Dick Tracy (1990)

I’m often reminded of Otto Preminger’s bizarre 1968 film – slash – trainwreck Skidoo, in which the director decided to make a movie that would be hip with the kids, and filled it full of people like George Raft and Mickey Rooney and Jackie Gleason. I wonder whether the nineteen and twenty year-olds of 1968 heard about such a thing and concluded that nothing else could possibly be so far out of touch as Hollywood, that year. Because in 1990, that’s precisely how nineteen year-old me felt when news of Dick Tracy‘s imminent release reached me. It felt like Hollywood was so desperate for the next Batman that a bunch of eighty year-old men asked the air, “What else is a comic book? What do kids read? Dick Tracy, yeah, that’s the ticket!” and filled their cash-in with such popular-with-kids actors as Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman.

I mean, seriously, in 1990, exactly five people on the planet gave a damn about Dick Tracy. One was Tribune Media’s accountant and the other four were Max Allan Collins.

And yet, while Skidoo is almost hypnotic in its strange, dull awfulness, Dick Tracy turned out to be a surprisingly good film, full of offbeat performances, an occasionally very clever script, and some of the most gorgeous color and cinematography of anything else in its day. You can watch Dick Tracy with the sound down and fall completely in love with it. I really like the unreal color palette and the remarkable symmetry in the framing.

So even though Dick Tracy‘s world is an unreal one, it’s a believable one because it’s so consistent. The visuals are pared down to basics, just like an artist might do in a small comic panel. So instead of a detail-packed label on a can of chili, full of words and pictures, it’s just a red can with “CHILI” in black letters. A milk truck doesn’t deliver for any specific dairy with a logo, it’s just a white truck with “MILK” on the side. Everything’s told with broad strokes, but it’s told beautifully.

Our son liked it a lot as well. I wouldn’t claim that he loved it – I wouldn’t go that far myself – but it’s full of weird and grotesque villains, a believably fun hero, a heck of a lot of machine guns, and a few very interesting twists in the script. Plus there’s a shot where Dick Tracy punches an entire crowd and they go down like ninepins. Warren Beatty may be in the center of almost every frame where he appears, but Al Pacino, William Forysthe, Paul Sorvino, and especially Dustin Hoffman effortlessly steal their scenes from our hero, as the best baddies should. Mandy Patinkin and Dick Van Dyke are also here, with comparative subtlety, so there’s a lot for people who love watching actors to enjoy. On the other hand, Danny Elfman’s music is bombastic and incredibly annoying, and you can’t help but wish that Tess Trueheart wasn’t so helpless and passive.

Speaking of Hoffman, he kind of stole the audience’s attention when I first saw this movie as well as this morning. He plays one of the henchmen, a purple-suited dude called Mumbles. That first time, after the audience chuckled and guffawed through his interrogation scene, the crowd absolutely roared when Tracy confronts him again later on. Tracy and his men storm into his room, saying “Hello, Mumbles,” and the dozens of people I saw it with went completely nuts. It was one of the best little movie theater moments ever. And this morning, our son made one of his uncommon interruptions to protest “I don’t sound like that when I mumble!” And I said “You do.”

So yes, it’s a much, much better film than Skidoo. But I still want a Blu-ray of Skidoo from Criterion, and I might even watch it more often than I would ever watch this, because I contradict myself, and contain multitudes.

Dr. Slump: The Great Race Around the World (1983)

More for the sake of completeness and posterity than analysis, this morning, we watched the ridiculous third Dr. Slump feature, a 50-minute story released in 1983 called The Great Race Around the World. Honestly, I didn’t think that it was a patch on the sublime and hysterical Space Adventure, but our son ate it up and laughed like a hyena all the way through it, so what do I know?

I like how it takes just enough elements from media you’ve seen before and gives them all an irreverent and immature Slump spin. In this one, the princess of the nearby Radial Kingdom doesn’t want to be forced to marry the winner of an around-the-world Great Race, so she tries to enter it herself. The king shoots her down, but since she’s the spitting image of Penguin Village’s school teacher, she can do a switcheroo. Meanwhile, the space villain Dr. Mashirito is in town to compete, and since Senbei and Arale’s car has been feeling suicidally depressed lately, they figure winning a big race would give him some needed confidence. There are certainly a few good gags, but the kid loved it more than I did, which is how it should be. He still hasn’t embraced the original Slump comic series, but we’re going out this afternoon; I’ll try dropping a collection in the back seat and see whether the darn child won’t finally take the bait.

