The Mouse and His Child (1977)

Regular readers should know that we typically don’t watch bootleg films and TV shows for the blog. Trying to set a good example and all. But The Mouse and His Child has never been released in English on DVD, and I remember enjoying it as a kid, when HBO showed it frequently. There are bootlegs floating around with that omnipresent rainbow at the top of the screen that you’d get from VHS tapes, and this morning, I broke the rules and we watched it.

The movie was made in California by Murakami-Wolf Productions, the team behind many very forgettable 1970s TV specials, with some level of production or financial assistance from Japan’s Sanrio and, hidden right on the very last screen of credits at the end of the movie, Charles Schulz. I wonder what he brought to the table. Peter Ustinov voiced the villainous Manny the Rat, and Cloris Leachman and John Carradine joined him in the studio. It got a theatrical release in this country and was an HBO regular for most of a year. There were two VHS releases, but it’s been largely unavailable in English since the early nineties.

It’s actually a very strange film, defying a few of my expectations along the way. It’s sort of a proto-Toy Story, where tin toys come to life when nobody is looking. The protagonists are, interestingly, completely helpless without assistance. The Mouse and his Child are tin toys joined at the hands and they require somebody to wind them up in order to move anywhere.

Other than an eardrum-disintegrating song warbled by a little boy that tops and tails the movie, it’s pretty good. Our son enjoyed it, guffawing at some of the slapstick and curious what would happen next. I was intrigued by the filthy world of the story. It’s set in a city dump and the neighboring creek and pond, which are practically buried in trash and garbage that the animals have scavenged. The villain is a rat who uses wind-up toys to bring trash back into the dump for him to nebulously build some sort of empire. When the Mouse and his Child escape, thanks to a fatal mistake by one of his underlings, the villain becomes unreasonably obsessed with recapturing them.

I liked that there’s a level of danger in this film. One of the captive wind-ups is dismantled for scrap early on, and the henchrat I mentioned gets gobbled by a badger. The villain’s fate is prophesied, and so you’ll spend the entire movie waiting for a junkyard dog to show up and do him in. I was pleased that while the prophecy does come true, a dog does rise and a rat does fall, it doesn’t quite mean what we expect. There’s also one remarkably grisly moment when the villain loses his temper and the camera doesn’t show what he’s doing, but focuses on the bad guy as he realises that he has gone too far.

You’ll notice I’ve written more about the villain than the protagonists. That’s probably because the Mouse and his Child are so helpless and swept along by “destiny,” physically moved from location to location by other characters. They have an objective – the Child wants two other wind-ups to become his mother and his sister and his dad just agrees – but they’re largely incapable of doing anything about it until the final reel. Of course, that’s also because when you put Peter Ustinov in the recording booth, you were largely giving him carte blanche to steal the show. So sure, it’s a flawed film, but a pretty good one, and now that I’ve watched it again, I can place the odd little fragment of memory of somebody in some forgotten movie yelling “Treacle brittle!” into its correct context.

Castle in the Sky (1986)

Every once in a while, I’ll enjoy seeing a thread on a forum or Twitter where people will reminisce about the mountains we used to scale to watch old TV shows, or cartoons from other countries. Uphill in the snow both ways, you remember. In the mid-eighties, I watched a fair amount of Japanese animation, enjoying the camaraderie more than the cartoons it must be said, and lots of it was untranslated. Hayao Miyazaki’s 1986 film Laputa – that’s what we called it then – was one of those movies. I think you had to either get it on a T-160 tape or get a SLP/EP copy of it because the darn thing’s a hair too long to fit on a proper T-120 on SP speed.

My SLP copy looked like garbage and had lots of tracking errors, not – this time – because I was too lazy and cheap to buy nicer quality tapes, but because I’d had one of those BASF T-160s in the red cardboard case snap when I rewound it. But I watched the heck out of it anyway, wondering what the dialogue was, and particularly baffled by the scenes deep down in the mine with Uncle Pom.

Certain films and shows possessed a real power to thrill me even despite the language barrier. I’ve always been interested in Miyazaki’s movies and shows even if I was watching them in the original Japanese. I figured out early on that lots of what we could get our hands on was either junk to sell toys and candy or it just wasn’t going to appeal to me in any language no matter how popular it was. I couldn’t get into Iczer One or Bubblegum Crisis or any of the many and varied forms of Gundam, but eventually two of my best friends went in on a laserdisc set of all 26 episodes of a 1978 TV series that Miyazaki directed called Future Boy Conan and I jumped. Seven tapes of that (SP, thank you, TDK E-HG) and I was set for weeks, leaving my college roommate absolutely baffled why I was watching a cartoon in a language I didn’t speak. They were such nice copies, too. Not a hint of a tracking error.

(Strangely, one of those said best friends doesn’t seem to have written an article about Conan at Let’s Anime, possibly because he seems to suffer from some major Miyazaki malaise. So read his story about Horus, Prince of the Sun instead.)

Anyway, so I’d struggled through the tracking errors and washed-out colors of my lousy copy of Laputa seven or eight times in the late eighties, and suddenly I had this beautiful old show which basically had the character dynamics between the young heroes that would be echoed in Laputa already in place eight years earlier. It was such a neat feeling, figuring out similarities in character and theme when I didn’t even know the names of most of the characters. Nowadays, Wikipedia figures it out for you.

