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Iron Man (2008)

Mainly we watch older movies here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time, but we’re going to cycle the Marvel Universe movies into a rotation so that he’ll have the chance to see some of them before next summer. Maybe we’ll see five or six of them before the next Avengers movie? Seven might be a good age to see these on the big screen. He’s pretty mature for his age and very well-behaved in theaters. And if this is any indication, he might just love that Avengers film. He told us at lunch that Iron Man is second only to his beloved Captain Underpants as his all-time favorite movie.

That’s not to say it didn’t baffle him in places. It’s interesting to look back in the series; I’ve seen two of the films twice, and the rest no more than once, in theaters. I’ve been picking these up when I find copies, usually used, at a sensible price. They never seem to be on sale, and Marvel Studios has not released any sensible collected-in-sequence editions to take up less space on fans’ shelves. So I bought some six-disk boxes and wish I had a copy of Photoshop and the talent to make new artwork for them!

It’s amazing how comparatively slow this movie is. It takes a long, long time for Tony Stark to appear in his first suit of armor. The more recent movies, particularly Doctor Strange, work in shorthand compared to this. Iron Man spends a lot of time, and I mean a lot of time, emphasizing how insufferable and arrogant Tony Stark is. It’s all hugely entertaining and I wouldn’t change a minute, I’m just interested in how the later origin films follow the early ones’ template, trusting the audience, once they’ve seen a few of these, to understand the main character from much shorter sketches.

There are lots of reasons I don’t see many modern movies. One of them is that I prefer the comfort of the character actors of the sixties and seventies; I just don’t see enough modern movies and television to really know the actors. Honestly, I’m not kidding, I’ve seen Scarlett Johansson in literally one film that isn’t a Marvel movie. I know her as a singer first, and Black Widow second! I’ve even missed most of Robert Downey Jr.’s career. According to IMDB, I’ve seen him in exactly four roles other than Tony Stark, and I was in high school for two of those. (He was in a movie version of The Singing Detective? There’s a movie version of The Singing Detective?)

Anyway, it’s become standard in blog posts about Marvel movies to praise the casting. These might be the movies’ real genius, because the plots aren’t anything that outrageous. The stories don’t thrill me and CGI special effects don’t make my jaw drop any more, so it’s all about the casting and the humor for me. Iron Man introduces us to Stark, to Gwenyth Paltrow’s long-suffering Pepper Potts, Jon Favreau’s loyal Happy Hogan, and Clark Gregg’s SHIELD agent Coulson. Samuel L. Jackson shows up right at the end as Nick Fury, setting an unhappy precedent of sitting around through a million credits for maybe sixty bonus seconds.

Terrence Howard played James Rhodes in this movie. I’m not sure why, but Don Cheadle took over the part after this one. Blink and you’ll miss Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer in A Nero Wolfe Mystery) as a general. Leslie Bibb plays a reporter and Jeff Bridges – okay, him I’ve seen a fair bit – is the villain. They’re all excellent.

While Bridges is terrific as the villain Obadiah Stane, this story does suffer more than a little from the same malady that infects so many superhero movies: the odd need to have the hero’s and the villain’s stories intertwined. As such, Stane’s betrayal is never even remotely surprising. I was once told that I should have known that immediately, but I wasn’t reading Iron Man comics in the eighties, when it appears that the character was introduced, and never heard of the Iron Monger until they made a piece for him in Heroclix, a collectible combat game I once played.

The business about Stark Industries’ stock prices plummeting was over our son’s head, and he was probably tuned out for about six of this movie’s 120 minutes. But Jon Favreau, who directed the movie as well as playing Happy Hogan, knew how to keep things busy and moving for even the younger viewers. Some of the humor was over his head, but the slapstick of Tony learning to fly had him riveted and guffawing. I like how you just know one of those cars is going to get crushed; place your bets on which one. The action scenes had his eyes popping out of his head. I was just a little worried that Iron Man’s first appearance in the caves would frighten him, but it didn’t. This morning was all talk about Iron Man, and how he can’t wait for the next Marvel movie. Then we rented him the complete Hanna-Barbera cartoon Wacky Races and he might have forgotten about Tony and his friends. (Car # 6, the Army Surplus Special, is his favorite. I like the Gruesome Twosome most myself.)

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The Last Dinosaur (1977)

“That was partly scary, partly cool, and partly I didn’t know what was going on,” announced our son after we watched the full theatrical version of The Last Dinosaur. Good thing that the Warner Archive people released that edition and not the US TV one, which has fifteen minutes cut out; he’d probably be even more confused by that.