Back to the Future (1985)

About a week before we took our blog break, I was with our son at the local Barnes & Noble to pick up Paul McCartney’s new album. There, he spotted one of those expensive little things in the media department for nostalgists with a few more dollars than sense: a picture disc LP of the Back to the Future soundtrack. He asked what that was, and I thought he was asking what a picture disc was. Somehow it just didn’t occur to me that Future would be a perfect film for this blog, where the whole idea is that I’m introducing him to movies of the past – particularly the age-appropriate ones – that he might enjoy.

Although, having said that, I think the MPAA standards have definitely changed since 1985. This film’s downright full of cussing, some of it hilarious, and there’s an attempted rape. It was a PG then, but I really doubt it would get one today.

Amusingly, introducing a kid to this film in the far-flung future of 2021 means that the popular culture of two different time periods will be unfamiliar. I did pause the movie at a couple of points, not to burden him too much with the trivia of yesteryear, but otherwise he might have missed some really good gags, like B-movie star Ronald Reagan, a man about whom no studio executive in 1955 ever offered greater enthusiasm than “he’ll do,” ending up president, and what Pepsi Free was, and how Hill Valley was just on the precipice of being ready for Chuck Berry, but not Eddie Van Halen.

While I admit Back to the Future‘s never been a film that I’ve really loved, I wouldn’t argue against it. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale really have a lot they can be proud of with this one. It was a movie beset with production problems – go read the story of Eric Stoltz’s involvement and how Michael J. Fox functioned on about three hours of sleep a night while they made it, it’s all amazing – but they set out to make a crowd-pleaser and really nailed it. It’s simple and easy to follow – call it the anti-Primer – and it’s full of great gags and extremely likable performances from Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and Lea Thompson. Actually, Thompson gets one of the movie’s best and most understated gags: it’s always horrifying to learn that your parents were so much naughtier before you were born.

So how’d that discovery of the overpriced picture disc – $36!! – work out for the kid? He chuckled and laughed all the way through it, loving the chase around Hill Valley’s town square and cringing during the embarrassing bits, and said during the credits that he wants a Lego set of the DeLorean. Sadly, he’ll need a time machine himself to get one for a reasonable price. Lego put one out in 2014 and it can only be bought these days by other people with more dollars than sense – $282!! – but for our boy, wanting a Lego set of what he just watched is the highest accolade that a movie can receive.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017)

I suspect that the question “will there always be a Ghibli” keeps some people up at night. After all, Isao Takahata has passed away, and Miyazaki is working on what must surely be his final movie, unless of course he un-retires again after it so that some other people can make more documentaries about him. Hiromasa Yonebayashi must have once been seen as the hope of a new generation. 2010’s Secret World of Arrietty had been successful and promising, but then he went and co-founded another studio, called Ponoc, after his second Ghibli feature.

And what he took with him, I was disappointed to see, was basically a great big box of Ghibli tricks. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is basically what happens when you throw Totoro, Kiki, and Laputa in a blender and make the inside of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter movies look like Howl’s Moving Castle. When Mary tries mastering her broomstick, our son quietly said “This looks a lot like Kiki.” Visually, there’s not a single surprise in this movie, and the same goes for the script.

Ehhh, the kid was pleased. This is just a simple family adventure movie by the numbers, so just right for elementary and middle school-aged audiences. Strong teen girl protagonist, relative with a secret, magical world just on the other side of reality, danger that threatens our world, villains who talk too much, annoying boy who needs rescuing, merchandise-friendly animal familiar, you’ve seen it all before, although possibly not animated quite as well as this. It certainly looks like they spent millions on it to make it move and breathe with clarity, but the story’s so slight that I don’t imagine that our son will be in a big hurry to revisit it, or remember it very much down the line, when all the movies that are in this one’s DNA are crying out to be rewatched again instead.

On the other hand, I’ve got Howl’s Moving Castle on the calendar for the spring. Who knows, when we watch it, he may just quietly say “This looks a lot like Mary.”