Eventually, Streamline would release a dub of Castle in the Sky, as it would be renamed, and then Disney would redo it with James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin, and Mark Hamill doing his Joker voice, and Cloris Leachman being absolutely amazing as the air pirate Captain Dola. I’ve always felt that Leachman is channeling Billie Hayes! Tell me that her Dola doesn’t sound like Witchiepoo. You’d be lying.

Fathom Events wrapped up this year’s run of Studio Ghibli films with Castle in the Sky this weekend. On my right, I had my son, who was probably more wired and more amazed in a theater than he’s ever been before, literally hopping in his seat during the train chase. On my left, a teen girl who started the movie insisting to her father that no, he had not seen this one, because she doesn’t own a copy, and who spent most of the two hours plus a hair quietly saying “Oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God.”

And they weren’t the distractions. It was just me, wondering why the heck I can’t get a nice English dub of Future Boy Conan on Blu-ray in this day and age.

The Twilight Zone 3.8 – It’s a Good Life

I amused myself last night by telling our son, who, like little Anthony Fremont, is six, that this episode of The Twilight Zone is about a boy who can have everything that he wants, only it’s told from the adult’s perspective. He puzzled over what that might mean while I chuckled.

The really interesting thing about watching Bill Mumy’s star turn in “It’s a Good Life,” written by Rod Serling from a short story by Jerome Bixby, in the company of a six year-old is comparing Anthony’s utter lack of emotional maturity with our boy’s. Our son, of course, has been told “no” many, many times. He watched in real fascination as this horrifying story unfolded, with John Larch and Cloris Leachman absolutely riveting in their portrayals of parents crippled with fear at what their son has become.

“One teeny thing I like about The Twilight Zone is that it teaches you a lesson,” our son offered unexpectedly. We talked a little bit about how important it is to be told you can’t do something, and to understand why, when possible. I’m sure that won’t keep him from wishing we could be teleported into some cornfield the next time that we tell him he’s had enough screen time for the day, but maybe he’ll not judge us too harshly now that he has seen what can become of kids who get absolutely everything that they want.

The New, Original Wonder Woman (1975)

Well, if Lynda Carter is untying Lyle Waggoner from another fine mess he’s gotten himself into, we must be watching Wonder Woman. Conventional wisdom has it that the first season of this show, the one on ABC that was set during World War Two, was pretty good before it devolved into yet another seventies super-agent series later on. However, this very dopey pilot movie isn’t really all that encouraging.

It could have been a lot worse. ABC had been interested in doing a Wonder Woman series for almost a decade. In 1967, with Batman beginning its tailspin, the network asked that show’s producer, William Dozier, for a very short test film. The result, with Linda Harrison as Wonder Woman, is allegedly a comedy but is the least funny thing ever taped. In 1973, Cathy Lee Crosby starred in a pilot which is notable – if that’s the right word – for having a Steve Trevor, played by Kaz Garas, who’s more interesting than the title character.

Finally, Douglas S. Cramer’s company got the go-ahead and he picked Stanley Ralph Ross to write a script that actually acknowledged an existing comic book character. It’s actually a perfectly acceptable pilot script, and both Carter and Waggoner play their roles fabulously. Unfortunately, they’re the only actors in this misbegotten seventy-five minutes who got the memo that this was an action drama. They underplay their characters and are perfectly watchable. Everybody else in the movie thinks this is an episode of Batman and they keep mugging at the camera, and delivering their lines as if they’re jokes.

And it’s a great cast, too, which is what makes this so darn painful. Kenneth Mars is the main Nazi, with Henry Gibson as his subordinate, who’s secretly a spy for the Americans. Red Buttons, Stella Stevens, and Severn Darden are Nazi spies working in the US. Everybody’s being comedy bad guys, but the script isn’t written to be funny. On the non-villain front, Cloris Leachman plays Paradise Island’s Queen Hippolyta as though there are one or two people in Burbank who couldn’t see or hear her. Both the roles of Hippolyta and General Blankenship, played here by John Randolph, would be recast when the series began a few months later.

Our son was mostly interested in the fight scenes, of course. We gave him a quick history lesson last night to get him prepped for the wartime setting, and explained that this was a time where everybody was spying on each other, and there were lots of bad guys posing as good guys. Surprisingly, though, the thing that confused him the most was a theatrical agent, played by Buttons, offering to hire Wonder Woman and do her bullets-and-bracelets trick onstage. When Buttons’ character turns out to be a spy, it feels for all the world like they already had one actor booked and didn’t want to pay a second.

Actually, I’ll tell you the strangest thing about this script: it spends the whole thing establishing Henry Gibson as the Allies’ man in Germany and he gets completely dropped after this. I cheated and looked ahead down Gibson’s insanely long list of credits, and while he did return to Wonder Woman for a week, that was once the show relocated to the present day and got lousy.

I’m really hopeful that the rest of the wartime series is better than this. It had a very odd network run; ABC ordered thirteen episodes after this pilot did well. They ran the first two as specials at the tail end of the 1975-76 season, and then the remaining eleven in 1976-77. ABC then canceled it, and CBS picked it up and brought it to the present day in a pair of 24-episode seasons.

I certainly remember enjoying the wartime Wonder Woman the most. Fingers crossed that it won’t let us down!