Rankin/Bass had been working with Japanese production companies since the 1960s. While the company will always be best known for its stop-motion holiday specials that were part of every American seventies kid’s childhood, many of these featured animation done by Japanese studios. Rankin/Bass also had worked with Toei on the sixties cartoon The King Kong Show, and with Toho on an incredibly fun movie adaptation of that program, called King Kong Escapes. They also contracted with Mushi for animation for some of their TV specials, so their people knew some people when it was time for some international co-productions.

By 1975, Tsubaraya Productions was looking for new projects to diversify and become more than just the Ultraman studio. With Rankin/Bass, they found B-movie heaven. Thanks in no small part to the incompetent dub jobs by Sandy Frank’s crew, much of Tsubaraya’s seventies sci-fi output is rich in unintentional comedy, but The Last Dinosaur, along with two subsequent fantasy movies, The Bermuda Depths and The Ivory Ape, are a lot more obscure and have a little better reputation. I can’t speak for the other two, but while The Last Dinosaur may not be art, it’s certainly entertaining.

It stars Richard Boone as the world’s richest man, an industrialist and big game hunter, along with Joan Van Ark as a photojournalist, Steven Keats as a handsome scientist, and former Cavaliers backup center Luther Rackley as a Masai tracker who doesn’t have any dialogue. In a premise shamelessly pilfered from Burroughs with a hint of Verne, oil exploration has found a hidden prehistoric valley in the Arctic circle. It’s a much smaller Land That Time Forgot on the other side of the planet, with far fewer monsters.

Naturally, there’s only one tyrannosaur left, meaning they timed this exploration just right, because these things can’t have that long a lifespan. This thing is incredibly violent and lethal. After killing four of the five members of the previous expedition, the dinosaur has one from this party for lunch before taking on a triceratops in a remarkably bloody fight. By the end, the beast has my respect as well as the big game hunter’s. He’s an incredibly ruthless opponent.

Wikipedia claims that the tyrannosaur suit was reused for Tsubaraya’s idiotic cartoon/live-action hybrid TV show Dinosaur War Aizenbourg, but I’m not sure about that. Maybe the body, but they took away the great-looking head from this movie and gave the TV beast a different one. On the other hand, The Last Dinosaur‘s head is shown to be a bit more hollow than something which should have a skull in it when a catapulted boulder betrays its rubber reality.

I’ve never been a fan of Richard Boone – not even in Have Gun, Will Travel, which everybody likes more than I do – but Joan Van Ark is great in this, and I do appreciate the way the actors get incredibly muddy and disheveled in this film. The script has a couple of surprises – it’s not an overnight jaunt, like some in this genre – and an interesting ending. It does go on a bit in between dinosaur attacks, as these sort of films from the era often did, leading to a fake yawn from our favorite six year-old critic, but he came around in the end. I asked him whether he enjoys monster movies because they’re partly scary. “Yeah, and because they have monsters in them.”

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Wombling Free (1977)

In my favorite part of Neil Jordan’s 2005 film Breakfast on Pluto, the character played by Cillian Murphy gets a job at a family fun park based on the BBC’s Wombles. It’s set in the mid-seventies, when the Wombles were pop culture juggernauts. The park seems to be an invention of the movie and not a real place, but you could imagine it happening. To put their dominance into perspective, in 1974, the Wombles, with their kid-friendly songs by Mike Batt, managed more weeks on the UK Singles chart than any other pop music act.

So, in that grand tradition of striking while the iron is hot, it took three more years for a Wombles feature film to be released. It is ninety minutes long, and it feels like nine hundred and ninety.

The film stars David Tomlinson and Frances de la Tour as the parents of a young teenager played by Bonnie Langford whose lives become intertwined with the rubbish-collecting residents of Wimbledon Common. The charming stop-motion puppetry and hilarious narration by Bernard Cribbins that made the TV show so engaging and cute were discarded in favor of full-size mascot costumes and voices by David Jason and Jon Pertwee. That’s kind of all you need to know about why this film isn’t going to appeal to anybody over the age of eight, and that’s pushing it. You watch the five-minute Wombles TV episodes for the delightful puppetry and silliness from Cribbins. You watch the ninety-minute Wombles movie because you have watched everything else that’s ever been made already.

I believe that this was Langford’s film debut, and it was made between the two series of Just William, where, as the spoiled rotten Violet Elizabeth Bott, she became one of the television characters that people hated above all others. Since she was unknown to American audiences, I was baffled by the hatred that Doctor Who fans expressed when she joined the show in 1986. I didn’t like her character, Mel, when I was a teenager, but I was wrong. She’s also probably the best thing about this movie, somehow. Tomlinson and de la Tour just phoned in their performances and are completely unbelievable as actual human beings in every last scene, while their young co-star is actually making the effort.