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (1975)

To be a kid in this country in the 1970s was to know this: several times every year, CBS would preempt something like Rhoda or Good Times or The Waltons, those magical words “A CBS Special Presentation” would spin onto the screen accompanied by all that percussion, and you’d be watching a cartoon. Most of the time, it’d be a Charlie Brown special. Those got such good ratings that CBS started ordering one for every holiday, which is why everybody my age knows that Arbor Day is when all the ships come sailing into the arbor.

But once a year, it would not be a Charlie Brown. Once a year, it was Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Chuck Jones’ little thirty-minute masterpiece. An adaptation of one of the stories from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, it was narrated by Orson Welles and features a song by Lennie Weinrib. Once a year, every single child of elementary school age watched television as one. If you missed it in 1975, you caught it in 1976, and if you missed the 1977 repeat because your parents had plans, you stewed and lived vicariously through your classmates until it came around again in 1978. And you remembered every line and every beat. “If the boy moves, I strike. If he does not move, I strike.” Those sentences are in our blood.

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is the story of two remarkably strange parents who raise their kid on an estate crawling with cobras and dust snakes and bring an injured mongoose into their home. This recipe for disaster turns out to be a very disarming trick for any kid, like ours, who had no idea what this was and was completely delighted by the super-speed hijinks of the curious mongoose exploring his new territory. Because it’s not long before this turns into a series of fights against some really awesome villains. Nag and Nagaina, with their strangled, hissing voices, are just about as entertainingly evil as you got on kids’ TV in this country. And Rikki-Tikki is an amazing hero as well. I completely love the part where he taunts Nagaina, who thinks that the father killed Nag with his rifle. Oh, no, he clarifies, I had already killed him.

I think this short film is one of the absolute best things Chuck Jones ever did. The White Seal, another Kipling adaptation for CBS, is pretty fantastic as well – you remember “It’s the ghost of all the seals we ever killed!” pretty deeply in your blood as well – and I may have to pick that up one of these days, too. The kid enjoyed this a lot, although possibly not as much as everybody my age did when we were his age. Cartoons this interesting were a lot less common in 1975 than they are today.

It Came From Hollywood (1982)

“When I was a littler kid” and It Came From Hollywood made its way to HBO, I watched it religiously, not because it was entirely funny all the way through, but because I was transfixed by all the clips from old movies. I’d seen some of them, but most were from some kind of weird, lost world of movies so bad that they had long stopped turning up on even the lowest-band UHF stations. Later, Mystery Science Theater 3000 would dust off many of these old epics and introduce them to a new audience, but at the time, we could only marvel.

It Came From Hollywood is a clip movie with wraparounds introducing the various segments. These feature John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, and Cheech and Chong. It’s a remarkably well-done film, with none of the clips or segments really going on too long, and little groupings to give it all some structure. Some of it has aged incredibly badly, and some of it would have been resoundingly inappropriate for a nine year-old if he had understood the slang, but just about all of it brought a smile or ten.

Interestingly, the movie doesn’t simply take blasts at bottom-of-the-barrel bad movies. There are a few very highly-regarded old sci-fi movies that make the cut, like Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and War of the Worlds. The House on Haunted Hill, which surely nobody dislikes, except our son, who was scared out of his mind by it, is represented by its trailer.

Even when they mock the schlock, though, the tone isn’t really smug or superior. It’s a knowing, and loving film, and as John Candy points out at one point, many of these old movies were made under really impossible conditions and incredibly tiny budgets. That doesn’t mean that watching two islanders running from what appears to be one of Witchiepoo’s evil trees from H.R. Pufnstuf isn’t hilariously stupid, but you have to spare a thought for the poor guy who only had ten bucks to make the monster.

Before we got started, though, I felt it was important to have a quick talk with the kid about what was acceptable, and allegedly funny, in older movies. First and foremost is a stop-the-conversation-dead blackface musical number from 1934’s Wonder Bar. Then there’s the transvestism explored in Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda, and I wanted to make sure our son understood that the film is worthy of ridicule because it’s so melodramatic and badly made, and not because Glen has a thing for angora sweaters. And there’s the drug stuff, which may not be acceptable in some places, but is probably always going to be funny, especially when some dude claims to be smoking pot but he must have really rolled about four pounds of Halloween candy and crushed amphetamines instead.

