theater in college (I could both see everything and notice a stark difference between the really good house and the less impressive ones), but one day when I was eight years old, a good movie being shown in a really good theater was worth a special trip. Today, well, I routinely take long bus rides so that I can see movies, whether for an hour and a half each way to see them on the IMAX screen in Reading or overnight at that other Fantasia, in Montreal. Maybe I would have anyway. But maybe not. So, thanks, Mom & Dad, for that trip to New Hampshire.

Anyway, reviews now, after one note about them: I always check to see whether there are existing reviews on eFilmCritic, just in case spending two hours writing rather than twenty minutes would just result in a duplication of effort. Though I always link to these reviews as EFC, when they recruited me, their primary brand was Hollywood Bitch-Slap. To this day, those sites both lead to slightly different front ends on the same data, but most everybody uses EFC rather than HBS when talking to festivals, publicists, etc., not just because it is less likely to offend, but because that's what the writing has evolved into. When you follow the links to my reviews of Fantasia and Fantasia 2000, check out the reviews that were there before. I'm not saying tha what I've written is objectively better, but it's certainly a sign that HBS/EFC used to have a very different focus.

Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 November 2010 at the Harvard Film Archive (Decadent Shadows: The Cinema of Weimar Germany)

Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is generally the movie people bring up when discussing the first feature-length animated film, but there were several others before that. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the earliest surviving animated feature, but not nearly as well-known as Snow White, in part because it's German and silent and different-looking. Look past that, though, and you'll find a fun adventure movie as well as a piece of cinematic history.

An African sorcerer has designs on the city of the Caliph; he visits and shows his wonders off to the Caliph and his daughter, Dinarsade. He disposes of Dinarsade's brother Achmed by sticking him on a flying mechanical horse that rises in the air uncontrollably. Achmed gets control somewhere over the far-off island of Wak-Wak, where he romances the Princess Pari Bunu. But, the Sorcerer's influence is far-reaching, and Achmed will require the help of the Fire Mountain Witch and the legendary Aladdin to rescue the ladies and return home.

Director Lotte Reiniger (assisted by her husband, Carl Koch) had a very specific style, working not so much with drawn figures but with cut-outs. Thus, the characters appear almost exclusively as silhouettes, with facial expression much less a tool than body language. While describing the technique brings to mind static puppets moving only on crude pivots, Reiniger and Koch manage to create some amazing effects, not just creating rather detailed figures that move naturally, but by animating them so smoothly that the shapes on screen are often extraordinarily fluid (few people using this style of animation do so well with smoke and liquid eighty years later). Indeed, some of the effects appear to make use of something akin to the multiplane photography Disney would later pioneer, giving a feeling of depth to the world in which these flat creations live.

Full review at EFC.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 30 November 2010 in Jay's Living Room (Blu-ray Disc)

Fantasia is built to last. Certainly, in some aspects it occasionally appears dated, and one sequence has been digitally edited in its recent releases because societal attitudes have changed (for the better), but seventy years passing has not made the music less stirring or the animation less impressive. Walt Disney's ambitious project, though a commercial bust in the 1940s, has the combination of timeless content and exquisite craftsmanship that will keep it accessible, entertaining, and occasionally awe-inspiring for a long time to come.

Only two elements have not aged particularly well: First, one dark-skinned character, drawn in a caricatured style no longer considered acceptable, has been erased, although folks who don't know it's there may never miss it. Second, the introductions to the various pieces by Deems Taylor may come across as redundant and dry to a generation that absorbs information much more quickly than their grandparents, and varies from a stern lecture to a whimsical conversation with the film's soundtrack. And to be fair, that's not just being dated - these segments were cut from the film after its initial release, and added back in later.

The rest, though, is almost perfect. There are a couple of exercises in nearly-pure abstraction - the aforementioned "Soundtrack" bit and the Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" - which, in addition to showing how "absolute music" can create images in our minds that don't necessarily have a story connected, also serve to ease the audience into the animation after the introduction and intermission. It's a canny device; no matter what one's prior knowledge of orchestral music is, these segments give an audience member the chance to appreciate it on its own, as opposed to as background, while still engaging the eyes.

Two other segments are more traditional musical segments. The second segment, "The Nutcracker Suite", is not quite so abstract as its predecessor, but dispenses with the well-known story from the Tchaikovsky's ballet. Instead, it uses different plants and animals as counterpoints to the song's different themes. It's a whimsical piece, with a number of fun characters dancing about, able to change from one thing to another quickly and smoothly. "Dance of the Hours', the second-to-last segment, could easily be removed from the film and play as one of Disney's "Silly Symphonies", but it's a delightful one, as unlikely creatures like hippos and alligators perform a ballet from Amilcare Ponchielli's oepra "La Gioconda". Disney was good at this sort of thing, and it's a funny, oddly beautiful cartoon.

Full review at EFC.

Fantasia 2000

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 November 2010 in Jay's Living Room (Blu-ray Disc)

Most know that Walt Disney originally intended to re-release Fantasia periodically with new segments added and old ones rotated out, a plan that never came to fruition because that movie was an expensive box-office dud that became beloved later in its life. And maybe that's for the best; sustaining that kind of excellence over time would have been difficult. Indeed, when Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney finally managed to revisit the project, the result was delightful, well worth the cost of an IMAX ticket when features playing in that format were unusual and a joy to re-watch, but not quite the audacious achievement of its predecessor.

Do not take that as faint praise - Fantasia 2000 is a wonderful movie. Made as Disney's traditional animation department sputtered toward its eventual shuttering, it demonstrated that the form still had life in it. It is, however, less challenging than the original Fantasia, more focused on storytelling than pure imagery. Where Fantasia is a concert of sights and sounds, Fantasia 2000 is an anthology film, where Deems Taylor's authoritative introductions replaced by celebrity bits where Angela Lansbury's class is a singular and welcome departure from the foolishness of some of the other hosts.

Only one piece is truly abstract, the geometrically-inspired accompaniment to Beethoven's "Symphony Number 5" that opens the film (and ends all too quickly). It's not the only very short piece, a spritely, silly version of Camille Saint-Saens's "Carnival of the Animals" sits in the middle of the film. Its dancing flamingos are funny and well drawn - and it forms an interesting contrast to the piece that follows it, a reprise of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". It's instructive, in a way, a look at how even traditional cel-based animation has evolved over time, as the 60-year-old segment has a nuanced, comparatively dark look that pulls all the elements together, while the newer piece has bright, glossy coloring, simplified compared to the grainy classic piece.

Modern digital animation not quite being up to hand-drawn work is a criticism that could certainly be leveled at "Pines of Rome", the first major item on the program. Despite the apparently pastoral title of Ottorino Resphighi's piece, it's an often-dramatic bit of music, and the imagery - of whales who somehow learn to fly - does an amazing job of going from playful to majestic along with the music. At first glance, though, one can't help but notice that the whales themselves seem to be separately animated pieces grafted together, hand-drawn eyes stuck onto digitally rendered creatures. It's a very odd look, but one which works with the sound and the imagery - a freehand touch to something otherwise made to precise specifications - and while it initially seemed like a compromise, falling back on one technique where another failed, it's actually just how that piece is supposed to look.

Full review at EFC.

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