For the under-eights, this might – might – work. I won’t pretend that our experience would be repeated in your own home, but our son, six, did enjoy the musical numbers a lot, and surprised the heck out of me with a huge and happy hug when David Tomlinson finally sees and acknowledges the Wombles. Up to then, he’d been passing by them without a second glance. In the next scene, Tomlinson is doing a choreographed dance routine with the Wombles set to the tune of their popular song “Exercise Is Good For You (Laziness Is Not),” which is not something I ever expected to see.

Chris Spedding played guitar on that song. Imagine that.

I grouse, but this can actually be looked at from another angle, and that’s how downright weird the script is. What might have been major plot points in another movie are introduced and then completely abandoned. Early on, it looks like the movie’s going to be about the Wombles getting the human family to notice them so they can stop a freeway construction across their home of Wimbledon Common. Not ten minutes later, John Junkin calls off the excavators; they intended to build at Wandsworth Common. Then there’s some business with a miracle plant formula called Womgrow. If it mixes with polluted air, it could wreak havoc, and Bungo Womble is taking it to the humans, uncapped, as a gift. Disaster looms, right? But the Womgrow doesn’t even make it to the humans and is forgotten. It’s so odd!

But while the script is built to baffle, where it’s certain to offend is with the “Japanese” neighbors. Holy anna. I thought that I was used to watching dated stereotypes in films and TV from the sixties and seventies, but this surprised even me. Bernard Spear plays “the Jap chap,” and Yasuko Nagazumi is his wife, who does not speak English and dresses in full geisha costume and makeup for a dinner party. Spear can’t pronounce his Ls, talks about kamikazes, and freaking Pink Lady and Jeff was more culturally sensitive.

In short, this is certainly one of the lousiest films we’ve watched for this blog. Fugitive Alien might have been a little worse. But you know what? I kind of liked that big hug I got when Tomlinson goes to shake Great Uncle Bulgaria’s paw. I could suffer through ninety minutes for a hug that nice from a kid so happy.

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

News traveled very, very slowly in the late 1980s. I was talking in a recent post about how I’ve got no time for all that “good old days” nostalgia, but I confess that, of course, I’m fond of thinking about all the hoops we had to jump through to watch television and movies from other countries when I was a teenager. These days, I understand you can subscribe to a streaming service – a legitimate one! – and watch Japanese cartoons, subtitled, the same week everybody else gets to see them. There’s even a company called Discotek that specializes in licensing the most obscure titles imaginable, from stone-cold classics like Endless Orbit SSX to garbage like Chargeman Ken, with English translations by people who actually care about doing them accurately.

But back then, months and months would go by before VHS tapes would start to circulate. People would hear about new films and TV shows, but heaven only knows when anybody would see subtitled copies of them. If I remember correctly, I didn’t see a subtitled edition of this movie, then called Totoro of the Neighborhood, until either the 1989 or 1990 Atlanta Fantasy Fair. (And what I remember is dubbing my own copy of the movie while minding the anime video room, because that’s what we did in those wild west days.) A dubbed edition, made by a company run by the late Carl Macek, didn’t appear until 1993. I have a pan-and-scan DVD of this release which I bought to replace the VHS tape that my older children watched to death. It was redubbed under the Disney umbrella in 2005; I should probably have purchased a proper widescreen version of this dub before now.

(Madly, the release history of Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature film, The Castle of Cagliostro, is more convoluted than that; I have the Manga Video/Anchor Bay DVD and that’s good enough for me.)

So anyway, My Neighbor Totoro is flatly one of my favorite animated movies, despite lacking the sort of plot-driven dynamic that I usually enjoy most. This isn’t an adventure movie; it’s a little character study about two little girls who meet some woodland spirits. The most that happens is that the younger girl gets lost. But it’s just so good. If you enjoy cartoons for perfect comic timing, then this thing is a masterpiece. There’s not a frame introduced too early or held too long in the legendary bus stop sequence. The scene is one perfect shot after another, and I have never watched it without laughing so hard that I cry.

And Mei, the younger girl, is an absolutely perfect creation. Every single thing that Mei does, from opening the same doors that her big sister opens to exploding with tears and stomping away with snot all over her face, just has me in stitches. So when she does get lost, it’s scary. Even having watched this movie two dozen times and knowing perfectly well that she’ll be fine, it’s still scary.

We gave our six year-old son a heads-up that the girls in this movie get scared, but that there is nothing to worry about and everybody in this film will be fine. Either it didn’t sink in or Mei getting lost really is that troubling, because our son was really, really worried for her. But overall he loved the movie, as all children do, and told us that the Catbus was – of course – his favorite character. Everybody loves the Catbus.