Funniest moment in the contemporary stuff: Russ Tamblyn throws away his date’s joint and Cheech protests there’s a lot of starving kids in Cambodia who’d want that roach. Funniest moment in the classics: those two doctors from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die trying badly to overact each other as they debate the ethics of stealing limbs from amputee operations.

The kid didn’t join in with the riffs too much, even though this is definitely a movie that encourages it. He mistook The X From Outer Space as one of Godzilla’s gang rather than a rival studio’s creation, but he enjoyed good guffaws of recognition over Prince of Space – he suffered through the MST3K take last month – and Bride of the Monster, which was so awful that when we watched it recently, he just flat out gave up and left. He knew who Rocket Man was, since I showed him some pictures before we watched The Rocketeer a couple of weeks ago, and he was happy to finally see some proper clips from Plan Nine From Outer Space, which lived up to the reputation his old man gave it, and he surprised the absolute heck out of me at one point.

Several months ago, I had told him about a particularly dumb movie with Ray Milland and Rosey Grier, and as soon as he saw that white bigot’s head transplanted onto a soul brother’s body, he immediately knew what it was and said “Hey! The Thing With Two Heads!” I still can’t believe he remembered the title. He can’t remember what time school starts but he remembered that title.

Maybe in a world where everything is available online even if you can’t find it on the shelf of a good store, It Came From Hollywood doesn’t quite fill the void that it once did, but I think that even with the questionable content, this is a great introduction for younger viewers to old movies, good, bad, and ridiculous. Can you imagine a world where people just aren’t interested in the goofball monsters, hubcap starships, high school hellcats, and silly films that their grandparents watched? God help us in the future!

It Came From Hollywood does not appear to have ever been released on DVD, but you can cheat and find it on YouTube.

The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

Times have certainly changed. The very beginning of the DVD presentation of this film is the BBFC card certifying that this movie, better known in the United States as The Crawling Eye, is not to be shown to an audience with anybody under the age of sixteen in it. Sixteen?! I first saw clips of this on some HBO special about sci-fi or monster movies when I was about our son’s age and could not freaking wait to see it. Later, its unconvincing icky-squicky monsters got it a brief revival moment in It Came From Hollywood – about which, stay tuned! – but when I finally landed a copy, when I was about, yes, sixteen, I realized this movie was all about everything except the icky-squicky monsters.

It really is a shame about the monsters. If they weren’t here, this film would probably have been forgotten. Instead, it’s remembered for all the wrong reasons. That’s why, when I gave our son a brief introduction, I glossed over the American title very quickly and moved right on. It’s a badly flawed film, but when it shines, it’s really creepy and really effective. Before the icky-squicky monsters decide to take matters into their own tentacles, they’re using clouds to decapitate people and frozen corpses to go after psychics with meat axes and knives. There are moments of this movie that are really skin-crawlingly gruesome and work tremendously well, and it’s a shame they couldn’t sustain it all the way through.

So The Trollenberg Terror started life as a six-part serial for British commercial television. So did another film, The Strange World of Planet X, made as a seven-parter for ATV, and The Creature, a one-off play for the BBC written by Nigel Kneale. All three of these productions, which I believe were all destroyed by the TV companies, were made into feature films in 1957-58, starring that fine actor Forrest Tucker, who was living and working in the UK and playing the American lead role so that movies made there would stand a better chance at landing American distribution. These three all got more lurid names in the States: Crawling Eye, Cosmic Monsters, The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas.

Interestingly, the film version of Trollenberg retained one member of the TV version’s cast, Laurence Payne, who plays a journalist who figures there’s a story in all these missing person reports coming out of Switzerland, and knows it must be true when a UN troubleshooter who had investigated a similar case in the Andes a couple of years before turns up. Several other familiar faces from the period are in the film, including Janet Munro, Colin Douglas, and Warren Mitchell, who seems to have employed a different European accent in everything I’ve ever seen him in.

The kid found this satisfyingly creepy, and gave a resounding noise of disgust and disapproval when the icky-squicky monster shows up, which I was glad to see. This is a very old-fashioned film in its pace and mood; Jimmy Sangster’s script has plenty of moments of shock and terror, but like quite a lot of fifties sci-fi horror, there are plenty more moments of people drinking like fish and smoking like chimneys while debating what to do next and demanding more proof before they can act. But he came through it just fine, and later in the evening discussed where the crawling eyes should end up in a “monsterpedia” that he’d like to see somebody write about movie monsters. There are probably many such books, although I fear the crawling eyes probably don’t command too many pages in them. Possibly an occasional footnote.