Totoro is a magical movie. From the color choices to the music to the nervous body language of the boy next door, it’s a movie with so much more attention to detail than I was expecting in the late 1980s. The 87 minutes you spend in this little rural community feel like weeks, and you won’t mind the time investment even slightly. Whether you’ve got kids or not, this movie is a must.

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Ponyo (2008)

Marie asked whether we were going to show our son Ponyo. I said nah, let’s throw him in the Miyazaki deep end with Princess Mononoke.

I’m kidding, of course. If you want to start listing reasons why Hayao Miyazaki’s films are so beloved in the United States, then you could get a little cynical and grouchy, or you could note that there are Miyazaki movies for every age. He’s directed films for eleven-at-hearts and for older audiences, but he’s also made a few that are absolutely perfect for six year-olds. So here’s the first of a couple that we’re watching this fall. Ponyo was released in Japan in 2008 and came out in the US with a very wide release in multiplexes all across the country the following year. It did pretty respectable business for a cartoon without any merchandising, and while it wasn’t a blockbuster, it attracted crowds beyond anime fans, and I just can’t believe anybody left without a smile of curiosity and amusement. It’s just so darn cute.

Our kid was absolutely hypnotized by it. The movie hits on similar themes of life out of balance that Miyazaki has explored in other films, but the core for children is a simple adventure film centered on a five year-old boy named Sosuke and his very odd new companion, a little girl who was a small fish when he first met her. They have a safe, not-frightening, but visually dazzling experience of looking for his mother after the little girl, given the name Ponyo, throws the world off-kilter by abandoning an underwater life of magic in favor of humanity.

I won’t say there’s a ton here for adults to really embrace beyond the beautiful animation. While the movie never drags and never annoys – given the unspeakable awfulness of modern American cartoons, that alone is a massive recommendation – the lack of any real struggle or danger keeps me from embracing the characters or situation. This is a movie to be shared with children, who will almost certainly be as charmed and captivated as ours was. Put another way, watched without a kid, then Ponyo is a treat for the eyes from a visionary director, but so lacking in meat and fire that it’s mostly forgettable. With a kid, this is exploring a vibrant and exciting little world. If you don’t have children of your own, sit down with somebody else’s and prepare for two incredibly satisfying hours.

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Pippi in the South Seas (1970)

You know how every once in a while, there will be an episode of Spongebob Squarepants that’s part live-action and there’s a comedy pirate called Patchy? If your child thinks that guy is hilarious, then your child is just the right age for Pippi in the South Seas, which is overflowing with pirates in day-glo colors, wearing eyepatches and striped shirts, and who have the swordfighting acumen of children.

Since the Pippi TV series had been a huge success in Sweden, the production team went straight to work on a pair of feature films co-produced with a German movie company. Pippi in the South Seas came first, and it was shot in the Mediterranean, it would appear, with not too many speaking parts, but an army of pirate extras. The plot, such as it is, concerns Pippi, Tommy, and Annika coming to Pippi’s papa’s rescue. He’s been captured by some other pirates and is held in a big sea fort, but thanks to the magic of messages in bottles, he’s able to get word of his plight to Pippi. Can the kids save the day before Papa is forced to reveal the location of his treasure?

For the under-nines in the audience, this is a fun little romp, with some very safe escapades and no genuine sense of danger. There’s some awful music, and pirates getting dumped in the water. The kids run rings around the adults, of course, and it’s a pleasant enough distraction, but it felt pretty long to me. Our kid was very pleased with the nonsense. He never had to hide, but neither did he jump up with excitement and thrills, either. Kind of a middle of the road production, I guess you’d say. Good, but not particularly inspiring. We’ll probably watch the second movie early next year, and I hope it’s not quite as burdened by the second bananas in the cast trying to be funny.

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Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Because it was a box office flop, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger seems to be overlooked, but holy anna, did I ever watch the heck out of this movie when I was a child. HBO showed it twenty times and my kid brother and I saw at least nineteen of the screenings. He even had a dream once where the ending was different, and when we saw it the next time and a big Ray Harryhausen monster didn’t survive – it never did – he started crying because he was convinced that “they” had changed the ending.

Anyway, since Ray Harryhausen movies took a heck of a long time to make, he and Charles Schneer began preproduction for the third Sinbad movie while the second one was still in theaters. By the time it was finally released, Star Wars was in the process of changing everything. It’s a fine adventure film, headlined by Patrick Wayne as Sinbad, with Jane Seymour and Patrick Troughton in good supporting roles, and a terrific villain played by Margaret Whiting, who is just awesome and gives a splendid performance. Apart from the memorable monsters, Sinbad movies had great bad guys. But the movie was seen as an old-fashioned throwback, and audiences in 1977 wanted outer space action.