The Rocketeer (1991)

Around these parts, the late comic artist Dave Stevens is best remembered for two things. The one you can’t have known about was providing the cover of a notorious issue of Eclipse Comics’ DNAgents that featured the sexy female lead in her underwear posing like a classic pinup. I bought that issue when I was in high school, didn’t think twice about whether I might need to discreetly put the other three or four comics I bought on the top of the stack, and suffered the wrath of my outraged mother for the better part of a month after she saw it. Knowing a good thing, Eclipse issued the cover as a poster. I may have had a cheesecake photo or two on my wall as a teenager, but even I wasn’t so dumb as to buy that poster.

The other thing is, of course, creating the throwback superhero the Rocketeer, although he did surprisingly little with a character that ended up as the star of a big, fun, Disney adventure film. There’s honestly not a lot of Stevens Rocketeer work in print, which kind of reminds me of how very little Steve Ditko Hawk & Dove there is. Stevens created the project as a love letter to icons from his youth like the Rocket Men from Republic’s adventure serials, Rondo Hatton, Bettie Page. I gave our son a quick visual rundown of the three last night, selecting a nice, tame picture of Bettie, nothing as envelope-pushing as that DNAgents cover, and he went to bed very, very skeptical about this movie.

So of course he enjoyed the heck out of it once it got going. It’s a very good adventure film full of explosions, stunts, and gunfights. It was directed by Joe Johnston, a director whose work I really enjoy, and he brought some terrific performances and energy to a really fine and tight script. I think the only flaw in the film is that it needs an establishing shot of the Hollywoodland sign early on, before the last four letters get abruptly blown up in the end. It stars Bill Campbell and Jennifer Connelly as the leads, with Timothy Dalton as the villain, and a powerhouse assortment of great character actors from the period, including Alan Arkin, Eddie Jones, Terry O’Quinn, Jon Polito, and Paul Sorvino, backing them.

It’s surprising that a film this good was made in the era it was. Thirty years ago, movies based on comic books were uncommon and largely awful, and the Rocketeer was hardly a household name. He – I mean she – may become one before much longer, though. One of the Disney channels has a new cartoon starring Cliff Secord’s great granddaughter as the modern Rocketeer. She could be the next Doc McStuffins! But I like the low-tech and throwback charm of this movie, with G-men and gangsters and Nazi saboteurs and Hollywood royalty and restaurants in buildings that look like bulldogs. It’s even got Howard Hughes in it! I’ve explained the Howard Hughes analogues that we’ve seen in this blog to our son before, in episodes of The Bionic Woman and The Ghosts of Motley Hall, but this is the first time the actual historical figure is a character in the narrative!

I paused the movie early on to make a point with our son. He was rewatching 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters last night, and we talked about how I’m just not as wowed by modern special effects as what they did in older movies. There are certainly some very interesting shots and compositions in the monster movie – Ghidrah’s reveal is breathtaking, and better than his introduction in any classic Toho film – but when everything amazing is done on computers, there’s less of a wow factor for me. There’s a bit early on in The Rocketeer when Cliff lands a tiny one-seater plane without landing gear, on fire, on a dirt track runway. I am more impressed with what the special effects team and stuntmen accomplished under the hot California sun that afternoon than I am anything in any modern Godzilla movie. I hope one day he’ll agree.

I do have a couple of minor complaints about the product we watched. I picked up the DVD from the era when they were advertising DisneyMovieRewards.com on everything, and firstly, the transfer is downright godawful, very soft and artifacty. And it doesn’t have a very, very good 40-second teaser trailer that you used to see, with the letters in “rocketeer” punctuating some very quick cuts of the action; it has one of those “spoil everything” trailers, for a film you now need not see. I’m tempted to upgrade this to a better Blu-ray edition. It’s a good film that deserves a good home media experience.

Napoleon’s Dictionary (1991)

I enjoyed revisiting Lupin III by way of a couple of his feature films so much that I decided to pick up a few more of his cases. About every year, there’s a made-for-TV special. 1991’s Napoleon’s Dictonary was the third of 28 and counting in this series. It’s entertaining, but also very, very flawed. Even understanding that something made for television is naturally going to have a smaller budget than a big-screen film, this was still a big surprise to me. Slapdash animation, poor modelling, and downright indifferent direction all conspire to almost ruin this story. There’s a bit where two trains are about to collide in a tunnel, crushing a police car between them, which should have been the funniest thing in the whole movie, but it falls so flat that I wondered whether they even storyboarded the thing or if it just happened by accident.

Another weird flaw: it’s a given that Goemon is the greatest swordsman who ever lived and his sword can cut through anything. This is the sort of thing you need to deploy very sparingly, so it has maximum effect. For example, the actual funniest thing in the whole movie is this: Lupin and Jigen are locked in an RV by some CIA agents and they’re grumbling that the only thing American vehicles are any good for is their sturdiness, at which point Goemon cuts the RV in half. But by the end of the movie, Goemon has cut everything in half without challenge. He stops being a comic time bomb and turns into Superman. Goemon should never, ever be boring, but that’s what this movie makes him.

Despite this, the story does have a few very funny gags, and I liked the very real-world setting. It’s 1991, the Gulf War has just finished, and now the G7 nations are in a recession because they’ve all been nearly bankrupted by their Middle East misadventures and unemployment is high. The member nations start leaning on Japan – again – to buy their way out of this, until somebody points out that Lupin’s grandfather somehow buried a fortune worth about $200 billion, and so they should probably finally arrest the pest and impound the loot for themselves.

Meanwhile, Lupin’s also aware of this story, but he doesn’t know where the treasure is. He knows where there’s a clue: Napoleon Bonaparte once had a dictionary that passed into the family hands, and somebody wrote some details on a page, but the dictionary vanished years ago. Now it has resurfaced: it’s the prize in a Great Race, using antique cars to motor from Madrid to Paris. And Lupin just happened to snatch a 1908 Packard in New York City. Lupin’s stated reason why he wants the dictionary has nothing to do with a fortune, is a great big lie, and is the second funniest thing in the whole movie.

It’s a good setup and there are some fine gags, but overall I was still underwhelmed. As I mentioned in these pages previously, as much as I like the characters, I haven’t seen a whole lot of their outings – looks like I’ve seen three features, five or six TV episodes, and two of the TV specials before this – but this is the weakest installment that I’ve seen so far. When it worked, it worked very well, and our son absolutely loves Lupin and Zenigata’s eternal game of cat-and-mouse. When it didn’t, it was crying for a new animation studio to take over, and a different director to make this script sparkle. Still, they can’t all be winners, and we’ll look at another TV special soon.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

I’m wouldn’t call myself a Tim Burton fan. He’s made four films that I enjoy – all of which star Johnny Depp – and many more that I didn’t like at all, and three of the ones I liked have music that drives me completely nuts and takes me out of the experience. You have no idea how much I wish that somebody, anybody, would’ve told Danny Elfman to stick with Oingo Boingo and stay out of movie theaters. My favorite Burton film? Ed Wood, by a mile. Elfman didn’t score it.

So with the caveat that the music is so intrusive that it absolutely spoils several scenes for me, Edward Scissorhands is a charming and occasionally lovely fantasy in a pastel suburb. All of the adults are in some completely different world divorced from reality – I love how at least three of them “know a doctor” who might can help Edward but never seem to phone him – while the teenagers seem to have wandered from our world onto a film set they can’t escape.

I don’t say this next bit to dismiss the script or acting at all, because it’s wonderful, but this film is triumphant with me because of its absolutely impeccable design. It was made in a real place, albeit one whose residents agreed to have all of their homes painted one of four pastel colors, and shot in a real location – Lakeland’s Southgate Shopping Center still looks exactly like that, Publix and all – but it’s unreal nevertheless, populated impeccably by pristeenly-painted, nondescript, and horribly ugly Dusters and similar heaps from the 1970s. The homes, completely free from clutter, are all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same, inside and out, with empty spaces that are so large that they swallow the actors. This is a film where a cul-de-sac ends with the entrance to an abandoned, decrepit, “haunted” castle-mansion on a mountain, and it’s the homes below it that are the scary places.