Strangely, Taryn Powers, playing the daughter of Patrick Troughton’s character, is second-billed here despite a much smaller role than many of the other actors. She is the daughter of Tyrone Powers and didn’t have a really long career, but she must have had a good agent.

Our son was a little bit leery of this one, because while his memory isn’t exceptional, he definitely remembers the previous two movies being scary. This time out, the stop-motion monsters aren’t quite as memorable, though. It starts with some demon-things that interact with the live-action photography better than any previous Harryhausen fight scene, even bringing down a tent atop the human actors by striking the pole with a sword. But there’s a bronze clockwork minotaur that just steers a boat, and a big wasp whose actual size we can’t determine until it’s been killed, and a great big walrus, for some reason. But half an hour before the end of the movie, we meet a strange ally in the form of a grunting troglodyte, and “Trog” might be Harryhausen’s finest monster to that point.

But I specified monster for a reason. Sinbad’s big quest this time is to save an old friend, the rightful caliph of the city of Charak, who has been turned into a baboon. There are a couple of scenes with a prop monkey, but otherwise the animal is entirely stop-motion and the effect is just amazing. It’s almost as though Harryhausen decided to challenge himself by animating something with so much hair, and to have it be so expressive atop that is just icing. A crowd of skeletons meant less work.

Anyway, his verdict was that, like the previous Sinbad movies, he liked the film, but it was scary. I like it a lot: Wayne and Seymour are great together, Troughton is just about the most watchable actor around, Bernard Kay has a small part and he’s always worth seeing, and Margaret Whiting is just superb.

Weirdly, another film that I watched a dozen times on HBO, a few years later, was John Boorman’s Excalibur. I haven’t seen either movie in decades, and somehow my dwindling familiarity with the films long ago confused a mid-movie fate for Whiting, where her transformation from a seagull back into a human isn’t 100% effective, with that bit in Excalibur where Helen Mirren ages fifty or sixty years. Memory’s a weird thing, isn’t it?

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The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Our son told me “I can’t wait to watch the next Star Wars movie! It has Imperial Skywalkers in it!” I think he’s been getting peeks and hints from Angry Birds tie-in games. Forgetting, briefly, that they’re also called Imperial Walkers, I told him that they were AT-ATs and AT-STs. “Well, I want to call them Imperial Skywalkers.”

And speaking of things being called one thing and not another, I never realized that Boba Fett is never actually named in this movie. We all knew it in elementary school – we had the toy, we saw the Holiday Special – but here he’s just “the bounty hunter.” How odd.

But the anticipation buildup for this film was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen from our son. There have been times where he’s not entirely gung-ho to watch what we’ve selected, but he’s been on pins and needles for two weeks. This morning, he appeared at the top of the steps and announced that he was too excited to brush his teeth and wanted to start the movie right now. He didn’t want breakfast. We insisted. You’ve never seen anybody resent peanut butter toast so much in your life.

Like all of us, I love this movie. I love how the cast is full of familiar faces like Julian Glover, John Hollis, Milton Johns, and Michael Sheard. Apparently John Ratzenberger is in it somewhere, too, but I never spot him. Our son agreed, full of energy and excitement and worry about the oddest things – he grumbled that he hoped that Luke brought an extra oil can for R2-D2 when they land on Dagobah – and he was scared out of his mind by Luke and Vader’s duel. I made a rare intervention as he hid his eyes under a pillow and said “You better watch.” There are certain moments you’d never forgive yourself for missing.

Spoilers are strange things. When we were kids, the news that Vader was Luke’s father spread like wildfire, and we all went “OhmyGodREALLY?!” I lost that desire or need such a long time ago. I can’t stand having anything spoiled. I was in a grocery store checkout line about three weeks before The Phantom Menace opened and flipped open a children’s tie-in book to see the artwork. The book landed on “Qui-Gon was dead, but his–” and I darn near threw the book across the store. Our son seems to be one of the few who didn’t learn that Vader is Anikin beforehand. It didn’t blow his mind, but it’s a good hook to talk about before we watch the next film in four months or so.

I did try and talk him out of it. I don’t actually like the next four films. The most recent two have been great fun, but I’d honestly rather watch many other movies before Return of the Jedi. I’ve been overruled, though. He insists on seeing Darth Vader defeated, which somebody somewhere seems to have told him happens in “the last movie,” even if nobody told him who Darth Vader actually was.

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