Johnny Depp was then the teen heartthrob who people watched on TV’s 21 Jump Street while ignoring the plots, and Winona Ryder was omnipresent at the time (no, I don’t like Beetlejuice), and this weird and delightful film surrounded them with a perfect supporting cast. It’s such a neat, strange trick: the fantasy world of this neighborhood and its local TV show is so big that the main characters feel small inside it. They’re trapped by suburbia; Dianne Wiest, Alan Arkin, and Kathy Bates just naturally dominate their fantasy world while the audience’s eyes try to focus on Depp and Ryder.

About the only time that Depp starts to dominate the picture is during the scene that my son and I loved the most. While carving up some topiary, Edward notices a small dog badly in need of grooming. I don’t think Tim Burton’s ever done better. Most directors don’t. Every shot, every reaction, the place where it’s staged, the timing, the reveal, everything is just howl-inducing, and it builds effortlessly to the next shot of the neighborhood full of housewives with puppies in line for their own grooming.

As I occasionally do, I kept the reveal of the character’s look a complete surprise to our son, and deflected his question – “he has scissors for hands?” – by telling him a great big lie. “You mustn’t trust the names people give their neighbors. It’s about a young man who’s extremely good with trimming shrubbery.” And as I occasionally do in this blog, yet again, I bemoaned the kid’s inability to recognize actors. Earlier this week, before I put it in storage for his future, we dusted off War Gods of the Deep / City Under the Sea for another viewing, and the dratted kid still didn’t recognize Vincent Price, who has a small role as Edward’s inventor. This was Price’s last appearance in a major film, and even though it’s a small part, he’s completely terrific.

It’s a very good film. I don’t revisit it as often as I should. I’ll show the kid another Burton/Depp movie, Sleepy Hollow, around next Halloween.

Rupert and the Frog Song (1984)

Around 1986-87, when I first decided I’d start collecting records, I remember being amazed to learn that the dimwit record companies would often just not release songs or singles in one country or another. The wildest example I heard of at that time was that Paul McCartney had a massive hit single in the UK at the end of 1984 called “We All Stand Together” that wasn’t issued here. And adding insult to injury, soon there was a new McCartney best-of with a brand new single, as you get with best-ofs, and when that record made it to American shelves, it had a different track list. Both “Together” and the new song were omitted.

Okay, so neither “Together” nor the new song, “Once Upon a Long Ago,” are among McCartney’s best. Not among his hundred best, even. That’s not the point.

“We All Stand Together” was the theme tune to a short animated feature called Rupert and the Frog Song, starring Rupert Bear, a character who’s appeared in a strip in the Daily Express for one hundred years this week. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that probably ninety-odd percent of those Americans who’ve ever heard of Rupert Bear are Beatles fans. It seems to be a sweet and simple story about an idealized pastoral village populated by animal people being nice to each other. The film is a thirteen minute piece about Rupert going into a cave behind a waterfall and watching some frogs sing a song, which they do every two hundred years. There are two potentially mean cats and an owl, but they don’t actually do anything.

McCartney had been a big Rupert Bear fan as a boy and this had been a long-simmering project with him, to put Rupert Bear on the big screen. In the UK, it was shown as a short subject before his deeply ill-advised film Give My Regards to Broad Street. Nothing of consequence happens in Frog Song, but it’s simple, sweet, bucolic, and nicely animated, and, unlike Broad Street, it’s over in thirteen minutes. A new remastered edition of the film debuted today on McCartney’s YouTube channel. It kept our son’s attention, and he chuckled a couple of times, but at nine, he’s certainly a little old for it already. I think this is the sort of character you need to meet as a preschooler and he’ll stick around in your nostalgia circuits for decades to come, kind of like Bob the Builder.

Paul was excoriated by the humorless and mean-spirited British press for ages for producing this movie, which doesn’t seem fair. Was it an indulgence by a multi-millionaire with buzzing nostalgia circuits of his own? Possibly, but it made lots of people happy, both beginning readers and older folk with attics full of dusty Rupert annuals. I guarantee you that there are far more irritating cartoons for under-sevens than this. And maybe “Together” isn’t among my favorite hundred McCartney solo songs, but I’d much, much rather listen to it than the theme tunes to Monster Machines or Paw Patrol or anything else we suffered through on Nick Jr before our son outgrew the channel!